The Real Romance in the Stars
By Professor Richard Dawkins, New College, Oxford
Astrology is neither harmless nor fun, and we should see it
as an enemy of truth, says Richard Dawkins, author of 'The Selfish
Gene'. Why, he asks, do so many of us indulge in these pre-Copernican
dabblings which are nothing short of wicked fraud?
We should take astrology seriously. No, I don't mean we should
believe in it. I am talking about fighting it seriously instead
of humouring it as a piece of harmless fun. Frivolous tolerance,
probably the dominant stance towards astrology among educated
people who don't actually believe in it, ran right through a recent
article in the Independent on Sunday by Justine Picardie, "Spinning
after Patric's Star". As the headline writer put it, "Astrology
has never been so popular, or such big business. But when the
late, great (sic) Patric Walker (Libra) died, it wasn't just his
billion readers - or his income - that attracted his aspirant
successors; it was his reputation as the Henry James of horoscope
writers, as the man who'd made the trade respectable."
Hardly respectable, but surely something must be going on when
even the Independent on Sunday can devote two pages plus a double
picture spread to the question of who would inherit the mantle
of a dead charlatan. Picardie's attitude to these well-heeled
quacks ranges from affection (the Queen Mother's favourite astrologer
is "roly poly") to something perilously near respect (Patric Walker
is described without irony as "eminent") Respect might indeed
be prompted by the wealth of these glitzy con-artists, which is
lovingly dwelt upon (Chauffeurs whisk them in white stretch limos
to fashionable restaurants where head waiters fawn over them).
The popular scientist David Belamy, who ought to know better
and probably does, contributed to Patric Walker's astrology page
in Radio Times, writing that he has the "Capricorn caution" over
certain things, but mostly he puts his head down and charges like
a real goat. Such shallow light-heartedness sets a mood in which
questioning astrology's validity is made to seem pedantic Gradgrindery.
To ask whether the astrologers themselves believe in it also comes
over as a bit long-faced, on the killjoy side. On Picardie's evidence,
some are foolish enough to believe anything (One of them met Patric
Walker "just before Mercury went retrograde" and immediately recognised
him "from a past life"). The roly-poly one sounds a bit more fly
and may understand exactly what he's doing, but it is hard to
penetrate his high-camp posturing. Mystic Meg by all accounts
could be the best of the bunch, an old fashioned crystal-ball
toter, showing up the pretensions of the others, which is presumably
why they try to disown her.
The serious newspapers seem to be embarking on a self-conscious
flirtation with astrology. Until recently they had nothing to
do with such tabloid stuff. Then the Sunday Times succumbed and
introduced its own astrology column, presumably with the excuse
that it was just a bit of a giggle. The others haven't yet stooped
so low, but some are acknowledging the pressure in more subtle
ways. For the article by Justine Picardie the ostensible excuse
was a story about financial success and succession. The same writer,
incidentally, has followed it with an article on angels, again
humorously open-minded ("There's this thing called going down
in spirit"), teetering on the brink of outright respect for the
lucrative profession of "angelologist" - one of them is an "eminent".
Sorbonne professor of "philosophy" (which turns out to mean the
usual "cultural studies" metatwaddle). There's this thing called
being so open-minded your brains drop out.
This year-end the Guardian commissioned various individuals
to look ahead to the future. Tucked away among some real scientists,
historians and philosophers is none other than our roly-poly friend,
the "First astrologer to play Nostradamus on TV". Here are his
expert views: "On 12 January, Uranus moves into Aquarius and it's
the dawning of a new age. It will be altruistic, humanitarian,
brotherhood of man. I'm really looking forward to this. The energy
(he obviously doesn't understand what this technical term means)
will last until November 2008 because Uranus will be eight years
in Aquarius and Pluto 13 years in Sagittarius. Thank God I'm Aquarius".
And lots more in the same vein, which the Guardian considered
fit to print. The Princess of Wales, herself an enthusiast for
astrology as one might expect, has "got her Moon in Aquarius"
and so has Tony Blair. "Could he do for the country what Di has
done for the monarchy?" I have a better question. Why does a decent
newspaper hand out free publicity to this phoney? Just a giggle,
again? Or is the Guardian bending over backwards not to be elitist?
On a moonless night when the only clouds to be seen are the
Magellanic Clouds of the Milky Way, go out to a place far from
street light pollution, lie on the grass and gaze out at the stars.1
What are you seeing? Superficially you notice constellations,
but a constellation is of no more significance than a patch of
curiously shaped damp on the bathroom ceiling. Note, accordingly,
how little it means to say something like "Uranus moves into Aquarius".
Aquarius is a miscellaneous set of stars all at different distances
from us, which have no connection with each other except that
they constitute a (meaningless) pattern when seen from a certain
(not particularly special) place in the galaxy (here). A constellation
is not an entity at all, not the kind of thing that Uranus, or
anything else, can sensibly be said to "move into".
The shape of a constellation, moreover, is ephemeral. A million
years ago our Homo erectus ancestors gazed out nightly (no light
pollution then, unless it came from that species' brilliant innovation,
the camp fire) at a set of very different constellations. A million
years hence, our descendants will see yet other shapes in the
sky, and their astrologer (if our species has not grown up and
sent them packing long since) will be fabricating their oracles
on the basis of a different zodiac.
A far more rapid astronomical shift is the precession of the
equinoxes.2 My birthday (26 March) is listed in the papers as
Aries but this is the sun sign which somebody with my birthday
would have had when Ptolemy codified all that stuff. Because of
the precessional shift of approximately one whole zodiacal sign
over the AD era, my sun sign is in fact (if you can call it a
fact) Pisces. If astrologers were doing something that had any
connection with reality, this presumably ought to make a difference.
Since they aren't, it doesn't. Scorpio could go retrograde up
Uranus and it wouldn't make any difference.
Actually, of course, only planets can "go retrograde", and even
then it is an illusion. As they, and we, orbit the sun, planets
will on occasion appear to reverse their direction from our point
of view. But these occasions have no significance. From a third
planet they would be seen to "go retrograde" at different times.
Planets do not really "wander", and certainly not remotely near
any constellation, which are the distant backdrops of our viewpoint.
Even if "going retrograde" or "moving into Aquarius" were real
phenomena, some thing that planets actually do, what influence
could they possibly have on human events? A planet is so far away
that its gravitational pull on a new-born baby would be swamped
by the pull of the doctor's paunch.3
No, we can forget planets going retrograde, and we can forget
constellations except as a convenient way of finding our way around.
What else are we seeing when we gaze up at the night sky? One
thing we are seeing is history. When you look at the great galaxy
in Andromeda you are seeing it as it was 2.3 million years ago
and Australopithecus stalked the African savannah. You are looking
back in time. Shift your gaze a few degrees to the nearest bright
star in the constellation of Andromeda and you are seeing Mirach,
but much more recently, as it was when Wall Street crashed. The
sun, when you see it, is only eight minutes ago. But look through
a large telescope at the sombrero Galaxy and you are seeing a
trillion suns as they were when your tailed ancestors peered shyly
through the canopy and India collided with Asia to raise the Himalayas.
A collision on a larger scale, between two galaxies in Stephan's
Quintet, is shown to us at a time when on Earth dinosaurs were
dawning and the trilobites fresh dead.
Name any year in history and there will be a star up there whose
light gives you a glimpse of something happening that very year.
Whatever the year of your birth, somewhere up in the night sky
you could find your birth star (or stars, for the number is proportional
to the third power of your age). Its light enables you to look
back and see a thermonuclear glow that heralds your birth. A pleasing
conceit, but that is all. Your birth star will not deign to tell
anything about your personality, your future or your sexual compatibilities.
The stars have larger agendas, in which the preoccupation's of
human pettiness do not figure.
Your birth star, of course, is yours for only this year. Next
year you must look to another shell of stars, one light year more
distant. Think of this expanding bubble as a radius of good news,
the news of you birth, broadcast steadily outwards. In the Einsteinian
universe in which most physicists now think we live, nothing can
in principle travel faster than light. So, if you are 50 years
old, you have a personal news sphere of 50 light years radius.
Within that sphere it is in principle possible (obviously not
in practice) for news of your existence to have permeated. Outside
that sphere you might as well not exist - in an Einsteinian sense
you do not exist. Older people have larger existence spheres than
younger people, but nobody's existence sphere extends to more
than a tiny fraction of the universe. The birth of Jesus may seem
an ancient and momentous event to us. But the news of it is actually
so recent that, even in the most theoretically ideal circumstances,
it could in principle have been proclaimed to less than one 200-million-millionth
of the stars in the universe. Many, if not most, of the stars
out there will be orbited by planets. The numbers are so vast
that probably some of them have life forms, some have evolved
intelligence and technology. Yet the distance and times that separate
us are so great that thousands of life forms could independently
evolve and go extinct without it being possible for any to know
of the existence of any other. The real universe has mystery enough
to need no help from obscurantist hucksters.
Scientific truth is too beautiful to be sacrificed for the sake
of light entertainment or money. Astrology is an aesthetic affront.
It cheapens astronomy, like using Beethoven for commercial jingles.
By existing law neither Beethoven nor nature can sue, but perhaps
existing law could be changed. If the methods of Astrologers were
really shown to be valid it would be a fact of signal importance
for science. Under such circumstances astrology should be taken
seriously indeed. But if - as all indications agree - there is
not a smidgen of validity in any of the things that astrologers
so profitably do, this, too, should be taken seriously and not
indulgently trivialised. We should learn to see the debauching
of science for profit as a crime.
I must make the usual defence against a charge of scientific
arrogance. How do I know that there is no truth in astrology?
Well, of course I don't know. I can't prove that there is nothing
in horoscopes, any more than I can prove that there is nothing
in the (rather more plausible) theory that chewing gum causes
mad cow disease. There just isn't any evidence in favour (of either
theory), and no reason why we should expect there to be evidence.
It isn't as though it would be difficult to find evidence for
astrology, if there were any to be had. It wouldn't take anything
like that blissful cartoon in which a newsreader announces: "In
a major breakthrough for the science of astrology, all people
born under Scorpio were yesterday run over by egg lorries."4 A
statistical tendency, however slight, for people's personalities
to be predictable from their birthdays, over and above the expected
difference between winter and summer babies, would be a promising
For us to take a hypothesis seriously, it should ideally be
supported by at least a little bit of evidence. If this is too
much to ask, there should be some suggestion of a reason why it
might be worth bothering to look for evidence. Graphology, as
a means of reading personalities, is not supported by evidence
either, but here the possibility that it might work is not hopelessly
implausible a priori. The brain is the seat of the personality
and the brain controls handwriting, so it is not in principle
unlikely that style of handwriting might betray personality. It
seems almost a pity that no good evidence has been forthcoming.
But astrology has nothing going for it at all, neither evidence
nor any inkling of a rationale which might prompt us to look for
evidence. Astrology not only demeans astronomy, shrivelling and
cheapening the universe with its pre Copernican dabblings. It
is also an insult to the science of psychology and the richness
of human personality. I am talking about the facile and potentially
damaging way in which astrologers divide humans into 12 categories.
Scorpios are cheerful, outgoing types, Leos with their methodical
personalities go well with Libra's (or whatever it is). My wife,
Lalla Ward, recalls an occasion when a more than usually brainless
hanger-on approached the director of the film they were working
on with a "Gee, Mr Preminger, what sign are you?" and received
the immortal rebuff, "I am a do-not-disturb sign." We love an
opportunity to pigeonhole each other but we should resist the
temptation. Are you an introvert or an extrovert? Does your body
shape betray an endomorphic, a mesomorphic or an ectomorphic personality?
"The ectomorph is much more of an introvert and more shrewd and
Personality is a real phenomenon and psychologists (real, scientific
psychologists, not Freudians or Jungians) have had some success
in developing mathematical models to handle many dimensions of
personality variation. The initially large number of dimensions
can be mathematically collapsed into fewer dimensions with measurable,
and for some purposes conscionable, loss in predictive power.
These fewer derived dimensions sometimes correspond to the dimensions
that we intuitively think we recognise - aggressiveness, obstinacy,
affectionateness and so on. Summarising an individual's personality
as a point in multidimensional space is a serviceable approximation
whose limitations can be measured and are known. It is a far cry
from any mutually exclusive categorisation, certainly far from
the preposterous fiction of astrology's 12 dumpbins. It is based
upon genuinely relevant data about people themselves, not their
birthdays. The psychologist's multidimensional scaling can be
useful in deciding whether a person is suited to a particular
career, or a couple to each other. The astrologer's 12 pigeonholes
are, if nothing worse, a costly and irrelevant distraction. Lonely
hearts advertisers frequently insert astrological references alongside
relevant information such as musical tastes or sporting interests,
and may even insist that the partner they are looking for must
be, for instance, Taurus. Think of what this means. The whole
point of advertising in such columns is to increase the catchment
area for meeting sexual partners (and indeed the circle provided
by the workplace and by friends of friends is meagre and needs
enriching). It is nothing short of ludicrous then to go out of
your way to divide the available number of potential partners
by twelve. Lonely people, whose life might be transformed by a
longed for compatible friendship, are deliberately encouraged,
by their reading of astrological quacks in the newspapers, wantonly
and pointlessly to throw away 11/12ths of the available population.
This is not just silly, it is damaging, and the quacks concerned
deserve our censure as strongly as their deluded victims deserve
There are some stupid people out there, and they should be pitied
not exploited. On a famous occasion a few years ago a newspaper
hack, who had drawn the short straw and been told to make up the
day's astrological advice, relieved his boredom by writing under
one star sign the following portentous lines: "All the sorrows
of yesteryear are as nothing compared to what will befall you
today." He was fired after the switchboard was jammed with panic-stricken
readers, pathetic testimony to the simple trust people can place
The American conjuror James Randi recounts in his book Flim
Flam how as a young man he briefly got the astrology job on a
Montreal newspaper, making up the horoscopes under the name Zo-ran.
His method was to cut out the forecasts from old astrology magazines,
shuffle them in a hat, distribute them at random among the 12
zodiacal signs and print the results. This was very successful
of course (because all astrology works on the "Barnum principle"
of saying things so vague and general that all readers think it
applies to them.) He describes how he overheard in a cafe a pair
of office workers eagerly scanning Zo-ran's column in the paper.
"They squealed with delight on seeing their future so well laid
out, and in response to my query said that Zo-ran had been 'right
smack on' last week. I did not identify myself as Zo-ran... Reaction
in the mail to the column had been quite interesting, too, and
sufficient for me to decide that many people will accept and rationalise
almost any pronouncement made by someone they believe to be an
authority with mystic powers. At this point, Zo-ran hung up his
scissors, put away the paste pot, and went out of business.""
My case is that Randi was morally right to hang up his scissors,
that serious newspapers should never give named astrologers the
oxygen of publicity, that astrology is neither harmless nor fun,
and that we should fight it seriously as an enemy of truth. We
have a Trade Descriptions Act which protects us from manufacturers
making false claims for their products. The law has not so far
been invoked in defence of simple, scientific truth. Why not?
Astrologers provide as good a test case as could be desired. They
make claims to forecast the future, and they take payment for
this, as well as for professional advice to individuals on important
decisions. A pharmaceuticals manufacturer who marketed a birth-control
pill that had not the slightest demonstrable effect upon fertility
would be prosecuted under the Trade Descriptions Act, and sued
by trusting customers who found themselves pregnant. If astrologers
cannot be sued by individuals misadvised, say, into taking disastrous
business decisions, why at least are they not prosecuted for false
representation under the Trade Descriptions Act and driven out
of business? Why, actually, are professional astrologers not jailed
1. This is carrying poetic licence too far in a Northern
Hemisphere paper. The Magellanic Clouds are visible only in the
Southern Hemisphere! R.D.
2. Many astrologers are aware of precession but, instead of
updating their methods, they prefer the lazy escape of 'tropical
astrology' in which one uses zodiacal constellations as labels
for the patch of sky where they would have appeared years ago.
3. The physics here is more complicated than can be spelled
out in a general article. Two influences could theoretically be
involved, direct gravitational attraction and tidal effects. In
terms of direct gravitational attractions (which obey Newton's
Inverse Square Law), an average doctor would be outweighed by
all but the most distant members of the solar system. Tidal effects
are another matter and they are far more important. They amount
to distortions of the earth's gravitational field and obey an
inverse cube law, instead of the usual inverse square law. The
doctor's body would have greater tidal effects on a new-born baby
than any heavenly body (see I.W.Kelly, J.Rotton & R.Culver, 1985,
The Skeptical Inquirer, Vol. 10, No.2, pp 129-143. R.D.
4. I am aware that this is a joke against `naive sun sign'
astrology which is shunned by other astrologers. It is, of course,
sun sign astrology's well-heeled practitioners in newspapers and
on television that I am attacking as exploitative charlatans.
If there is good evidence (i.e. better than the often quoted but
non-robust Gauquelin attempt) that some other kinds of astrology
work, well and good. I have to say that I'd be extremely surprised.