Jan 18 2011

Astrology in Crisis

Perhaps you have heard that the world of astrology is “in a crisis.” Some are calling it the “Zodiac crisis” – because “Zodiac” is a cool-sounding word that starts with “z”. This is all really a manufactured non-event by Minnesota astronomer Parke Kunkle, who decided to send out a press release informing astrologers and the public that their signs are all wrong.

This is all, of course, old news. Sun-sign astrology is supposed to be based on the constellation that the sun is in at the time of birth. The Babylonians made the 12 signs 2000 years ago. They left out a 13th constellation, Ophiucus, because they wanted there to be only 12. But worse, astrologers at the time did not know about precession.

The earth rotates like a spinning top – the earth spins and has an axis tilted to its rotation about the sun and for the same reason a top will rotate its axis, so does the earth. The earth goes through one precession cycle every 26,000 years. That means in the 2,000 years since the Babylonians locked in their dates for the astrological signs, the dates that the sun is actually in those signs have shifted by 1/13 – or one sign.

Astronomers love bringing this up because it is just one more way in which astrology can be shown to be pre-scientific superstitious nonsense, and astrologers can be shown to be classic pseudoscientists. They have charts and philosophies and elaborate methods – but their methods are utterly divorced from reality (which is a nice definition of pseudoscience). Not only is there no possible way the relative position of distant astronomical objects can affect a person’s personality and fate (this is as close to pure magical thinking as feng sui), but astrologers don’t even get the basics right.

Astrology does not square with astronomy in several ways. Precession is just one. The omission of Ophiucus is another. But also astrologers ignore the debate about what is a planet. I am not saying that how we categorize large objects in our solar system should affect their behavior, but it brings up the point that there are other Pluto-like objects in the solar system that astrologers ignore. Why, according to their philosophy, would Pluto affect the astrological chart and not Ceres, or any other of the dwarf planets – discovered or not discovered?

What is interesting about this episode is how astrologers are responding. Astrologer Malanie, who heads a Texas Astrology Retreat, wrote:

Western Astrology (the type of astrology commonly practiced in Europe and the Americas) uses the tropical zodiac, which begins with the spring equinox designating the start of Aries – regardless of where Aries the constellation happens to be. The start of Libra is at the autumnal equinox. Cancer and Capricorn begin with the summer and winter solstices, respectively. Each zodiac sign is then divided into thirty degree sections – totaling 12 sections or 360 degrees.

What she is saying is not an explanation of any kind. She simply says that the method they use (the tropical zodiac) is locked in place and does not account for precession. But that’s what Kunkle is saying. Their methods are based on what constellation the sun was in 2,000 years ago. There is no underlying theory. There is no explanatory or predictive power. It is symbology and magic.

Trolling through the articles on this topic you will find some priceless quotes from astrologers, like this one:

“When astronomers make fun of us, they’re making fun of the human suffering that leads people to seek answers,” he said. “People do get comfort and wisdom from astrology — and science gives us Prozac.”

No – we’re making fun of astrology and astrologers, not the marks you con. Notice also the anti-scientific sentiment.

Astrologers are right about one thing – this latest episode will blow over and astrologers will go on as they have before, blissfully unconcerned about reality. Still, it is fun to every now and then poke astrologers with the actual astronomical facts. Kunkle did a great job, and his stunt happened to go viral. Perhaps this will wake a few people up to the fact that astrology is baseless. Perhaps others will become curious about precession and may actually learn some real astronomy.

One article gives their five (they appear tongue-in-cheek) reasons not to panic about your sign changing. But really, there is only one – astrology (of any flavor) is utter bunk.

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18 responses so far

18 Responses to “Astrology in Crisis”

  1. Belgarathon 18 Jan 2011 at 9:45 am

    Hi Steve,

    The sentence after the second quote is missing a ‘t’ I think…

    Otherwise great article as usual.

  2. mkimble1on 18 Jan 2011 at 10:59 am

    Heck, since the signs of the constellations are just arbitrary collection of stars anyway, I’m making up my own constellations. Today, I’m officially a “Ligerian,” born under the constellation of Liger. That’s a cross between lion and tiger and kicks Leo’s ass!

  3. Eternally Learningon 18 Jan 2011 at 11:10 am

    Anyone else think that the tribune article reads like an Onion article? The quotes from believers specifically seem like something that the Onion would manufacture. I espescially like this one:

    “Dude, I’m a Leo and always will be a Leo, no matter where the sun is on August 5th. Besides, this very expensive
    tattoo on my right shoulder tells me so.”

    So… let me get this straight; Your sign is not dependent on where the sun is on August 5th, except when someone told you that where the sun is on August 5th determined your sign? As for your tattoo; could there be a better example of circular reasoning?

    Thanks for sharing Steve!

  4. ccbowerson 18 Jan 2011 at 11:36 am

    Up until this moment, I thought astrologers where really onto something.

  5. HHCon 18 Jan 2011 at 11:54 am

    Though precession takes 26,000 years, astrology has an analogous concept, the Great Year, which takes 25,000 years to pass through the zodiac galaxy. But we are still in the Age of Aquarius as it began in the 19th century :-)

  6. _Arthuron 18 Jan 2011 at 1:20 pm

    There’s is also the problem that an astrological “sign” correspond to a constellation. Constellations are named after the rather arbitary “shape” of the stars in random, uneven, groupings. And the “attributes” ascribed to the astrological signs (constellation) match the names of those signs.

    For example, the sign “Leo” as for attribute Courage. If the same constellation had been called the “Camel”, or the “Hairbrush”, the attributes would have been different.

    As a test, mark the stars of a portion of the sky on a sheet of paper, and ask random people to tell you what object or animal those dots suggest. The odds anyone see a lion in them are very, very low.

    I’m told Pisces is a “water” sign….

  7. locutusbrgon 18 Jan 2011 at 1:56 pm

    for a millisecond I thought “Astrologers” were actually asking a reasonable question about their own belief system and did not like the answer. Of course they never ask a question when they know all the answers.

  8. Timmysonon 18 Jan 2011 at 2:27 pm

    http://fakescience.tumblr.com/post/2797965655/the-new-zodiac

    I find the above far more reasonable. My fiancée, born November 16th, really, really likes mittens, and I’ve always liked spicy food (Sept 12).

  9. BillyJoe7on 18 Jan 2011 at 3:43 pm

    Steven,

    “This is all really a manufactured non-event by Minnesota astronomer Parke Kunkle, who decided to send out a press release informing astrologers and the public that their signs are all wrong.”

    From what I understand, Parke Kunkle was simply interviewed for an article written in the Star-Tribune of Minneapolis. This was then picked up by other media outlets and went viral. It seems he was actually surprised by all the attention because, as you say, precession is not exactly new information.

  10. Watcheron 19 Jan 2011 at 9:48 am

    I heard the same as you Billy.

  11. ChrisHon 19 Jan 2011 at 1:56 pm

    I never understood why the same constellations were in a Zodiac for the Southern Hemisphere.

  12. wrysmileon 19 Jan 2011 at 2:38 pm

    Hey

    I was just looking on information is beautiful and they’e got a great meta-horoscope taken from 22,000 horoscopes the most common words chart is cool, the words feel, keep, sure and energy just keep repeating under each star sign.

    http://www.informationisbeautiful.net/

  13. andyoon 21 Jan 2011 at 2:27 am

    That astrologer from the Star Tribune:

    “When astronomers make fun of us, they’re making fun of the human suffering that leads people to seek answers,” he said. “People do get comfort and wisdom from astrology — and science gives us Prozac.”

    I wonder which astronomer invented Prozac. And hey! He’s saying that astrology is not science?

  14. MaikUniversumon 22 Jan 2011 at 12:43 pm

    Astrology definitely works. It’s just you scietific-minded people can not accept it. I bet that you all are libras.

  15. Steven Novellaon 23 Jan 2011 at 7:30 am

    I’m a Leo, but Leo’s don’t believe in astrology.

  16. ChrisHon 23 Jan 2011 at 11:41 am

    I’m nothing, I was born too far south for those constellations to be seen well in the night sky.

  17. Mojoon 26 Jan 2011 at 6:52 am

    Astrologers in the UK have been getting upset as well:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/the-lay-scientist/2011/jan/24/1

  18. Sabioon 26 Sep 2012 at 2:09 pm

    I know this is an old thread, but does anyone know of any studies showing Astrology does not do what it claims. There have to be lots of them, I imagine.

    Thank you

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