How Scientific Is Astrology? Ctd

Hubble view of star-forming region S106

A reader face-palms:

I know you try to give a fair hearing to all reasonable sides, but come on! Now you’re posting astrology apologetics? The first writer provides nothing more than an elaborate appeal to authority – but they are educated and really smart! – the second puts forward an irrelevant pet theory about the weather, and the third is straight-out personal anecdote and confirmation bias interpreted through science-y sounding words. Defending your preferred superstitious woo by distancing yourself from the more egregious practitioners’ claims, as the first does with newspaper horoscopes, may be an effective PR tactic, but it doesn’t replace the need for actual evidence through methodologically sound testing.

Another writes, half-jokingly, “I’m a professional astronomer, and my union card comes with a rider that says I must bash astrology so as to keep the purity of astronomy”:

One of your readers said that there is a “high level of professionalism in the field” of astrology. I don’t really have a problem with things like astrology, alchemy, and tarot being used as a tools for inspiration; however one gets to creativity is one’s own muse. Telling other people that astrology can help them understand their world they are living in, though, is usually a sign that someone hopes to make money, probably off of you. I’d call it metaphor, disguised as a technology; practitioners since Ptolemy have used technical difficulty to give a gloss of credibility to charlatanism.

Another reader:

So your Professional Scientist’s supportive theory on astrology is based on weather, particularly amount of daily light and temperature, for the birth months on the Zodiac. I sure hope the science that employs him isn’t climatology. Two words for him: hemisphere and latitude. Once you take those two things into account, any reliability on a birth month tied to daily light and temperature is blown away. A Leo birthday in the Northern Hemisphere gets warm summer days. In the Southern, not so much. A Capricorn born above the 49th parallel gets those short colder days and long dark nights, but even for one born in the same hemisphere but just farther south, the days are still nice and long – and even warmer as the equator nears. Don’t even get started on the higher parallel Capricorns in the Southern Hemisphere. That little tilt-of-the-axis thing destroys any “weather-related” planetary or cosmic commonality for birth month experience, even at the “sort of” level the scientist postulates.

Another makes an crucial point:

Some readers seem to be failing to make a distinction between “how scientific” astrology is and “how useful” it is – both important and interesting questions, but which are also frequently confused in theistic arguments.

As for how scientific, we pretty much have to say not at all. Astrology shares a lot in common with old-school psychotherapy/analysis in that regard. Both appeal to an intense human compulsion to put things in narrative context, to spot patterns (regardless of whether they appear by chance), and of course, to be self-involved. There’s also a tendency of the general public to be confused about what makes something “scientific” – complex-looking diagrams like the one attached to one of your reader emails seem to convince people that something valid must be going on.

But as for how useful astrology is, it’s definitely not as open-and-shut a question. Getting that level of therapeutic attention, spiritual introspection/mindfulness training, and possible perspective adjustment – to say nothing of entertainment – could well be a net benefit in people’s lives.

Kevin Drum, who’s been following the reader thread, offers an illustrative story:

A friend of mine at work – very smart, very grounded, very educated – was also very deeply into astrology. It was mostly a subject of good-natured banter in the office, and she knew perfectly well that almost none of us were believers. Including me, of course. But then I saw her at work a couple of times, and came to the same conclusion as Sullivan’s e-mailer. She was, basically, a good counselor. She was empathetic, a good listener, and provided pretty good advice. It so happened that she used astrology as a way of organizing her thoughts, but as near as I could tell, that was just incidental. She believed it, and it gave her a useful framework to work from, but it didn’t really mean anything beyond that. She would have been a good counselor whether she was reading star charts, reading palms, or reading out of the DSM-5. Astrology gave her confidence, and that in turn gave her clients confidence. Regardless of whether it was true, that fact made it useful.

Another reader offers, “It would be interesting to see the intersection (particularly amongst the young) between the non-belief in traditional religion or God and giving credence to astrology”:

Could this be an example of the religious impulse being displaced or transferred into something else? Both astrology and religion (Christianity or whatever) require some belief in a patently irrational set of assumptions that allow for reality to be better understood. But where religion stresses faith and a greater mystery, practices like astrology and tarot operate as a kind of “answered prayer” with direct consequences on the present and the future at some metaphysical level. In short, pure magical thinking. It’s this displaced impulse that’s interesting – I see in a lot of my friends a rejection of religion in any traditional form, yet a deep yearning for some sort of greater meaning. When it’s the wonders of nature, that’s one thing. But when it’s astrology, or aliens have visited, or, at its worst, the conspiracy theory du jour, it’s rather disturbing. To me it implies a deep failure of recognizing the hard facts of reality and a simultaneous failure of imagination.

More readers debate the topic on our Facebook page. The above image was highlighted by Sara Barnes:

With the use of a relatively simple photography technique, Italian artist Haari Tesla has reduced the cosmos to a microscopic level. Her series, Illuminated Code From Space, is experimentation in tilt-shift manipulation. By digitally adjusting the depth of field, contrast, and adding a gradient, Tesla has managed to transform photos of nebulae, galaxies, and supernovae into microorganisms. It’s incredible to look at these images and realize that they are actually photos of the largest place we know, rather than of something so small it can’t be seen with the naked eye.

Check out more of Tesla’s work on her website and Behance page.