Astrology: Fraud or Superstition(This is an updated version of the pamphlet Astrology: Fraud or Superstition? originally published by See Sharp Press in 1987.)

 

Origins and Popularity of Astrology

For millennia, human beings have looked up at the night sky and asked themselves, “What does it all mean?” One of the oldest recorded answers is provided by astrology: the belief that the stars and planets strongly influence our lives.

Humans began observing the night sky tens of thousands of years ago, but astrology is of more recent origin. The earliest records of astrology date from approximately 4,000 years ago, at a time when science was unknown and the religious/magical view of the world was near universal. (Religion and magic were a natural outgrowth of wonder and ignorance; they likely survived, at least in part, because they were useful to the priests and royalty as a means of frightening their subjects into line.)

Thus, astrology was the result of combining the ancient practice of observing the night sky with a magical view of the world, specifically what Lawrence Jerome, in 1975 in The Humanist, calls the “principle of correspondences.” He explains this principle as follows: “The omen or magic object has certain physical properties that are related to the external world by analogy. For instance, the reddish color of the planet Mars means to the astrologer that it is magically related with blood, war and metal iron. . . .”

After its invention by the Babylonians (whose priests both used astrology and read the entrails of animals to foretell the futures of kings and nations), astrology was further developed by the ancient Greeks, who named the planets after their deities and ascribed the qualities of those deities to the planets. (Those qualities are still the ones ascribed to the planets in “modern” astrology.) Finally, in the second century c.e., Ptolemy wrote his Tetrabiblos, the astrological bible, in the city of Alexandria and brought astrology into its “modern” form.

During the Middle Ages, astrology was denounced by the church and went into eclipse, though it remained popular in the islamic world and in the East. In Europe, it began to flourish in the late Middle Ages, from roughly the 13th century on, and was very popular during the Renaissance. But the rise of science toward the end of the period sent astrology into eclipse once again, and it didn’t resurface as a widely held belief until the turbulent years of the early twentieth century.

Since its resurrection, belief in astrology has touched all segments of the population, not only in the U.S., but in Europe as well. Most of the top Nazis believed in astrology. Himmler’s astrologer, Wilhelm Wulff, even wrote a book on the subject, Zodiac and Swastika. Hitler himself, however, apparently did not believe in astrology and viewed it as merely a convenient means of manipulation.

In the U.S., a number of years ago Time magazine identified Ronald Reagan as a client of astrologer Carroll Righter, and a survey in the 1980s revealed that 15% of college undergraduates believed astrology was scientific. Today, the percentage is far higher: in 2014, a National Science Foundation (NSF) report stated that 30% of college graduates consider astrology scientific.

Among the general population, the percentage is even higher. Three decades ago, Jon D. Miller of Northern Illinois University reported that 39% of adult Americans believed that astrology is scientific. Things have only gotten worse since then. The 2014 NSF study reports that 45% of adult Americans believe astrology is scientific. One  suspects considerable overlap between that group and the 46% cited by the NSF who don’t know that it takes the Earth one year to orbit the sun.

In the 1980s, two-thirds of U.S. daily newspapers carried horoscopes. There were at least 10,000 full-time and 175,000 part-time astrologers in the country. And astrologically related books, magazines, and magazine articles were a glut on the market. A few sample titles: “The Astrology Way to Stock Market Profits,” “Birth Control by Astrology,” “Astrology: Judging Compatibility,” and “Choosing by the Stars: Appropriate Perfumes.”

Things haven’t changed much since then. If anything, the percentage of newspapers carrying astrology columns has probably gone up, the number of astrologers has almost certainly gone up along with population and credulity, and astrology books still sell like, well, astrology books.

(A number of years ago I wrote, under a pseudonym, a “horrorscope” for a humor magazine in which I listed among my credits an article in Motor Trend titled, “Astrology and MPGs: Tune Your Car by the Stars.” After reviewing astrology book titles, my only question is when Motor Trend will get around to publishing such an article.)

Why Astrology is Magic, Not Science

In addition to its being based on the magical “principle of correspondences,” there are many other reasons to regard astrology as a system of magic rather than as a science. First of all, astrologers have never attempted to explain how astrology supposedly works—that is, why the apparent positions of different astronomical bodies supposedly have different effects upon different people. As Bart Bok, former president of the American Astronomical Society, put it:

Many believers in astrology have suggested that each planet issues a different variety of special as-yet-undetected radiations or “vibrations” . . . [but] there is apparently conclusive evidence that the sun, moon, planets, and stars are all made of the same stuff, varieties and combinations of atomic particles and molecules, all governed by uniform laws of physics. It does not make sense to suppose that the various planets and the moon, all with rather similar physical properties, could manage to affect human affairs in totally dissimilar fashion.

Second, astrology does not even take into account all of the major bodies in our solar system, let alone all those in our galaxy or the hundreds of billions of other galaxies in the universe. Many astrologers still make their planetary computations using only the planets known to the ancients; they don’t take into account those discovered by modern science (Uranus, Neptune, and the minor planets); and no astrologers take into account the nearest stars, which are far nearer to us than those in the zodiac constellations, whose stars are at wildly varying distances.

Third, there is no reason whatsoever to believe that the mysterious, undetectable, astrological forces supposedly emanating from the planets would be any stronger than the gravitational forces of the planets. And those forces are weak indeed. At its nearest conjunction, Mars exerts far less gravitational force upon a newborn infant than the midwife or doctor who delivers the child.

Fourth, astrologers, in their computations, do not take into account the inverse square law, which is a fundamental law of physics. It says that the amount of radiation received by a body varies as the inverse square of its distance from the source of the radiation. For example, the amount of light reaching a ship four miles from a lighthouse will be only one-quarter (per unit of surface area) of that reaching a ship two miles from the lighthouse, and one-sixteenth of that reaching a ship one mile from the lighthouse. But laws of physics do not matter to astrologers, and they don’t care whether Mars is 40 million or 200 million miles away. They only concern themselves with the apparent position—to a viewer on Earth—of Mars in relation to the backdrop of the zodiac constellations and the other planets. So, if the astrological “radiation” (“vibration”—choose your own nebulous term) of the planets does influence human beings as astrologers claim, it would have to be a most peculiar type of radiation, one which disobeys a fundamental, well-established law of physics.

Fifth, many astrologers ignore precession. The Earth’s rotational axis is not stable, and the Earth wobbles like a top—but much more slowly. So slowly, in fact, that it takes approximately 26,000 years for the Earth’s axis to complete one rotation around the 47-degree-diameter circle it describes. This slow wobbling is called precession. It means, among other things, that the stars we now see in summer will be seen in winter (and vice versa) 13,000 years from now. It also means that the sun has receded almost a full sign along the zodiac since the Tetrabiblos was written nearly two millennia ago. So, the calculations of astrologers who rely on that hoary source are now off almost a full sign.

Sixth, the most popular type of astrology is natal astrology, in which astrological forces supposedly leap into action at the moment of an individual’s birth, imprinting her or him with certain characteristics. But the choice of the time of birth as the moment of supposed astrological imprinting makes no sense at all. Astrologers choose the time of birth purely because it’s convenient. They might object that a mother’s body shields her baby from astrological “radiation” until birth, but that argument ignores the fact that almost all babies are born indoors, and it would be illogical to think that this “radiation” could penetrate wood, concrete and steel, but not a few centimeters of human flesh.

Some astrologers, especially the “humanistic” variety, attempt to discount criticisms such as these by claiming that the planets and stars do not produce astrological effects, but, rather, that the positions of astronomical bodies only serve as “indications” of astrological forces. This is a transparent attempt to evade questioning of astrology’s supposed causal mechanism by retreating into a fog of ever-vaguer claims. By taking such a position, astrologers are saying in effect that for unknown reasons the positions of some of the stars and planets are indications of the undetectable effects of unknown types of undetectable forces emanating from unknown, undetectable sources. Such a proposition is even more ludicrous than the traditional astrological view that the stars and planets—never mind how—influence our personalities and daily lives.

Finally, there is absolutely no empirical evidence, absolutely none, that astrology has any value whatsoever as a means of prediction. What scientific testing has been done indicates that there are no astrological “effects.” For instance, former Michigan State University psychologist Bernie Silberman asked astrologers to list compatible and incompatible signs. Silberman then inspected the records of 478 couples who divorced and 2978 who married in 1967 and 1968 in Michigan. He found no correspondence beyond that of random chance between the astrological signs predicted to be compatible or incompatible by astrologers and the signs of those getting married or divorced. French statistician Michel Gauquelin has conducted far more detailed tests which also have discovered no astrological effects. (Gauquelin’s early, highly publicized report of a “Mars effect” on professional athletes was the result of an error in his calculations, and similar studies conducted by others showed no such effect.) In one test he examined the signs (moon, zodiacal, planetary, ascendant, and mid-heaven) for 15,560 professionals from five European nations in 10 different occupations. He found no evidence of any astrological effects. His calculations showed that the correlation between astrological signs and occupations to be that of random chance.

Reasons for Belief in Astrology

The fact that millions of astrological believers claim that they “feel” astrological influences in their own lives and “see” astrological influences at work in the lives of others is a prime example of wishful thinking, and nothing more. Believers in astrology, like other religionists, want so badly to believe in their preordination system that they “feel” and “see” effects where none exist. Similarly, a great many born-again christians claim to “feel” the presence of Jesus or the “holy spirit” and to “see” the hand of Satan at work in astrology and other occult beliefs. (Most born-again christians really do believe that Satan exists.) And if believers in astrology want us to accept their feelings as evidence supporting their beliefs, they must, to be consistent, grant the same evidentiary value to the feelings of born-again christians, which in some ways directly contradict the feelings of astrological believers—all of which demonstrates the unreliability of personal feelings as “evidence” in matters of this sort.

Why would anyone believe in anything as patently absurd as astrology? Probably for reasons similar to those of persons who believe in such patent absurdities as transubstantiation or their own “personal savior.” One particularly disturbing aspect of this belief in the absurd is that many astrological believers not only do not use logical (scientific) reasoning, but they do not want to use it. Their “reasoning,” like that of climate change deniers, is that of a stubborn child: “If I want it to be true, it must be true!” So, they adopt (probably unconsciously) a dishonest intellectual attitude, clinging obstinately to anything which seems to confirm their belief, while ignoring the plethora of inconvenient facts which call it into doubt. The pathetic clamoring about Gauquelin’s since-disproven “Mars effect”—while other similar studies indicated that no such effect existed, and the above-listed objections to astrology went unanswered—is a case in point.

The standard reply of astrologers to this is the childish, “You’re one too,” which evades the question of their own dishonesty by implying that skeptics also ignore inconvenient facts. Unfortunately for the astrologers, that does not appear to be the case. A study of information evaluation by psychologists Peter Glick of Lawrence University and Mark Snyder of the University of Minnesota, published in the May/June 1986 Humanist, concluded that skeptics are “fact-oriented,” while astrological believers are “theory-driven”:

[S]keptics paid close attention to the information they gathered . . . while believers largely ignored what targets told them when it came to pass judgment on how well the astrological horoscope had predicted the targets’ personalities.

A study of credence in another occult belief, ESP, published in the March 1980 Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, tends to confirm that occult believers ignore contradictory evidence much more often than skeptics. In that study, skeptics and ESP believers read articles with which they agreed and with which they disagreed, and then answered questions about the articles. Approximately 90% of the skeptics correctly remembered the conclusions of articles regardless of whether the articles were pro- or anti-ESP, while fewer than 40% of the ESP believers correctly recalled the conclusion of the article which debunked ESP; a large majority of the believers “remembered” that the article debunking ESP concluded that ESP exists.

Another of Gauquelin’s experiments provides a more amusing example of the self-deception of occult believers. He took out a newspaper advertisement in which he promised free personalized horoscopes to all who answered the ad. One hundred fifty persons responded. Gauquelin then sent out the same horoscope to all 150 and asked them how well it fit them. Ninety-four percent replied that they recognized themselves in it. The horoscope was that of Dr. Michel Petiot, a mass murderer.

Why do occult believers have such a reluctance to face facts? Glick and Snyder concluded that, “in order to maintain the sense of being able to predict events, the believer makes the facts ‘fit’ the theory whether or not these events are consistent with the theory’s predictions.” The reason for this blindness is obvious.

It’s an unfortunate fact that a great many people do not want to go to the work of making their own decisions. They want someone or something to tell them how to act, how to think, and how to feel. Astrology, like other religious beliefs, fills the bill. As a system of preordination (“Oh! You’re a Scorpio! You must . . .”), it gives believers a nice, neat means of interpreting reality and of tailoring their behavior and expectations to fit the prescriptions of their belief system. Astrologers themselves admit this, with some of them maintaining that astrology “controls,” “influences,” or “can serve as a road guide.” (The difference between these descriptions is one of degree, not substance.)

Still, why do so many choose astrology as a belief system rather than Mormonism, Catholicism, Islam, etc.? A probable reason is that astrology meets the desire of many people for a preordination system, yet it does not contain the most unpleasant aspects of conventional religions. It is silly and utterly irrational, and almost certainly influences some to make unfortunate personal decisions. (Consider the effect of articles such as “Birth Control by Astrology” upon those who take them seriously.) In extreme cases, astrological belief may incline individuals toward passivity—after all, if everything is written in the stars, why not just go with the flow? But unlike such religions as Judaism, Christianity, Mormonism, and Islam, astrology is not based upon guilt, misogyny, and sexual repression. It is simply based upon credulousness, ignorance, irrationality, and the eagerness of human sheep to be led.

Astrology is a handy crutch for those who are repelled by the more overtly reactionary, inhumane aspects of conventional religions, but are not yet ready to free themselves from supernatural preordination systems. In itself, this turn from organized religion is mildly encouraging. But it would be far more encouraging to see believers in astrology rise from the Procrustean bed of their irrational beliefs and begin to think for themselves.

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Harry Dean Stanton (with baseball bat) as Bud in his starring role in "Repo Man"

Harry Dean Stanton (with baseball bat) as “Bud” in his starring role in Alex Cox’s Repo Man (1984)

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“I can’t relate to the Judaic-Christian concept at all. It’s a fascistic concept. All fear-based. All about there being a boss. Someone in charge. A creator.”

–Harry Dean Stanton, quoted by Ronald Bergan in The Guardian‘s “Harry Dean Stanton Obituary” on 9-15-17

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(A note regarding Repo Man:  Writer/Director Alex Cox named some of the characters after popular brands of beer. In the photo above, Harry Dean Stanton, as “Bud,” is flanked on his left by Tracey Walter as “Miller” and Sy Richardson as “Lite.”)


Alt-country player Al Perry’s song and video, “Jukebox Jihad,” has evidently fallen victim to the PC police — outraged by, what else?, “islamophobia” — and has been taken down by Youtube. (We put “censored” in quotes in the headline, because it’s within Youtube’s rights to only host what they want; but the political intent, the desire to restrict political speech, is obvious.)

Here’s the takedown notice:

If you haven’t heard the song, “Jukebox Jihad” is a rockabilly tune, light, funny mockery (admittedly in questionable taste) of the murderous religious fanatics who have slaughtered and enslaved tens, probably hundreds, of thousands of people, most of whom were/are their fellow Muslims.

We loathe attacks on free speech. We loathe anything smacking of censorship. And we loathe those who think they know what others should be allowed to see and hear.

So, we’ve just put up the “Jukebox Jihad” video on the See Sharp Press web site. I spoke with Al earlier this evening, and he encourages others to download “Jukebox Jihad” and put it up on their own sites.

Without further ado, here’s the link to “Jukebox Jihad.”


SPIRITUAL, adj. A term of self-congratulation used to assert superiority over others.

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–from the revised and expanded edition of The American Heretic’s Dictionary, the best modern successor to Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary

American Heretic's Dictionary revised and expanded by Chaz Bufe, front cover

 


Doomed City, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, front cover(The Doomed City, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2016, 462 pp., $18.99)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon

Brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky were the most popular science fiction writers in the Eastern Bloc from the 1950s through the early 1990s (when the Bloc dissolved), and were arguably the most popular science fiction authors ever. In his illuminating forward, fellow Russian sci-fi novelist Dmitry Glukhovsky, author of Metro 2033, reveals that their many novels in the 1970s had initial press runs of 500,000 and sold out immediately. Their 1964 novel, Hard to be a God, is very probably the biggest selling science fiction title of all time, the world over.

During the 1980s and 1990s, I became a Strugatsky enthusiast and read everything I could find by them in English. So, I was excited to see the appearance of Doomed City last year — a Strugatsky novel I’d never heard of.

It turns out that they wrote it in 1972, but hid the manuscript and didn’t dare to send it to a publisher for fear of being thrown in a gulag (yes, it could have happened even to such immensely popular authors) until the perestroika period in the late 1980s. It finally appeared in Russian in 1989, and the English translation only appeared last year.

Why? Doomed City is a bleak, brutal, and very thinly veiled critique of the Soviet Union and the ideology that produced it and all of its horrors.

Doomed City is set in the City (always capitalized), a place entirely isolated that might not even be on Earth, and which is the site of the Experiment (the nature of which is never explained, nor are the experimenters named). The residents of the City are all volunteers drawn from all over the world: Russians, Americans, Brits, Chinese, Japanese, Mexicans, Swedes, and Germans, including former Nazis. Once in the City, they’re arbitrarily assigned to jobs unrelated to their previous occupations.

The protagonist, and by far the best drawn character, is Andrei Voronin, a former astrophysicist who, at the beginning of the book, is working as a garbage collector. He’s also, not coincidentally, a former Komsomol (official Communist Party youth organization) member, a conventional Marxist-Leninist, and a bit of a blockhead.

Through the following 400+ pages, we follow Voronin and his acquaintances as he works respectively as a garbage collector, detective, journalist, political boss, and adventurer/expedition leader (while still a political boss).

What’s striking throughout all this is how Voronin’s work, the amount of power he has in each job, and his position within the City’s hierarchy, is reflected in his attitudes.

As a garbage collector, he’s a blind believer in the Experiment, despite his bottom-of-the-heap position and the grossly obvious flaws in the City and its workings.

As a policeman, he becomes distrustful, suspects everyone, and becomes increasingly willing to use brutality — supplied by former Nazis who are now fellow policemen — against those he looks down on, which is pretty much the entire population of the City, including his supposed friends.

As a journalist, he adopts an adversarial attitude toward those in power.

And as a political boss, he adopts the attitudes of a political boss: entitlement, contempt for those he supposedly serves, willingness to suck up to even the slimiest political hierarchs, willingness to use violence and coercion to remain in power, and acceptance of a rigidly stratified society, with the political bosses on top and the vast army of proles (including personal servants) beneath them.

It would be hard to provide a better description of the characteristics of the “leadership” that ran the Soviet Union.

This political critique is by far the best part of the book. Other than that, Doomed City doesn’t have much to recommend it. It has a certain dreamy quality, which, however, is largely the result of poor, or at least deliberately hazy, writing (done in part in the vain hope of disguising the political critique, or at least rendering it nonspecific).

Almost all of the descriptive passages are vaguely written, using generalities rather than concrete physical description. The geography of the City, even its size, is all but indecipherable (as is the geography of the lands Voronin explores in the final section of the book). And there are too many nearly nonsensical stream-of-consciousness passages (from inside Voronin’s head), some lasting for pages. (At many points, I found myself asking, “When will this passage end?”)

As well, the secondary characters aren’t very well drawn, there are numerous loose ends, there’s almost nothing in the way of a conventional plot, and the authors offer nothing even approaching a solution to the dismal situation they critique so effectively.

That critique is summed up in a line by Izya Katzman, the most prominent and arguably the best drawn secondary character, in the latter part of the book:

“Any elite that controls the lives and fates of other people is odious.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Recommended only for diehard Strugatsky fans and those with an interest in critiques of Leninism and the former Soviet Union.

(For those new to the Strugatskys, rather than starting with Doomed City, I’d recommend Hard to be a God and Roadside Picnic.)

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Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia (pdf sample here). He’s currently working on the sequel and an unrelated sci-fi novel in his copious free time.

Free Radicals, by Zeke Teflon front cover

 

 


(Note for nonbaseball fans: two-and-a-half weeks ago the Los Angeles Dodgers were an astounding 91-36, and on track to win the most games ever by a major league team;  they’re now 92-51. In contrast, the San Francisco Giants are, after two cringe-inducing defeats in Chicago over the weekend, back on track to lose 100 games.)

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“The Dodgers are in freefall off the highest of perches, having lost 15 of their last 16 games.

“They’ll face an archrival [Giants] that just lost 8-1 to the Chicago White Sox on Sunday, got outscored 21-2 over the final two games on the South Side and dropped yet another non-competitive road series to the team with the worst record in the American League.

“We’re about to find out which emotion is stronger: panic or despair.”

–Andrew Baggarly in the San Jose Mercury News, “Giants lose another stinker to White Sox


–the latest from our friend Pamela Sutter, the author and illustrator of the e-book May the Farce be with You: A lighthearted look at why God does not exist.