My Scientific Understanding of Astrology
Please make conclusions about my mental health after reading
By MARTIN REZNY
Well, I guess I should clarify what I have learned and currently conclude about astrology. I certainly also started to approach astrology from a point of standard arrogant dismissal, but after the last now almost 15 years of doing the legwork, as you say, I don’t believe it has in fact been scientifically debunked, or that it’s useless, or impossible in every universe. Here come all the caveats.
The reason number one for it not being debunked is definitely the poor design of studies that have attempted debunking it so far, and there haven’t really been very many of them, at least not of any repute. Typically, only Carlson’s shoddy study and Dean’s phantom twin study are cited. Carlson’s study especially is frustrating, because it’s designed so poorly and got probably pushed into Nature for political reasons despite its flaws.
Fun fact, in the Carlson’s study, the California Psychological Inventory has also failed, but that’s not usually mentioned. The rest are mainly the misguided “guess the sign” or “guess which reading belongs to whom” experiments that pretty much can’t work with any reliability and don’t reflect how astrology is done in practice.
Of course, astrology has not been scientifically proven, either. The closest came the Gauquelin’s studies that were even replicated at least once, and they were by far the best design in terms of how astrological methodology actually works (taking a particular configuration in a horoscope and predicting a particular effect of it).
This type of studies was tried only on a handful of effects by Gauquelin himself, pretty much only on Mars Effect by others, and only until it finally failed to replicate. That was enough to conclude it doesn’t work, even though it’s unclear how it worked the first time. Today, there’s simply no interest to continue this line of research. Of course, with such a strict standard, pretty much all social science is bunk and should be abandoned.
Astrology allows for great many more effects that would need to be all ruled out until astrology would be truly debunked, and that’s ignoring its complexity and nuance. The first thing one needs to understand about astrology is that an astrological reading is a synthesis. There are descriptions of what every single configuration of planets, signs, houses, or whatnot kinda means in a vacuum, but there’s no expectation that any of those actually operate in a vacuum.
A true test in support of or debunking astrology would have to prove or debunk a complex, not a singular element. This is very hard to do, and that’s why scientists tend to avoid it, if at all possible, in any science. This is what makes biology so difficult as well — organisms are more than sums of their parts, and astrologers treat the psyche the same way.
Which is where the comparison of astrology to art comes in. Whether it works or not on the level of physics, it undoubtedly contains a lot of art. Focusing too much on proving or debunking it as a science overlooks a veritable treasure trove of great art, philosophy of life, and ancient wisdom. Scientists can dismiss that all they want, but there’s a lot of inspiration and intelligent commentary on human condition in astrology, which has inspired artists and has helped many people lead more fulfilling lives. It also inspired scientific psychoanalysis, which is pretty much astrology without natal charts.
On this level, the knee-jerk reaction to it is especially unwarranted by scientists, since culturally, astrology not only doesn’t contradict or abhor science, it embraces reason as one of the fundamental essences of human nature. Let’s not forget this is what ancient Greeks believed. Astrology is a big piece of the history of the development of science, rising and falling with it.
As for it not being able to work physically in a universe as we understand it, I gave it a lot of thought, and there’s at least one universe where it would be quite at home — a simulated universe. In terms of physics, the whole focus on gravity or electromagnetism as causes is probably missing the mark entirely, because the mechanism would make much more sense to be simply a function of time itself, a dimension of nature much less understood than the forces.
Astronomical cycles are just a giant natural clock, after all, and if this was a simulation or something like a simulation, there could be algorithms ordering abstract processes to happen in the right rhythm or sequence, or coordinating them to happen simultaneously (synchronistically). Why should a celestial cycle resonate with events on our scales? Well, astrological maxim “as above, so below” is only a premodern conceptualization of the now materially understood fractal nature of our universe.
In terms of mathematics, regardless of astrology working or not working physically, I already have devised practical applications of its numerological core. Astrology is an exercise in holistic qualitative math rooted in geometry instead of algebra, and it is a real time machine in terms of understanding how ancient peoples saw math.
To people like Pythagoras or Aristotle, numbers applied equally to both quantitative and qualitative issues (like tones in music, or golden mean ratio in nature and aesthetics). I’m already applying these principles, known to modern science only very superficially as Weberian ideal typologies or semantic differentials, in the actually more advanced ancient form to worldbuilding, balancing lore and gameplay in my fictional universe in a complex, but mentally manageable way. It’s also a great tool for functional mythology design.
At any rate, it’s definitely not about faith — astrology has no dogmas, only what individuals who use it believe to work for them. Also, one doesn’t have to believe in the objective existence of something to be inspired by it. Learning about astrology mainly made it clearer to me how much less we probably understand about the universe than we think we do. I’m curious, I want to know, and currently, the available studies do not provide sufficient answers. I have many test designs in my mind that I’d love to try that haven’t been done yet, and I guess I could mention them in case someone is in a position to perform a study even about as something as heretical as astrology.
First of all, I’d like to see a negative hypothesis test for astrology. Given its complexity, it’s actually much easier, in theory, to definitively rule things out, rather than to predict which specific outcome from the set of possibilities allowed by a given configuration will be the case. Astrology does allow room for choice, just within limits, and the limits are largely predetermined, while the choices are not. Again, in theory.
I’d also love to see tests about astrology, about astrologers and people who believe it. How is it being done, exactly, by whom, what do people who believe it actually believe about it. Performed not with condescension and hostility, but with curiosity. One of the legitimate criticisms of astrology is that even if it worked, there are hardly any universally enforced standards of practice. Or at least it looks that way — how is anyone supposed to know for sure when it hasn’t been properly studied? Moreover, not being able to tell more honest and rigorous astrologers from the more crazy or charlatany ones hampers tests that rely on astrological performance.
In this day and age, it should also be possible to use a huge database of data about many subjects to look for any correlations between any of their attributes and all possible astrological configurations or combinations thereof in their horoscopes. Correlation does not equal causation, but it’s at least a start. Subtle effects will only show with sufficient significance on very large samples. Given that skeptics like Randi require absurdly high statistical significance to even entertain the possibility of something as extraordinary as astrology, large samples are pretty much necessary no matter the expected size of the effect.
Finally, if astrology works, it may mean important things about the nature of the universe, specifically time. Studies could be designed to be performed in a sequence as well as concurrently, to control for the effect of transits (quality of time changing over time, which should dynamically change probabilities of all sorts of occurences). It wouldn’t even be necessary to predict what exactly will be different, just that there would be a significant difference based on when the same test procedure will have been conducted.
There’s probably much more, but that’s all that comes to mind right now. Ultimately, I don’t know. Maybe there’s room for one woo to be correct after all, maybe it’s a mirage. Either way, it’s a very exciting kind of not knowing, about a truly complex and interesting subject. As Noam Chomsky likes to say, in science, it’s important to allow oneself to be puzzled by things instead of assuming we already have all the answers. If nothing else, honest studies of the paranormal phenomena can at the very least improve our methods and uncover strange new ways of how our brains are able to delude themselves.
There’s this very common sense among astrology-minded people that however it works, it really does work. I’m reasonably sure now it’s not due to Barnum/Forer effect. If it really isn’t because of it, and if astrology doesn’t work, then what is it? I know people who have this sense even if they only do astrology for themselves by themselves, so it’s not indoctrination either. Astrology is not an organized religion, after all, not a church. Either way, there’s something to be discovered here, if only we actually try to do so.
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