17 July, 2008

Thoughts on Astrology (not that I believe any of that shit)

Location: the stars
Mood: skeptical and intrigued

Every time I mention anything related to the "science" of astrology, I always feel the need to parenthesize with "not that I believe any of that shit". It has become a standard disclaimer, and it is almost an ongoing joke for me.

A fair number of people I know have at least a familiarity with the assertions of astrology. It is a good bet that probably 9/10 or more could name all 12 signs of the zodiac, not that this is an amazing feat, since I can name all 12 months of the year in English and French, and that doesn't make me a French scholar. And this doesn't just hold true for Americans - it seems that in other cultures, including people from places as far away as, say, Kazakhstan (not that I am referring to anyone in particular), also have a strong familiarity with the "concepts" of astrology.

And while I could assert that probably 95/100 people I would meet are familiar with at least some of the concepts, and probably 2 out of 3 people think that some of the things that it predicts about peoples' personalities are at least "intriguing", and maybe 1/3 of those people (that would be 2/9 overall) think there is "definitely something to it", we would be hard pressed while standing here, to make a single valid argument based on any experimental "science" that exists on Planet Earth, to assert that astrology is, in fact, a theory.

A classmate in my first round of graduate school (Engineering, at University of Massachusetts) probably said it best, when he asserted that "the cars in the parking lot have more of an effect on us than the planets or stars in space". What he meant was, if you consider the universal law of gravitation that describes the force that two planets exert on one another to be proportional to the mass of each planet, and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them, then a 2000 pound vehicle that is 400 meters away will have a greater gravitational "force" on you than, say Jupiter at a distance of a few hundred million miles, or the constellation Taurus, at a distance of about 484 (+/- 14) light years (the +/- 14 is critical to keep in mind!).

And Steve was right.

But if it is not about force, then what is it? If there is to be any science in it, then it must either be about force, or about radiation, or magnetism, or something? If not, then we are talking about a phantom, and we might as well subscribe to the Loch Ness monster and all sorts of other things. Maybe the electromagnetic spectra from these heavenly bodies exerts some force on us? But when you think about it from the standpoint of pure astronomy, it becomes even more absurd.

The earth, one planet in our solar system among 9, orbits the sun. The sun is situated at some fairly arbitrary position among all of the other constellations. As we look out into the night sky, we can make the observation that "Mars is 'in' Taurus" but all this means is that if you look, from our perspective, at the planet Mars, and draw a straight line, the constellation that you see in that field of view is Taurus.

Now, another important thing to remember, other than this extremely egocentric nature of that perspective, is that the naming of "constellations" is a completely arbitrary thing. The stars that comprise Sagittarius did not come into existence in the shape of an Archer, and they were not born at the same time, and they do not even reside "close" to one another. In fact, they do not even remotely resemble much of anything other than that our minds are quite adept at seeing patterns where there are none.

So what we assert when we "believe" in the "science" of astrology is that our arbitrary named groupings of stars, hundreds of light years away, and their apparent alignments with tiny insignificant planets in our own solar system, somehow translate into deterministic factors in human character and/or development.

Can we assert that without laughing at ourselves?

If we decide to assert that all of this is plausible, which of course it is not, but if we do - then there are a few additional things that must be considered.

First, why is our "astrological" sign ascribed to the moment of birth? A baby develops for 9 months (give or take) in the womb, and then emerges. Between last week, and this week, not much has changed in this baby, but that exact minute of birth defines the "sign". If we were to assert that a force is acting, then I would be far more likely to believe that such a force would need to be acting at the most vulnerable, most sensitive, most transient time of development - namely, conception. At that moment, you have the greatest opportunity for massive results from tiny influence. If one little subcellular compartment were to receive slightly more pressure than another, it is conceivable that this would translate into that cascade of cell divisions and developmental decisions taking a different course. If there were to be an astrological force, that would make the most sense that it acts on the newly fertilized egg. It also seems relevant because this is when that organism is technically "born". Now, I am absolutely not making an assertion here about when life begins, and this is in no way supporting ANY pro-life argument. But once the egg is fertilized by a sperm, the genetic identity of that prospective creature is effectively set. And this is where I would assert that the force would be acting.

Now, if you really believe in astrology, then this assertion could actually help your theory (as you call it). The reason is this. Maybe the reason why some people do not apparently fit the personality of their sign is because the sign actually should be measured at conception! Maybe if you are born early or late, it messes up the computation. So maybe, in reality, "Libra", as we call it, is not the sign of people who are born between September 23 and October 22! Maybe Libra is really people who were conceived between December 23 and January 22! So if you were conceived on February 15, but then you were born 3 weeks early, you will be labeled a Libra by our system, but actually, you are a Scorpio who needed less cooking time! Anyway, that's just a thought.

But it's a bit of a tangent, because we cannot make those assertions if we have no basic grounds for doing so.

Here is problem number two with astrology. It professes to be deterministic in an important way. Unlike social sciences, astrology is asserting that external forces are defining a physical result. This is not like psychology or sociology, which look at what is and try to understand it. This is akin to a hard science where cause and effect are mapped more tightly. And, importantly, unlike any social science, astrology negates all observable "cause and effect" explanations, and replaces them with nebulous (pun intended) phenomena.

And if we want to consider astrology, in any way, shape, or manner, to be a science, then it must endure the rigors of the scientific method. Can we construct an experiment to "test" astrology? Not sure. The big snag comes in the area of the "self-fulfilling prophecy". It is difficult to rule out the fact that we may "fit our descriptions" because we read about them at an early enough age, and started to believe that we were destined to become what they say we are. And that self-fulfillment also ascribes to our parents. If my parents think "we've got a Libra on our hands" and then they raise me with those footnotes always in mind, then I have been "honed" for those attributes. So the only way to test validity is to find people who were raised completely in the absence of any form of popular astrological culture.

Hm... there may be data on this. And it is almost interesting enough to investigate.

However, my first search of biological/medical/psychological literature revealed this article. And to think, it took me SIX years to get my Ph.D. Sigh...

But the bottom line is, what would the experiment be? And what objective data could we collect? I guess if we got 100 people from an astrologically naive culture, and chose them to be 10 from each "sign" of the zodiac, and then observed these individuals day-to-day behaviors, in work, love, friendships, decision making, etc. And then our team of observers binned them into categories of what we thought each person's sign was - if we saw significantly better than random assignment - that should tempt us to buy in. But what would we be buying in to? That's the problem. I don't know what we would be "buying".

If I take a leap and assume that self-fulfilling prophecy is not playing a primary role, then I have a very strange data set out there, which is incredibly compelling. I know multiple people who are textbook examples of a particular sign, exactly as any book would describe them. I know some people who don't fit at all.

Case in point:

The drummer for my last band has the exact same birthday as I do. But the two of us, in my estimation, were extremely unlike one another. But then again, I don't know him very well. I think of myself as extremely friendly. He did not strike me that way. But I also think of myself as non-committal, and he certainly did strike me that way. I think of myself as valuing fairness, and balance, but also being able to become quite confrontational when my beliefs are challenged. I never saw any of that in him. But maybe we were touching our lives on points that weren't really "big things" for him, so I never saw it. Or... maybe it is the difference in our Moon signs that could be the cause for our apparently dissimilarity.

See, there are a million ways to explain away differences from the expectation. But the hard thing for me, still, is to explain away the apparent similarities between people born under a given sign. And so many people base their expectations of others around this, in terms of family, relationships, friendships, etc.

How do we dismiss it?

I presented 20 reasons why it cannot possibly be valid, and more reasons why even if it is valid, it has been quantified all wrong, and yet, it still sticks. Or maybe it doesn't.

There have to be psychology tests out there that have people self-rate on various traits and then measure how they map against the zodiac descriptions. But again, we need to test naive individuals, or else we cannot remove the confound.

It's so fucking frustrating.

And all of this stemmed from someone referring to me today as a "textbook Libra", which, unfortunately, I cannot deny.


  1. If you know your exact time and place of birth and get a full reading, taking your rising sign (etc, etc) into consideration - it can be quite startling.

    But, of course, any discussion of astrology must be modified with a firm and forceful "it's all crap" statement.

    Every person I've ever known fits their sign to some degree and I can often guess their sign before I ask their birthday, but I started reading about it as a wee lassie, so I might fall into the category of being conditioned to look for those aspects in others and ignore the ones that don't fit.

    That's my modifier.

    But, make no mistake about it, you *are* a Libra!

  2. The truck had been in orbit for eons i suppose

  3. Okay then... um... the inpatient mental health ward is down the first hall on your left.

  4. Inman Wheelright21 July, 2008 08:29

    Astrology is at least steeped in tradition, like a soggy old tea bag.

    Compare that do this discussion of chemtrails...especially since you are under the flightpath of oh so many jet aeroplanes.

    Before you go to the following link, just remember the truck was a tanker truck -- with chemicals inside! Watch for small dogs noticing you on the street. And for God's sake get the mercury-gold amalgam fillings taken out of your skull! AND WATCH THE BIRDS, TOO...DON'T FORGET TO WATCH OUT FOR THE BIRDS...AND BRING YOUR RFID CARD WITH YOU AT ALL TIMES....