|Saint Petersburg Branch of the Russian Humanist Society|
|Astrology and the Public|
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In the past the attitude of scientists toward astrology was contradictory. On the whole educated people always regarded natal astrology skeptically. But faith in universal harmony and a search for associations in nature stimulated the development of science. Therefore natural astrology, which established an empirical association between annual celestial phenomena and signs of weather, the harvest, and periods of farm work excited the natural interest of ancient thinkers.
In the 17th century modern science was born and astrology finally moved to the category of fortunetelling. Nevertheless, right now it occupies a quite high position in the public consciousness. For Russia this became relevant in the period of glasnost: the splash of interest in astrology at the beginning of the 1990s was quite weak. But in recent years "the forbidden fruit effect" dried up and it is already possible to evaluate the stabilized interest of our society in astrology: unfortunately, it is great, as before.
Astrology and Society
Although astronomy and astrology essentially have nothing in common many people take these words as synonyms. I can cite many examples of such confusion, beginning with palm-reading: during a lecture at a science club the noted British astrophysicist Arthur Eddington (1882-1944) was introduced to the audience as a "professor of astrology". I note that such confusion is quite insulting for an astronomer: not long ago one Moscow newspaper published a announcement for a competition for a "vacant post of Moscow State University professorship in astrology". Afterwards there were no end of jokes and insulting calls to our Institute.
In connection with the flowering of astrology the question arises: "Should science react to this?" Several of my colleagues decided this problem for themselves unambiguously and quite simply: they decided that astrology needed to be prohibited and in any event to loudly "break away" from it, declaring to everyone that astrology is only a wretched imitation of real science. The truth is, other colleagues think that astrology should in general not be mentioned lest it be advertised. For my part, I think it is impossible to prohibit astrology: this has been tried more than once in the past two centuries and it is still alive. It is alive just like drunkenness, bloody mass spectacles, religious intolerance, athletic fanaticism, etc., in spite of all the campaigns to root them out. For there are still people in society for whom these needs are vital.
Yes, and astrologers themselves well understand that they have occupied a solid niche "between the faithful obedient dogmatism of religion and the causal investigative dogmatism of science, and in this sense astrology is as indestructible as the first two forms of human knowledge" (F. K. Velichko, once a chemist, now an astrologer). Astrology quickly broke into our lives along with freedom of speech and the press. On the whole, our society, brought up in the traditions of monarchical absolutism and communist totalitarianism, shares the idea of fatalism but, to put it more simply, is not yet inclined to submissively subordinate itself to a fate indicated to it by a "supreme guide" whose role in astrology is assigned to the stars and planets.
The Attitude of Scientists Toward Astrology
One often encounters a distorted idea about astrology even among quite well-read people. For example, the belief is prevalent that many famous scientists, especially astronomers, were astrologers. Often Kepler and the horoscopes he drew up are mentioned in this connection. One needs to know the historical canvas and troubles of the life of the great scientist in order to correctly estimate this aspect of his activity. But one example is enough for a person with an open mind, [so] I'll cite it.
On 9 October 1604 an exceptionally bright new star appeared in the constellation Ophiuchus. This rare phenomenon could not have failed to draw the attention of astronomers, including Kepler, who carefully watched the appearance and dimming of the new star and published a large treatise in 1606 [entitled] "The New Star ("De Stella Nova")". Having studied this phenomenon from several points of view he tried to explain its origin in 30 chapters. Of course, in those years he could have not solved this problem and have understood that in reality the explosion of a massive old star, flash of a supernova, was being observed. As regards the astrological significance of this phenomenon, Kepler frankly said: "If someone asks, 'What is happening, What does this star herald?', I will answer them without any hesitancy: it heralds a whole bunch of all kinds of works which various scientists will write about and much work for printers". Recalling the German proverb, "A new star, a new king", Kepler ironically added: "It is surprising that not one ambitious person has failed to make use of this new banner".
Thus unambiguously expressing his attitude toward celestial banners, Kepler was literally drawing up the famous horoscope for Wallenstein at the same time, noting in the process: "Astrology is a thing on which one ought not spend much time". But life forced him to take up this craft: "Of course, this astrology is a stupid daughter, but, my God, what would have become of the wise old mother, astronomy, if she had not had a stupid little daughter…And the salary of a scientist is so negligible that the mother probably would have starved if the daughter had not earned anything". Today some of us would probably agree with these words of Kepler.
Science, Pop Science, Parascience, Pseudoscience, and Anti-Science
Scientists, pedagogues, and popularizers of science who engage in confrontations with astrology and the like need to take into account the growing differentiation of the public consciousness. In this sense the black and white picture of the time of socialism has now become quite multi-hued and ambiguous. It is already clear that there is no simple dividing line between "science and anti-science", rather there is a broad spectrum of public interest in science, at one end of which is professional science, and then through pop science, parascience, pseudoscience, we come to anti-science. The task, in my view, is not to eradicate one of these sides but to break the now clearly marked direction of the evolution of public consciousness in the direction of "light" forms of science. Therefore, if we are really concerned about the level of pubic consciousness of our fellow countrymen we need to work quietly and systematically in this direction, studying the experience of other countries beforehand.
The Experience of Combating Astrology
In Western countries those long familiar with the astrological disease have also studied it well in the market conditions most natural for it. Psychologists find out through public opinion surveys what social groups are interested in astrology and to what degree. And while these surveys are conducted regularly and the dynamics of the phenomenon are understood, it is possible to identify the influence on it by various publications and instructional "companies". Unfortunately, our psychologists and sociologists ignore this social phenomenon, although it would seem that such a sharp reorientation of public consciousness ought to have excited their professional interest. On the other hand, research by Western sociologists is published in the popular press and receives a broad response in the scientific community.
We recall just the spark of interest in astrology in the US which erupted after the start of the 1973 oil crisis. That is what forced a large group of famous American scientists in 1975 to turn to journalists with a warning which said, in part:
"We are especially disturbed by the continued uncritical dissemination of astrological charts, forecasts, and horoscopes by the media and by otherwise reputable newspapers, magazines, and book publishers. This can only contribute to the growth of irrationalism and obscurantism. We believe that the time has come to challenge directly, and forcefully, the pretentious claims of astrological charlatans".
This call was received with enthusiasm by many scientists and simply by educated people. It stimulated the interest of specialists in the popularization of science. New publications which were oriented toward the intellectual reader, and new television programs and series for the critical thinking viewer, for example, Carl Sagan's series "Cosmos", appeared.
The specific means to treat an astrological or any other parascientific "disease" depends on the level of intellect and the inclinations of the "patient". For people of a rational way of thinking who in principle trust science the facts which statistically disprove the predictions of astrologers are enough. For the poorly informed public a truthful story about the history of astrology, its true face, its methods, and place in cultural history is needed.
As the research of American pedagogues has shown a majority of people are not [even] basically informed about the interrelationship between astrology and science. A simple overlap of terms occurs in their thinking: an absolutely reliable prediction of the flight of spacecraft only confirms in their eyes the possibility of fortunetelling based on the stars. Therefore the introduction of only a single lesson in the school curriculum, no not even criticism, but simply a considered description of the essence of astrology, its methods, and means will strikingly change the attitude toward it. (I became convinced of this in the course of personal experiments in a secondary school). For the most part people simply do not know with what they are dealing.
The attractiveness of astrology is completely explainable. It deceives many people by its scientific-sounding name: biology, geology, astrology…The trappings of astrology - references to the stars and planets, mathematical methods, quasi-scientific terminology – separate it from other guesswork and create its scientific-sounding image. Therefore the progress of science only increases the authority of astrology among credulous people.
Russian astronomers have appealed to journalists and leaders of the mass media in an organized manner about the anti-scientific content of astrology, but in a majority of cases its commercial attractiveness has been a more convincing argument for [the mass media].
The Verification of Astrological Predictions
When solving the problem of whether there is even a rational core to astrology one ought first to rely on a competently conducted analysis of the reliability of astrological predictions. Unfortunately, I do not know of [any] published Russian work on this subject and therefore I will describe the results of some foreign research.
Psychologist B. Silverman of he University of Michigan studied the influence of the zodiac sign corresponding to the birth of each of married couples and the probability of their marriage or divorce. Data about 2987 weddings and 478 divorces registered in Michigan in 1967-1968 were used. The scientist compared the real information with the predictions of two independent astrologers against a favorable or unfavorable combination of zodiac signs for the married couples. It turned out that there was no coincidence between the predictions and reality and therefore Silverman concluded: "The position of the sun in the zodiac at the moment of birth does not exert an influence on the formation of personality".
It is curious that earlier such research was undertaken by the world-famous psychologist Carl Jung. He compared the solar and lunar configurations in natal horoscopes of 483 married couples and did not detect statistically significant correlations. But evidently Jung very much wanted to believe in astrology. He threw out the results of his research, declaring, "A statistical view of the world is absolutely abstract and therefore incomplete and even mistaken when we're talking about the psychology of a person". Here is how psychology played a dirty trick on the scientist himself.
American economists J. Bennett and J. Barth from George Washington University, decided to find whether the position of the planets relative to zodiac signs influences the professional inclinations of people, in particular the frequency with which young people volunteer for military service. The signs "controlled" by Mars were studied especially carefully. This research did not confirm astrological predictions.
However the most interesting results in this field were acquired by Parisian statistician Michel Gauquelin. Gauquelin studied archival data containing the date, time, and place of birth of 41,000 European residents, among them 16,000 famous scientists, artists, writers, athletes, etc., and also 25,000 "ordinary" people. Gauquelin compared the positions of the planets and constellations at the moment of a person's birth with his personality type and kind of occupation. He showed that the horoscopes were completely wrong: there was no connection between the character and the personality of a person and his zodiac sign on the one hand and the position of the planets in their houses and their mutual aspects at the moment of birth, on the other.
The quality of a complete prediction of a person's character by astrologers was also studied. Chicago psychologist J. McGrew turned to the Astrologers Federation of Indiana for this purpose. Six experienced specialists in astrology were called upon to participate in experiments. At McGrew's request 23 volunteers filled out a questionnaire which contained both astrological and traditional questions about the qualities of their character, work, etc. Then the time and place of birth of the volunteers were reported to the astrologers and six members of a control group who were ignorant of astrology. The following results were obtained: the astrologers' predictions turned out to be no more accurate than the predictions of members of the control group and neither [group's predictions] correlated at all with the real qualities of the volunteers being tested. The most curious thing was that the characteristics of the very same volunteers themselves and the information from the various astrologers differed from one another in the strongest fashion.
Errors and Speculation in the Assessment of Predictions
One often hears from astrologers that their predictions are not absolutely reliable but are corroborated with great probability. They usually say that 70-80% of predictions are confirmed. The truth is, the procedure for calculating the probability of a correct prediction when doing this is never described. And this is the root of the problem. However, only specialists understand this; the average person, as a rule, is not interested in such subtlety: it was said that it was 90%, it means that they calculated it somehow. If one is interested in such "subtleties", then it appears that this is either an intuitive assessment or an elementary falsification.
Our reluctance or inability to get into the mathematical aspect of predictions and our readiness to yield to the hypnotic power of numbers betray our mathematical illiteracy. This is what J. A. Paulos called his book, "Innumeracy", collecting a multitude of examples of the inability of fully educated people to perform the simplest mathematical concepts. In particular this applies to the concept of probability. The attempt to intuitively assess the probability of some event depends very strongly on the emotional state of a person and, as a rule, gives an unreliable result. Here is a simple example of the "psychological filter" cited by mathematician A. K. [Dudeney]:
"We encounter filters all the time and everywhere. A casino in which dozens of slot machines are installed pounds the ears, evidence that people are playing them. Every time three little cherries appear in a row on the screen the machine pours out a handful of quarters into a tray; on the other hand, a loss is accompanied by silence. A person entering the casino might think that everyone winning was the only happening around him. For even several coins won, which the machine on average yields only once every 10 tries, might produce a more or less constant ringing in a place in a place where a total of 10 machines were installed. The phenomenon of filtration, besides the illusion of 'a winning casino', is at the foundation of many other errors".
Specialists know how difficult it is to assess the probability of any event, even if they have the data of carefully conducted experiments in their hands. It needs to be admitted that the history of science recalls many cases of a wrong assessment of probability when the result of a random confluence of circumstances was interpreted as a new unknown pattern. Astronomers have still not forgotten the "star rings" and "star chains", geometric figures formed by lunar craters, and the Martian "Sphinx". However science has never persisted in its mistakes but rather tries to rid itself of them as soon as possible. Astrologers, on the contrary, maintain the myths which surround their work. But it is not so hard to create a myth when dealing with a large mass of predictions. Here is one more example from A. K. Dudeney's article:
"One interesting possibility of cheating associated with playing the stock market might be based on a mathematical fallacy. A broker distributes letters to 1024 clients. In half of these letters the broker predicts that the price of United States Suspenders stock will rise in the next several days. In the other half of the letters he predicts that the price will drop. Now the broker waits to see how the stock price changes. If it rises, he sends letters to the 512 clients of the first group reminding them that his prediction turned out to be correct and makes a new prediction. In 256 of the new letters he predicts that the stock price will continue to rise but in the remaining 256 letters he reports that the price will fall. Now it is probably clear to you what the catch is. All of the shrinking group of clients are getting ever more solid proof that the broker has impeccable intuition. As a result a small group of people trust their capital to the broker although it is more reasonable to leave their money in a savings bank".
This is a good example that, by skillfully manipulating completely random events, you can manage to use them in your interest. By the way, one can formulate one of the rules for a beginning astrologer: "Make as many predictions as possible. The wrong ones will be forgotten, but those which coincidentally match real events will provide an opportunity to repeatedly mention them and to be seen as a good forecaster".
Thus, from the point of view of the natural sciences astrology is a sterile flower, a soap bubble, deprived of rational content. Where it is possible science creates predictive methods and does not shroud them in mystery, and does not offer empty hope like astrologers. Science is not on the same path as astrology. And if astrologers did not unconscionably confer on themselves the high reputation earned by science, particularly astronomy, then we would not devote special attention to them, nor single them out from the other charlatans springing up in the conditions of mass culture.
When a television announcer says that "according to the astrological calendar today is the shortest day and the longest night" and a bearded astrologer "sets" a solar eclipse for the next day, you want to shout: 'People, what's astrology got to do with this here?' These are the results of normal scientific calculations made by astronomers (show me an astrologer who is able to independently calculate even the length of the day, not to mention the circumstances of a solar eclipse!).
The following table in which I have compiled data about journals which have not changed their appearance in recent years will help [you] understand the reason for the increased interest in astrology in Russia, especially among the scientific and technical intelligentsia:
I think that these numbers do not require comment. But since it is known that "if it decreases somewhere it will invariably increase in another place", if we let public opinion turn away from rationality and science then, colleagues, my life and yours will become dismal.
It is obvious that in present-day Russia astrology and the quasi-scientific beliefs related to it are not simply the phenomena of parascience and anti-science; it would be more accurate to call them the phenomenon of "substitutes for science". I do not see a reason to explain the high popularity of parascientific beliefs in present-day Russia as some kind of special inclination of the Russian people toward mysticism; I'd rather accuse them of insufficient intellectual curiosity. If we are able to revive popular science literature and make it affordable to a majority of those who are interested I think that the problem of parascience will be 90% solved.
Considering the broad spectrum of public interests and the great differences in the level of education and the traditions of the peoples of our still gigantic country, I think that every scientist and ordinary sensible person, at least in their immediate circle, can and ought to by some means "provide the sound" for a scientific notion about astrology and the other profitable pastimes of charlatans which latch onto serious science.
Vladimir Surdin, Candidate of Physicomathematical Sciences, P. K. Sternberg State Astronomical Institute of the M. V. Lomonosov Moscow State University
Translated by Gary Goldberg
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