Astrology is a funny thing. After having put up with decades of scientific probing, it has retreated to the one area that shields it from a rational critique: mysticism. It may surprise us to learn that in an age of genetic sequencing and powerful telescopes, a system of divination conjured up in the Levant thousands of years ago is still alive and well. In the midst of our pandemic, astrologers are reporting better business than usual. Whether or not that’s true, it certainly is useful, and that’s also the stance of many modern users of astrology. They claim not to care if it’s scientific or not, and many even say they don’t believe in it. They just find it useful.
It is a complicated universe to wrap your head around, this astrology. I know I’ve only caught a glimpse of it in my research. Astrology rests on a simple foundation: as above, so below. The position of various celestial bodies (planets, moons, asteroids) at the time of our birth reflects deep truths about who we are and what will happen to us, astrologers claim. Some believe these heavenly bodies directly cause events on Earth through some unknown mechanism; many more, especially in our modern age, reject this idea and rather see the sky as a mirror. By learning the language of astrology, they say, we can see a reflection of who we are and what our future might be.
Before we move on to the sort of irrefutable “secular theology” that astrology has become, it’s important to shine a light on the scientific wringer it has been put through since the 1950s. Indeed, a slew of studies looking at specific event predictions, Zodiac sign compatibilities and their professional inclinations, and astrologers’ abilities to match astrological profiles to individuals have resulted in devastating results for the profession’s credibility. (A partial summary can be found in this review article and on this website.) And if the heavenly spheres cause things on Earth, as early proponents of astrology claimed, none of the known forces could explain this effect due to the distances involved.
Honest scientists facing a towering pile of evidence against their theory would, after getting over their bruised egos, work to improve it, study it further, and perhaps come to replace it with a better one. But astrologists have dealt with this evidence by ignoring or rejecting it. They have resorted to hand-waving: they do not yet know what this all means, but astrology works and one day we will figure it all out. Their response to a study published in 1990 encapsulates their close-mindedness to course corrections. The researchers designed their study with the full collaboration of the Indiana Federation of Astrologers. In fact, the lead researcher’s birth chart, which indicates where each celestial body was in the sky at the time of his birth, was inspected by the Federation to make sure he was an upstanding guy.
The study was simple: six astrologers were given 23 birth charts and had to match them to 23 people, for whom they had photos and answers to a long questionnaire the Federation had itself generated. The result? Each astrologer made from zero to three correct matches (the average was one). When presented with this verdict, the Federation twisted itself into a pretzel to provide an explanation, ultimately claiming that “astrology may not always give quantifiable results but it works nonetheless.”
This lack of concern on the part of astrologers had already led philosopher of science Paul Thagard to declare astrology a pseudoscience in 1978. It wasn’t because its origins were unscientific: chemistry, after all, was born of alchemy. It wasn’t from its lack of mechanism: continental drift was true even before plate tectonics was discovered as an explanation. It was that its community had more or less refused to face the music. It had made less progress than alternative theories, like psychology, over a long period of time. It may have started out as a protoscience (a “science in the making”), but it became an unpromising project before finally deserving the label of pseudoscience.
But for many modern fans of astrology, all of this is a misguided discussion. Astrology has no scientific pretension, they say. It is a tool for introspection. There too, however, there are problems.
Magic mirror in the sky, who is the fairest one of all?
I had my birth chart done for free via a popular astrology app (I know, I know: it’s not the same as seeing an astrologer). Some of the passages were dead-on; others were laughably inappropriate; and there were many contradictions within this nearly 5,000-word essay. I was at once an extreme traditionalist and a rebellious force of nature, a witty intellectual with a serious personality and an intuitive psychic with great belief in the unproven.
These sorts of general pronouncements full of escape clauses are known as Barnum statements after P.T. Barnum, the founder of the Barnum & Bailey Circus famous for allegedly saying “there’s a sucker born every minute.” And boy do they work, these Barnum statements! I have more than once given the same fake astrological personality description to high school students who believed they were receiving a horoscope tied to their Zodiac sign, and almost all of them raised their hand when I asked them if they saw themselves in the text. And it was pandemonium when I told them to check out their neighbours’ horoscopes and they realized they had all received the same text.
I do understand the appeal of modern-day astrology. By focusing on self-reflection, it has attached itself to the ever popular self-help movement. It provides the social beings that make up its fandom with a sense of community and it can feel empowering for minorities who have been oppressed by long-standing institutions. In fact, there is evidence that people drawn to astrology are religiously oriented but unaffiliated to a major religion. The need for spirituality and meaning can easily be filled by an esoteric, decentralized system like astrology. And before we dismiss all of its devotees as scientifically illiterate, surveys show that astrology’s biggest draw is for people with an intermediate level of scientific understanding. Indeed, astrology has the trappings of science: it makes predictions, relies on calculations, and deals in systems and structures.
Even individuals skeptical of astrology can start to warm up to it when it produces positive descriptions of themselves. This appeal for the pseudoscience is reinforced by our brain’s deep wiring for seeing patterns and agents even where there are none. In times of great stress, the predictions of astrology can give the illusion of control. Not knowing what the future holds can be untenable for some. Even when astrology predicts bad outcomes, it’s something concrete on which to hang your hat.
There are, however, less fanciful ways of dealing with uncertainty. Professor Kate Sweeny from the Department of Psychology at the University of California, Riverside, studies this phenomenon and made two recommendations to me via email. “We’ve found evidence,” she tells me, “for the effectiveness of mindfulness practice in coping with uncertainty.” Meditating or engaging in an activity like gardening that forces us to focus on the present moment can alleviate the stress that comes from thinking about the future. Likewise, being “in the zone” can be beneficial, with an activity that is pleasurable, challenging enough and that tracks our progress toward a goal. “Video games are custom-game to create this experience.” As for the illusion of control that comes from astrological reading, it can be relatively harmless but not always. “If you turn down a great opportunity because of something your horoscope said that day, or if you pursue a risky opportunity because of that, it may steer your life in a non-optimal direction.” I can unfortunately imagine someone postponing a life-saving surgery because the stars yield an ominous reading.
If we are to resist the pull that magical thinking has on us, we need to reconcile ourselves with “not knowing,” an important lesson in science which some of us are perhaps better equipped to take on board. Saying “I don’t know what will happen and that’s OK” is grounding. It thwarts flights of fancy. Of course, believers in astrology may not see “as above, so below” as an extravagant view. Carl Sagan was famous for having popularized the saying that extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence. The problem arises when a pseudoscience, poked and prodded by scientific fingers, retreats to the wishy-washy world of unknowable mysticism. In that universe, where planets have been imbued with an innate mythology by some strange divine force, there are no extraordinary claims. Anything is possible.
– Astrology is a pseudoscience due to its lack of progress and refusal to deal with a large body of critical scientific studies
– Many modern fans of astrology do not see it as a science but as a tool for introspection, in large part because its predictions can give them an illusion of control in a time of stress
– There are more grounded ways of dealing with uncertainty, like mindfulness practice and engaging in activities that put you “in the zone”