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You’re a Virgo? Sexy…

To some astrology seem like a trivial matter, but like anything, there are always those who devote themselves to these ideas. Astrology, fist and foremost, is a group of systems, traditions, and beliefs which hold that the relative positions of celestial bodies and related details can provide information about personality, human affairs and other “earthly” matters. When I refer to astrology, I will be referring to the western idea of horoscope astrology.

The most common form of the horoscope is the natal chart. This is a horoscope dependent on the time of the person’s birth. The most widely used interpretation of this chart in the western world is that from using the time of your birth, personality traits can be divined. Furthermore, it creates something of a guidebook or fortune to help you interact with other astrological signs, and to take advantage of the traits of your own sign.

Your Birthday=Your Personality?

Since we learned how to be a skeptic last week, let’s dissect this matter into its major claims.

As you can see from the picture on the left, an astrological chart is something of a complicated mess. What exactly an astrologer does is:

“An astrologer first has to ascertain the exact time and place of the subject’s birth, or the initiation of an event. The local standard time (adjusting for any daylight saving time or war-time) is then converted into Greenwich Mean Time or Universal Time at that same instant. The astrologer then has to convert this into the local sidereal time at birth in order to be able to calculate the ascendant and mid-heaven. The astrologer will next consult a set of tables called an ephemeris, which lists the location of the Sun, Moon and planets for a particular year, date and sidereal time, with respect to the northern hemisphere vernal equinox or the fixed stars (depending on which astrological system is being used). The astrologer then adds or subtracts the difference between the longitude of Greenwich and the longitude of the place in question to determine the true local mean time (LMT) at the place of birth to show where planets would be visible above the horizon at the precise time and place in question. Planets hidden from view beneath the earth are also shown in the horoscope”.

Blah blah blah and a lot of calculations and tables and charts later, you have a natal chart. To us skeptics, the construction of the chart is ancillary to what astrology claims the charts actually do. If the claims hold up to scrutiny, then the construction of the chart would be evaluated. So let’s look at the claims, taken directly from a website that claims there is scientific evidence for astrology. A little skepticism and few more terms are all we need to dismiss every single argument as pseudoscience.

So let’s see what they say…

What do the Believers Say?

Let’s look at each argument and see if we can apply our skepticism to determine the validity of each claim. Given that the referenced website specifically mentions skeptics, and that this is a scientific defense, I will not pull any punches in the dissection of this topic. Let’s see how the arguments hold up to skeptical scrutiny…

“THINGS MOST SKEPTICS DON’T KNOW ABOUT ASTROLOGY: ” [Taken from a website titled “Scientific Defense of Astrology”]

1. “Astrology probably gave birth to Astronomy. There is nothing supernatural about casting a horoscope, most of it is done according to precise astronomical and mathematical principles”.

The first sentence is false. Astronomy and astrology grew up together, as we looked to the heavens, and only started to separate in the 18th century Renaissance (because of the birth of modern science). Also I’m certain the term “probably” has never been used to qualify a supposed fact.The second sentence is absolutely true; astrologers have made very complicated rules for their chart construction. But does that mean anything at all? Just because something is complicated doesn’t make it true. Furthermore, saying that a small part of the process is based in reality, does not make the rest of the process valid. It is as if I created a machine that I say cures cancer. Just because I built the machine with real parts and engineering principles, it does not mean the machine works.

2. “Many famous scientists have been into Astrology: Tyco Brahe, Karl Jung, Kepler, Huxley, and Copernicus.. Many others remain anonymous”.

This is an example of the argument from authority fallacy. This states that just because an authoritative figure or an expert claims something to be true, it certainly does not automatically make it true. Every authority in the world thought the Earth was flat at one time. But if we can’t trust experts, what can we trust? Look at the consensus opinion of evidence based science.

3. “Astrologers do not necessarily believe in fate. They believe the stars impel not compel”.

This claim is basically here to shield astrology from more scrutiny. “Well at least we don’t believe in fate”. Trying to shift the microscope off of theirs claims appears a bit desperate. And the last part of the sentence makes no difference. They still believe that stars affect your daily life, whether or not they “impel” or “compel”.

4. “There are 10,000 practicing paid Astrologers and millions of horoscope followers. There are hundreds of books on the topic. Only 10% of Americans believe there can’t be anything to it”.

This is another example of a fallacy called the argument from popularity fallacy. This states that just because many people subscribe to a claim, does not make it true. There are still many people who believe that the Earth is the absolute center of the universe. There are still many people who are certain the virgin Mary chooses to reveal herself through toast. Does that make them correct? Of course not, look at the evidence.

5. “Astrology doesn’t have to involve pphacthic phenomenon [what the hell is that?] or even direct causation. Many Astrologers believe in a natural synchronicity between the stars and events. Other countries place even more value in it”.

Again, like the third argument, what is happening here is another sentence that tries to distance astrology from another belief, without explaining any part of the actual belief. So they believe in a natural synchronicity, so what? Where is the evidence that links that synchronicity to stars and our lives?

6. “It is an undisputed scientific fact that the planets have a measurable magnetic, gravitational and electromagnetic influence on the earth. Most people agree that bizarre behavior tends to peak on full moons”.

We have a number of fallacies here. First, as in argument one, they are using a part to explain the whole. They are right to say that other planets can have gravitational effects on the Earth. They are wrong in extrapolating that to say that the planets affect people’s lives (because there is no evidence for this). Although they do not directly say the planets affect your life, they are obviously implying it. This is simple ignorance because they are taking a scientific principle, gravity, and just assuming it affects your daily life (in the astrological sense) without any clarification, evidence, or reasoning. The second sentence reveals another fallacy. As I explained in a previous post the idea that the full moon causes “bizarre” behavior is simply not true. People tend to use the confirmation bias to latch on to evidence that validates their belief, and to forget evidence that does not. Also, as mentioned in the referenced post, there is no statistical proof that more “bizarre” behavior occurs during a full moon rather than any other night. It also doubles up on fallacy with the “most people agree” statement; again committing the argument from popularity fallacy.

7. “Astrology is not limited to natal. There is also electional, horary, mundane, medical, meteorological, Chinese 12 year and millennial”.

I don’t really know how this is supposed to convince skeptics that astrology is scientific fact. So because there is more than just horoscopes, astrology is a proven fact? I’m sorry, but assuming that they are presenting the most feasible aspects here of astrology, that is just a non-argument. Because there is more than one type of astrology, it is true? Imagine if they were brutally honest:

“There isn’t just this one thing that we have no proof for, we have a lot of other things with no proof too. So obviously it’s all true.”

8. “The vast majority of those who look at their own chart (not just a newspaper column) find uncanny accurate hits”.

I think that this is the main reason people don’t think astrology is complete bogus. I know that we have all read a horoscope and it somehow seemed pretty relevant to our personalities or lives. So does this make astrology legitimate? The answer was discovered in 1948 by psychologist Dr. Bertram Forer. The Forer effect is the observation that individuals will give high accuracy ratings to descriptions of their personality that supposedly are tailored specifically for them, but are in fact vague and general enough to apply to a wide range of people. that is to say, an identical astrological description can be given to anyone and, although it is very general and vague, people will apply it to their own lives with high accuracy. Accuracy, remember, that is not actually there for any astrological reason. Forer demonstrated this principle in this experiment:

In 1948, psychologist Bertram R. Forer gave a personality test to his students. Afterward, he told his students they were each receiving a unique personality analysis that was based on the test’s results and to rate their analysis on a scale of 0 (very poor) to 5 (excellent) on how well it applied to themselves. In reality, each received the same analysis:

“ You have a great need for other people to like and admire you. You have a tendency to be critical of yourself. You have a great deal of unused capacity which you have not turned to your advantage. While you have some personality weaknesses, you are generally able to compensate for them. Disciplined and self-controlled outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure inside. At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing. You prefer a certain amount of change and variety and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations. You pride yourself as an independent thinker and do not accept others’ statements without satisfactory proof. You have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others. At times you are extroverted, affable, sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, reserved. Some of your aspirations tend to be pretty unrealistic. Security is one of your major goals in life. ”

On average, the rating was 4.26, but only after the ratings were turned in was it revealed that each student had received identical copies assembled by Forer from various horoscopes. As can be seen from the profile, there are a number of statements that could apply equally to anyone.

People have a psychological tendency to take vague generalizations and apply them specifically to their own lives. This effect alone is quite enough to understand why people are fooled by astrology. Astrologers never seem wrong, because our minds find a way to make their predictions right. This positive feedback loop in turn makes astrology seem legitimate, when in fact, anyone could start up a business using that same “reading” that Forer gave to his students (but you shouldn’t because good skeptics know better).

9. “There are scores of natural phenomenon with regular periodicity’s”.

Like argument one and six, simply stating that certain natural phenomena occur on a periodic time-frame is a non-argument. They again fail to mention how this applies to astrology at all, or what their point is. They might as well be just making a statement that has nothing to do with astrology.

Is Our Life in the Stars?

I am aware that this website is just one case. But someone who thoroughly believed in astrology took a lot of time and effort in order to create a “scientific defense” of this belief system. And how did that defense fair? There was absolutely no evidence referenced, common fallacies plagued every argument, and 40% of the arguments made no point or explanation whatsoever. This being a product of a faithful astrology believer, what does that say about astrology as a whole? Are the theories and claims well explained or well-known?

Let’s do  a little math. I’m going to give the astrologers the benefit of the doubt and say that they can resolve a person’s traits down to the hour that they were born. That’s 1 hour*24 hours/day*365 days/year=8760 different personality traits possibly suited to you when you’re born. Are you really willing to admit that there are only 8760 different types of person? In a world with 6,870,114,305 people (and counting, according to the census bureau), that means that at least 784,260 people have exactly the same personality for each separate trait. Are you again willing to admit that not only are you not unique, but your specific personality and interactions as described by astrology are shared with 784,260 other people? I find that is doing a disservice to the complexity of human relationships and personalities.

Our skeptical eye will no doubt incline us to consider astrology nonsense. When evaluated with proven scientific principles like the Forer effect, confirmation bias, and the various argumentative fallacies, the foundation of astrology crumbles under the weight of legitimate science. Next time you read a horoscope (why would you?) ask yourself, are you just making it fit? Exactly like human psychology disposes you to? Does astrology really fit with everything else we know about the universe? I would have to say no, it does not. This is another example of ancient magic that has survived into modern times because it is entertaining. Entertaining (even though The Onion’s horoscopes are massively better), but not actually true.

We find the defendant, Astrology, guilty of PseudoScience in the first degree.