Astrology and Bad Science
Some astrology critics find that bad science works better than critical thinking
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The practice of astrology as a field has many faults and like any practice is open criticism. However, some critics are willing to abandon science, logic, evidence checking and critical thinking to push their beliefs and distaste.

Precession and the 13th Sign Hoax

In January 2011, an astronomy professor, Parke Kunkle, told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune that the Earth's "wobble" has shifted the zodiac signs.[1] By confusing the signs of the Tropical Zodiac with the constellations of the Astronomical Zodiac, he caused a media frenzy. What he omitted to state was that there are three Zodiacs (Tropical, Sidereal and Astronomical) and that the Tropical Zodiac was set up nearly two thousand years ago as a measuring system to take account of the precession of the equinoxes. So the Signs of the Zodiac have not shifted. [see article Astrology & Precession]

As a professor of science history explains "In Western astrology, the astrological signs are determined by the position of the sun in the sky, not the absolute positions of the constellations. Refuting a doctrine that astrologers don't hold seems, at best, ancillary and probably irrelevant to any attack on astrology," ~ Professor Darin Hayton

Professor Dawkins - often in error, but never in doubt

The sum contribution of Richard Dawkins' tenure as the Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science was to confuse and alienate people at the grass roots level from science. In 2012, I attended a local astronomy meeting where the lecturer was at pains to disassociate himself from Dawkins. Rather than use the opportunity to promote science, Dawkins promoted his own atheistic materialist philosophy. This meant that he used his position to demote what he saw as his competitors. In his mind, besides religion, beliefs, mythology, symbolism, this included astrology. Here, the professor and CSI fellow was frankly out of his depth.
"Astrology ... was developed in the second century AD by the philosopher Claudius Ptolemy and has not moved on since despite the discovery of new planets and despite a shift in the earth's rotational axis that has thrown Ptolemy's Zodiac out by twenty three degrees."
~ Richard Dawkins, Enemies of Reason, Part 1, Channel 4 (August 2001)

Dawkins' point may sound reasonable to an amateur but it is complete nonsense to anyone familiar with the history of astronomy and astrology. Keep in mind that the naming of the stars: astro-nomy and the logic of the stars: astro-logy were merged up until 17th century. Kepler was the last great astronomer who was also an astrologer. So Dawkins is inadvertently also attempting to trash the good science of astronomy (including both ancient and as we will see, modern).
  1. Astrology was not "developed in the second century" and it was not developed by Ptolemy. The earliest records of astrology come from Mesopotamia show that astrology was probably at least two thousand years old when the Tropical Zodiac was instituted in the second century, which has been widely attributed to Ptolemy, in Alexandria (though he may not have been the originator).
  2. Dawkins is not correct if he means that astrology "has not moved on since" as there have been a series of advances. Scientific examples include the introduction of new aspects from Kepler, modern rulerships with the discovery of the outer planets, psychological astrology inspired by the writings and research of Carl Jung, the scientific evidence of Michel Gauquelin and the technique of Astro*Carto*Graphy (locational astrology). However, if he means that the Tropical Zodiac has not moved on, then he is correct in the sense that the Tropical Zodiac has remained fixed to Earth's equinoxes as it is intended to do. I doubt this was what Dawkins meant.
  3. "... despite the discovery of new planets" The discovery of Uranus, Neptune and Pluto has enhanced astrology. See article [Does Astrology conflict with mainstream science?]
  4. "a shift in the earth's rotational axis that has thrown Ptolemy's Zodiac out by twenty three degrees." Yes, there has been a shift in the Earth's rotational axis and it is nearer 24 degrees (23.86° as of 2000). However, this does not "throw Ptolemy's Zodiac out". First, it is not good practice to label it, Ptolemy's Zodiac (as other Hellenistic astrologers were using similar techniques) and that is one among other reasons, why it is known as the Tropical Zodiac. Second, it remains consistent with its design and has been used and is still used by astrologers as well as astronomers and navigators in some instances using terms like the East Point, Zero Aries and 360° Celestial Latitude. This is how planetary positions are listed in reputable published ephemerides as used by astronomers studying the solar system, astrologers and a few navigators.
What Dawkins does not realise is that when he opens his mouth and comes up with this nonsense, he looks like an ignoramus to anyone who knows the subject. His pseudo-authority is risible. Perhaps his script writer at Channel 4 simply didn't know or care or, God forbid, mischievously set him up. Dawkins is persona non-grata in many quarters including readers of over 400 million Harry Potter books[2] and 55% of the world, about 3.85 billion Christians, Muslims and Jews who Dawkins considers narcissists for their belief in a god![3]

When Dawkins picked on a more arcane study, astrology, he failed to do his research. His confirmation bias overtook his critical thinking. He looked for what he wanted to believe and had no interest in evidence or fact checking. Imagine someone criticising biology on the back of a misunderstanding of the difference between DNA, genes and chromosomes even if most people would not know the difference. This lack of critical thinking is typical of his whole approach to astrology. His modus operandi has been to set up and debunk one strawman (Newspaper Horoscope columns, Precession etc) after another.

"His (Dawkins') orientation toward the world is the product of a classic category mistake, but because he's nestled inside it so snugly he perceives complex concepts outside of his understanding as meaningless dribble. If he can't see it, then it doesn't exist, and anyone trying to describe it to him is delusional and possibly dangerous."
Eleanor Brown (2014) Richard Dawkins What on Earth happened to you? The Guardian

How an author clocked up seven classic blunders in four sentences

Here's how a New York Times bestselling author, Jodi Picoult managed to spread misinformation through a lack of fact checking with the experts in the field:
"Two thousand years ago the night sky looked completely different, and so when you get right down to it, the Greek conceptions of star signs as related to birth dates are grossly inaccurate for today's day and age. It's called the Line of Procession: back then the sun didn't set in Taurus, but in Gemini. A September 24 birthday didn't mean you were a Libra, but a Virgo. And there was a thirteenth zodiac constellation, Ophiuchus the Serpent Bearer, which rose between Sagittarius and Scorpio for only four days. The reason it's all off kilter? The earth's axis wobbles. Life isn't nearly as stable as we want it to be."

~ Jodi Picoult, My Sister's Keeper (2004)


What is not clear is the context. It may be that the author has deliberately planted a half-witted quote onto a character to show that he or she is strong on opinions but weak in intelligence. However, a friend saw it reprinted in Goodreads and considered that it was intended as a serious comment. The comments are quite cringe-inducing on so many counts:
  1. The night sky does not look completely different - almost all the stars are in the same place, the difference is not in appearance but in timing.
  2. The 'Star Signs' - by which she means, Signs of the Zodiac were not Greek conceptions, but mostly originated with the Babylonians with later Egyptian and Greek (primarily Hellenistic) contributions.
  3. The Signs are not "grossly inaccurate for today's day and age" - See Astrology & Precession.
  4. It's not called the "Line of Procession" - but Precession of the Equinox.
  5. I was born on September 24, which is just after the Equinox. The Sun was, is and will be in Libra in the tropical zodiac on that date.
  6. There never 'was' a thirteenth zodiac constellation - the proposal that Ophiuchus is part of the Zodiac is a modern one. The Babylonians established a 17 or 18 constellation zodiac in the Bronze age, some 3,000 years ago. It included the Pleaides, Orion, Perseus, Auriga and Andromeda but not Ophiuchus.
  7. "Ophiuchus ... rose ... for only four days" is nonsense. Whether the constellation is in the zodiac or not, Ophiuchus rises and sets every day. What she should have written is that the Sun passes through the constellation of Ophiuchus for a certain number of days. If you superimpose the artificial boundaries of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) constellation of Ophiuchus over the constellation of Scorpio and part of Sagittarius, the Sun would have passed through Ophiuchus for more than 4 days. According to Tyson "The Sun, after leaving the constellation Scorpius, enters the constellation Ophiuchus. It then stays in Ophiuchus for a longer (emphasis Tyson's) period of time than Scorpius, the sign that is advertised to precede Sagittarius." (Tyson 1994).
The lesson is clear if you want to write about astrology, you should check your facts with an astrologer - not a journalist, a magician or an astronomer. I am happy to proof read these type of comments before publication.

Historical Ignorance and Unsupported Assertions

After a flood of complaints to the BBC about unsupported statements about astrology on BBC programs by astronomer Brian Cox, the BBC commissioned a report to review their impartiality and accuracy of their coverage of science. For this report they choose a militant atheist and sceptic, Steve Jones. Emeritus Professor of Genetics at University College London. The report addressed a number of areas including climate change and contained significant errors notably misreprenting Lord Lawson and Lord Monckton. Given the author's bias, the report turned out to be a whitewash with mild criticism that the BBC was not partial enough when reporting science.
"Astrology ... is drivel because it flies in the face of four centuries of evidence, from Galileo to the latest space probe."
~ Steve Jones, BBC Trust review of impartiality and accuracy of the BBC's coverage of science (July 2011) (p.60)

So Jones defends Cox's unsupported assertions by more sweeping unscientific statements. Where is the evidence? Professor Jones was probably not aware that Galileo was an astrologer and an associate of Kepler who was also an astrologer. So what did Galileo discover that undermines astrology? How does a space probe disprove astrology? Were the Gemini space craft (originally known as Mercury) launched under inauspicious planets? (This is not a serious suggestion)

The detailed 103-page report was entitled "Getting the best out of the BBC for licence fee payers". We have to ask whether licence fee payers are served by reports that reinforce bad practices based on personal prejudice rather than research into astrology.

Footnotes

  1. Ward, Bill (January 2011) Sign of the times: Astrology story soars like a comet. Minneapolis Star Tribune. "Countless people were astonished by the "news" in Monday's Star Tribune in which Minneapolis astronomy instructor Parke Kunkle affirmed that the Earth's "wobble" has shifted the zodiac signs. The buzz has raced across the Web like a shooting star." Had Kunkle explained that there are three zodiacs and that it it is not the Signs that have changed, but the constellations, he would not have caused such misunderstanding. The Tribune adds "Kunkle, meanwhile, is ready to brush off the whole brouhaha. 'This has been,' he said, 'an exhausting hoot.'" However his blunder left some followers of astrology confused and astronomers looking as if they are ill-informed about the basics of their subject and out of touch with the world-view of others. One commentator on the Huffington Post wrote: "It is disingenuous - This is a hoax. Let's promote knowledge of history instead of ignorance and confusion about it."
  2. In 2008, Dawkins said: "The book I write next year will be a children's book on how to think about the world, science thinking contrasted with mythical thinking." but he also wants to do the opposite to "appeal to children to think for themselves". Then why doesn't he want children to read the Potter series so that they can make up their own mind? Dawkins "I think it is anti-scientific - whether that has a pernicious effect, I don't know, ..." Daily Telegraph
    Dawkins announced these criticisms while in the same year he made a cameo appearance as himself on Dr Who in the "Stolen Earth". Dawkins admittedly has a soft spot for the legendary fantasy TV time-travel series. His third wife, Lalla acted the role of the Time Lady (1979-1981). But is it relevant or necessary that tales of fantasy and mythology such as Harry Potter or Dr Who be scientific? And just because something is not scientific, it does not make it anti-scientific. At that time, Dawkins claimed to be an atheist, a belief which has no scientific basis. He has since recanted to agnosticism, a more scientific position, with only a miniscule possibility of a god.
  3. What Dawkins may or may not realise is that narcissism is a personality disorder in which people have an excessive sense of self-importance, an extreme preoccupation with themselves, and lack of empathy for others. He may not have intended this, which is why a good scientist should not be so loose with his terminology.
  4. Tyson, Neil de Grasse (1994) Universe Down to Earth Columbia University Press. Quote from an article published in 2009 on the Astrology News Service site entitled "Tyson's Zodiac: Are There Really 14 Signs?" by Diana K Rosenberg.
  5. BBC Trust review of impartiality and accuracy of the BBC's coverage of science (July 2011) With an independent assessment by Professor Steve Jones and content research from Imperial College London.

Robert Currey


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