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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