To professional astronomers, it is absolutely maddening.
Despite the Industrial Revolution, the Scientific Revolution and, most recently, the Computer Revolution, more people believe in astrology now than at any time "since the Renaissance," says Colorado State University astronomer Roger Culver.
Which is staggering, adds Paul Kurtz, professor of philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo, when you consider that astrology had largely disappeared with the beginnings of modern astronomy in the 16th Century.
"Historically," says Kurtz, chairman of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal in Buffalo, N.Y., "kings and queens and emperors used astrologers (to decide) when to kill their enemies and go to war. The fact that it is coming back today is really dismaying."
It happens every year, Culver says, that halfway through his introductory astronomy course, some student will stick up a hand to ask, "When are we going to learn how to cast horoscopes?"
Culver, who is the author of "The Gemini Syndrome," a 1979 book debunking astrology, does his best to point out what he considers astrology's intellectual bankruptcy. "In every carefully controlled experiment or statistical analysis (of astrology) of which I am aware, either the results are negative or non-replicable," he says.
Despite last week's revelation of Nancy Reagan's use of horoscopes in the White House, such criticism is echoed strongly in the small community of scientists who have taken on the task of actively debunking astrology.
The problem is that in order to debunk something, you have to know something about it, says Andrew Fraknoi, another member of the committee and executive officer of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific in San Francisco. And frankly, he adds, when it comes to studying astrology, most astronomers don't have "the stomach."
And this is too bad, says the part-time astronomy and physics professor at San Francisco State. The fundamental thesis of astrology is actually the rather simple idea that the pull of the sun, the moon, the planets and the stars somehow influence human affairs. It sounds plausible in theory, he adds, but when you sit down and calculate, for instance, the pull of gravity on a newborn baby (the critical time in astrology) "it turns out that the obstetrician has six times the pull of Mars."
And that's another point, Fraknoi says; why does astrology focus "on the moment of birth rather than the moment of conception?" After all, it is at the moment of conception that one's genetic characteristics are fixed, not in a full-term fetus later. It's because, he says, "the moment of conception is difficult or embarrassing to find out. They stick to the moment of birth because that is much more practical to their game."
"When all is said and done," he adds, "what do the planets have to do with anything?" In fact, he points out, due to the slow wobble of the Earth's axis (called precession), the astrological sun signs are not even lined up with their corresponding constellations anymore. When astrology was codified about 2,000 years ago, Fraknoi says, a person born in late August or September would be a Virgo because the sun at that time actually was in the constellation Virgo. But due to precession, Fraknoi says, for a person born in late August or September today the sun is actually in Leo.
"What do astrologers do about that?" Fraknoi asks. "Some are not even aware of it. Some want to move all the signs. Most astrologers don't want to deal with it. It introduces an extra variable. So they say, 'It doesn't matter. The signs stay where they are. They are concepts. They are influences.' They mumble something."
'Contradicts Reality Principle'
Over the years, there have been many scientific experiments testing wherever possible the validity of astrology. But, Kurtz says, they've all found the same thing: "It contradicts the reality principle." Writing in a recent article in Skeptical Inquirer, the committee journal, Kurtz points out that astrologers predict that individuals born under certain signs are more likely to be the kinds of personality types who become politicians or scientists. And thus "one would expect the birth dates of these two groups to cluster in those signs." But according to a physicist at Case Western Reserve University who looked up 16,634 scientists in American Men of Science and 6,475 politicians in Who's Who in American Politics, "the distribution of these signs were as random for the public at large."
Kurtz also takes issue with the idea that a person's sign can make him emotionally incompatible with someone else.
A psychologist at Michigan State University, Kurtz writes, obtained the records of 2,978 couples who married and 478 couples who divorced in Michigan in 1967 and 1968. And what he discovered was that "those born under 'compatible' signs married--and divorced--just as often as those born under 'incompatible' signs."