Can We Take Astrology Seriously? — “Astrology is Bunk, Just Ask Any Scientist”
This is part of a series of articles I am publishing on Medium Can We Take Astrology Seriously? These were previously an unpublished book I wrote some time ago, Homage to Patric Walker. This article is chapter 1, which follows the Introduction, part 1 and part 2.
The title is a genuine quotation from a BBC Radio 5 late-night studio discussion on Astrology which I heard several years ago. The statement was made by a woman who was on the programme to represent the traditional Christian viewpoint — unfortunately I did not catch her name. She was right, of course; scientists are on the front line, leading the assault against Astrology, which provokes hostile reactions from all sorts of people. What she conveniently forget to mention was that these same scientists, to whose authority she was appealing, would also dismiss all her beliefs as bunk.
Yet if we take as a starting point this woman’s idea and “ask any scientist”, we can easily find one hundred and ninety-two of them ready to offer an answer. This was the number of leading scientists, including nineteen Nobel Prize winners, who signed a manifesto attacking Astrology in the Humanist magazine of September/October 1975. Their objections were based on the ‘fact’ that all astrological thinking defies rational explanation and that there was no scientific evidence to support it.
Turning to the Christian Church, their hostility arises for doctrinal reasons, although this has not been consistent throughout history. Several hundred years ago the Vatican actually used the services of astrologers, and even Martin Luther provided the preface to an astrological work by Johannes Lichtenberger (1), but now both Catholics and Protestants seem unanimous in their condemnation, and fundamentalists go so far as to say that involvement with Astrology can lead to Satanism.
The general public’s scorn is often based on ignorance, in that they believe that Astrology is only what is found in newspapers, and are unaware of the more serious side, whose practitioners are also scathing about the ‘sun-sign’ variety. Thus a frequent statement, usually voiced with derisive laughter, goes along the lines, “How can it be that one in twelve of the population all have the same things happening to them?” Even Edward Edinger, a prominent Jungian analyst, whom, more than most, one would expect to be well versed in the mysterious and irrational depths of the psyche, dismisses Astrology as an example of what he calls the “concretistic fallacy”, where “the individual is unable to distinguish symbols of the archetypal psyche from concrete, external reality. Inner symbolical images are experienced as being real, external facts”. He then mentions it in the same breath as “hallucinations and delusions of psychotics, and superstitions of all kinds” (2). Jung himself said the same thing, albeit somewhat more kindly, when he described Astrology as projecting our psychology onto the heavens, even though he was interested in it and used it in his practice.
What is the reason for all this hostility? Astrology posits a connection between the planets/stars and human personality, clearly a preposterous idea! “They are so far away, there is no possible connection between them”. “How can inanimate matter be causally responsible for personality?” If Astrology is such a silly delusion, however, why should it provoke such a strong emotive response? It could be dismissed in an instant, and critics would then not have to waste so much precious time denouncing it. And why, unlike other superstitions, does it refuse to die despite several attempted assassinations?
Does Astrology work? If so how does it work?
My own thoughts will come later. Before that I would like to give some background information, by asking not ‘any scientist’ about the first question, but one in particular who was willing to devote himself to thousands of hours of research, and then by examining what the professional astrologers have to say about the second (this will be the next article). In so doing I hope to establish a clear starting position, and remove some of the misunderstandings which I think are clouding the issues.
In the past it was very dangerous for the reputation of any scientist to be seen to be investigating astrological questions. Ridicule and ostracism might follow. There is the example of J. Allen Hynek, an astronomer, who conducted an astrological experiment, obtained negative results, but was refused permission to publish even this by the director of his observatory “lest it be thought that his staff spent any time on matters of this sort” (3). Yet one trained psychologist and statistician did launch an in-depth investigation into the claims of Astrology; his name is Michel Gauquelin, who has described his experiments in several books, including The Truth About Astrology (4).
Although there were several unproductive experiments, Gauquelin nevertheless believes that he found evidence in favour, that is, in answer to the first question, ‘does Astrology work?’ (5): “The outcome was enough to convince us: astrological symbolism seems to be statistically demonstrated, at least for the planets we had previously observed as having some influence on personality… And it cannot be denied that the character traits described by astrologers occur most often when the ‘appropriate’ planet is rising, passing the meridian, or setting” (p123). And again: “The experiment demonstrated in the clearest possible way that the symbolism of the Moon, Venus, Mars and Saturn corresponds to a scientifically observable, and even to some extent measurable, reality” (p125). (Note that the Humanist manifesto implied that there was no scientific evidence to support Astrology, yet this was published some 15 years after Gauquelin’s first two books.)
He sent his results to other scientists for evaluation. He managed to attract the support of psychologist H. J. Eysenck, who has checked his work and believes it to be valid (6); and in Belgium a team of thirty scientists known as the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Alleged Paranormal Phenomena (CSICOP), studied his work and found no serious errors in his methods and calculations (7), despite the fact that they were a sceptical organisation who took pleasure in disproving paranormal claims.
In the light of these findings, are scientists queuing up to recant and accept the truth of Astrology? I am sure you will not be surprised if I tell you that they aren’t. Eysenck/Nias say: “In spite of the very convincing case that Gauquelin has made for a planetary effect, most orthodox scientists remain sceptical. The astronomer Abell who is one of the few to have familiarised himself with the research points out that ‘Gauquelin’s findings represent an anomalous result that remains unconfirmed to the degree necessary to be accepted as scientific fact’. If the results were in accord with some already established theory, then there would be no problem. The case is already stronger than that for almost any area of research in psychology. It is only because of the nature of the findings, which seem to invoke planetary influences unrecognised by science, that a higher level of proof is called for” (p208).
Scientists demand evidence, proof, and when this is given they either ignore or reject it. And in the process, apparently they behave very badly! The following quotations are also from Eysenck/Nias:
“We have found that far from showing the impartiality popularly associated with science, critics have gone out of their way to demonstrate bias, prejudice and hostility. Much of the conduct of the critics has been less than ethical. Thus, to take but one example the Belgian Committee, which set out to disprove Gauquelin’s findings, decided against publishing its full report when its findings in fact supported them. This is a very unusual thing to do in science”.
“Again, the American Committee, as we have stated before, raised certain statistical objections and agreed with the Gauquelins (8) that if these could be met then their findings would have to be accepted. The Gauquelins collected a large body of data which fulfilled the conditions laid down, with results entirely supporting their case. Nevertheless, the Committee refused to agree that the Gauquelins had now proved their case! This again is an unusual kind of procedure in science and one which does not do credit to the Committee. A full account of what went on ‘behind the scenes’ in this intriguing but unfortunate episode has been provided by Rawlins and Curry (9). If these accounts are true the Committee has a lot to answer for”.
About Culver and Janna they say: “This is not proper scientific criticism, but merely an attempt to mislead readers into thinking that errors were committed when in fact there were no errors” (pp200–201).
“We have come to the definite conclusion that the critics have often behaved in an irrational and scientifically unusual manner, violating principles they themselves have laid down, failing to adhere to their own rules, failing to consult the Gauquelins on details of tests to be carried out, or failing to inform them on vital points of the results… We do not feel that the ‘scientific’ community emerges with any great credit from these encounters” (p202).
Robert Hand, partly referring to the above episode, says: “The desire to disprove astrology is so strong that a perusal of the literature of conventional scientific investigations of astrology will show some of the worst science ever attempted... We find scientists consistently going beyond their expertise… in ways that would not be tolerated in any other study. We find scientists making claims about astrology that astrology does not make, and then ‘refuting’ them. And we even find cheating” (10).
Isn’t it good to know that when we ‘ask any scientist’ about Astrology we get such a reasoned, objective, well thought out response?
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(1) He said: “The signs in heaven and in earth are surely not lacking; they are God’s and the angels’ work, and they ward and threaten the godless lands and countries and have significance”. Quoted in Louis MacNeice, Astrology, p150, also mentioned in The Case for Astrology, J. A. West and J. G. Toonder, p82.
(2) Ego and Archetype, Shambhala Publications, 1972, p111
(3) Astrology, Science or Superstition, Eysenck H.J. and Nias D.K.B., Maurice Temple, 1982, p5
(4) Basil Blackwell, 1983
(5) He did not find any strong statistical support for the traditional astrological divisions of signs (zodiac), aspects, or houses. He did, however, notice a correspondence between birth-times and the rising of planets.
(6) as (3), p209
(7) ibid. p196
(8) He was assisted by his wife.
(9) Their references are: Rawlins, D., Starbaby, Fate, October issue 1981, and Curry, P., Research on the Mars Effect, Zetetic Scholar, Spring issue, 1982.
(10) The Future of Astrology, A. T. Mann (ed.), Unwin Hyman, 1987, p37