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Prejudice in Astrological Research

By Mike Harding D.F.Astrol.S., Adv.Dip. Ext. Psych., UKCP reg.

This article originally appeared in Correlation, Vol 19(1).  For more details on this magazine (the 'Journal of Research in Astrology'), contact the Astrological Association (see 'Contacts' page).  Many thanks to Mike for permission to reproduce it here.

It can be suggested that one the main problems facing the astrologer is the attitude of many scientists towards the subject.  The claim can be made that  the scientific world view is so different from that of the astrologer, that science simply cannot engage with the astrological model at all.  Thus science’s dismissal of astrology stems, essentially, from its inability to understand and, even worse, its inability to recognise that it has failed to understand, what the astrologer is talking about. Even attempts to ask the astrologer, in effect, to set up a situation which could be tested, is to ignore that, nevertheless, it will be tested according to the paradigm of science. After all, it is from science that the main concept of testing emerges.  Other ways of thinking - and testing - are not considered.  In this article I would like to present an overview of  common scientific attitudes, and then look with a little more detail at some particular research examples. We should start with an organisation which claims to represent mainstream scientific attitudes, the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims for the Paranormal, (CSICOP). Although we shall not spend time on this, we should not overlook the fact that to designate a certain phenomenon ‘paranormal’, prior to its investigation,  is to proceed from the prejudiced position of normative assumptions.

CSICOP and the Guardians of Society

In many respects CSICOP came into being because of the Gauquelins’ pro-astrology findings. It publishes a regular journal, the Skeptical Inquirer, which is not sceptical at all, but provocatively hostile to non-orthodox opinion, and thus is not scientific in practice.  However, if it were sceptical, that is, if it adhered to the sceptical concept that, in the final analysis,   true knowledge of something is impossible, it would find its position even more confusing. As we shall see, whatever CSICOP’s position ultimately becomes,  its attitude is as political as it is abusive.  People who believe in, or practice  astrology and alternative  therapies, or hold non-conventional ideas  are  'airheads',  'con-artists',  'crooks', 'fraudsters'   and so on. 'Credulous' and 'misguided'  seem to be the least insulting epithets for those who hold such differing beliefs.  Overlooking the intemperate language, we should be clear of one thing: many scientists and others connected to CSICOP believe, as we shall see,  that astrology is dangerous, first to science, then to the fabric of society. Furthermore,  many see it as their duty to discredit  such alternate views. This may have the ring of a religion to it. If so, then CSICOP’s anathema is antiscience.

The term 'antiscience' appears to be applied by many of the Skeptical Inquirer's contributors, and appears to be applied to anything that challenges the conservative view. However, a new phrase has crept into the Sceptical Inquirer's lexicon of  dangerous ideologies, and is frequently coupled with antiscience. That phrase  is left-wing. The  Skeptical Inquirer ran a series of articles over several of issues entitled Antiscience in Academia. In articles such as The Antiscientific Left[1] and Postmodernism and New Age Unreason[2] we learn that:

 

many left-wing intellectuals  have  turned against the legacy of the Enlightenment. And, up to now, scientists have largely ignored the left-wing antiscience polemics. Being pressed by important duties, they simply let the asses bray.[3]

The  'asses'  in question are those inspired by philosophers such as Heidegger, Derrida, Foucault and Rorty, against whom the humble scientist's duty is still of greater importance.  The same article also denounces the rise of 'feminist science' in America and makes the point that such thinking 'when not entirely vacuous, amounts to no more than an old-fashioned attempt to subordinate the findings of science to the demands  of an ideology'. Something, of course, a male CSICOP scientist would never dream of doing.  Now it would appear that the left wing are also getting themselves set up for what one CSICOP article called, enthusiastically, 'a bashing'[4]. For the astrologer, this is familiar territory.  

The  political divisions that are occurring now seem  to echo  those which took place in Europe during the 17th century.  Up to the middle of the 1600's the astrological world view was commonplace. The study of astrology formed part of  many degree courses, and astrological literacy extended to the common people -hence Shakespeare's consistent use of its vernacular- and it was this common appeal that led to its ultimate downfall. As Patrick Curry[5]  has shown, astrology fell because it became identified with radical politics. In an age of political  unrest, science became the refuge of the conservative and therein lay its power. Astrology was swept away as its popular pamphleteers  were harassed or prosecuted, and by the time the dust finally settled science had consolidated its ascendancy. Despite its tone and behaviour over the years, CSICOP sees itself as a bastion of rationalism set against the forces of left-wing anti-science, feminism, astrology, and everything else apparently set on destroying ‘the fabric of society’.  One doesn't  have  to  plumb  the  depth of postmodern textual analysis to offer the observation that, in painting  left-wing intellectuals as the enemy of the people,  CSICOP is also clearly illustrating its own  political  position.  It  would  seem  that, metaphorically at any rate, the usual list of suspects is being drawn up.

All of this filters down to a more popular level. Following the CSICOP line the Guardian, a frequent critic of the unconventional, has  often lumped astrology together with acupuncture, herbalism and much else besides as suitable targets for attack. In a typical Guardian article Pat Kane quoted  CSCIOP’s Paul Kurtz’s claim that:  

 

It’s  very  possible  we  are moving into a new Dark Ages... the values of the Enlightenment are under severe attack....fringe medicines are dangerous because they encourage a culture of anti-science.[6]

Kane pursues the CSICOP line by  claiming  that  alternative medicine 'can be judged by the company it keeps'  (astrology, etc.)  but fails to notice the part he plays in creating that company.  As we shall see below, this is similar to the parallels Dean draws between astrology and phrenology, without realising that it is he who is drawing them.   While  Kane's article is neither better  nor worse than many others in similar vein, it is infinitely more revealing. The revelation as to what  it is on about does not appear in the text, but  in the bold type that heads the article and announces that the author:  

 

Pat Kane dowses for the truth in the flood of ersatz science threatening to engulf British culture.[7]

For  once,  things are slightly clearer. Echoing CSICOP's fear for the demise of its world-view, it is British culture that is under attack. While this revelation should amuse those influenced by Derrida, who claims that what is  seen  to  be separate  from the main story often says more about the subject than anything else, it is also an echo of former times.  For the Guardian is right. The vast majority of their targets did not emerge from European shores. Astrology, in particular, with its roots  in Jewish  Cabalistic mysticism and  Babylonian star-lore is as mongrel and as foreign as they come. How natural to reach once more for the pejorative ersatz in an article dedicated to the  maintenance  of  cultural purity.

Whether it is Richard Dawkins[8], with his claim that belief in things like astrology results from some form of ‘mind virus’ that contaminates its host,  and who believes that anyone who disagrees with his evolutionary views is  ‘ignorant, stupid or insane’[9],   Lewis Wolpert[10] who believes some  gene is responsible for faulty beliefs (but does not question if his own beliefs might stem from faulty genetics), Daniell Dennett[11] who likens non-scientific beliefs to dangerous  animals that ‘may have to be caged’, there is a terrible fear being expressed.  A fear which is voiced so often by geneticists, in which the different and the foreign are experienced as diseases  to be  cured or forces to be controlled.  We have heard it all before, and it effortlessly finds its echo in the traditionally xenophobic press. Here the likes of Patrick Moore[12], who  couples his loathing of astrology with fears that ‘vast numbers of foreigners from all over the world... are dumping themselves on social security’ is simply an absurd, down-market version of Pat Kane in the Guardian.  These authors, all highly influential in the own way, can simply dismiss the subject  a priori as irrelevant.  Perhaps the astronomer Heather Couper states this position with the greatest clarity in an interview:

 

Astrology is absolute rubbish. If you study it and see what they claim, it completely falls apart.[13]  

This view would have some importance if Couper had researched astrology’s claims and found them wanting. However, in the same article she admits that she is not a researcher at all, but sees herself as a populariser, in fact as  ‘the Anneka Rice of science’. This prompted her interviewer to comment that Anneka Rice was known mainly for the shape of her bottom, but wisely declined to extend the observation. What the interviewer did not comment on was Couper’s claim that astrology was rubbish if you studied it, while at the same time acknowledging that she had not. 

Back to Nature

The renowned science journal Nature has not had too much to do with astrology,  for which we might be thankful. It did publish Shawn Carlson’s anti-astrology research, which was so flawed that Hans Eysenk claimed its mistakes should have been ‘obvious to any first years psychology student.’[14]   While  it  is  inconceivable that any article claiming to prove astrology on a similarly flawed basis would ever see the light of day in a serious journal, it is unlikely that any pro-astrology research, however impeccably presented would ever have been published  in  Nature, whose editor, John Maddox, had this to say on the subject:

 

It  is a plain fact that astrology is a pack of lies in the literal sense; those who peddle horoscopes do so on an explicit set of statements about the real world that cannot be correct. There is no evidence that the position of the planets can  affect human behaviour, nor any plausible mechanism by which they could do so. It would not matter if the lies were told in some other context, say an alleged link between stock-exchange prices and the popularity of rock-and-roll music. That they are told,  and believed by countless innocents in flat contradiction of the more objective view of the world accumulated over several centuries, means that each and every horoscope is, by denying the objective view of the planets, an attack on the probity of science… Would other professionals, lawyers or accountants say, be as tolerant of public belief that undermined the integrity of their work  -and, potentially, their livelihood.[15]  

This is nothing to do with reasoned arguments and the thorough examination of weighty evidence: it would appear that, for Maddox, this is ultimately a matter of professional rivalry.   Overall, it has to be said that  science does not have a good track-record of dispelling belief in the ‘irrational’, perhaps because  some scientists it behave so irrationally  themselves.  At any rate, at a time when science has never been more omnipresent, never have so many alternate views sought the light of day. CSICOP scientists may speak of this as a failure to put across the message of ‘truth’, others might feel that their failure lies in quite another direction.  Whatever the reasons, there would seem little doubt that the various views we have looked at so  can hardly be viewed as either unprejudiced or scientific, and would have benefited from a more phenomenological approach.  

Researching the Problem

The aim of phenomenological research is to approach the subject with as few pre-conceptions as possible, and from the start to list clearly what assumptions are held by the researchers. For example, Suitbert Ertel published a report on 10 astrologers’ failure to identify painters from politicians, using 20 charts for each group.[16]

If a phenomenological approach had been taken, the author would probably have to acknowledge the following assumptions implicit in his research: 1) that politicians can be grouped together with no regard for political orientation or motive for pursuing their chosen career. 2) That no prior investigation need be carried out as to whether they were also painters in their spare time, or had other artistic aspirations. 3) That painters can similarly be classed as one group with no regard to their style of work, treating abstract expressionists and hyper-realists alike. 4) That no regard need be paid to a painter’s motive for painting, or the importance of their political leanings. An excellent analysis of this research has been  undertaken by Dr. Christopher Bagley[17]  

The phenomenological approach is not just concerned with the technicalities of sampling, but the assumptions by which groups are selected and chosen.  While some individuals do try  to remain neutral,  many research projects fall at the start.  Nowhere is the  basic lack of a phenomenological approach more noticeable then in a recent sociological inquiry into the nature of astrological belief. Researching what they call the 'problem' of belief in astrology  (although for whom it is a  problem, and  why  it  is a problem is never actually stated –a  strange omission considering it prompts the whole research project ) social scientists Bauer and Durant incline to the conclusion that:

 

it may be regarded  sociologically as one among a number of potential compensatory activity (sic) that  may  be  attractive  to individuals who are struggling to come to terms with the uncertainties of life in late modernity.[18]  

In  other words, in a world with so many of its moral and scientific certainties stripped away, astrology can  be a comfort for those unable or unwilling to confront the complexities of current life. Here Bauer and Durant echo  the views of the previous editor of Correlation, Rudolf Smit:

 

In astrology astrologers find a substitute for a religion. It gives their life security and meaning. Then you can imagine that they don’t want to have it snatched away from them.[19]  

It would seem that those who believe in astrology are in some manner intellectually or emotionally inadequate, and need its beliefs to counter life's brute realities. With their research apparently backing up such  views, it  might  be useful to explore how Bauer and Durant arrived at their discovery. On examination we find that they researched a variety of other research projects concerned both with popular beliefs and general scientific understanding.  A series of graphs plotted various permutations of gender, age, education and belief in science. While such an approach can give  us  a  good picture of believer and non-believer alike, it says absolutely nothing about the nature of the beliefs held, including, of course, why they are chosen in the first place.

It is remarkable that nowhere did the  researchers  ask anyone why they believed in astrology, nor did they draw on any researchers who might have asked that question.  Nevertheless Bauer and Durant claim that such beliefs have a compensatory function for the individuals concerned. Under such circumstances, concluding  a piece of research by claiming why people might believe in astrology, after assiduously avoiding any attempt to discern their views on the matter, reveals only the beliefs and assumptions of Bauer and Durant.  

Pathologising the Inexplicable

Bauer and Durant follow in a long line of  detractors whose position seems to be that those who believe in astrology are in some way insufficient; astrology is no more than a crutch or compensation for the emotionally needy.  This view was stridently put by one of the world’s leading philosophers, Theodor Adorno, who presses the work of Freud into a denunciation of  Sun Sign astrologers:

 

 

The   columnist   starts   from   the   generalised  assumptions that his readers are regressive, warped  persons, and all the major dimensions of regression  actually involved in most defects of intellect  and   personality, are somehow taken care of and  catered to.[20]

As  with  the research of Bauer  and Durant,  Adorno  conducted  no interviews  with either the column writers or their readers,  and thus can supply no evidence to back up his remarkable  assertions with  regard to the motives and personality of either group.   As they stand, his  comments can only be  seen  as  simplistically abusive,  but  elsewhere he attempts to formalise them within a psycho-analytic framework, which is itself deeply suspect:

 

Indulgence in astrology may provide those who fall  for it with a substitute for sexual pleasure of  a  passive nature. It means primarily  submission  to unbridled strength of the absolute power.  However, this strength and power ultimately derived from the father  image has become completely  depersonalised in astrology. Communion with the stars is an almost unrecognised and therefore tolerable substitute  of  the  forbidden relation with an omnipotent father figure. [21]

It would appear that, for Adorno, the 'defects' of intellect and personality he ascribes to believers stem from an  unrecognised desire for parental incest. Clearly, such desires  have  serious consequences:  

 

It  is a moot point whether people who fall for astrology show...  a  psychotic predisposition, whether 'psychotic characters' are especially easy to be caught by it. It may apply to the psychotic element in the normal as well and may not require any  special psychological susceptibility such as so-called  ego weakness.  In  fact quite a few astrology addicts seem to enjoy a rather strong ego in terms of reality functioning.[22]

Astrology's readers have now become 'addicts', and might well have psychotic tendencies stemming from so-called  'ego-weaknesses'. But then again, they may actually have quite strong egos, and thus not be psychotic at all. This amounts to saying that  everyone who believes in astrology is very  likely to  be short, except for those who are actually quite tall.  Far  from being a scientific  critique of the subject, Adorno's anti-astrology views, with their veneer of psycho-babble, are so extreme that it is hard to image how they ever came to be published as an example of serious research.  

Aries and Hot Heads

It is striking how often pro-astrology findings evoke extreme reactions from scientists. While the CSICOP ‘Mars Effect’ fiasco is well documented[23], it is worth while looking at a more recent case involving the CSICOP Fellow Susan Blackmore. When an insurance company announced that there was a strong correlation between  astrological signs and accidents rates[24], with Aries drivers the most accident prone, Blackmore suggested that this was due to the ‘fact’ that  

 

babies born in the spring under the sign of Aries... are more likely to be left out in their prams to enjoy the fresh air. In later years this could perhaps lead to a fondness for open-topped sports cars,  involved  in  more accidents than family estates.[25]

Here, Blackmore attempts to explain the disparity of Zodiac sign by suggesting that the sensation of being in a pram creates a fondness for fresh air, which in adult life translates into a desire to drive a sports car. No evidence is  provided  for this,  nor  does  she  explain why such an experience does not correlate with a dislike of being in the open air. After all, babies pushed in a pram are often out of visual contact with their parent at a time when there  may  be  strong,  and  unfamiliar stimulation, which is often frightening to the infant.  In either case there is the assumption that an event is enjoyed in adult life because it was enjoyed during infancy. This closet Freudianism cannot be substantiated. Do adults enjoy eating because they liked food in infancy? Do we enjoy sunny days now because we enjoyed them as a child? Conversely, do we find the  a lemon sour today because it tasted like that when we were children?  

In using such arguments Blackmore also makes the sweeping allegation that open-topped sports cars are involved in more accidents than saloons. The reality is more complex. For instance, according to the  Department of Transport[26], passenger  fatalities and  serious injuries in small family saloons numbered 156 per 10,000 privately owned vehicles during 1992-1994. For the same period small, high-speed cars caused 143 passenger fatalities and serious accidents per 10,000 vehicles: an accident ratio that is  the  reverse of her suggestion. Thus it might seem that any conglomeration of ideas, however far-fetched and lacking in supporting evidence, are preferable to the possibility that astrology might in some way be true. As Blackmore herself  said in the same piece, 'the human mind is made to make connections, and people will look for them in everything’.

Making Connections

While Blackmore appears to be searching around for anything to distance the astrological paradigm from any accepted world view, others writers seek to damn astrology by associating it with the already-discredited.  A recent example here is Dean’s brief history of phrenology, subtitled “Parallels between Phrenology and Astrology”[27].  The article is well researched and intriguing, and claimed to be ‘rich in lessons for astrology’.  But is it richer still in lessons on how to draw conclusions which, almost magically, accord with one’s existing views?  

For example, in Dean’s own words, a key originator of phrenology was ‘a brilliant scientist’[28], and he is at a loss to understand how such  mistaken ideas could ever come about. And what  serious mistakes they were.  Dean points out how phrenology rationalised racism, attitudes to crime and social problems, the pathologizing of those from different cultures, attitudes to mental illness etc. Yet so has conventional science, and in every case to far greater effect.  Phrenology’s whole approach towards stereotyping people by their physical characteristics came from scientists, who have relentlessly pursued such an approach from the 18th century[29]. Indeed,  phrenology achieved its great success precisely because of its claims to be scientific. Dean chooses to use phrenology as a stick with which to beat astrologers, yet it could be just as handy for attacking science. Dean writes as if there are ‘parallels between phrenology and astrology’ rather than noticing how he makes them appear so by his manner of thinking.  Dean overlooks the fact that,  whether we are looking at Hitler’s views on race, or the attempt by  Lysenko and others to politically educate wheat in Stalinist Russia, it is the geneticist and the scientist, not the astrologer, who leaps in to provide ‘proof’ for absurd theories.  Far from phrenology being held out as a warning for astrologers,  how much greater a warning it is for science, especially today.

In fact, the history of science reveals it as a world full of chicanery.  It is well known that Newton, Galileo, Bernoulli, Dalton, Mendel and Burt are but a handful of the dozens of scientists  demonstrably guilty of faking research data to make their point.[30]  Today the situation is so bad, with so much cheating and plagiarism, that the New Scientist was prompted to declare that:  

 

The ‘tribal’ culture of science is preventing proper discussion, and that science and scientists must change or face a gradual but certain moral decline.[31]

The same article reports one survey in which more than half of 400 medical researchers knew of cheating in medical research trials.  In response to this state of affairs, the editors of Britain’s medical journals have called for an independent body to be set up to counter ‘fraud, plagiarism and other misconduct’. [32]  Against this sort of background one has to question who should be lecturing whom.  

At this point it may be claimed that, cheating apart,  examples such phrenology are simply  bad science -a tack Dawkins sometimes takes  to distance himself from criticism- and that  if  ‘good science’ had been adopted, none of these disasters would have happened. Yet how do we detect good from bad? We form an opinion based on what we believe the evidence tells us, often overlooking that possibility that this belief might be better called a prejudice. Once the world was flat, then round, then  at the centre of everything, then off to one side and going round the sun in circles.  Its travels around the sun were once explained by  centrifugal forces, now it may be that planets actually travel in straight lines, running in  grooves of  gravity-distorted space which only appear circular in our particular dimension.  In each case theories and proofs abound. One falls, another rises, and is chosen because it is makes sense at the time.  It makes sense because it fits in with how people think and what they expect to find.  It makes sense because the mathematics of the day appears to fit the observed phenomena.

It is not a matter of opinion that apples fall to earth, but it certainly is a matter of opinion how.  Apples  fall from trees, and science can extrapolate theorems from  such basic observations which can place a rocket ship on Mars. Surely such stuff is the proof of science as the arbiter of what is real.  Again, to adopt this stance would be to miss an important point.  The language of mathematics often, but not always,  describes our world very well. However, the idea that mathematics reveals  underlying laws is a fallacy exploded by Wittgenstein[33]. The planets are not ‘following laws’ as they travel round the sun (or go in straight lines, if you prefer); that is pure anthropomorphism. The need for  there to be ‘laws’ stems from linguistic, and not natural concerns. The apple falls at a certain speed, and we often claim that something called gravity is the cause of it. We are certain, even though no such thing as ‘gravity’ has ever been seen. What we do see is an apparent, and predictable effect which we chose to think of in a certain manner. We might claim that God exists in everything and causes all things to move towards him. Larger particles  have more of God in them than smaller ones, so the effect is greater.  With such a world view  our science would  work just as well, and our rockets would still arrive on Mars.  They would, however, have been launched from a radically different world.  

The issue of gravity is an intriguing one, for it underpins the whole scientific world view of ‘forces’ and ‘causes’, which is constantly being used to discredit astrology by asking what ‘mechanism’ or ‘force’ could make it work.  Science would return us to Newton as the originator of such thinking, but he was not. Newton did not believe in ‘forces’: 

 

I likewise call attractions and impulses, in the same sense accelerative, and motive; and use the words attraction, impulse, or propensity of any sort towards a centre, promiscuously, and indifferently, one for another; considering those forces not physically but mathematically: wherefore the reader is not to imagine that by those words I anywhere take upon me to reason thereof, or that I attribute forces, in a true and physical sense, to certain centres (which are only mathematical points); when at any times I happen to speak of centres as attracting, or as endued with attractive powers.[34]

Newton, with his alchemical, religious and astrological background (he spent many years attempting to correlate the precession of the equinoxes with historical events)[35] was clearly not the ‘scientist’ that we have made of him. His concern to identify his theory with ‘mathematical points’, eschewing  simplistic causality, may have more in common with the astrological paradigm than some scientists might like to admit. 

While some statistical approaches may allow the demonstration of some astrological ‘effects’ –and for that reason should be encouraged- science itself appears to have little to offer, as witnessed by the little it has offered and by its inability to engage seriously with the object of its enquiry. Not only does it so often proceed from a prejudicial position, as we have seen, its view about the world in general is often fatally flawed by its own assumptions about the nature of human beings. 

A Theory of Everything and Nothing

To illustrate this claim, let us look at Dean’s assertion that: 

 

We may not realise it, but the making of and testing of theories is a part of everyday living. We do it all the time. Repairing a faulty car requires a theory of how cars work. Curing an illness requires a theory of how people get sick. Interpreting a birth chart requires a theory of how astrology works. In effect, apart from answering a question from observation  (“is it raining?”) or deduction (“this bird is white, is it a crow”), every problem requires a theory before it can be solved.[36] 

This sort of thinking has been common in science for some time, but even so it is hard to see how such a series of claims can still be made. 

Is there any evidence that a baby reaching for the breast has a theory about the production of human milk for its needs? There is not.  Do I need a theory about electrical circuits in order to ring a  door bell?  Do I need a theory about bus conductors in order to pay my fare?  Do I need a theory about mathematics in order to add 2+2?   Do children have theories about addition? No, they follow rules, as they do when they learn all forms of language. This  is just as well, as no one has ever demonstrated (i.e., provided a theory) as to why 2+2 equals 4.  In all such cases we simply conform to  social habits.  Vastly complex mathematics can be carried out with not a jot of theory about math itself,  just as human beings all over the world talk effortlessly, without any need for a theory of language.  The use of maths and language, as Wittgenstein has endlessly pointed out, does not result from  theory but from  practice.  But let us move on. 

Do I need a theory about cars to repair a fault? Imagine that my car splutters and stops. I recall that I once saw someone putting something called ‘petrol’ into the tank under similar circumstances. I do the same and the car  begins to work properly. I don’t need to believe that petrol is necessary for a car to work, nor do I need  a theory of motor mechanics in order to drive a car. I simply need to follow a series of instructions. Thus is the case when  I see someone seriously ill with certain symptoms, and offer remedies. I might simply act on experience, much as an animal might do when it learns that fire is hot. Do children have a  theory about burned fingers? Do adults?  Do rats need theories to run mazes successfully? Do scientists need theories to plot their movements? 

So, too,  with astrology. I need no theory of the birth chart in order to interpret it, merely an awareness that people with Mars in X and Venus in Y tend to present in similar ways. This observation is not a theory, anymore than is the observation that people tend to cry out in pain when bricks are dropped on their feet. Neither does every problem need a theory before it can be solved, as Dean demands. I am hungry. I eat.   What theory has taken place here? The claims that a theory is needed in these cases, which are all part of everyday life,  is naïve in the extreme.  We could extend this investigation considerably, but to what point?  Dean has wandered into the area that Wittgenstein  described well over 70 years ago. There will be, literally, thousands of  papers and dissertations addressing aspects of these issues, and Dean’s claims have refuted not a single one.  Yes, one might have all sorts of theories about aspects of life, but they are not automatically necessary, or even needed. 

The idea that a theory illustrates an underlying idea is similarly flawed, and is probably the prime reason why science cannot engage with astrology. Scientists cannot have a theory about it which makes sense to them, and do not realise that this is an error which stops them seeing the world. Ultimately, I have to explain my ideas about the world in terms of how the world is. I might have some amazing idea about the relationship of Mars and  Venus, but my  ‘proof’ will not lie in my mathematics or my theory,  only in the positions of the planets themselves and what is said and done  by people who were born at certain moments.  In other words, nothing ‘underlies’ my observations,  as if were somehow separate from the planets and the people themselves.  Nor does my practice rest on my theory , as science invariably claims for itself.  If anything, my theory rests on my practice as, ultimately, I always have to point to something in the world  to support my allegations, and not to my ideas about it.  Ultimately, the  word  ‘theory’ is  generally another way of saying ‘world-view’, ‘assumption’, or ‘prejudice’. 

More importantly, something taking place according to my theory  does not prove my theory about it.  Ptolemy could make accurate predictions about the planets’ positions, but  his theory (i.e., his belief) was hopelessly wrong.  The history of science is full of such examples. Dean tries to draw a distinction between that which can be answered by observation or deduction  from observation, and that which is not. But how could that  distinction be drawn?  Where would one find the proof of something other than in the actual  phenomena first called into question?  How can get away from what is?  In all cases, everything ultimately returns to the nature of the world and how it is described. Let us not lose track of the fact that, ultimately, our world is described in language. Is this not significant? 

A Need for Certainty

In reading and re-reading the views of those hostile to astrology one does not have to be a psychotherapist to detect some concerns beyond the  immediate subject matter. There  appears to be a powerful need to ground all ideas in  safe and known ‘theories’. This is in sharp contrast to astrology’s claim for inevitable  flux and change. Why? Nietzsche puts it well: 

 

To trace something unknown back to something  known is  alleviating,  soothing,  gratifying  and  gives  moreover  a  feeling of  power.  Danger,  disquiet,  anxiety  attend the unknown -the first instinct  is  to eliminate these distressing states… That it is something already familiar, experienced and inscribed in memory, which is posited as a cause, that is the first consequence of this need. Thus one searches not only for some kind of explanation to serve as a cause, but for a particularly selected and preferred kind of explanation.[37]  

Here  Nietzsche instinctively links knowledge and power in  his recognition  that one of the functions of 'truth' is to  make  us feel  better  about ourselves and our beliefs in terms which we already think we understand and, in doing so, often create an illusion of causality which comforts us.  Astrologers can make the same mistakes, of course, but there appears to be  something  so  fundamentally  unsettling  about astrology, which may account for so much of the wrath it calls down, and the consequent need to make it ‘safe’.  As Nietzsche put it:

 

Look, isn’t our need for knowledge precisely this need for the familiar, the will to uncover under everything strange, unusual and questionable something that no longer disturbs us?  Is it not the instinct of fear  that bids us to know? And is the jubilation of those who attain knowledge not the jubilation over the restoration of the sense of security?[38]    

For the astrologer, if there is ‘an instinct of fear’, it will be represented by Saturn. If there is a ‘sense of security’,  then this urge will be placed within familiar rings.  And what –of all research-  most significantly signifies the scientist?  Saturn again[39]. Is there the possibility that in manifesting one quality traditionally associated with this planet   other qualities are called into play?  Fear often demands that its object be eradicated. It would appear that if the subject  of astrology cannot be removed its possibilities for truth can at  least  be  denied. As we have seen, this  approach  has  been assiduously undertaken by many of its detractors, invariably in the name of science, but generally without the benefit of its practice which, despite constant misuse, still has much to commend it. 

 

© Mike Harding, 2000 

 

Mike Harding is an astrological consultant and a registered existential psychotherapist. As well as practising privately he is Head of Pre-MA Programmes at the School of Psychotherapy & Counselling at Regent’s College London. A former Chair of the Astrological Association and the Association of Professional Astrologers he is Chair of the Society for Existential Analysis. 


References
The Antiscientific Left, by George Fish in the Skeptical Inquirer, March/April 1995
  Postmodernism and New Age Unreason.
A Scientific Antidote to Fashionable Antiscience. Review by Keith M Parsons in the Sceptical Enquirer, March/April 1995
Bashing the Science Bashers, by Taner Edis and Amy Sue Bix in the Skeptical Inquirer, March/April 1995
Astrology: the Prophecy and the Power, by Patrick Curry
In Thrall to the New Age, by Pat Kane, in the Guardian, 4th January 1995
Ibid
Richard Dawkins, the 1992 Voltaire Lecture Viruses of the Mind, published by the British Humanist Association, 1992
Richard Dawkins, in the New York Times, April 9th 1989
Lewis Wolpert, An Idea which Beggars Belief, in the Independent on  Sunday, August 25th 1996
Danniel Dennet, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, Published by Simon & Schuster, New York, 1995 page 515
The Observer, March 18th 1979
Sunday Telegraph,  6th February 1994
Correlation, June 1986. See also A Critique of a Double-Blind Test of Astrology by Hans Eysenck in Astro Psychologial Problems, Vol4, No1, January 1986
  John Maddox, Defending Science  Against Anti-Science in Nature, 368:185
Astro-Quiz: Can Astrologers Pick Politicians from Painters, by Suitbert Ertel. Correlation Vol. 17, No. 1
Christopher Bagley, Identifying Painters and Politicians: a commentary on Astrology as Art and Science, in Correlation Vol. 18, No. 1
  Martin Bauer and John Durant, Belief in Astrology: a Social-Psychological  Analysis, published in Culture and Cosmos, Vol 1, No1, 1997
Rudolf Smit, in the Dutch journal Skepter, March 1993
Theodor W. Adorno, The Stars Look Down and Other Essays, edited by Stephen Crook. Published by Routledge, page 63
Ibid, page 43
Ibid, page 50
See sTARBABY reprint on web page:   www.psicounsel.com/starbaby.html
Reported in the Daily Telegraph, March 23rd 1995
Ibid
Cars: Make and Model: The Risk of Driver Injury and Car Accident Rates in Great Britain, published by HMSO, London 1994
Meaningful Coincidences: Parallels between Phrenology and Astrology, by Geoffrey Dean, in Correlation Vol. 17, No. 1 1998
Ibid
See The Art of Constructing Scientific Stereotypes by Professor David Bindman, The Times Higher Educational Supplment, June 2nd 1999
William Broad & Nicholas Wade, Betrayers of the Truth, OUP 1982.
New Scientist, 3rd July 1999, page 39f
Report in The Guardian, September 9, 1999
Wittgenstein’s arguments against simplistic scientific thinking occur in many places in his work. A good starting point is section six of his  Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, published by Blackwells, Oxford.
Issac Newton, Mathematical Principles, translated and edited by Florian Cajori, University of California Press, 1960. Page 5.
The Precession of the Equinoxes With Reference to Isaac Newton’s Chronological Studies, by Robert Powell in Correlation Vol. 9, No. 2 December 1989
Theories of Astrology, by Geoffrey Dean in Correlation Vol. 15, No 1, 1996
See The Four Great Errors in Twilight of the Idols by F. Nietzsche, Penguin Books, London 1990.
The Gay Science, by F. Nietzsche, Vintage Age Books, 1974, page 300
Written in the Stars, by Michel Gauquelin, the Aquarian Press,  1988, page 107