Jan 05 2018

The Return of “Traditional” Astrology

I guess this is a theme recently – the return of previous pseudosciences that had been fading into the background. If you type “astrology” into the search window on this blog you get exactly two articles specifically about this topic in the last 10 years. Hopefully this won’t really change and astrology will remain safely on the fringe, an old-school pseudoscience curiosity.

But there are those who are trying to give astrology new respectability. A recent article by Ida Benedetto outlines the strategy, which is two-pronged. First, blame astrology’s poor reputation on modern psychology. Then the fix is an appeal to antiquity – return to the ancient texts. She writes:

“Astrology’s contemporary flavor has a closer relationship with the social science of psychology than the observational science it used to be based upon. If we can set modern judgments aside and learn the language of the ancient astrologers—a language that is now newly available due to the recent revival of classical texts—we may discover lost insights.”

Let’s strangle this infant in the crib, as both prongs of this strategy are nonsense.

First, modern psychology is not to blame for the failings of any version of astrology. Benedetto argues that modern astrology followed the pattern of pop psychology, offering simple solutions to life’s complex problems, and giving people light and positive answers. I think she is misinterpreting the lines of causation here.

Rather, astrology is a form of pop (pseudo)psychology, which is not based on any respectable psychological science. All such pop psy follows a similar pattern – the easy and comfortable answers. Modern astrologers have always been client-based, selling their fortune-telling for cash, and they simply followed (like all other forms of pop psy) the format that brought in the most money –  tell people what they want to hear.

In other words, any similarity between modern astrology and other forms of pop psychology do not come from psychology, but from the behavior of typical snake oil salesmen and fortunetellers.

But I am actually more interested in the second pillar of her argument – that there is something potentially valuable in the ancient astrological texts.

“The ancients looked to the sky for clues about why things happened in the material world around them. Astrology had its heyday in the Mediterranean in the Hellenistic period, an era that took place between the 3rd century BC and the 1st century CE. These ancient astrologers based their interpretations on centuries of observations recorded by the Mesopotamians who came before them. They kept careful records of astronomical phenomenon, looking for correlations between what happened in the sky above them and the material world around them.”

This is classic “Toothfairy science.” This is also the “teachable moment” I thought was most relevant about this article. Benedetto has a background in the arts, so it is not surprising that she is somewhat clueless about science.

The key point is this – science is more than carefully collecting observations. As the Toothfairy analogy explains, if you carefully documented the amount, denomination, and timing of money left in exchange for children’s teeth, and correlated that information with all sorts of demographic variables, you might create a convincing imitation of doing real science, but none of that data would actually test the underlying premise – is the Toothfairy real?

Similarly, carefully documenting the position of the stars and planets and then correlating those positions with events on Earth might be impressive for ancient Mesopotamians, but it is not science. This type of observational behavior is not capable of asking the important underlying question – is there any causal relationship between what is observed in the sky and events on Earth?

Just making such observations is missing a critical ingredient, testing whether or not the stars have any predictive value. For this you need objective outcomes, blinded assessment, and statistical analysis.

To reverse an analogy we have commonly used, this is similar to what many people do with the stock market. You can track the market in great detail, and look for patterns with sophisticated analysis. However, such patterns in past market behavior do not predict what the market will do in the future – it is stock market astrology.

The ancients cannot be blamed for thinking they can gain insight into worldly events by looking at the stars. They lacked any serious cosmology or understanding of fundamental forces. They did the best they could, and carefully documenting observations was a good start.

But we have a couple thousand years of advancement between them and us. We know quite a bit more about how the universe is put together, and the forces that are at work. There is no plausible mechanism by which the position of the planets and stars can influence or predict events on Earth. That notion is pure magic.

Further, numerous attempts at scientifically demonstrating the existence of such a phenomenon have failed. We are not starting from scratch here – there is more than enough evidence to reject the highly implausible hypothesis of astrology. This is not closed mindedness, as Benedetto and others would have you believe. It is simple Beysian analysis – astrology is not very likely to begin with, and all evidence points to no.

I also fully reject Benedetto’s reverence for “ancient texts.” As a source of history, sure, they are invaluable. As a source of science and understanding the world, not so much. Such reverence for the alleged wisdom of the ancients in counter-enlightenment and anti-intellectual. It rejects the hard-won knowledge that we have accumulated over centuries. It infantilizes modern people and suggests we should submit to the ancient wisdom of our long past elders.

It is also, ironically, still looking for an easy solution to complex questions. The world is complex, and it takes hard intellectual work to sort it all out, account for our biases, to look at questions from new perspectives, and to conduct rigorous observations and experiments to systematically test our ideas against reality. The answers aren’t waiting for us to translate from some ancient text.

So I’m sorry, Benedetto, astrology is fake. You just don’t understand how science works. But that is easy enough to fix. There are plenty of sources for popular science communication out there, a mere mouse-click away.

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