A Chair of Astrology?
Abstract -- In 1998 an anonymous benefactress bequeathed a million pounds to help establish a Chair of Astrology at a British university. The project was called the Sophia Project after the Greek for wisdom, and its aim was a degree course that would teach astrology in the same way as existing astrology schools did while avoiding their disagreement on content. Unfortunately the disagreement could not be avoided, the mandatory academic rigour did not exist, and in any case the cost was beyond Sophia's means. So in 2002 the Sophia Project had to settle for the Sophia Centre at Bath Spa University, the first British academic centre for studying cultural astronomy and astrology. At the Sophia Centre everything about astrology is fair game but not teaching it, testing it, or questioning its factual validity. In effect astrology is not required to have a real effect in the world, and is worthy of study only because many people believe in it. This subterfuge has swept astrology's problems under the carpet and made it academically respectable. But evidently not respectable enough, for in April 2006 Bath Spa University announced that the Sophia Centre would not be accepting any more students and would be closing. In September 2007 the Sophia Centre moved to the University of Wales at Lampeter, where from January 2008 it would again be accepting students, but only for distance learning. In this article the views in 1999 of two dozen academics and a think-tank of astrologers are summarised and further illustrated by examples from chiropractic, nursing, and parapsychology, and from seven universities (Birkbeck, Edinburgh, Exeter, Hertfordshire, Leicester, Southampton, and York in Canada). The academics predicted that only by abandoning science and the teaching of astrology, and by retreating to the humanities, could astrology be made academically acceptable, and even then only within an existing school. Their predictions turned out to be essentially correct. An appendix gives three media articles on astrology entering academia.
At the suggestion of Charles Harvey, Chairman of Trustees of the Urania Trust, a registered charity under whose auspices the bequest was to be administered, the project was named the Sophia Project after sofia, the Greek word for wisdom, knowledge, specifically divine wisdom. (The Urania Trust was founded in 1970 by John Addey, who in 1958 had also co-founded the Astrological Association.) After three years of discussion between interested parties, the outcome was the Sophia Centre at Bath Spa University College. The Sophia Centre was part of the School of Historical and Cultural Studies.
On page 59 of the Nov-Dec 1998 Astrological Journal, Charles Harvey had made it clear that the aim was "a university level degree course on real astrology", one that would teach astrology in the same way as existing astrology schools did while avoiding their disagreement on content. Unfortunately the disagreement could not be avoided, the mandatory academic rigour did not exist, and in any case the cost was beyond Sophia's means. So in the end the Sophia Project had to settle for less.
The Sophia Centre opens
At the Sophia Centre everything about astrology was fair game but not teaching it, testing it, or questioning its factual validity. The degrees and diplomas to be awarded would have no direct connection with what working astrologers did. In effect astrology was not required to have a real effect in the world, and was worthy of study only because many people believed in it. This subterfuge swept astrology's problems under the carpet and made it academically respectable. Nevertheless stable resources, a properly maintained astrology library, and the requirements of academia could only be for the good. Ironically all the Sophia Centre's students to date (roughly a dozen each year) have been astrologers, making good the supposed lack of connection with what working astrologers do.
Similarly at least 6 of the 15 papers presented to the inaugural conference of the Sophia Centre in June 2003 entitled "Astrology and the Academy" proceed as if the scientific study of astrology, or its teaching, was still on the menu. For example Dr Angela Voss looks at better ways of teaching astrology, Professor Jesus Navarro argues that future science might accommodate astrology, Dr Maarit Laurento sees astrology as a "new branch of science", Pat Harris actually tests some astrological claims statistically, Geoffrey Cornelius argues that academia has a duty to "educe verity" (determine the truth) of astrology's claims, and Jean Hinson Lall sees excitement ahead in the testing of claims "in the arena of established scholarship." All six authors are astrologers. Here is a clear hint that the Sophia Centre might be seen by astrologers as implying (wrongly) that astrology-as-usual has achieved academic respectability. The conference papers are reprinted in Campion N, Curry P and York M (eds), Astrology and the Academy, Cinnabar Books, Bristol 2004, which contains an excellent summary by Campion of the background to cultural astronomy.
The Sophia Centre closes
Update: The Sophia Centre re-opens in Wales
Pre-Sophia predictions by academics
What follows is a summary of all the above comments and views expressed up to the end of April 1999. It provides a starting point from which to assess the progress of astrology in academia generally. As it turned out, the outcome was more or less as the academics predicted.
Destination academia as at April 1999
Thus the academic views presented to the think-tank made it clear that Sophia could expect hostility if it tried to enter the scientific arena (as it would if it wanted to teach astrology) because it would entail the teaching of ideas known to be invalid. But there are other arenas such as history and sociology where hostility might be absent. The think-tank of astrologers ignored the first point about teaching, ignored the science connection, dismissed science as irrelevant ("science is not academia"), and agreed with the second point about history and sociology.
The academic views also suggested that the focus should not be on the content of a degree course but on what universities stand for, namely rigour. The think-tank largely ignored this also. Nevertheless a minority felt that "We need to acknowledge our weaknesses in terms of rigour. We need to become self critical." Because the different schools of astrology insist on teaching their own brand of astrology, it was "unanimously agreed that there was no way that the different schools' approaches could be synthesised into a BA in astrology." (Note how the same diversity has never been a problem for a BA in psychology.) Also unanimous was the opposition to any central institute or registry that would oversee standards. The majority felt that BA and MA courses were desirable, provided astrologers had some control over content, but there was no agreement on the actual content.
Ironically the think-tank did not attempt to resolve by horary astrology the many questions up for discussion. Which seems akin to a meeting of bankers refusing to use money. What follows is a summary of the views expressed by various academics up to April 1999 on these various points in turn. Remember that all this is 3-4 years before the Sophia Centre became a reality.
Entering the teaching / scientific arena
This might change if the teaching of astrology became part of the university system. There would now be a claimed relevance to philosophy and science, a claim symbolised by the Chair of Astrology, and this would attract critical scrutiny on a scale never experienced before. PsycLIT and Medline databases would be interrogated, and the hitherto easy life of astrologers would be gone forever, with a humiliating public collapse of the Chair of Astrology being a distinct possibility. Not the sort of thing to interest a reputable university.
Furthermore, astrologers are invariably outraged whenever astrology is criticised, even if the criticism is in obscure journals read by almost nobody of importance. What will they think of Sophia for opening a Pandora's Box of scrutiny by trenchant critics in mainstream journals read by almost everybody of importance?
Nevertheless some newer universities might be tempted, because universities are desperately short of cash (unethically so in some cases), an undergraduate course in astrology would most likely be profitable, and the academic anti-science movement in Britain is definitely around, albeit not as strongly as in the USA. So a chair could be railroaded through by say an anti-science humanities faculty. But that still leaves problems as illustrated next.
Astrology at Southampton University
Who said skeptics need not apply?
Another example: The only UK Chair in Alternative Medicine is at the University of Exeter, and the incumbent is an unceasing public advocate of rigorous placebo-controlled tests. He co-edits the journal Focus on Alternative and Complementary Therapies that critically evaluates published tests, and the result is often their collapse due to methodological flaws. Imagine the consequences for astrology and Sophia if the first UK Chair of Astrology were similarly inclined -- which of course a good academic chair could hardly fail to be, since it is their academic duty to ask "what is the evidence and how good is it?".
The example of York University in Toronto
Comparison with existing academic courses
If a reputable university is to award a qualification, the teaching or practice of astrology would have to be avoided. Thus a suitable course might involve (1) history, such as the ancillary BSc one-year courses in the History of Medicine, or (2) evaluation, such as the MSc courses in Decision Making. For example the astrology literature could be used to provide examples of critical vs uncritical thinking, or good vs faulty design, or how to evaluate evidence, thus providing students with a grounding in rational and open-minded thinking -- presumably not the use of astrology that the Sophia Project had in mind.
There might be scope for research into astrology, but only for an individual project, such as those undertaken as part of a degree in psychology or sociology. An entire course on research would not be justified (much less an entire department as for parapsychology at Edinburgh) unless it came back to evaluation, as in the diploma courses in the Extra Mural Department at Birkbeck. These courses are academic, emphasize evaluation of evidence, and are similar to the first year of a BSc in Psychology. Students who pass the exams can claim credit (eg missing the first year) towards some degrees such as Open University.
Hijacking of assets
The same is true of astrology. Much of what was originally part of astrology (eg astronomy, geophysics, lunacy) has gone elsewhere leaving only the most superficial of ties. New areas such as the human judgement processes that underlie chart readings have immediately gone elsewhere, in this case to cognitive psychology. How many astrologers would consult Wolf numbers or geomagnetic indices or a list of cognitive errors as part of their readings? In short, any parts of astrology that were productive in research would tend to be hijacked by other disciplines, leaving only an unproductive husk.
The example of parapsychology
(The Koestler Trust, which is funded by provisions in Koestler's will, is not related to the Koestler Foundation, which relies mainly on fund raising. The latter was set up in 1978, eight years after the Urania Trust, to promote research in alternative medicine, healing, and parapsychology. For the five years 1985-1989 the Koestler Foundation's budget was £2.2 million.)
The example of nursing
Contentious ideas and practices do enter academia but usually within an established subject. For example psychoanalysis (within psychology) and alternative medicine (within medicine) were accepted only because, as part of the deal (whether proponents liked it or not), they had to be open to criticism from peers, and to the debate so essential to the advancement of knowledge. Again, none of this is true of astrology.
The proper focus
Unlike ordinary schools, universities are at the top of the intellectual ladder. So they set the standards. Standards mean rigour, and rigour means requiring students to be critical. Indeed, an intellectual discipline reserves its highest praise for those who are critical enough to prove their predecessors wrong. By contrast, astrology drums critics out of the corps. The boat must not be rocked. Rigour is clearly not part of astrological tradition, which is hardly a good start.
Or as one academic and experienced teacher of astrology put it: "Astrologers generally have a very inflated idea of the intellectual quality of the body of knowledge they profess to have, they have not the least idea of what constitutes a fallacious argument, and have no concept of what a valid experiment consists of. Not that anybody does any experimentation: the whole of astrology is just a collection of fairy tales, anecdotes and superstitions. In any proper university, the usual arguments in favour of astrology would not stand up for five minutes. Astrology could not take that kind of exposure."
Rigour is given teeth by critical thinking, which is basically about evaluating evidence, judging conclusions, and considering alternatives. Look at psychology, perhaps the single discipline nearest to astrology. In the journal Teaching of Psychology 1998, 25, 254-266, a survey of the 37 current introductory psychology texts found that 25 treated critical thinking in some detail, typically 1000-2000 words. This is in addition to the many entire books that exist on critical thinking. By contrast none of the hundreds of introductory astrology texts published over the years give any hint that critical thinking even exists, even though it could hardly be more relevant to what astrologers do.
One think-tank astrologer complained that the academics applied rigour only to astrology as a science, whereas it could also be applied to astrology as say magical thinking or a philosophy, thus expanding the opportunities for entry into academia. But there is no guarantee that the outcomes will be any better than viewing astrology as a science. In fact such areas are effectively covered in university courses on critical thinking. Hardly an entrance here for astrology except as an example of uncritical thinking.
Sophia seems to have only one option
In such a difficult situation it seems that Sophia has no option but to focus on a less assailable area such as the humanities (subjects such as literature, language, history and philosophy). For example astrology could be seen as an example of how some people have interpreted the world. The subject matter would then restrict itself to the history of astrology (how it developed), and the psychology, sociology, and culture of astrology (why and how people do it), and the phenomenology of astrology (how it appears to people). The humanities have the additional advantage that its topics are a matter of fashion, which makes them less vulnerable to attacks based on, say, merit or utility or even clarity.
Academically this would be perfectly acceptable, although rather lightweight. It would perhaps be like a Chair in Shamanism that doesn't claim shaminism has real effects in the world, but insists it is worthy of study because many people believe in it. A bit like Santa Claus.
Which means not a Chair of Astrology but something like a Chair of the History of Astrology. Except that Departments of the History and Philosophy of Science already tend to cover that sort of thing. Given the hostility of most philosophers towards astrology, eg Popper, Kuhn, and Feyerabend (who criticised the 186 scientists but criticised astrology even more), there seems little chance of finding refuge in philosophy departments proper. Which seems to leave only disciplines like sociology, culture, and religion as acceptable umbrellas.
Nevertheless, this may beg the question. That astrology is a fit subject of study for an existing sociology department is not an argument for establishing a Chair of Astrology. Indeed, on what basis would a Department of Astro-Sociology justify teaching astrology (Sophia's original aim) rather than the sociology of astrology? Without doubt there are social areas of astrology that deserve wide study. But the departments and journals in which these areas could be studied already exist, for example the journal Isis regularly has articles on ancient or medieval astrology. This is not to say that a study group or journal specialising in astrology's non-teaching areas would be of no value. But where in practical terms does that leave the argument for a separate Chair of Astrology?
Against this could be quoted the example of archaeoastronomy, the study of astronomy in the ancient world, which achieved academic distinction in 2000 when Leicester University appointed the world's first Professor of Archaeoastronomy. But this did not happen in a vacuum. The previous three decades had seen increasing academic interest in archaeoastronomy, which led to international academic conferences and two international societies, each with its own academic journal. The same is hardly true of astrology, although the launch in 1997 of the twice-yearly academic journal Culture and Cosmos: A Journal of the History of Astrology and Cultural Astronomy, edited by Nicholas Campion, might set the ball rolling. At which point the academics had one final question.
Why is a Chair of Astrology needed?
So perhaps it is prestige that attracts astrology to academia. In which case there is a basic problem -- real prestige is deserved. It is the result of disciplined work, of critical thought, of willngness to put beliefs to the test, and of following where the chips fall. Astrology presently shows none of this, but it cannot aspire to prestige without striving for the virtues on which it is based.
So astrology seems set to become a university subject. The Sophia Trust has £500,000 available to support university teaching and research in astrology. There are, apparently, four takers, including Southampton.
With activities like golf, curry-making and knitting entering degree courses, it looked as though the line would be drawn at astrology and pornography. Pornography, however, has crossed the threshold of a higher education system short of cash and students as a module in media studies, and now it seems that astrology is to be accepted, too.
The continuing hold of astrology on the human psyche is curious. Millions swear by it. Star columns are one of the most popular features of newspapers. Professional astrologers counsel, predict the share market, and offer career and business advice. Whole cultures are imbued with it. It is even said that Ronald Reagan would clear the dates of his summit meetings with an astrologer. But there is no convincing evidence that astrology is literally or scientifically true. Where proof seems to exist, there is usually a more straightforward explanation. The connection between personality and the zodiac, for example, seems to come from enough people knowing the characteristics of their star sign to affect the overall pattern of results on a self-report questionnaire.
We read into the stars, rather than being affected directly by them. Sometimes the consequences can be appalling. The astrological link to prostitution in Nepal seems to arise because some parents there reject daughters who have unfavourable horoscopes.
In the West, while for some astrology is a bit of fun, at most a useful conversation gambit, others are convinced it works. How can this be if it is not true? The star columns in newspapers can appear uncannily accurate on occasions, but this probably comes from the readers supplying the specific meaning to cleverly written general descriptions. It's a bit like the inkblot test where you see what you want to see. Tests have shown that people willingly accept as their own horoscopes drawn up on a random birth date.
At another level, astrology may work if the astrologer is warm and empathetic. If you have a problem and go to a doctor, priest or counsellor, you have to admit some weakness. But if you go to an astrologer, all you need to provide is your date and time of birth, and you can meet on equal terms.
The astrologer casts an impressive-looking chart and is legitimised by it to ask you personal questions and offer advice. If he or she is any good, the astrologer may, in this neutral way, be able to unpack what is troubling you.
She: "A planet in this house suggests money worries."
And so on.
A similar approach could help an actor talk over whether to accept a part or a businessman reach a difficult decision. But I look forward to the time when someone sues under the Trades Description Act to see what a court of law would make of it all.
Apparent verifications are part of the story, but I suspect astrology's continuing appeal goes much deeper. The scientific account of human existence is very bleak -- three score and ten on a lump of rock in an infinite universe. How much more comforting to be able to connect with a personalised cosmos.
Astrology apparently had its origins when the planets moving across the heavens were interpreted as the chariots of gods. The ancients created a mythology which survives in modified form to the present day. There are, in fact, strong strands of astrology in the Christian religion. Jesus, for example, was born at the passing of the age of Aries into Pisces, hence the many unlikely biblical allusions to lambs and fishes.
It could be argued, therefore, that it does not matter whether astrology is checkably true. Like literature, art and music, it is capable of investing life with meaning. It is not so different in this respect from Freudian psychology.
So what, then, are the objections to it as a university subject? Well, there are none if it contents itself with examining how a set of beliefs based on an outmoded view of the universe comes to hold such sway in modern times. It would seem an excellent case study for courses in the history of ideas.
But I suspect the Sophia Trust will not be starting from the premise that astrology is mistaken. The teaching and research that the Trust is sponsoring will seek to develop it as a subject. The universities accepting Sophia's support could find themselves presenting astrology as fact: reinforcing a false consciousness.
From the Guardian, Thursday 22 March 2001
Having lamented, now and again, the growing respect accorded to astrology, I have concluded that the greatest difficulty for anyone attempting to convey the idiocy of this branch of occult thinking, is to establish what harm it does.
To some, of course, the banality, arbitrariness and sheer untruthfulness of astrology will be quite enough reason to stop wasting time on it. But its adherents still protest that, even if it does no recognisable good, there is no evidence that astrology actually hurts anyone.
I am indebted, then, to University of Southampton, which has just announced the foundation of a research group for the critical study of astrology, funded by a grant from an astrology-promoting body called the Sophia Trust. Professor Chris Bagley, who leads the group, has professed himself a sceptic. If so, he has a funny way of showing it. One project will look at what the group posits as an "apparent relationship" between the position of Jupiter at the time of birth and subsequent alcoholism and drug dependency. Another, led by a "professional astrologer" whose objectivity we shall have to take on trust, is already "investigating whether the success rates of IVF (In Vitro Fertility sic) and other fertility treatments could be improved by coinciding treatment sessions with movements in the star charts of couples hoping to conceive."
It is hard to imagine an endeavour more likely to cause anxiety and distress to some of medicine's most vulnerable patients. In the first place, of course, the experiment is intellectually disreputable. There is no evidence that the stars influence fertility, or, for that matter, any other aspect of human existence, so no phenomenon to investigate. There is on the other hand, abundant evidence that people suffering from infertility may go to almost any lengths for the chance of having a child.
Whatever the outcome of its abject study, the University of Southampton is proposing a possible connection between planetary auspices and individual reproductive systems, thus ensuring that some desperate couples will now start handing over money to astrologers as well as to acupuncturists, healers, herbalists, dieticians, chinese medicine-women and esteemed Harley Street practitioners such as Professor Ian Craft. Some may even decide to defer treatment cycles -- and consequently, their chance of pregnancy -- in the belief that the stars, as well as their hormones, are not propitious.
The only hope that the University of Southampton's pseudoscientific endeavours will be shunned, as they deserve to be, comes from a unexpected quarter: Jonathan Cainer, the tabloids' favourite soothsayer.
In the Mirror, which he joined a few days ago, Cainer has apologised to readers for suddenly changing the sign for Scorpio into an eagle, with qualities that are correspondingly eagle-like ("you have this amazing capacity to soar high above any problem") rather than pathetically scorpionish ("a scorpion can only hide in the shadows"). He explained that some people don't care for being "identified with a poisonous insect."
Although Cainer is persuasive, his make-over has caused understandable resentment among readers, who have been told, for years, that the power of star signs depends upon them being marvellously ancient and based on the shapes suggested by the constellations as they appeared to residents of Babylon in 1700BC. Cainer has now offered to switch back to a scorpion "if enough readers request it."
While it remains to be seen -- except, of course, by his fellow astrologers -- whether Cainer will succeed in singlehandedly redrawing the zodiac, couples deemed by the University of Southampton to be at particular risk of one disease or another, might like to sidestep doom by reinventing their star sign.
Leo, my own sign, has always struck me as disagreeably aggressive, so I have decided to switch to the Donkey -- "you have this amazing capacity to bray loudly at all times" -- instead. Since the whole system is made up anyway, there seems no reason why the pick-your-own zodiac should not in future be composed entirely of pleasing animals, from sweet little seahorses to noble elephants and dauntless hamsters. What puzzles me is, if even Jonathan Cainer knows that, why doesn't Professor Chris Bagley of the University of Southampton?
Dateline Saturday 31 March 2001
The initiative came in a circular from the University Grants Commission (UGC) to India's universities: inviting them to set up departments of Vedic Astrology leading to doctoral degrees, starting from the next academic year.
The circular said: "There is urgent need to rejuvenate the science of Vedic Astrology in India, to allow this scientific knowledge to reach the society at large and provide opportunities to get this important science exported to the world."
When India's Hindu nationalists came to power three years ago, crusty looking chaps in late middle age for the most part, swathed in ballooning dhoti, with grey military moustaches and red tilak smeared across their brows, no one quite knew what to expect. A month back they produced a budget full of economic reforms; the other day they found themselves mired in an arms kickback scandal, just like Congress governments before them. So scrub off the caste marks and what was really new? Perhaps, after all, this was just another fair-to-middling Indian government: corrupt, pragmatic, self-serving, too busy feathering the nest to worry about bigger issues.
The circular from the UGS shows this is not the case. The dhoti and the tilak are the uniforms of the stormtroopers of the Vedic Golden Age. Their improbable mission: to transform India into a regional superpower with nuclear deterrent, a network of highways linking all parts of the country and a seat on the Security Council; and to turn the clock back 5000 years, to a time when a race of Sanskrit-speaking Aryans strode the sub-continent, ordering their lives harmoniously according to cosmic law.
In one respect at least the UGC circular is redundant: the "scientific knowledge" of astrology already reaches the "society at large" to an amazing degree.
Observant Hindus, which means most of them, order their lives with diligent attention to the projections of astrologers, soothsayers and palmists. Couples planning to marry must ensure that their horoscopes don't clash, and wed on an auspicious day. Every aspect of business and family life, from the organisation of the rooms in a house to the names you choose for your children (vedicfuture.com, an astrological website, offers 15,000 possibilities) is brooded over and pronounced upon by well-paid "experts."
Sages of this sort have been at the elbow of the powerful ever since Independence. The late prime minister Indira Gandhi was notorious for her reliance on astrologers. Other leaders, too, have had murky "godmen" advising them in the wings. But now these men are in the driving seat: the men in whose fevered vision the alien mosques and churches crumble, the reminders of domination are seared away and the Hindu finally walks tall again -- these are the men making policy and carrying it out. Their plan, as one Indian journalist put it: to turn India into a "modern Hindu version of Saudi Arabia, blessed by multinational corporations ... while the state is free to pursue its own social agenda." Theirs is a sentimental vision. One of their less controversial ideas is the revival of the study of Sanskrit. But it is not enough to claim what is clearly true, that Sanskrit is at the core of Hindu culture and spirituality. It must also be asserted that it is the "mother of all languages", the most scientifically structured and the most suitable for the modern computer era. They also insist that it was once upon a time the language of the Indian masses whereas in fact it was the exclusive language of Brahmins, and deliberately kept from the lower castes.
But the other India, the India that produced Nehru and the Nobel prize-winner in Economics, Amartya Sen, is not taking this lying down. India has created a vibrant intellectual tradition, and it is not about to be steamrollered by the obscurantists.
Romila Thapar, a distinguished historian, told Delhi University last month in a speech to the 78th annual convocation, that teaching astrology would be a "direct challenge" to established knowledge. Others have put it more bluntly. The author and academic Imtiaz Ahmad writes: "A science has to have a ... framework ... of testable hypotheses. Astrology has no such hypotheses ... Its conclusions that solar and lunar eclipses happen when the Sun and the Moon are engulfed by the demon Rahu ... or that marrying a girl born under the influence of Mars can lead to the husband's death, are mere religious and magical beliefs."
Amulya Ganguli, a columnist, says: "To treat this exercise in hocus-pocus as a science is preposterous." Delhi's most distinguished university, Jawarhalal Nehru University, has already turned the UGC's idea down flat. Dr Kiran Datar, dean of colleges at Delhi University, was more circumspect. "We have received the proposal", she told me. "The proposal is under consideration. A very long process is involved." And if it were accepted, where would the Department of Astrology be located? "In the Sanskrit Faculty, or perhaps in the Faculty of Arts." Not in the Science Department then? "Oh no, not in Science."
[Comments by Indian scientists on the UGC's idea can be found in Indian scientists on Vedic astrology on this website under Historical.]