Star wars: debunking astrology. Scientists try to counter `lack of skepticism' by public
Boston — `IT'S pseudo-science!'' says Paul Kurtz with some vehemence. ``It's pure fiction.'' He's talking about astrology and decrying its influence among people of all kinds today. And like many debunkers, this philosophy professor from the University of New York at Buffalo spends lots of his time and intellectual energy doing so. Other scholarly debunking campaigns are being waged by groups like the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, whose executive officer, astronomer Andrew Fraknoi, teaches astronomy and physics at San Francisco State University.
In a statement typical of many scientists, Professor Fraknoi recently wrote that it is one of the ``pseudoscientific beliefs whose uncritical acceptance by the media and the public has contributed to a disturbing lack of skepticism among youngsters....''
But efforts have not discouraged the belief in astrology. Tests may show it has no greater success than random predictions. Scholars may say it commits the fallacy of ``correspondences'' - tribal superstition that reads worldly events through omens. Scientists may point to the almost immeasurably faint influence on people exercised by planets and stars.
Yet astrology seems to ride out these arguments on a wave of folk belief and personal need. Periodically it hits the headlines - reminding the public of its ancient presence - then subsides once again into the place it has resided through the millennia: human belief.
It all presupposes a basic unity in all of nature, according to William Heim of the University of South Florida.
``Astrologers feel there's a universal system directly related to the human spirit. The individual today who accepts this metaphor probably has a little bit more of a coherent view of the universe and of the individual's place in it,'' Professor Heim states. ``Our modern approach has fragmented the disciplines. We don't communicate very often.''
Professor Kurtz concurs that ``astrologers say all these events are synchronized in some mystical way.'' But, he adds, ``there's no known physical cause. Astrology is part of a pattern - a paranormal, occult world view: Caro cards, I Ching, palmistry, crystals. You can believe in astrology and not the others, but usually there's a syndrome.''
Scientists have subjected astrology to a variety of tests over the years. Many were statistical: comparing forecasts based on astrology to randomly chosen statements. The tests clearly fail to uphold astrology's ideas, according to the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), a distinguished scientific group of scholars and scientists, of which Kurtz is chairman.
Many other scientists share this view. Since 1980, several tests of astrology have been conducted, says CSICOP, and the results have invariably been negative.
But astrology cannot be judged fairly by science, claim many of its supporters.
``People tend to confuse `rational' with `scientific,''' says Barbara Koval, who has been practicing astrology in Boston for 17 years. ``Science deals with objective reality, what people can test: consensus belief. Astrology deals with subjective reality - what the single person is all about. Any individual can test the truth of astrology for himself. But groups cannot, beyond a point.''
Ms. Koval charges $60 an hour - by no means the top fee for astrologers - and has a clientele that is ``primarily educated and professional.'' She firmly rejects the idea that such people would expect astrology to ``forecast'' their future.
``It's not fortune-telling,'' she asserts. ``Some astrologers try to put a numerical pattern on things like the stock market, and that's not the way it works. Astrology is just a tool. It's a different way of looking at reality, to discover patterns and possibilities.''
But what if she discovers some of those patterns are ominous?
``Then I try to show clients how to prepare for it.... Astrology is probably the premi`ere art of timing.''
Koval also makes no claim about the skies controlling events on Earth. ``I don't think there's a cause-and-effect relationship,'' she states, ``but that's up to the scientific community. I don't need it. All I know for sure is that there is a correlation. If you go down a road with constantly changing scenery, the trees may evoke a response, but they do not `cause' your reaction. That's how it is with the planets, and it's been proven to me over and over again.''
Robert Cooper, executive secretary of the American Federation of Astrologers, shares Koval's feeling that science is no measure of astrology. ``The difference is the word `variable,' he says. ``In astrology we have many more variables than in science, so it's a matter of how you approach them. We're starting with the unknown and trying to continue from there.
``We've found through experience - and that's all astrology is, simply an accumulation of experiences - that you can determine the opportunities, the tribulations that you have in front of you, astrologically. But we don't know why it occurs that way, just as one may not know why electricity works.''
That notion has been present during all of astrology's long history. To the ancients, it was both science and philosophy. ``It gave the individual a sense of belonging,'' Heim says. ``We've probably lost that as the payment for gaining more efficient ways of manipulating our material universe. In former times, astrology governed the course of nations.''
It was cultivated in Egypt, Greece, China, and India, according to Kurtz. It came to ancient Greece - the culture of Plato and Aristotle - as a mix of star-gazing and magic from the East during the fifth century BC. Before they got through with it, the Greeks, typically, had legitimized it with reason and logic, adding their own philosophy and science. Ironically, a little of the same thing is happening today with an effort by some modern astrologers to use modern methods to make the practice more scientific.
Actually, the Greek didn't make much of a change, according to one at least recent book, S.J. Tester's ``A History of Western Astrology.'' Tester says both the Greek view of the planets and astrology were precise systems that offered a refreshing clarity and certainty to people bogged down in the rather messy events on Earth.
In any case, the astrology we know today was already pretty much intact when the great astronomer Ptolemy came up with his profoundly influential - though now corrected - picture of the heavens in the second century AD. By then astrology was the way of looking at fate. Ptolemy may have been the big scientist of his day, but he also wrote a four-part textbook of astrology that was the definitive guide for centuries.
Astrology hit a low during the Dark Ages, but popped up later in medieval times. ``It was dealt a ... blow by astronomy in the 16th century,'' says Kurtz, yet it was going strong during the Renaissance. Pictures by Raphael were sometimes hidden horoscopes of his patrons. Medical schools included astrology courses that explained how to gear treatment to the stars.
When it ran into the so-called ``age of reason'' in the 18th century, it yielded. Eventually some artists went on the attack instead of being influenced. With predictable bite, that great debunker Jonathan Swift (under a pen name) wrote ``Predictions for the Year 1708,'' mocking a prominent astrologer named Partridge, who was forever making predictions.
Swift's satirical work predicted the exact the day of Partridge's death. When Partridge survived the day peacefully, Swift published a piece anyway describing Partridge's passing. Although Partridge didn't scoop Mark Twain on saying, ``Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated,'' he did have trouble convincing his public he was alive.
Astrology bounced back in the 19th century, but ``in the 20th century, with the discovery of billions of galaxies, the premise of classical astrology has been badly shaken,'' Kurtz states.
Has this reduced its credibility among Americans today? ``If you read the Encyclopedia Britannica or the French encyclopedias for the year 1900,'' Kurtz points out, ``it says this is an ancient superstition, and very few of the educated classes believe in it. But it's come back again, particularly since the Second World War. I think one reason is that this is the age of space. People are looking heavenward.''
Isn't this heightened impact harmful?
``Yes,'' he says. ``Sometimes it may merely be a form of entertainment that you get a laugh out of, like a jigsaw puzzle or the comics. But if it's taken seriously as a basis for decisions - picking your ideal mate, purchasing a house, changing jobs, planning the timing of the INF treaty signing - then it becomes dangerous, because there's no reliable basis in fact. I think it appeals to the gullible at all levels, including the yuppies.''
To Kurtz, it shows a profound scientific illiteracy in certain sectors of our society. There are more astrologers than astronomers.
``It's a sad commentary,'' he adds, in a statement reflecting the opinion of many of his colleagues. But he hopes efforts like his and others can help loosen astrology's hold and eventually reestablish the place of reason in public thought.
The first story in this series appeared yesterday.