Astrology For Skeptics

Who really has the burden of proof

Back in January 1998, I had lunch with Dr. Michael Shermer, the editor of Skeptic Magazine. I admire Dr. Shermer very much and think that he has done a magnificent job (and with limited resources) of making the public aware of the value of clear thinking, a skeptical attitude, and the necessity of evidence. During our conversation, I mentioned that I thought that skeptics knew little about astrology and that they should study the subject before criticizing it. His wife, who was also present, said “Why don’t you teach us?”. That is one of the main purposes of this website. Before one can discuss whether or not astrology “works”, one has to know how the subject is practiced. Before one asks for evidence, one has to be able to evaluate that evidence. The lessons here are for everyone who wants to learn how astrology is done and how to do astrology. They are especially for skeptics because science demands that knowledge of a subject must come before evaluation.

Skeptics get into trouble when they try to discredit astrology because they fail to keep things simple. All they have to say to astrologers is: “Please provide evidence to prove astrology works”. That’s all. The burden of proof is ALWAYS on the people who claim that something is true. The ball is now in the astrologer’s court and discussion can begin. Unfortunately, many skeptics try to go further. This is where problems arise because it is obvious that they know nothing about the subject. Not only that, some rush into print without bothering to check what they write for flaws in their logic. Here are some errors committed by two Ph.D.’s who should know better.

The first is Dr. Andrew Franknoi, a professor of astronomy, who came up with a list of “Ten Embarrassing Questions to ask Astrologers”. Personally, I think that most of the questions on this list should be included in a textbook on logic under the chapter titled “Errors in Logic and How to Avoid Them”, but examine the list yourself and see what you think.

Question 1: “What is the  likelihood that one-twelfth of the world’s population is having the same kind of day?”

Answer: Well this one I agree with. Those so-called horoscope columns in the newspapers were designed as a publicity stunt to increase circulation. Unfortunately, that worked. As a result, most people think that all there is to astrology is to know about your “sign”. Absolutely untrue. Sun-sign columns are most emphatically not real astrology. I denounce them at every turn, and I do so again here. However, Dr. Franknoi would know this if he were familiar with the field.

Question 2: “Why is the moment of birth, rather than conception, crucial for astrology? …I suspect that the reason astrologers still adhere to the moment of birth has little to do with astrological theory. Almost every client knows when he or she was born, but it is difficult…to identify a person’s moment of conception…”

Answer: The reason astrologers use the time of birth is because birth gives us a completely formed human being. After conception, all we have is a fertilized egg. But notice the subtle shift here. The real issue is “Does astrology work and can the assertions of astrologers be tested”. Dr. Franknoi seems to change this to “Well, it doesn’t sound right so it must not be true”. When quantum mechanics was first proposed, it didn’t sound right either. It took years for it to be accepted. Opponents called it “Quacker Mechanics”. Whether something sounds right or not is not proof one way or another.

Question 3: “If the mother’s womb can keep out astrological influences until birth, can we do the same with a cubicle of steak?”

Answer: This is a complex question fallacy, the most famous example of which is the question “Do you still beat your wife?”. The question itself assumes facts not in evidence. Dr. Franknoi’s apparent procedure is to first ask why the moment of birth has an effect, and then to propose a ridiculous reason which he has no trouble ridiculing. So he is making a second error here as well: the strawman fallacy. Please notice that this question contradicts the previous one. If the moment of conception is important, then the mother’s body cannot act as a shield, and vice versa. The proper procedure is to investigate first and see if there is any effect at all. Then, if there is, one looks for a reason as to why. By reversing the order, Dr. Franknoi comes to the conclusion that astrology can’t work because he cannot think of a good reason why it should. For decades, no one could explain how bumblebees could fly. They seemed to violate all known laws of aerodynamics. Following Dr. Franknoi’s procedure, one would have to conclude that the bees really didn’t fly and it must have been some form of illusion.

Question 4: “If astrologers are as good as they claim, why aren’t they richer?”

Answer: Really Dr. Franknoi, doesn’t that sound like the question “If you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?” that uneducated relatives always seem to ask college graduates at family gatherings? The answer is that knowing something valuable and making money off of it are two different skills entirely. You could ask the same question of economists and financial analysts. Not a billionaire among them. Bill Gates and Michael Dell, on the other hand, are dropouts. And by the way, this question is an ad hominum fallacy. If you can’t refute an opponent, slander them. The main questions are, I repeat, “Does astrology work” and “Can it be tested?”.

Question 5: “Are all horoscopes done before the discovery of the three outermost planets incorrect?”

Answer:  Is all physics done before the discovery of relativity and quantum mechanics “incorrect”? Does the discovery of a new element invalidate all previous knowledge in chemistry? Yes, horoscopes in past centuries were less complete. Yes, some things were missing. No, they were not totally wrong. The knowledge that doctors have today dwarfs that of doctors 200 years ago. Are all the cures doctors achieved in 1800

somehow “wrong” because they didn’t know as much as we do today? Will all the cures doctors achieve this year be “wrong” if new knowledge is discovered in the future?

Question 6: “Shouldn’t we condemn astrology as a form of bigotry? In a civilized society we deplore all systems that judge individuals by sex, skin color, national origin, or other accidents of birth. Yet astrologers boast that they can evaluate people based on another accident of birth – the positions of celestial objects. Isn’t refusing to date a Leo or hire a Virgo as bad as refusing to date a Catholic or hire a black person?”

Answer:  This is another clear example of the error called the argumentum ad hominum, or what can better be called the argument by insult. Does astrology work or not? Never mind that. Astrologers are BAD! Why they are just like bigots, so don’t listen to them. Tell me doctor Franknoi, can genetics be used to determine the probability of people getting certain diseases? Is that also not due to an “accident of birth”? Can this knowledge be used by insurance companies, for instance, to deny coverage? Why then, by the same argument, the doctors who perform those procedures should also be condemned as “bigots”.

Question 7:  “Why do different schools of astrology disagree so strongly with each other? Astrologers seem to disagree on the most fundamental issues of their craft: whether to account for the precession of the Earth’s axis,…how many planets and other celestial objects should be included, and – most importantly – which personality traits go with which cosmic phenomena. Read ten different astrology columns, or have a reading done by ten different astrologers, and you will probably get ten different interpretations. “If astrology is a science, as its proponents claim, why are its practitioners not converging on a consensus theory after thousands of years…” (complex question fallacy again, Dr. Franknoi; you are assuming facts not in evidence). Scientific ideas generally converge over time as they are tested against laboratory or other evidence. In contrast, systems based on superstition or personal belief tend to diverge as their practitioners carve out separate niches while jockeying for power, income, or prestige.”

Answer: If that is the case, Dr. Franknoi, when a doctor tells you that an operation is needed, why bother to get a second opinion? Medicine is a science, isn’t it?

First of all, there are disagreements in every field. Secondly, the disagreements between astrologers are not nearly as great as you make them out to be.

Thirdly, there has been, until recently, no certification of astrologers. Anyone can call themselves an astrologer after reading a book or two, or even without any knowledge of the field at all. By way of contrast, imagine the chaos in the health field if anyone could call themselves a doctor and there were no way to tell the difference between a Harvard graduate and someone who just decided to hang up a shingle. This situation is slowly being remedied. There are now two astrological organizations, the AFA and the NCGR, that provide certification by examination.

As far as the differing opinions about “which personality traits go with which cosmic phenomena”, there is very, very little of that. I believe I talk to other astrologers more than you do, so I am most likely in a better position to know. Your comment about not “converging on a consensus” has been partially true only because anyone can call themselves an astrologer. That situation, as I have mentioned above, is changing.

That last part, however, about practitioners carving out “separate niches while jockeying for power, income, and prestige”, well it took me a while to think of an answer because I had to stop laughing first. Most astrologers work part time for little pay. Research is done for no pay at all (other than the small sums offered for magazine articles). Most of us work for the love of the field. If money were the first consideration, we would all start .com companies. And now, it is my turn to play skeptic and ask for evidence. Tell us Dr. Franknoi, based on the research you did in order to pose these questions, what are the names of these practitioners who are carving out those “separate niches”, and just how much “power, income, or prestige” are they achieving?

Questions 8: “If the astrological influence is carried by a known force, why do the planets dominate?

“If the effects of astrology can be attributed to gravity, tidal forces, or magnetism (each is invoked by a different astrological school), even a beginning physics student can make the calculations necessary to see what really affects a newborn baby. These are worked out for many different cases in Roger Culver and Philip Ianna’s book ‘Astrology: True or False’…For example, the obstetrician who delivers the child turns out to have about six times the gravitational pull of Mars and about two thousand billion times its tidal force…”

Answer:  So who says that gravitation or tidal effects are the forces that are operational here? Yes, some astrologers have wrongly postulated that they are what makes astrology work. But the fact that they were wrong in identifying the source does not show that there is no effect. And this was done by individual astrologers, not “different astrological schools” as Dr. Franknoi suggests.

And once again, Dr. Franknoi is putting the cart before the horse. Instead of investigating to see if there is in fact an astrological phenomenon, he says, in effect, that there cannot be because he can’t think of a good reason why there should. In a similar fashion, Simon Newcomb, a famous mathematician, “proved” that a heavier-than-air machine could not fly. He, of course, was proved wrong by two bicycle mechanics who did not read his “proof”. Subjectivity like this has no place in science. The proper scientific procedure is to first check if something is so, and then to find a reason why.

Question 9: “If the astrological influence is carried by an unknown force, why is it independent of distance?”

“All the long range forces we know in the universe get weaker as objects get farther apart. But, as you might expect in an Earth-centered system made thousands of years

ago, astrological influences do not depend on distance at all. The importance of Mars in your horoscope is identical whether the planet is on the same side of the Sun as the Earth or seven times further away on the other side. A force not dependent on distance would be a revolutionary discovery for science, changing many of our fundamental notions.”

Answer:  I agree that such a force would be “a revolutionary discovery for science, changing many of our fundamental notions”. What is the point here Dr. Franknoi? Are scientists supposed to be afraid of this? Quantum mechanics overthrew fundamental notions too. Would you have advised Max Planck to back off publishing his results for that reason? Is the purpose of science to advance knowledge, or to defend “fundamental notions”? I would really like to hear your answer to this one.

Question 10: “If astrological influences don’t depend on distance, why is there no astrology of stars, galaxies, and quasars?”

Answer:  THERE IS AN ASTROLOGY OF STARS, AND THERE HAS BEEN FOR THOUSANDS OF YEARS! Furthermore, there are books on the subject in print. The fact that you even ask this question shows a lack of familiarity with the subject that you are criticizing. Please study first and criticize later.

Next is a list titled of statements titled “Why Astrology is Bunk” compiled by Terry Sandbek, Ph.D., a psychologist. “Here are some more reasons astrology is no more useful than stacking marbles on a football.

“Astrology has contributed nothing to our knowledge of the world, the planets or to human behavior. Information given by astrologers is worse than psycho-babble.”

“As old as it is, astrology has accomplished nothing of value in thousands of years. Science is only a few hundred years old and yet it has put us on the moon, found cures for illness, brought you radio, TV, movies and computers. When you compare the achievements of science and astrology, the latter becomes laughably insufficient.”

Notice again how Sandbek, like Franknoi, avoids the questions: “Does astrology work?” and “How may it be tested?” in order to indulge in ad hominums. “Worse than psycho-babble” indeed. Psycho-babble is complete nonsense. Exactly how does something become worse than complete nonsense? And wasn’t the term “psycho-babble” originally used to describe some of the more ridiculous pronouncements of psychologists? Could this be  an example of “projection”?

First, of all, if astrology performs as astrologers claim it does, it would be as useful as a good psychological test as well as a predictor of future trends. Secondly, by claiming that astrology is “laughably insufficient” because it didn’t bring us such things as radio, TV, and computers, Dr. Sandbek is committing the error of comparing apples and oranges. Art and literature didn’t give us those things either. Neither did astronomy. And the science of biology made no contribution whatsoever to automobile production. Are we condemn these as well? Dr. Sandbek continues:

“Astrology only ‘works’ because the pigeon paying the money has the complete attention from someone who is attentive, warm, and apparently sincere. It’s called the halo effect.”

I can’t resist the temptation to indulge here in an error myself: the argumentum ad hominum, circumstantial. The exact same charge has been leveled at Dr. Sandbek’s own field of psychology. Carl Rogers showed this years ago. No matter what the therapist’s theoretical orientation (psychoanalytic, gestalt, etc.) the “cure rate” remains about the same. A psychotherapist (who shall remain nameless) once told me that his first patient was a hysterical woman who threatened suicide. He was terrified. Finally, he told her that she was “cured” and dismissed her. He checked up afterwards and found that she was “acting very cured”. An astrologer sees a client two or three times a year. Psychologists see them at least once a week. And shrinks usually charge more. Tell me Dr. Sandbek, is there a possibility that this is another case of projection? By the way, there are a number of psychologists who use astrology as an evaluation tool, and not just the Jungians. Dr. Sandbek once again:

“Your sign continually changes every 26,000 years because of the cosmological phenomenon called precession of the equinoxes (try asking an astrologer to explain that — any beginning astronomy student knows what this is). What it means is that everybody’s sign is off by one zodiac position. For example, if your astrological sign is Aries, then you were really born under the sign of Pisces. Funny, huh?”

This is an old red herring of a question. First of all Dr. Sandbek, signs shift about every 2,200 years, not 26,000. The 26,000 year figure is the time period required for the Earth’s orbit to completely precess around the Sun. Secondly, there are TWO zodiacs, the tropical and the sidereal. The vast majority of astrologers use the tropical. In that zodiac, the signs have not changed. Thirdly, constellations do not really exist at all. Astrologers know this. Constellations are used as place markers, nothing more. The next two assertions that Dr. Sandbek makes can be dealt with together.

 “Marriages with incompatible signs have no more problems or divorces than marriages with compatible signs.”

“The Marines and Special Forces of all Armed Services have no more men with warlike signs than men with peaceful signs.”

This is another example of the strawman fallacy. Put words in someone’s mouth and then “refute” them. Astrology is based on the entire horoscope, not just the Sun-sign. As far as I know, no astrologer ever asserted that marriages have to be between compatible “signs” or that there should be more people from “warlike signs” in the armed services. And if they did, they would be wrong.

“Astrology readings are so vague as to be meaningless. Read one to a room full of people and people with different signs will tell you it belongs to them.”

If you are referring to those misnamed Sun-sign astrology readings, I agree with you 100%. Those are not real astrology readings and should be labeled as such. Real

astrology readings name can name specific events and times. You are beating a dead horse here Dr. Sandbek.

“Astrologers have a ‘name-fetish.’ They actually believe that the names the Greeks arbitrarily gave to the planets mean something. How foolish. So if we find another (not entirely impossible) planet and give it the name of 1997 QB1, does this mean that people born under this sign will be mathematicians?”

First of all, how do you know that the names were given arbitrarily? Could it be that the ancient Greeks observed an effect first and gave the name later? Secondly, the planet Uranus was not named by the Greeks. In fact, for years, it was named after its discoverer, William Herschel. The procedure astrologers used to figure out this planet’s influence was to first calculate the position of Uranus in horoscopes and look for charts in which it was strongly placed (for examples of horoscopes with Uranus strongly placed, see the horoscopes of Lenny Bruce or Salvador Dali or Isadora Duncan). Uranus was then found to correlate with traits such as rebelliousness and increased originality. These are traits that are totally unassociated with Greek legends concerning Uranus. Incidentally, the planet Saturn is, according to astrology, to be the planet of conservatism, yet according to Greek myths, Uranus was the established power and Saturn rebelled and overthrew him. So much for astrologers having a “name-fetish”.

“The problem of twins: astrologers say that the time of a few seconds or minutes can make the difference in a person’s aspects.”

No, astrologers do not claim this at all. The degree of the sign on the Mid-Heaven changes about one degree every four minutes. There is a similar change for the Rising Sign.

“If this reasoning applies to homoziogot twins, then why are they so amazingly similar? In answer to this question (whatever it is), then why are fraternal twins so different?

No astrologer, to my knowledge, claims that the astrological effect is the be-all and end-all of everything. We do recognize that there are other influences on people, such as their genetic make up. If a kitten were born at the same time and place as a human baby, and the astrological factors indicated great communication ability, the human would talk and write. The cat would just meow. Again, what we have here is an avoidance of the main questions: Does astrology work? and How may it be tested. This is another instance of the lazy student syndrome. Some students will spend all their time and effort thinking up reasons why they shouldn’t have to study a subject instead of just doing the work. Now we come to James, the Amazing, Randi, a gentleman who truly lives up to his name. Mr. Randi, for those few of you who may still not be familiar with his work, has made exposure of fraud and stupidity his calling in life. He certainly has found no shortage of material. Randi is to be commended for his efforts to remind us all  how easy it is to be fooled. He did a demonstration once with a bunch of college students. They were told that an “astrologer” was preparing a personal horoscope for each of them and that they were to evaluate it. Most of the students said that the “horoscope” fit them to a tee, even those who said that they didn’t believe in astrology.

They were then asked to change “readings” with the person next to them. Of course, most  were surprised to find out that they all had the same “reading”.

Doesn’t this “disprove” astrology? Not at all. Suppose each student were given a standard, accepted psychological test instead, and then given these same “horoscope readings” and told that these were the test results. Wouldn’t their answers have been the same? Would this have “disproved” a standard, accepted psychological test? Of course not. What Randi demonstrated here, as he has done so often, is that people are gullible and easily fooled. The results say nothing about the validity of astrology. Other researchers are not so careful. There was an article in in the July 1995 edition of Skeptical Inquirer magazine a few years back titled “Did the Moon Sink the Titanic”. The author, Richard L. Branham, Jr; examined the dates of several disasters at sea and found that the sign position of the Moon showed no correlation at all. Unfortunately for the author, no astrologer (at least to my knowledge) ever claimed that it did. Another strawman fallacy. Had the author taken the time to study some astrology, he would not have bothered to do the study.

Some years earlier than this, a study was published based on examination of thousands of cases. It was found that there was no correlation whatsoever between one’s occupation and their Sun-sign (although they did find that an abnormally large number of lawyers were born under Gemini). Once again, no astrologer worth their salt would ever make such an assertion. One more case of a strawman fallacy. The first step in evaluation of any subject must be to put in the effort to learn it. Only then may it be analyzed and criticized. Hopefully, the lessons on this website will get this process started.

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