Once upon a time, people believed all kinds of funny things about the physical world and the universe. In the graveyard of discarded ideas rendered obsolete by modern science, you’ll find all kinds of terms that claim the honorable suffix -ology, and by extension the scientific credibility that comes with genuine disciplines of science like biology or geology.
One such idea that refuses to die the well-deserved death long suffered by outdated concepts based on primitive world views is that archaic cosmological theory called astrology.
The people who believe in astrology usually take offense to anyone calling it a “pseudo-science”, and they are absolutely correct. Astrology is not a pseudo-science, or at least not any more so than phrenology or alchemy. It’s simply a bunch of superstitious nonsense that propagates a neolithic understanding of the universe. It does not deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as the word “science”. It’s a remnant of those times when people believed the stars to be the rulers of fates, and it deserves to be placed squarely in the drawer labeled “Mythology”, along with the theory that Athena sprang fully formed from the head of Zeus.
Astrologists believe that the position of the star constellations at the place and time of your birth determine key aspects of your character. This theory, which may have made perfect sense to neolithic goatherds, and which in the absence of radio telescopes and space probes constituted an uncontradicted explanation of the universe, doesn’t have a shred of physical evidence to support it. It’s not science for the same reasons that Intelligent Design is not science: the claim at its core is non-falsifiable.
Now why is it that stuff like phrenology has long since gone the way of the dodo, but astrology is still wildly popular and accepted as tentative truth by so many people?
I’ve discussed the issue with astrology proponents on many occasion, and part of the answer might be the general scientific illiteracy among the population. I’ve been called “arrogant” and “close-minded” for dismissing astrology, and people have tried to use what they considered scientific arguments in favor of their ersatz religion.
“We now know that gravity has an effect on everything,” they say. “The oceans have the tides, and we’re made mostly out of water.”
“How do you know there’s nothing to it? My sister is a <zodiac sign>, and when you read an astrology book about <zodiac sign>, it fits her perfectly.”
“It’s simply the study of planets and the cosmos. How can any ‘scientifically-minded’ person reject that?”
Well, first of all, we already have a valid scientific discipline dealing with planets and the cosmos. It’s called astronomy, and like any proper science, it concerns itself with the observable and measurable evidence, because that’s the only way to get a handle on the physical universe. Proper “star science” concerns itself with what can be seen and recorded, not by whether your Auntie Mabel’s generosity is linked to her birth falling into the monthly segment allocated to the zodiac of Cancer. Astronomy meshes with the other sciences, because it holds itself to the scientific method. Astrology, on the other hand, does not. Astrology at best simply doesn’t correlate with what we know about astronomy, astrophysics, cosmology, and physics, and at worst contradicts the mountains of reliable evidence we have piled up in those legitimate scientific fields.
The claim about the influence of gravity is laughably spurious. Astronomy concerns itself with the constellation of the stars that are visible from the place of your birth at the time of your birth. It represents Middle Age cosmology. It doesn’t account for all the gravitational influences not visible to the naked eye, and unknown to Middle Ages astrologers. What about black holes? What about neutron stars? Also, astrology makes conjectures using a purely two-dimensional representation of the star constellations and planets, without accounting for their mass or distance fom each other. Astrology reflects the knowledge of the cosmos circa 1400 A.D., and the claim about gravitational influence has absolutely no bearing when you consider that it doesn’t take into account all the things not visible to the eye of a Middle Ages star gazer armed with unsophisticated optics. Then consider that objects in close proximity exerted a much bigger gravitational influence on you than far-away objects–the presence of the delivery nurse had far more of an effect on your body than far-off Jupiter, regardless of the mass disparity between the nurse and the celestial body. LabRat and Stingray over at Atomic Nerds can probably dissect the claims of astrology in a more educated manner than I could (I can only claim the completion of undergraduate-level physics classes), so I won’t attempt to delve into the scientific angle any further. Suffice it to say that anyone with even a spotty understanding of physics and modern cosmology cannot be a believer in astrology.
I’ll leave you with the opinion of a man much wiser and smarter than this scribe, and there’s not a word in his monologue that would have me disagree: here’s Carl Sagan on astrology.
(If you haven’t already done so, head over to LawDog, Matt G, Tam, Atomic Nerds, and Ambulance Driver for their takes on the subject. We did not coordinate or collaborate, and I am posting this as a scheduled post ahead of time, so I have no idea what you’ll find over there, other than the suspicion that it’ll be entertaining.)