THE RESEARCHERS RESEARCHED: A REPLY TO THE CYNICS
by Dennis Elwell
As one astrologer who came away from 'Year Zero' with a sense of acute unease, I am grateful for an opportunity to comment at length.
Unease, because the section headed 'Research into Astrology', with its enlarged version on the website, can only leave the ordinary interested inquirer with a completely misleading impression. They will reason to themselves, here are scientists who have conducted an impartial investigation and have come up with a big zero for the year zero. The best they can say is that astrology might be a prop for those unfortunates in need of it.
That is not the astrology I know. After over half a century of absorption in this subject, including some original investigations, I have arrived at the opposite conclusion from these other researchers, whose efforts were bound to fail simply because they were proceeding in the wrong direction, and with a set of false premises. Later I shall indicate how that came about.
Given contemporary mindsets, it must be virtually impossible for anyone to be able to investigate astrology impartially. One scientist who did is Kary Mullis, who in 1993 won the Nobel Prize and the Japan Prize for his work in chemistry. In his hilarious Dancing Naked in the Mind Field he recounts how his curiosity about astrology was kindled after three people on different occasions told him he must be a Capricorn. He set out to draw up horoscopes himself, from the Nautical Almanac (the hard Capricornian way) and found that astrology worked. Brave of him to admit it, considering career progression and the vagaries of peer reviewed funding, but Mullis is nothing if not an individualist.
Rather than investigate the subject in that same hands-on way, most thinking people continue to scoff at astrology, which is the intellectual equivalent of socially challenged armpits. This is partly the fault of the astrologers, who are not producing the evidence because today their science has become too psychological in its orientation, and client driven, which often means pandering to the self-absorbed. Unfortunately the schools of astrology do not discourage this approach.
Nor do astrologers seem to have the time to reply to attacks, an omission with far-reaching consequences because the essence of this science of the macrocosm points to a different kind of reality from the one that materialist science would impose on us, and the more voices raised in protest the better. Myself, I do have a little time, and have read and reread the 'researchers' presentation, which seems mostly to be attributed to Geoffrey Dean.
I think Garry Phillipson did not quite realise what he was letting himself in for when he opened the door to the Dean circus. He envisaged his book as a record of what astrologers do, in their own words, a sharing of experiences, expressed informally. Certainly contributors like myself, joining in a dialogue, did not imagine they were involved in a defence of their beliefs. Had they done so, they might have been more circumspect. It is very sad that Ivan Kelly and Geoffrey Dean should have seen fit, subsequently, to hold statements by these astrologers up to ridicule, as evidence of how astrology relies on nothing more substantial than testimonials. If it's admissible for them to comment retrospectively, then so can I.
(Their remarks appear as 'additional comments' to their polemic 'Are Scientists Undercover Astrologers?' to be found on Smit's website.)
By Their Methods Shall Ye Know Them
Working through their Year Zero contribution, paragraph by paragraph, line by line, I had an eerie feeling. I had expected it to consist of debating points, items of concrete evidence, to which a response could be made, one by one. I approached it with the pleasurable anticipation of a veteran journalist who appreciates a workmanlike argument. Instead I felt the same fascination I have experienced when watching a clever conjurer.
So I would urge readers to treat these two chapters rather as they would a magic show, alert to possible misdirections, a striving for effect, the smoke-and-mirrors. Perhaps you will not have gone far before you wonder why there is so much harping on the virtues of clear thinking, and of scientific caution. Not to forget the pious 'astrology is dear to us, but dearer still is truth (126)'. You might recall Emerson's 'The louder he talked of his honour, the faster we counted our spoons.' Then you will see, if you are familiar with the classical reasoning fallacies, that quite a few old friends line up for their bow at the footlights.
Very discerning readers might even detect that I have veered between taking these chapters seriously, and regarding them as a straight-faced spoof, sprinkled with a few hard observations to create verisimilitude. In which event it is a case of 'Do you see what I see?'
Geoffrey Dean enjoys playing little games with the gullible. Most readers will perhaps not be aware that down the years the astrology bashers have frequently resorted to outright deception, gleefully sending out bogus horoscopes, and so forth, whereby they have not been testing astrology per se, so much as the credibility threshold of astrologers and those who believe in them.
Personally I have never understood why it is necessary to resort to deception, when there are more straightforward avenues to explore. We all know there are gullible people out there. They are found everywhere and nobody doubts it, so why this repetitive urge to confirm that gullibility is still with us on planet Earth? The reason is the fallacy of guilt by association, which means that if gullible people can be shown to believe in something like astrology, it must be rubbish. The fact that intelligent people might believe it as well is considered irrelevant. As Dean has put it, they are seeing faces in the clouds.
Dean cheerfully admits to deviousness when he describes a test he carried out with volunteers, using what he calls 'reversed charts' (p.125-6). On the face of it, you might think his volunteers were stupid enough to accept descriptions of themselves which were the opposite of the truth. He reported this experiment at length in The Skeptical Inquirer (Spring 1987) where he says 'The subjects were led to believe that the chart interpretations were authentic.'
There is a peculiar glow of pleasure when the deceivers end up by deceiving themselves, and what should be a roll of drums is actually the sound of falling into the orchestra pit. This happened to Dean, without his realising it, in this same 'reversed charts' experiment. His methodology contained two flaws, each fatal in itself, and if you can be patient with this writer (who, still in short trousers, built a contraption for sawing ladies in half) he will lead you through the stages.
In essence Dean collected 22 subjects and fired various personality traits at them, to see which would be accepted. Half were given traits genuinely reflecting their own charts, the rest other traits. It does not actually matter where these foreign traits came from, although Dean thought it did, and had arrived at them by reversing the alleged traits of some of the planetary aspects.
Because acceptance by the subjects was high, Dean hypothesised that they must be searching deep inside themselves in order to lay claim to the traits described. He then makes this unguarded comment: 'Given the variability of human nature (we have all been everything at some time or another) the search could hardly fail.'
We have all been everything at some time or another. Those psychologists who object to trait theories of personality point out that behaviour is largely situation dependent, which does indeed mean that in different situations we may display different traits, possibly contradictory, and can even be all things to all men.
In other words, no matter what traits are suggested they could be acknowledged as true, because to some degree or other they are included in our common human nature. Judging astrology in its own terms (something seldom done), we embody every planet and every sign, so you can honestly lay claim to Venus traits, Mars traits, Neptune traits, and so on. At least you can with a little good will. Some people will have more good will than others, which leads to the question of how Dean chose his subjects, a factor of critical importance in psychological tests.
They were recruited through an occult bookstore and ads in an occult magazine, and so represented what Dean might call the 'gullible' end of the spectrum. (Michel Gauquelin, of the ‘Mars Effect’ fame, was a pioneer in preselecting people for gullibility, and then solemnly testing them for it.) Moreover, Dean's chosen subjects were interested in astrology, and this enabled Dean to propose a possible explanation for the high scores, namely 'cognitive dissonance', which he says means they wanted to avoid the painful prospect of having their beliefs shattered. A more sceptical view is that these accommodating people, mostly female, were eager to be agreeable to that nice Dr Dean, who spent one or two hours with each of them, presumably without charge.
The sceptics keep setting traps of this sort. By their methods shall ye know them, and anybody confessing to sleight of hand must not be offended if others at the poker table henceforth watch their every move.
In the same article Dean boasts: 'I myself have given astrologers a chart that was supposedly mine, but was actually that of somebody quite different from me, and their interpretation always fitted me perfectly.' When I first read this I wondered, what goes on in the head, what expression do you wear, as you methodically dupe colleagues and perhaps friends?
To astrologers, reliable data is the life-blood. Among their colleagues they are usually open about their own data, but if you decline to give out your details, for reasons of privacy, everybody understands. Dean’s colleagues were certainly puzzled when they discovered data in circulation for Dean, alleged to have been given to Mark Pottenger by himself (a chart which, incidentally, took ten years off his age and gave him Australian citizenship). The astrologers tried to establish the facts, by a route I cannot disclose, and obtained a certified copy of what appears to be his birth certificate. This would show that Dean was born on…
[Note from GP – when I asked each of the interviewees for Year Zero, including Geoffrey Dean, for their birth data I undertook not to publish it if they did not wish me to. Geoffrey’s choice was to withhold his data, and I therefore feel honour-bound to not publish it here.]
It often happens that those impressed with their own cleverness will go right to the edge, as if daring stupid people to spot how they are being fooled. Dean is not one of these, of course, but I must counsel him that it is so easy to give a wrong impression. It was perhaps unwise to include a professional illusionist in the roll of honour, along with his website. Readers may have been impressed to hear that the Amazing Randi has a standing offer of a million dollars to anyone who can demonstrate paranormal powers, astrology included. Whatever are the astrologers waiting for! Perhaps astrologers realise that money prizes (p.153) may not be what they seem, if the challengers are to be judge and jury in their own court.
Any reader who connected with the Randi website (perhaps most would not bother, but take what they had been told at its face value) might now be scratching their head. To clear up the puzzlement, Dean should explain (and this is a serious request) how an astrologer could win this prize. There are twelve rules to the Randi challenge, a verbal fence of razor wire, but rule four states: “Tests will be designed in such a way that no ‘judging’ procedure is required. Results will be self-evident to any observer...”
So, only eyewitness evidence is allowed, which is fine if the astrologer can do the business while walking on water. There is a reason for the eyewitness stipulation. Since Maskelyne, illusionists investigating the paranormal have always had an ace up their sleeve. They will say that if the effect can be produced by trickery, their stock in trade, then the effect must be trickery.
Now here I must make a confession. I am an old fox, unlike the Amazing Randi, who is a public-spirited seeker after truth. So I can offer, gratis, to the James Randi Educational Foundation an infallible backstop should any applicant manage to negotiate the other obstacles unscathed, and assuming they might not want to part too hurriedly with their pot of gold. Thus I might be sent a letter along these lines: “Dear Mr Elwell, Congratulations! You have succeeded in your demonstration! You have discovered a hitherto unrecognised phenomenon of nature which, however, as a natural phenomenon cannot by definition be classed as paranormal. We hope you get your Nobel Prize, but regret you do not qualify for ours.”
This genial nonsense has been condemned as a publicity stunt even by fellow sceptics. So it is intriguing that the Dean team should drag it into what purports to be a serious discussion.
The Sun-Sign Debate
Years ago Dean and Mather challenged me publicly to produce support for sun signs. With its prize of £500, I recognised it as a gimmick, but knew that others might believe otherwise, so I proposed that we should debate whether the prize was really winnable at a conference of the Astrological Association. At the end of the debate Dean insisted on taking a vote from the audience, and lost.
I had already thought I had detected in Dean an inclination to coax the overly trusting into traps of his own devising, while keeping the killer facts out of sight. As usual, the terms were tightly drawn, which means it had to be done their way, not mine. In other circumstances this would be called stacking the deck, a manipulation with which Dean is all too familiar (p.136), but would not stoop to himself. I was challenged to prove that people born under Aries tend to be assertive, that Taureans tend to be practical, and so on. Dean is addicted to single traits, which allow for tidiness. Thank you, we don't want to hear about Arians who are assertive and practical, or Taureans who are practical and assertive.
Anyone familiar with psychological testing will realise this proposal was no walkover, particularly because any positive results would be promptly rejected on the grounds of self-attribution. What self-attribution means is that if Aries people are assertive, it may be because they have read in astrology books that they are supposed to be like that.
Psychologists take this possibility very seriously, and for those who set tests for astrologers it becomes a convenient way of dismissing positive results. In his own work, psychologist David Nias controlled for self-attribution by testing children too young to read astrology, and officers of the Salvation Army - a group who had been found to possess surprisingly little sun sign knowledge.
So to accept this challenge I would have to seek out astrological 'virgins', and visualised an expedition to the rain forests, whose natives have been deprived of Linda Goodman all these years. (Just my luck, after a three day trek, to stumble over a very damp copy of her book.) In whatever way it was tackled, this was a major project. The public may imagine that astrologers have unlimited resources with which to prove their case, but that is completely untrue. It is virtually impossible for astrologers to produce evidence of the right academic calibre, because the mantra among scientists is that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. An assault on this Everest of excellence would come down to money, one way or another. For one thing, most astrologers are too busy teaching or working with clients to find the time for an exercise from which there would no financial return, and perhaps no other sort of return either.
One of the Dean team, Ivan Kelly, has waspishly remarked that even if the money were available, astrologers would not know what to do with it. He has opined: '... astrologers generally have no training in how to conduct or evaluate research and therefore could not do it even if they had the funding.' Presumably Kelly might have the funding, but not the training, to fix his teeth and his central heating, and does what astrologers would do, namely pay experts to do it for them.
David Nias collaborated with the late Hans Eysenck on the influential Astrology: Science or Superstition?, a book with Dean's acknowledged fingerprints on it. In this book they report the Dean-Mather challenge to the 'eminent and outspoken' astrologer and, on my disinclination to take the bait, gravely commented: “The astrologer who, for years, had been insisting that sun signs were valid was unable to furnish any evidence to support what he believed to be true.”
I did not put pistol to head, but this verdict by two distinguished psychologists seemed inexplicably unfair, because of all people they were familiar with the problems of validation. Particularly I could not understand why they should downplay the complexity of the task. They wrote: “All he had to do was to demonstrate that the signs as traditionally conceived contain an element of truth...” That little word 'all' set the arteries pulsing. All he had to do was push a wheelbarrow on a tightrope across Niagara, while playing Auld Lang Syne on the bagpipes. Twenty years later, and pondering this present contribution, I wondered if they would stand by what they had written, and contacted Nias, to see if he might have second thoughts.
Nias admitted: “We could have worded this section better. Being practical, what we could have said was: 'All you needed to do was to convince an already funded researcher that it was worth testing the hypothesis about Aries, etc. Psychology students carry out projects and many would love to do something interesting like this (and to have an outside co-supervisor). With a library search, they would be able to find standardised tests, or at least test items, concerned with assertiveness, etc (they are usually given funds to cover the cost of tests, travel, etc).'”
He added: “The study would need to control for self-attribution; indeed this would be part of the challenge.”
Not quite so simple then! Of course if they had actually taken that line in print it would have somewhat blunted the dramatic effect. On reflection I think they were so grateful for the unstinting (if not disinterested) help given to them by Dean, that they were reluctant to rain on his bonfire.
Before those eager, ready-funded, psychology students descend on the Salvation Army, to separate the assertive from the practical, they should be warned that to produce a result in support of a discredited belief may not exactly please their mentors.
Generous, Extravert Leos
In several places the 'researchers' contribution conveys the suggestion that if astrology works it must be easy to demonstrate, therefore the lack of evidence must speak for itself. If Leos are generous, it must be possible to test for it, say by analysing the tips given in restaurants (p.128). Really? Dean knows full well that even if the practicalities of this experiment could be worked out (a doubtful prospect considering all the variables) a positive result would be instantly discounted, on the grounds of self-attribution. In other words, generous Leos plunge more deeply into their wallets because of some astrologer they read somewhere.
There may be some evidence to suggest that self-attribution exists, at least in limited test situations. But it is generally agreed that it must be tiny within the total context of genetics, the hormonal climate in the womb, and early childhood influences. There is also the possibility that if Leos become more generous after reading about their sign, it might be that astrology has merely helped them to adjust their self-image in the direction of their true personality. I suspect this alone makes the self-attribution theory impossible to test, but it remains the last resort of the debunkers, and the team confirmed to me that for the tipping experiment to be credible, the tippers must have no knowledge of their sun sign.
There must be easy ways to sort out those children and Salvationists whom the head waiter is always glad to see, but I confess I would not know where to start. And there is always a killer card to be played. Children may not read the horoscope page but mummy does, and she influences her children. As for the Salvation Army, they might have started taking more interest in their sun sign after they were involved in the psychological research.
We are left with the question, is this suggestion thrown out by Dean genuine or tongue-in-the-cheek?
Again, we learn that these assiduous researchers “might test the charts of extraverts to see if they differ from introverts (p.130).” Really? We know where the charts come from, but how do you find your extraverts or introverts? Suppose you thought you had devised a test to winkle out the introverts from the general population, and then compared the results with their sun signs, or whatever, and suppose there was no correlation. Would that be a test of astrology, another failure of this absurd pseudoscience, or might it rather be a test of the authenticity of the yardstick you had applied?
Do extraverts/introverts truly exist as categories? In The Penguin Dictionary of Psychology we read: “Originally the dimension was entertained as reflecting two unitary personality types which were presumed opposites of each other. Today most theorists doubt that either exists as a singular type ... it seems unlikely that the two poles can be validly regarded as opposites since many persons exhibit aspects of both ...”
Indeed, Jung (who originally proposed this dimension) described Gandhi as an introvert in his asceticism, and an extravert in his politics, so what category would Gandhi's birth chart fall into? Nias volunteered the opinion that Laurence Olivier was an introvert in his personal life, which he had an opportunity to observe, but an extravert in his acting. Instead of trying to apply some external yardstick, why not evaluate the astrological in its own terms, something hardly ever done. We can be extravert where Mars and Jupiter are placed in our chart, and introvert where Saturn and Neptune are placed. Better yet, why not just say we can be Martian where our Mars is found, Neptunian where our Neptune is found, and leave it at that?
Some psychologists do maintain that the dimension shows up in surveys of large groups, but this raises questions concerning the circular nature of the testing procedures, which it would be tedious to discuss here. Sufficient is it to indicate that there are enough reasons to refute any suggestion that such tests are easy. Either the sceptics are aware of the difficulties or they are not. If they are not, they should be. If they are, it is reprehensible to suggest that here might be a legitimate test of astrology.
Every Picture Tells a Story
Dean has a bloodhound's nose for artifacts. He tells us that the supposed astrological effects disappeared when the artifacts were controlled (p.145). Well, equally, objections to astrology are apt to disappear when you get rid of the artifacts. Or perhaps, rather than artifact, I mean artifice.
Astrologers have a wide range of factors on which they can call, some of them discretional. Not an exactly breathtaking statement, and one to which you can forgivably respond with 'so what?'. But Dean will not let you get off so lightly. As everybody in the black arts of persuasion knows, one picture is worth a thousand words. So he draws a picture, and many a heart must have sunk at the image of the impossibly crowded 'superchart' (p.162).
The first thing to point out is that the majority of astrologers never use some of the factors which Dean has jammed into the circle. Secondly, the illusion of unfathomable density arises from the simple stratagem of compressing the figure into the smallest compass compatible with legibility. It would seem less populated if it were drawn on a football pitch, or indeed, as would be appropriate in this case, on a sheet of paper the size of the solar system.
Dean's superchart first appeared in Recent Advances and its reproduction here must indicate how highly he regards its message. It will helpfully serve as a continuing icon for the type of criticism he represents, with its desire to impose a spurious simplicity on essentially complex phenomena. In any other science such a demand would be instantly recognised as absurd. One could draw a page-size human outline, and decorate it with all the anatomical names, right down to the smallest details, plus the chemical equations for all the processes taking place in the body, and so on. The result would be total confusion, and on that account presumably a salutary deterrent to any book-browser who might have considered taking a misguided interest in how the body works. Yet anatomy survives, physiology survives, medicine survives!
Coming closer to home, the sky is increasingly crammed with celestial objects, but astronomers are not despairing.
So we find ourselves here mired in the fallacy of the double standard, a favourite recourse of the debunkers. Incredibly, Dean portrays astrologers as being in a uniquely impossible situation, given the limitations of the brain to process information (p.161). What can one say, except that if workers in other fields felt they were faced with an irreducible complexity, there would be nothing for it but to go home and suck their thumb. Any student of the horoscope knows there are ways to work round it methodically, so if you are interested in marriage indications, perhaps, you look at one set of factors, or in the case of the career another set of factors, and so on. And there are computer programs to help.
The disturbing element is that Dean himself took a course in astrology, that he himself read charts professionally, and that he himself taught the subject. How come, if the difficulties of handling the chart's bits and pieces are insuperable?
Dean having detailed the awesome consequences for astrologers of the limitations of their short-term memory (a handicap which seems to have escaped them, unless like myself they are in the springtime of senility), Garry Phillipson, as interlocutor, rightly suggests that the situation could not be unique to astrology. I dare say he was inviting a comparison with other fields where the mobilisation of information is crucial. But at this point Dean performs a deft non sequitur. He breaks the thread of the argument, switching it away from facts, and science, in the direction of aesthetic judgment, and the arts. Perhaps he might be induced to return to his theme and explain how other sciences manage to cope with the information overload, and why astrology is different.
Another interesting diagram (p.129) purports to clarify the subjective and objective strands in astrology, which are put on two separate axes as if they are in collision, although Phillipson tactfully suggests that many astrologers would view astrology as connecting both (p.128).
As the eye enters this diagram it encounters Santa Claus (i.e. a false belief fit only for children), and phrenology (i.e. a discredited belief), and therefore whatever integrity might attach to the subjective is immediately compromised. Then there comes a little guilt by association, whereby religion and the spiritual are aligned with the subjective (i.e. Santa and bumps).
Dean goes on to say there is one kind of astrology which does not need to be true, and another kind which needs to be true. The problem for him lies in that fuzzy word 'true'. By bringing in the concepts of subjective/objective Dean seems to rule out the possibility that the subjective might also be true, and conversely that the objective might be untrue, as for example when measurements are wrong, or the wrong yardstick is used.
If you plough through various reference works you find different definitions of objective and subjective, depending on whether it is philosophy, logic, or the everyday idiom. I like the definitions given by Ray Kurzweil, said to be the world's leading authority on artificial intelligence. Objective is the experience of an entity as observed by another entity, or measuring apparatus; while subjective is the experience of an entity as experienced by the entity.
Kurzweil points out that light measured at a wavelength of 0.000075 centimetres is experienced as red, but change the wavelength to 0.000035 centimetres and the experience is called violet. For him subjective has no pejorative associations, and the experience of diving into a lake, erotic feelings, listening to music, are genuine if incommunicable realities.
Is the red of the traffic light unreal, because subjective? Is the pain of toothache less real than the decayed tooth? Considering the central place of the subjective in our life, it would be strange if astrology were not intimately bound up with it. But for Dean the subjective element in astrology comes down to clients accepting statements regardless of whether they are 'correct', or of it giving a sense of purpose and meaning regardless of the truth. He devalues the currency.
On the other hand for him objective astrology is merely about the problems of validation, the nuts and bolts, the techniques, the tests, and so on. All proper considerations, of course, but overlooking the point that important to astrology is its claim to deal with the objective world, with concrete events.
Why should Dean introduce the objective/subjective dimension into what is really a discussion about truth and untruth? As a philosophical dictionary puts it: “...because objective truth is supposed to carry undeniable persuasive force, exaggerated claims of objectivity have often been used as tools of intellectual and social oppression.”
The Hermeneutic Circle
It would perhaps be doing Dean a great injustice to picture him, or his colleagues, constantly scheming to pull the mat out from under the astrologers, using every trick in the book. Setting aside his few admitted lapses, a process is at work within both sceptics and believers whereby they tend to notice those facts and arguments which suit their case, and pass over inconvenient facts and arguments.
This has been called the hermeneutic circle, a self-reinforcing process in which we are all to some extent trapped. Alfred Adler called it 'teleological apperception', meaning that when we have an end in view, a commitment to some purpose, we unconsciously select what suits that purpose. Truth and objectivity become a secondary consideration, and we may unwittingly mislead others, as well as ourselves.
It follows that if that purpose is strong enough, perhaps bordering on the fanatical, everything that might impede it is likely to be pushed unceremoniously aside, while at the same time we are in danger of inflating the significance of 'friendly' data.
In this context it seems pertinent to examine the credentials of the Year Zero researchers (p.125). Three of the five started out as astrologers, but turned their backs on it when it failed to measure up to the tests they devised. It should be pointed out that on this admission they had already shown themselves capable of spectacular misjudgment, bearing in mind that when they embraced astrology scientific hostility was just as fierce as it is today. Moreover, the busy astrological activity that followed must have been a cascade of incidental errors and self-deceptions.
In the annals of apostasy it is not uncommon to find that when suitors discover their beloved is a whore, the result is a particularly rabid misogyny. Gauquelin was another of the disaffected. Those who have seen the light marvel that the other poor dupes persist in their illusions, and have a mission to save them.
Since they can hardly afford to be wrong twice, they savage any vestige of evidence that might suggest they were mistaken in the first place, and here a pertinent example is Dean's wildly improbable assertion that any positive Gauquelin results must have been caused by parents fiddling an auspicious time of birth for their offspring (p.144). One of his colleagues, Suitbert Ertel, has already cast doubt on Dean's elaborate thesis, to put it mildly. But my curiosity is why anyone should think it necessary to snatch the last bit of credibility from Gauquelin, who was no friend of astrology, and whose work has already become so muddied as to be no longer of use either to astrologers or their detractors. As Richard Dawkins remarked, when shown the Gauquelin data, more robust statistics would be required before he could believe in planetary influences. So why the overkill?
I have every sympathy for the crisis of credibility in which these members of the Dean team found themselves, because I have been there myself. There came a point in my own life, measured more in years than months, where astrology was not doing what I expected it to do. These are the worst of times: you feel betrayed, plunge into depression, discover the virtues of the old malt.
The main difference between me and the deserting trio must have been one of temperament. Some people feel more secure in their judgment than others, and for my part I was troubled by the suspicion that the defect might be mine, rather than belong to astrology. I began to ask myself, if the heavens are not saying what I think they should be saying, what are they saying? If they are not answering my questions, maybe they have the answers to questions I do not yet have the wit to ask? When the charts became opaque, I rubbed my eyes and looked again. If you are receptive in this way, astrology will continually astonish you. Our reality is not all it seems.
But for the Dean trio this kind of fundamental reappraisal seemed not to be an option, and their 'beautiful world of astrology began to collapse.' Their uncompromising loyalty was to science (AD 2000). As an early convert to General Semantics, I parenthesise the date, because if history is anything to go by, science AD 2500 will be very, very different. Such changes as are on the horizon might have been accelerated by these researchers, given their knowledge both of science and astrology, and they might yet regret that their contribution was in the field of demolition rather than construction.
Did the tests they imposed on their beloved astrology really stand up to scrutiny, or was their defection premature? Historically, it would be interesting to know where the break point came. I have examined all the so-called objective tests, like those in Recent Advances, and in my judgment they are all paper tigers, a conclusion I am prepared to defend if called upon. These are important questions for all those who believe, or might be prepared to believe, in this vital subject, and who in addition value integrity of intellect.
What has been said above may explain both the feebleness of the arguments marshalled by the researchers in Year Zero, and the satisfaction with which they are put forward.
For example: “When Smit tested the main predictive techniques on people who had died an accidental death (nothing ambiguous here), the claims in astrology books could not be confirmed” (p.126).
Unfortunately Smit's studies have never been published, nor have his data, so checking this claim is impossible. There is no reason to doubt its veracity, except to point out that if the boot was on the other foot Dean would dismiss this piece of uncorroborated evidence without apology. Smit did lecture on his results to Australian groups, but his thesis did not find ready acceptance.
Smit was commendably candid when I asked for details. From the technical standpoint, the problem was that he was relying mostly on a single chart factor, the ascendant, which depends on the accuracy of the hour and minute of birth. He insists that he took great care over accuracy, and indeed his conscientiousness here is evident. However there is an ever-present problem involving the true time of birth, cosmically speaking. The Gauquelin results would be compatible with a time earlier than the traditional 'first cry', the vagitus, when the appropriate planets would be on the meridian and horizon, rather than some degrees past. (When I suggested this possibility to Gauquelin he became agitated.)
Smit's conclusions conflict with those of Charles Carter, in his day the doyen of British astrologers, who wrote an entire book on the astrology of accidents. It contains the primary data so that others can investigate for themselves. Carter believed his findings supported astrology, and one must wonder why Smit's opinion should be given precedence. The answer, of course, is that Smit was expressing the anti-astrology view.
Again: 'When Mather used the data for 900 major earthquakes to test the claim that they tended to occur when Uranus was on the MC or IC, the claim could not be confirmed (95 earthquakes fitted but so did 91 out of the 900 non-earthquakes) (p.125)'. Thrown out casually like this, as if there were no room for dissent, such a statement may sound crushing, but like much else in this dissertation it will not bear scrutiny.
The claim being tested, which the ordinary reader might suppose to be a vital plank of astrology's platform, did not in fact emanate from astrology at all, but from a physicist, and was published in the respected scientific journal Nature. Long before the discovery of Uranus astrologers and other observers of nature had their own ideas about the cosmic correspondences of earthquakes and similar phenomena. Thus we find Aristotle recording that 'it sometimes happens that there is an earthquake about the eclipses of the moon.' A notable modern astrologer, A J Pearce, wrote a chapter on 'Earthquakes and Volcanic Eruptions' but makes only passing references to Uranus.
The way it is described (hands up those readers who know about this emsee and eyesee stuff) could have been more illuminating. The planets are carried around the sky once a day, by earth rotation, and like the sun they reach a 'noon' and 'midnight' point. Therefore they all pass over the local meridian twice a day, including Uranus, which means that both our breakfast and supper might be interrupted by subterranean rumbling.
(Did readers wonder about 'non-earthquakes' and what it might be like to experience one? Uranus was making its upper meridian passage when the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, an obvious example of a non-earthquake.)
'Critical Thinking Skills'
Dean repeatedly urges astrologers to acquire critical thinking skills. “They need to be aware of the errors of reasoning to which they seem so abundantly prone” (p.158). “Might astrology be just a figment of our poor reasoning skills?” (p.134). But he can offer light to those in darkness: “Fortunately, anyone can have an informed critical mind” (p.136).
We are told that what is basically wrong with those who think differently from our experts could be corrected by “an improvement in their general education” (p.158).
On a bad day, I would describe that as insulting, patronising and condescending. It seems to this observer of the Dean scene that he may be reaching a point in his crusade which other professional sceptics have already reached. They see no reason to engage in dialogue any more, because they just want to shout 'You're all idiots, go away!'
Dean may no longer care what astrologers think and feel, but is persevering because of the 'floating voters', inquirers who might well be drawn to Year Zero. There is no better deterrent than to warn these innocents that they are in danger of getting involved with a half-educated bunch, strangers to reason, every one.
We here enter not so much the land of spin, as smear. You will understand what is happening if you keep in mind that Dean is not talking to astrologers, but to possible converts.
So here comes the empty posturing. Where, he cries, do astrological texts mention critical thinking? After all, books on psychology deal with it, and psychology is close to astrology (p.159). Well, one might pardonably expect books on thinking to deal with thinking. But is it also indispensable for books on astronomy, another close cousin of astrology? Science books seem to assume that readers have brought along their thinking skills, ready honed. Books of history and biography, subjects also interwoven with the astrological, do not begin with a crash course on critical thinking either.
Mysteriously, astrology emerges as the lone exception. How outrageous that “... none of the hundreds of introductory astrology texts examined by us over the years give any hint that critical thinking even exists, even though it could hardly be more relevant to their implied invitation to test astrology for yourself” (p.159).
What on earth is going on here? Why all this indignant snorting? Are these five academics really asserting that every beginners' book, on whatever subject, is expected to be prefaced by a dose of Dean's didactics? No, they're not. All is not quite what it seems. This is a coded message, the equivalent of a government health warning. Dean would dearly love to put a sticker on every book on astrology, saying that if you intend to read this rubbish you need your head examined. Since that might be a little too pugnacious, the next best resort is to imply that if you are opening any astrology book your reasoning faculty is self-evidently in need of training, but you'll be lucky to find the instructions enclosed.
All this is being retailed to achieve an effect, and the hoped-for effect is that readers will feel that astrology is fundamentally flawed because its practitioners are incapable of elementary logic. The poor dears have never learnt to think straight, you see, so be careful, it might be contagious.
Needless to say, anyone rash enough to be patronising about their superiority in this department runs the risk of having their own skills put under the microscope. I should be reluctant to recommend Dean's arguments as models of critical thinking, and it is important to ask why this stern advocate departs so readily from the canons of clarity. And then the thought intrudes again - maybe it is not so much reasoned argument as conjurers' patter?
In his book The Case for Astrology John Anthony West dubs Dean 'a master of the inappropriate analogy'. He quotes the master thus: 'Astrologers argue that signs and aspects cannot be studied in isolation (which is like arguing that overeating won't make you fat), and that what matters is the birth chart as a whole.'
That was in 1988, but there are no signs of repentance, and the latest exposition contains other strange similes: “... like mechanics who claim that intuition allows successful repairs to cars despite having no workshop manuals” (p.137); “... like claiming that rhubarb explains why airplanes fly” (p.160); “... like asking for a theory to explain flying elephants” (p.160); “... like having a clock that might or might not be working, and trying to tell the time from just a few of its countless cogwheels” (p.163).
Or, choicely: “People do not travel to Heathrow Airport on the off-chance that somebody will suddenly discover aeroplanes” (p.148).
These Deanisms might seem innocuous, but students of critical thinking will recognise the classic fallacy of the red herring. By dropping some pathetically obvious point into the discussion (well, of course eating makes you fat!) the reader is nudged towards accepting the rest.
Now Dean is knowledgeable on the various effects that might produce false conclusions, and indeed lists no less than 15 of them (p.136). And a fascinating lot they are, as he himself enthuses. He goes on: “For example, the Dr Fox effect involves blinding you with style and jargon rather than content (we just did exactly that)”. There's nothing like telling the customers when they are being led by the nose! The candour disarms them for what's next.
When it comes to red herrings, therefore, the least agreeable verdict would be that he knows what he is doing. Is it plausible that someone who is fascinated by such persuasion ploys, and has made a collection of them, should not also be a connoisseur of the dozens of reasoning fallacies that have been identified, starting in classical times? Would this not be the inescapable obverse of correct thinking?
Lists of fallacies can be found online. One, explaining 35 such fallacies, begins: “If you have been exposed to how magicians work you may be familiar with sleight, feint, misdirection or deception.”
Is the following a serious point, or just muddled, or is it merely patter? Dean says of his superchart that if interpreting it for a client, and allowing 20 words per item, 'the result would be larger than the London or New York telephone directory (all you need is one client and you have enough work for the rest of your life, forecasts extra).'
Of course the astrologer, without any help, might divine that his client may not wish to read the London telephone directory, and settle for something less taxing. But here Dean is trying to put astrologers in the most grotesquely caricatured situation he can find. I would seriously like the researchers to advise me whether this is the fallacy of the straw man, or a reductio ad absurdum, or a mixture of both.
I lost patience with another section, where the researchers make fun of Astrology World (p.151). If you compose a similar critique of Science World you will broadly see what I mean. If science is so good, why are there wars, famine, crime, illness, accidents, and so forth? To paraphrase: 'Bearing in mind that science has had two thousand years to get it right, can we conclude that it really does deliver?'
This is our old friend the double standard. Why, we even get the argumentum ad misericordiam, or the appeal to pity. We are invited to condole with the unfortunate Smit, who paid a high price for his conversion to the truth (p.126), and to commiserate over the wasted 25 years of fruitless research, which at least produced some useful negative findings, comparable with 'eating lettuce does not send you mad' (p.153).
Before anybody passes round the collection plate, let us ponder whether those years of research were not after all a great success. Dean affects disappointment that no positive results were forthcoming, but all the evidence suggests the contrary. They were not trying to prove astrology, but disprove it, and their efforts were directed to that end. Understandably, if you have publicly turned your back on astrology, if you have announced that “astrology can be largely explained by intuition, gullibility and universal validity” (Dean, Recent Advances 1977, p 15) you are unlikely to be looking for the positive results which would undermine your own new-found position. As Aristotle might have said (p.126), who do you think you're kidding.
Dean Sights a White Crow
William James said that finding a single white crow would destroy the law that all crows are black, and Dean accordingly asks where is astrology's white crow (p.154). Which invites speculation about what he would do if he saw one. In fact one bobs up in his book Recent Advances, where he demonstrates his ornithological sensitivities. He blasts it with both barrels.
Surveying the results of blind trials associated with Vernon Clark and others (they are mentioned in Year Zero) he reports that the results favour astrology, with a high level of significance. Then comes the first cartridge. Dean unblushingly shifts the ground from significance to utility, saying that the extreme significance of 64% against the expected 50% was only 'marginally useful', and adds (curiously for one who has just committed the error) that it is important not to confuse significance with utility. Nor indeed utility with significance.
In other words, whether the creature was black or white, here was nothing to crow about. Yet there must be many situations where a margin of 14% over the odds would be considered very useful indeed, for instance in investing or bookmaking.
What percentages of this order might represent in terms of astrological performance is hard to estimate. What is certain is that the trials may not have been a fair test of astrology (without the participants themselves realising it) and that criteria better suited to its subject matter could have produced more striking results. One marvels at the confidence with which the astrologers set about these tests, recalling the enthusiasm for Christmas imputed to another feathered friend. It is no surprise how few volunteer for such experiments, because the more knowing shy away from having to jump through hoops which might have been chosen arbitrarily. Imposing criteria on the astrological may be no more than a test of the criteria.
One test involved matching ten birth charts with ten occupations and other scraps of information. In another, astrologers were given ten pairs of charts and invited to say which of the pair fitted the case history. An extraordinary limitation should be noted, in that the biographical data provided for the subjects in both these tests was deliberately brief, as if this conferred some extra virtue on the exercise. But why create that handicap? It would be interesting to discover whether the astrologers would have reached a better score if they were furnished with as much information about the subjects as possible, allowing them to pick out what they deemed to be diagnostic. Often it is the details, or rather the co-occurrence of linked details, which give the clue.
Nor is there any reason why astrologers taking part in such exercises should not also be provided with the results of standard psychological tests, of which some might be more suitable to astrology's subject matter than others. Projective tests, as when the subject is asked to describe what is happening in an ambiguous picture, would perhaps enable the astrologer to glimpse the world through the subject's eyes, and thus identify the appropriate birth chart. Experiments need to be made along these lines, pilot studies conducted, to determine the optimum conditions under which the astrological can reveal itself.
The third Vernon Clark type test, discussed by Dean in the same place, proved negative. It involved trying to separate the charts of highly gifted children from children who were severely retarded. Behind such tests lies an unfounded assumption of considerable proportions, namely that the planets can be blamed for everything, from mental retardation to suicide. The existence of a correlation between the cosmic and the terrestrial does not imply that it is absolute. There is no reason to suppose that the astrological has the playing field all to itself: there are doubtless other factors capable of modifying or frustrating it, or introducing new elements altogether.
This perspective is inadvertently supported by Dean when he considers under what conditions astrology, as distinct from non-astrological influences, could be judged to 'work' (p.132). He says that before effects can be held to be astrological, alternative explanations must be ruled out. The inescapable corollary, which he does not mention, is that when astrology seems to fail, then non-astrological influences can legitimately be ruled in.
An appropriate conceptual model might be the existence of a matrix which constantly works to shape what is happening within it. It seeks to impose itself where it can, and to the degree it can, but sometimes the material is resistant, insufficient or imperfect. Or the cosmos could be said to seek vehicles of expression, but cannot be held responsible for the defects of the vehicle. If the black keys are missing from the piano, you can't blame Mozart for the performance.
The correlation between the cosmic and the terrestrial is not absolute, and the reason is easy to see. To file away your chart with your name on it may be convenient, but it perhaps obscures the fact that this chart does not belong to you. On the contrary, you belong to it. That is to say, it represents a time and place where a wide range of entities were coming into being, and many different activities were happening. Humans were being born, yes, but also alley cats and dung beetles. And not only living things, but purely physical entities, along with institutions, ideas, and even questions -- as in the horary concept.
From this it is clear that the language of the cosmos is not yet cast in terms of human nature, but something else, plastic enough to be readily adapted to alley cat nature, dung beetle nature, horary nature, and so forth. Equally it must be able to adapt itself both to gifted and retarded humans, without losing its essence. A challenge facing astrology is to understand this language in its own terms, before it has been distorted by expression through any particular vehicle.
Dean's second barrel aimed at the Vernon Clark results invoked a classical fallacy from the ‘how not to’ section of the Critical Thinking Skills manual. This is known as the false dilemma, or fallacy of false alternatives. It is the use of the word 'or' that always sounds the alarm, because there may be other possibilities than the two alternatives on offer. The question Dean asks is, when somebody gets the answers right in such tests, is it (a) astrology, or (b) intuition? That seems to rule out astrology plus intuition.
Dean states: “Thus in Clark's double-blind trial, Lee deliberately applied intuition and after spending only 2 minutes on each chart got 7 out of 10 right. In Astrology Now's test the two highest scoring astrologers (one a student, the other a professional) had studied astrology for only two years and both indicated that intuition played a part in their judgement.”
Dean concludes: “...it is clear that the significant blind trials have not demonstrated that astrology works but only that astrologers work. Hence to adequately test astrology the participation of the astrologer must be eliminated.”
Keen students of critical thinking may wonder whether Dean has not compounded a classical fallacy with a classical semantic trap, namely that the same word may mean different things to different people. Did Dean on the one hand, and the participants on the other hand, understand the same thing by 'intuition'? Early in Recent Advances Dean says that for convenience 'intuition' implies ESP and psychic ability, and he defines intuition as 'knowing' other than through the senses. In effect he was asking if they had used either astrology or clairvoyance. But whatever he may or may not find convenient, his definition was idiosyncratic. Webster's definition reflects the general view, namely that intuition is the “immediate apprehension of a truth, or supposed truth, in the absence of conscious rational processes.”
The astrologer (and for that matter the physician, entrepreneur, or poker player) may get a 'feel' for a new problem on the basis of experience, or a recognition of analogous situations, but it is hardly extrasensory.
If Lee was using pure clairvoyance he could have scored seven out of ten by being given just the bare birth data, minus the charts. On the other hand, if it was the erected charts, perused however casually, that made the difference, then it was astrology that made the difference. Perhaps he should have been invited to say why he reached his conclusions, because if he was following textbook precepts, those conclusions would have to be given higher status than mere guesswork.
To everybody's relief, Dean tells us that thanks to intuition we don't need 'formal arguments' to decide between strawberry and vanilla ice cream (p.137). We don't need intuition either, because we may have hated vanilla ever since it made us sick. But then he adds a telling comment, namely that their convenience in daily life “does not alter the fact that intuitions are unreliable.” But intuitions cannot be intrinsically unreliable if they served Lee well when scanning his charts. They may be unreliable, certainly, but no more wildly so than the conclusions based on what we are pleased to call logic. He argues that intuition is unreliable because it is not self-verifying, but then neither is reason self-verifying, unless it becomes dangerously locked into a manic circle where A proves B, B proves C, and C proves A.
Dean seems unable to distinguish between intuition and healthy human judgment, which is what juries use in deciding where the balance of the evidence lies, or athletes in estimating distance and timing. Judgment has more force than a mere hunch, and it is superior to reason, since it can discriminate between differently reasoned arguments, such as those presented by the prosecution and defence. Judgment may be primarily what astrologers use in weighing various factors against others, and in this they are no different from experts in other fields. Give me mature judgment, developed by experience of the world, and you can keep your 'critical thinking skills'. It can be wrong, and often is, but it's the best hope we have.
Why the impasse?
Readers who have not been privileged over the years to witness the cuts, thrusts, and parries between astrologers and their critics may well wonder why the truth is not been established by now, one way or the other. It is a mess, and the responsibility for it is divided pretty equally between both camps. The main obstacle is the existence of different agendas, of vested interests, but there is no difficulty in explaining to impartial outsiders why the truth has been so elusive.
The handle whereby you take hold of a problem determines the outcome. The door you go in by is the same door you come out. Remember the travellers in Wales who stopped in a village to ask one of the locals the way to Llanyblodwel (or was it Trefeglwy)? He pulled deeply on his pipe. 'I wouldn't start from here.' Astrologers tend to favour one point of departure, the sceptics another. Neither is intrinsically right or wrong, but each will inevitably arrive at a different conclusion.
There are two optional imperatives any inquiry can follow - one is isolate, the other connect. It is all a question of the relationship between parts and wholes. Every phenomenon, whatever you can think of, is simultaneously both a part and a whole. Everything is included in something more comprehensive, in a context. And meaning is always a matter of context. When Lady Macbeth washes her hands, it's not like when you and I wash our hands. When Othello visits the wife he imagines to be unfaithful, and snuffs out the light, it's not because he is trying to save candles.
Years ago Dean wrote that a watch could only be understood by taking it to pieces, and in this approach he echoed a recurring theme in many scientific endeavours, namely that in productive research parts must be isolated for study. On the other hand, if you want to understand the function of a cog, rather than its merely physical attributes, you have to put it back in the watch, and see how it relates to the rest of the mechanism. The cog needs the context of the watch, the watch needs the context of timekeeping, and timekeeping needs the context of the solar system.
It happens that nowadays physics is leaning very much towards the 'connect' mode, and this tendency may eventually work through to astrology, but it will become a different astrology. The universe is increasingly viewed by scientists as a totally interrelated and interacting whole, a development which is entirely congenial to the data of astrology.
'Where is the effect, show me the effect' chants Dean. He demands an isolated part, which bereft of its connections may be meaningless, like a kidney left forlornly on the mortuary slab. Some things are too big to see, which may explain why Dean sees astrology nowhere, but somebody like myself sees it everywhere. The reason is that for me the pieces of the jigsaw have no relevance until they are put into the jigsaw - and it's a big jigsaw!
Dean professes not to hold with this new-fangled thinking: “Even if science did turn out to be based on say interconnectedness, astrologers have not explained how this would support the idea that the heavens reflect what happens on Earth, let alone such ideas as Leos being generous. It is like saying astrology involves books, cooking involves books, therefore cooking makes astrology more plausible” (p.159).
Musing on this peculiar paragraph, I was finally overcome with a sense of the futility of any attempt to make any kind of rational response. For me it was the final straw, where I felt I could not take this paragon of clear thinking seriously any more ... but imagined him just smiling quietly.
© Dennis Elwell, 2001
About the Author:
Teaching himself the astrological basics as a teenager, over 50 years ago - when few good books were available - at 23 Dennis Elwell began contributing regularly to American Astrology. This magazine did much to popularise the subject in the United States, and was a platform for the leading astrologers of the day. The association continued for twenty years. He began lecturing to astrologers worldwide in 1963, gaining a reputation as an original thinker and stimulating speaker. For most of his working life he was a newspaperman in his home town of Stourbridge, England, but his guiding passion throughout has been the rehabilitation of astrology, and he was concerned to follow up any clue that might lead to insights into its baffling subject matter. The trail led to an interest in science on the one hand, and on the other to occultists like Gurdjieff and Rudolf Steiner. In recent years, realising its awesome potential, he has been saying to those who imagine that astrology is for amusement only: 'Think again, all knowledge confers an advantage, and this material is positively dangerous.' The author enjoys teaching, and has tutored his own correspondence course in advanced concepts and techniques.
In 1987 Unwin Hyman published his first book, Cosmic Loom. This was followed by a German edition. In 1999 the Urania Trust issued an enlarged and revised version.