A recent poll has me perplexed. Pretty perplexed. An increasing number of Americans believe that astrology (the belief that the apparent motion of the planets and stars through the heavens actually has an effect on life here on Earth) is actually science and not entertainment.
Now I’ll make a confession. My mom is into this stuff. She’s rather successfully syncretized new-age beliefs (woo, I suppose one would call it) into Christianity. She reads Tarot, believes in past-life regression (and none of her past lives were anyone famous), does natal charts, and all that jazz. Yes, I’ve had my natal chart done. No, it’s not even close to what my personality actually is. Yes, I’ve had a tarot reading (she was a big hit at my after prom). This is all a bunch of nope to my dad, and now, to me. That said, I’m okay with all of this. She doesn’t believe any of this is actually science, spirituality perhaps, and I was raised by both parents to be skeptical although I do have fun joking about my various “Libra” traits. It’s entertainment. It’s a joke. That we still had to go to a fairly conservative church and Sunday school is another story, and one I still have some resentment about, but we will save that for another day.
So basically, the following: You want me to believe that the motions of the planets and their placement in the sky at the moment of a person’s birth determines their personality? And that when planets have the appearance of moving backward through our sky that EVENTS OF NOTE happen? And the constellations of the zodiac are fixed? And there’s no mechanism for this beyond a bunch of Handwavium mysticism that might be gravity even though it has no measurable effects despite all the very sensitive instruments on Earth and floating around our star system? Will future Martian colonists freakout when Earth goes into retrograde?
Please. No. It’s not reality. It’s entertainment. It’s a real-world application of the Forer Effect. Humans have evolved with (for reasons we don’t yet know and probably will never know) very, very powerful cognitive biases. Is this a function of sentience? I don’t suppose we’ll ever know, although I certainly would like to.
Now, the poll (which comes from the General Social Survey) has caveats. Social scientists really don’t know why Americans, across the board but especially amongst the younger millennials born between 1990 and 1996 have chosen to believe astrology is actually science. It’s a harmless curiosity at best. At worst, it displays a breakdown in critical scientific education. I’m also aware that there are a number of nations (India and Japan, for example) where astrology has far more sway than it does here in the U.S.
Scientific testing of astrology and its claims have found that astrology is not science. Its claims do not happen. I will give serious astrologers props for using fairly sophisticated math. But all that math predicts nothing on Earth. Oh, and Pluto isn’t a planet anymore and it was simply grafted onto astrological calculations when Pluto was discovered in 1930. Same for Neptune. Should astrologers add the minor planets like Sedna, Quaorar, and Xena and the other large Kuiper Belt Objects into their calculations? Will they now graft those on as well? And the larger inner-system asteroids, like Ceres?
Let’s look at a few things. Like the Zodiac. And briefly, apparent retrograde motion.
In astrological terms, the Zodiac are the 12
Colonies of Kobol constellations that the sun and planets move through during the Earth’s year. The location of those planets and the sun, and the moon, and where they are in their orbits is what determines what the “predictions” are. Like, if Mars is in a certain spot, you will be a great athlete (yes, really, this was an experiment that allegedly proved astrology true. It’s been debunked over and over and over again because the results of the original experiment were never, ever replicated. )
In reality, the Zodiac is essentially a celestial coordinate system based on the ecliptic. The ecliptic is the path of the sun through the celestial sphere through the course of the year (reality and astrology both share this. It’s one of the few things astrology gets right.) The moon and the visible planets remain close the ecliptic. The concept of the zodiac dates all the way back to Babylonian times but largely was constructed by Ptolemy.
This coordinate system is used to draw the boundaries for the constellations, as seen from our skies (or more accurately, our solar system.)
The zodiac system can be fixed to the stellar background or fixed to the point of vernal equinox. This has caused the zodiac system, as best as I understand it, to drift due to precession. In 1930, constellation boundaries were redrawn to now include the constellation Ophiuchus. The sun moves through a portion this constellation’s boundaries between November 29 and December 17. Furthermore, the ecliptic passes close to Cetus and planets may be seen within it for brief period s of time. Are there 13 signs now? In Japan, apparently yes. 14? Do tell.
As for retrograde motion, we all understand orbits, yes? Orbits are roughly ovoid to circular. From our viewpoint, there are times where a planet will appear to move backwards against the sky. It really isn't moving backward. It just looks that way. Apparently Mercury is in retrograde right now, so EVENTS OF NOTE are happening. I'm aware that "serious" astrologers think Mercury Retrograde is a bunch of pop "hysteria." I find this deeply amusing.
I'd love to know by what mechanism that a planet's apparent backward motion through the sky causes (in the example of Mercury Retrograde, for example) tech to fail, money to be lost, keys to be forgotten, marriages to fail, miscarriages, wars, and the like. But whatever. It's a strong example of after this therefore because of this or post hoc ergo propter hoc. I lost my keys. I learned Mercury was in retrograde at the time. Therefore Mercury being in retrograde is why I misplaced my keys.
The Forer Effect
Just what is the Forer Effect? It comes from the tendency of people to rate sets of statements as highly accurate for them personally even when the statements are vague and can be applied to many people. That’s astrology. Even when people are born at the same time, in the same city, in the same hospital, and therefore have the same “natal chart”, they aren’t even close to being the same. The Forer Effect also applies to personality tests , like the Meyers Briggs for example (if you must know, I’m an INFJ some days and an INTP other days. No, I don’t consider either scientifically valid and they merely are entertainment.)
The Forer Effect is also the PT Barnum Effect, where Barnum observed “we’ve got something for everyone!” Unlike the Mars effect mentioned in passing above, the Forer effecthas been replicated. It even appears to be universal across cultures. The Chinese, for example, seem to reject as a whole Western astrology. But no apparent statistical differences between the two groups seem to exist when Forer effect tests are used.
To me, the Forer Effect explains in part why so many believe astrology is real. It doesn’t quite get to why Americans think it’s actually real science when it’s not even close, but that’s just me. I actually think Americans are confusing astrology with actual astronomy, which is an amazing science that also happens to be reality.
Astrology still isn’t science, though. Not by a long shot. Entertainment? I’m okay with that—to the extent that an astrologer is not asked to be consulted on any science media programs on astronomy (a complaint actually made in the UK by astrologers, by the way, toward the BBC). I’m not okay with it being considered an actual science, but people will believe what they want. There’s not a whole lot I can do about that, other than pushing back (as politely as I can muster) against the woo.
9:24 AM PT: for some reason i can't fix the link.
The Mother Jones article is here: http://www.motherjones.com/...