Evolution of claimed evidence for astrology
Abstract -- Debates about astrology are as old as astrology itself. But the procedures and inferential statistics needed to make proper tests did not arrive until after 1900, and the computers needed to apply them on a large scale did not properly arrive until the 1980s. This article looks at how the claimed evidence for astrology evolved up to the 1970s using examples from 1850s astro-meteorology, a 1908 debate between astrologers and astronomers in the magazine English Mechanic, a 1933 debate between astrologers and critics in the UK newspaper Sunday Referee, a 1936 booklet by British astrologer Charles Carter answering objections to astrology, a 1951 letter supporting astrology by Pulitzer Prize winner and science editor John O'Neill, the 1958 founding of the British Astrological Association, and a 1976 response to 186 scientists by science writer and Horoscope book reviewer Mark Feldman. The first example (1850s) shows how science was not yet ready to challenge astrology. The next three examples (1908, 1933 and 1936) show how the failure of critics to try astrology for themselves, plus the failure of astrologers to recognise the unreliability of experience, led to the usual stalemate. The remaining three examples show how speculative physics in 1951 and the AA's founding in 1958, followed by further speculative physics in 1976 and the earliest direct tests, were leading to the start of questions being answered. The above examples are a reminder of how limited our scientific understanding of astrology was up to the 1970s, and of the great advances made since then (as will be evident from the articles on this website under Doing Scientific Research).
1850s -- Astro-meteorology
Weather affects almost everything -- farming, building, travel, safety at sea, social activity in general. So predicting the weather became a feature of almanacs that, from the late 16th century onwards, were the most widely read literature after the Bible. Predictions were based on planetary aspects (eg afflictions from Saturn indicated cold weather) and the Moon (eg a change in phase indicated a change in weather), which for centuries had been part of natural astrology. Nothing changed until the 17th century inventions of the thermometer and barometer.
The new instruments started as a hybrid of science and folk practice, then became items of commerce and signs of class. As the market for instruments grew, the Royal Society began making systematic records, and around the 1850s British astrologers saw weather prediction as a way of making astrology respectable. Weather was clearly related to atmospheric phenomena, albeit in unknown ways, so a demonstrable link with astrology would be good news. Proponents included the two most influential astrologers of the time, namely R.J.Morrison, compiler of the famous Zadkiel's Almanac, and W.J.Simmonite, author of The Arcana of Astrology textbook (Simmonite actually gave up his astrology practice in order to concentrate on astro-meteorology).
But almanacs were losing appeal. The increasing use of barometers, and a recognition that almanac predictions were seldom correct, led to the hope that science might provide better predictions. In 1855 the British Government set up a Meteorological Department that was soon gathering enough data from surface weather stations to create pressure maps and issue two-day forecasts. But due to the lack of upper-atmosphere data, a lack not remedied until the early 20th century, and a focus on wind-for-shipping rather than rain-for-farming, the forecasts were seen by land dwellers as scarcely more useful than almanacs.
Nevertheless the forecasts began to appear in newspapers, now widely affordable, and the message that weather could be forecast only two days ahead was bad news for astro-meteorology. Indeed, once it became clear that the weather in different parts of the world could be completely different despite having the same astrology, astro-meteorology was doomed. Common sense (rather than a challenge from science) prevailed. As natural forces became better understood, and meteorology became more and more recognised as a science, astrologers lost interest in the weather. Later generations such as Alan Leo never mentioned it, and today articles on astro-meteorology rarely appear more than once every few years in most astrology journals. It was perhaps the first example of astrology's quest for respectability via emerging fields of science, and more were to follow.
1908 -- Astrologers debate astronomers in the English Mechanic
For three months starting in December 1907, a vigorous debate about astrology occurred in the correspondence columns of the weekly English Mechanic, which is "as everyone knows a paper largely contributed to by astronomers." It began with a letter noting that "Practically every scientific man to-day regards astrology as either a fraud or a delusion. Astrologers, on the other hand, are equally assured that theirs is a true science. What is wanted is an investigation -- a test ... Mere argument is wholly beside the point." To which a well-known astronomer replied "I agree ... Let astrology be tested." To which the sub-editor of Modern Astrology suggested that, if the editor of English Mechanic cared to send in the birth data and sex of an undisclosed person, he would send back chart readings by the readers of MA for his assessment. To which the EM editor replied "We cannot undertake ourselves to do what is suggested" and proposed that others might be interested. But nobody took up the challenge.
Subsequent letters argued that a positive result might not mean much because it could be due to ESP, nor would it establish astrology as a science. Thus "A few select cases, in which the vague terms of a horoscope can be shown to partially agree with the destinies of some eminent person, have not the weight of scientific argument." One letter asked "Where can I find within a moderate compass the principal theorems of astrology and the facts on which they are based?", to which the sub-editor of MA suggested writing to him for a book list (nobody did). He also recommended A G Trent's The soul and the stars, an 1880 article reprinted in 1893 as a booklet, which gave numerous examples of the match between chart and person.
The nearest the letters get to evidence were two from astrologers, one noting vaguely that astrology might be explained by "the electrical discoveries of Professor J J Thompson", the other (whose letter had opened the debate in the first place) noting that "When correspondents have learned to cast and judge horoscopes, it will be time enough then to consider their views. It was practical investigation that won me over to astrology, and nothing I have read in these columns has shaken my faith in the least."
Shortly afterwards the debate was terminated by the EM editor because it was "useless to occupy space" when nothing was being achieved. Alan Leo noted how nobody had supplied a subject for testing, or enquired about books, and concluded "it is difficult ... to believe that the critics really desire to find out the truth." (p.206)Alan Leo (1860-1917) is generally acknowledged as the father of modern astrology. Through his magazines and books he converted a prediction-oriented tradition into a systematic method of psychological analysis with a strong spiritual basis that reflected his Theosophist views. In 1902 he founded the Society for Astrological Research, the first of its kind, but it lasted only one year.
But stalemate was inevitable, simply because astrologers were putting the onus on scientists (rather than on themselves) to provide evidence, and neither side had any. Overall a revealing snapshot of the early years. As shown next, a similar debate fared better in 1933, most likely because the emergence of Sun sign columns three years previously had drawn attention to astrology like never before.
1933 -- Astrologers debate critics in the Sunday Referee
Supporters argued that planets are occupied by gods who influence our affairs; commercialisation is deplorable but does not silence the truth; critics should verify for themselves that birth charts accurately indicate character; planets rotating in the ether emit radiation that acts on earth; critic X's letter is hot-headed and exactly matches his chart; astrology is the science of subtle electro-magnetic energies; an astrologer reading my chart got more details than anyone could know outside myself; astrology works and theoretical reasons why can be given; astrology is not mystical but subject to laws ascertainable by experiment; in the June 1933 issue of Astrology a correct weather forecast was made a month in advance (this was from leading British astrologer Charles Carter who features in the next section).
Critics argued that planetary gods are unbelievable; astrologers count hits and ignore misses; the future is in the hands of our Creator not astrology; astrology works via generalities and fails on specifics; astrology has no scientific proof only unsupported speculations; nobody should believe that masses of hydrogen and helium could affect the destinies of men; the only cure for astrology is more education in science; measuring life by heavenly conjunctions is utterly useless; I have seen several predictions of the Derby winner and every one was wrong; plagues and pestilences arise from stinking drains and polluted rivers not from the stars; Mr Carter ignores the many wrong forecasts that appeared in Astrology.
Prominent were two astrologers claiming to be scientific:
Edgar Bray BSc urged ignoring second-hand opinions in favour of testing the claims. It is unfair to judge astrology via complicated predictions. Instead start with something simple. Which native has red hair and which has black hair? I believe my hit rate would exceed 95%. Which native is quarrelsome and which is mild? I believe my hit rate would be 100%. A solar eclipse in 27 Leo occurs on 21 August 1933. Subsequent transits by major planets over this degree indicate war, earthquakes or other disasters in Central America (where the eclipse is overhead) in January, May or October 1934. In England there could be serious epidemics in January.Edgar Bray was a friend of Charles Carter, who described him as "in his own field one of the best" (in The Lunar Principle, Astrology 26(3), 1952). Bray published articles in Astrology, and died prematurely in the 1950s from a cerebral tumour.
William J Tucker claimed astrology is a science but Derby prediction is futile. Vague pronouncements do not advance debate. Astrology provides explanations that are scientifically verifiable. Other than in certain philosophical areas my astrology is purely scientific. Events can occur because of fate, purpose, or chance, of which only the first can be traced to the stars. Mr Bray has shown he is working with progressions and transits, but such approaches are unscientific and worthless. His warning will not be fulfilled. On 20 August 1906 an eclipse took place in 27 Leo, exactly similar to this year, but historical records indicate no corresponding happenings.William J Tucker (1896-1981) was a British astrologer of some standing. His first contact with astrology came in 1929 at age 33 through the writings of Alan Leo, whose mystical content he did not like. So he aimed to put astrology on a scientific basis. By 1960 he had written 24 books, most of them self-published, and over 300 articles during 1951-1960 alone. (From his Autobiography of an Astrologer 1960.)
Hard evidence was nowhere in sight until five weeks into the debate, when a critic identified only as "JSS" proposed a test that both Bray and Tucker accepted. I was born in England on 8 June 1907 at 4 pm. What is my hair colour, sex, height, weight, profession, religion, politics, state of health, and chief hobby? (16 July 1933, when he was aged 26)
Six weeks later JSS announced the results. Neither Bray nor Tucker knew anything about me except my birth data. Both are very experienced and both claim to be scientific. They are openly contemptuous of each other's methods, and both are equally wide of the mark, the outcome being: hits 1 (politics), misses 5 (hair colour, height, weight, religion, health), not definite misses 3 (profession, hobby, marriage). Hardly support for the claims of astrology.
Both astrologers also gave a character reading, and here JSS's test was perhaps the first of its kind to use controls, albeit crude ones. So his assessment is worth describing in some detail:.Character. Here both astrologers become much more prolific, definite, and flattering. Bray says I am highly gifted and artistic, with a noble character and an accurate sense of values. Tucker says I am very emotional, strong, determined, practical, very artistic, logical, intellectual, precise, loyal, hard working, ambitious, sensitive, obstinate, and sympathetic. Now the crude controls. Earlier today I got character readings from three different weighing machines [insert a penny to receive your weight printed on a card with a character reading on the back]. They agree with each other about as well as Bray and Tucker do. Together they say I am shrewd. practical, good at detail, an excellent judge of people (all of which coincide with what Tucker says), slightly superstitious, tactful, resourceful, and inventive.
JSS concluded: "The test has been an unqualified and obvious failure suggesting unmistakably that astrology has no scientific or practical significance, and that the stars can tell me nothing that I cannot get for a penny out of an automatic machine with equal certainty of being correctly informed." (20 August 1933)
One critic noticed further problems: Bray qualifies his statements with vagueness so they may mean anything or nothing. Tucker knows all about JSS's personality but nothing about his profession or hobbies. If JSS matches Tucker's description he must be as mad as a hatter -- How can anyone who is emotional and temperamental be practical and determined? Or be suited to being a salesman? How can a changeable mind be logical and precise? As for Bray's eclipse-based forecast, seismic events are common in Central America, and England always gets influenza epidemics in January. So Mr Bray's guess cannot be wrong. Conclusion: "Astrologers batten on the almost universal unwillingness of people to examine their prophecies closely and the equally common tendency of inadequately educated people to be swayed by cabalistic terminology and high-sounding phraseology. Astrologers are either conscious knaves or unconscious fools". (13 August 1933)
On 27 August 1933, after 11 weeks of heated debate, the editor announced "The correspondence on Astrology must now be regarded as closed", implying that one test was worth a thousand quarrels. He added "We shall return to the question at a later date." But it never happened. Perhaps because the newspaper ceased publication when it was sold in 1939.
1936 -- Charles Carter answers objections to astrology
Charles Carter was the leading British astrologer of his day and was noted for his clear writing. His 34 objections are actually questions such as "How is it that twins are often dissimilar in disposition and fortune?" (Answer: their nativities are never identical.) Questions 4 and 5 come closest to the issue of evidence. The first asks "Is it not on the face of it absurd to believe things as distant as the planets can affect human beings?", to which Carter replies by appealing to experience and authority:
"This question is best answered by an appeal to facts, for Astrology is still largely in the stage of being an empirical science, that is, it is a science that observes and utilises facts. ... Astrologers KNOW, as a matter of practical research, that the stellar and planetary orbs are related to human beings; and any inquirer can soon prove the matter for himself. ... The only deniers of astrological truths are those who, being entirely ignorant of its principles and practice, are yet so devoid of the true scientific spirit that they will not abstain from passing judgement upon what some of the greatest minds of the past [such as Kepler] have studied and believed."
The next question points out that, even if "planets are related to emotional or even physical changes in our organisms, it is still very hard to believe they can bring about purely accidental happenings", to which Carter replies by again appealing to experience:
"It must be frankly granted that it is hard to explain this on lines that can appeal to one accustomed to think only objectively. Yet it is undoubted that all important events are indicated in the horoscope of birth, or nativity, and the time at which they happen can be ascertained by what are called 'directions', some of which can be seen at a glance from the nativity."
Controlled tests were still some decades away, and other questions are answered by the same appeal to experience. "Has astrology any value from the standpoint of health?" (Yes.) "Besides this, of what practical use is Astrology?" (It shows abilities and where best to apply them.) "If Astrology is so helpful, how is it that astrologers themselves are not pre-eminently successful in life?" (Some are, but most do not seek material success.) "How can I be sure that any particular practitioner really knows his business?" (By recommendation or by results.) In short, there was no advance over the previous stalemates.However, attempts to break the stalemate by empirical tests were being made by a small number of astrologers in Europe, among them Paul Choisnard (1867-1930), who just before his death published a 212-page book Les Objections contre l'Astrologie: Reponses aux critiques anciennes et modernes (Leroux, Paris 1929). In it he systematically sets out the arguments against astrology (twins, precession, fatalism, etc) with counterarguments based on his own empirical tests. Later, Gauquelin found fatal flaws in Choisnard's tests (see Part 1 under Gauquelin on this website), so the counterarguments came to nothing. Nevertheless they signalled the start of a crucial move away from claims based on unreliable experience, a move that, via Gauquelin and others, eventually led to the large research base that exists today. But as shown below, early progress was painfully slow.
1951 -- Letter by John O'Neill supporting astrology
On 29-30 June 1951 there was a late-night three-hour table-pounding debate on radio WPEN in Philadelphia between astrologer Sydney Omarr and Dr Roy K Marshall, director of the Fels Planetarium in Philadelphia. Dr Marshall was also science editor of the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin (then the largest evening newspaper in the USA), a popular spokesman for astronomy, and well-known for his vitriolic attacks on astrology. He was the classic closed-minded debunker.
Along the way Omarr quoted John J O'Neill, Pulitzer Prize winner and science editor of the New York Herald Tribune, from a talk O'Neill gave in 1942 to the Astrologer's Guild of America in New York. According to Omarr, O'Neill held a positive view of astrology, but Marshall (who knew O'Neill very well) did not believe him. Omarr subsequently wrote to O'Neill for clarification, and received a prompt reply. Excerpts relevant to the claimed evidence for astrology are reproduced below.8 July 1951
Dear Mr Omarr:
The quotation you cite is: "While I do not believe all astrology is scientific and worthwhile there is a certain amount of good work being done in that field and it is that which makes me try to do something to help the astrologers."
I have no hesitancy in verifying the quotation. If I were making the statement today I would make it much stronger on the basis of developments in the meantime. ... I have had, over a long period of years, extensive contact with all of the sciences from anthropology to zoology. I have [also] made numerous contacts with astrology. For years I condemned it as unscientific and totally irrational. ... [But] I have learned that astrology is something vastly different from what I thought it was, and what most astrologers think it is. ... Astrology, properly defined, is the accumulated and organized knowledge of the effect on man of the forces reaching the earth from surrounding space. ...
The hypothesis of the astrologers that forces are transmitted to the earth without attenuation with increasing distance, and do not vary with respect to the differences in masses of the Sun, Moon and planets on which they originate, was totally inconsistent with the old-style Newtonian mechanics, but today it is in complete accord with the much more recent Einstein photoelectric theory, which demonstrates that the effect of a photon does not diminish with distance, and which has been universally adopted by scientists to supplant the Newtonian mechanics in that field. ... A vitalistic cosmogony will recognize a complete and most intimate harmonic relationship, in a single pattern, between every entity from the fundamental particles, through the atoms, through man, through the planetary system, through the galaxies, the cosmos, to the Godhead itself. The hypotheses of astrology are consistent with such a vitalistic cosmogony. In this respect, the astrological concept is much more modern than the astronomical. ...
In presenting this objective view of astrology I do not want to be misunderstood as recommending that scientists take lessons in the technique of casting and interpreting horoscopes, or that I am giving sanction to the varied misconceptions and unsupported claims in which many of the astrologers indulge. ... I do urge an extensive statistical investigation of every claim for specific and configurational effects attributed to the planets by the astrologers. Until this is done, no scientist can provide justification for making a statement for or against the existence of such effects. ... [But] scientists are not going to rush into this field to take up research problems. The task must rest largely on the astrologers themselves.Sincerely yours, John J O'Neill
In hindsight we can see that O'Neill's comments are based more on extraterrestrial influences than on astrology itself. He would have been aware of Ellsworth Huntington (seasonal effects) and Edward Dewey (cycles). He was also aware of Velikovsky, whose now discredited views he described as "a magnificent piece of scholarly historical research". His view of the need to justify statements for or against planetary effects was widely held, but getting adequate data and proper tests was very difficult, as was doing every calculation by hand, to say nothing of overcoming prejudice. Nevertheless, compared to 1908 and 1936, we can see here a continuation of the move towards empirical findings, and away from claims based on unreliable experience.
1958 -- Founding of the Astrological Association
Jupiter was almost exactly on the MC, Saturn was three degrees below the Ascendant, and the closest aspects within two degrees were (in order) Jupiter sextile Saturn, Sun sextile Pluto, Mars trine Uranus, Mercury trine Neptune, and Moon square Venus. Something for everyone.
In the 1950s the leading astrological body in the UK was the Astrological Lodge of the Theosophical Society, which had been founded in 1917 by Alan Leo (1860-1917). From 1920 until 1952 its president was Charles Carter (1887-1968), the leading British astrologer of his time, followed until 1982 by Ronald Davison (1914-1985). The Lodge arranged many excellent lectures and discussions in its London meeting rooms, but there was no provision for research. Some members led by Brigadier Roy Firebrace (1889-1974), John Addey (1920-1982), and Joan Rodgers (1925-1980), all of whom were or had been vice-presidents, felt that a new research-oriented organisation was needed away from Theosophy, and in June 1958 the Astrological Association was founded. Within one year it had 130 members.
Firebrace was a sidereal astrologer, big in frame and heart, who had worked closely with the eminent siderealist Cyril Fagan (1896-1970) and did not suffer fools gladly. Rodgers was editor of the Arts Council magazine and a model of good sense and clarity. Addey was a remarkable combination of lucid and eloquent writer, practical mystic, inspiring organiser, brilliant theoretician, and unflagging experimentalist, who three years earlier had set out "to discover and demonstrate, if possible, a secure scientific basis for astrology. Being wholly convinced of the truth of this study I believed that such a demonstration would be relatively easy. I was mistaken." (Selected Writings. AFA, Tempe AZ, 1976:159)
Firebrace was the AA's first president, Rodgers its first editor, and Addey its first secretary. Firebrace wanted the new Association to be exclusively sidereal, but this was resisted, so in March 1961 he resigned to found the sidereal journal Spica. Addey was elected president in his place, holding this position until 1973. He was also editor 1962-1972 following Rodgers' resignation due to ill-health, and originator of the AA's logo. Four pages of photographs of the AA's leading players appear in Astrological Journal Summer 1979.
The June 1958 issue of the Lodge magazine listed the aims of the new Association, which included "to enlarge the knowledge of Astrology in a scientific spirit", and had a brief statement by John Addey in which he urged using the scientific approach for "distinguishing factual truth from error, for checking theories." After the first meeting "Various research projects were started and enthusiastic volunteers went to the Brigadier's house to list planetary positions etc of extensive collections of doctors, clergymen, or whatever, whose birth dates had been culled from such sources as Who's Who, the object being eventually to test statistically the value of traditional ideas or formulate new ones" (James Russell, Early Days of the Association, Astrological Journal 1983, 25, 148-149).
Eleven years later, in September 1969, the new Association held its first conference, a one-day non-residential in London on The Future of Astrology. The talks were notably research-oriented, and "for the first time (in Association history) astrologers from London and the home counties were joined by country and overseas members to provide an altogether more vigorous and original mixture of ideas and aspirations" (Astrological Journal Winter 1969:11). The Association was providing an environment where the slow move away from claims based on unreliable experience could now flourish, a move that in due course would revolutionise the understanding of astrology. The Association was also inspiring the founding of research organisations in other countries, such as the International Society for Astrological Research (1968) and National Council for Geocosmic Research (1972) in the USA, and Nederlandse Vereniging tot Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek van die Astrologie (1976) in the Netherlands. For more on the AA's research orientation see Patron of research on this website under Historical.
1976 -- Response by Mark Feldman to 186 scientists
Soft evidence for astrology
Hard evidence for astrology
The results were extremely meaningful. A parallelism was soon established between the incidence of most epidemics, such as cholera, grippe, plague, diphtheria, relapsing fever, and cerebrospinal meningitis, and the solar activity cycle. Statistically positive results then led to a study of the overall mortality rate, resulting in a detection of the same remarkable correlation in this field. "The time coincidence of the heliogeophysical and the pathological phenomena undoubtedly indicates an exceptionally close relationship between them; i.e., a certain heliogeophysical factor synchronously provokes a marked increase in mortality at various places on the planet. The correlation coefficient for some of these curves is very close to unity" (A Chizhevskii, "Physicochemical Reactions as Indicators of Cosmic Phenomena, The Earth in the Universe, 1968). "From the time distribution of mortality," the scientists go on to say, "we may conclude that the number of deaths caused by certain diseases at a given moment depends mainly upon the frequency and intensity of the specific solar radiation. It would be erroneous to assume that the ailments or deaths were caused by these radiations. The latter may only provide the impetus, which, in the presence of suitable conditions in the organism, causes its death."
[Gauquelin's work has been dismissed] as "an interesting case wherein totally fallacious results appear to be scientifically valid." [And] as "complex statistical manipulations." Gauquelin's statistics are not "manipulations" at all: they are nothing more or ]ess than pure statistics! It should be remembered that Gauquelin sought desperately to disprove astrology, but, much to his amazement and shock, he found that planetary influence is a fact.
Evidence against astrology
Future of astrology
Astrology has contributed to the knowledge of modern science in no small way. (See John Nelson, Cosmic Patterus, AFA Washington DC 1974, and Giorgio Piccardi, The Chemical Basis of Medical Climatologp, Springfield IL 1963) The fact that this field always seems to be a few yards ahead of science should be considered commendable: for although we cannot yet fully understand the phenomena we study, we have long-recognized them as being in existence. "The fact that man discovered that there were microbes did not solve the mystery of the universe, it only increased it" (Ernest Cuneo, Science and History, Duell, Sloan and Pearce, NY 1963). So too with astrology.
In hindsight we can see that Feldman's comments, like O'Neill's, were based more on extraterrestrial influences (mostly solar) than on astrology itself. But direct tests were only just emerging, as were the results of the AA's focus on research, so there was no real alternative. The idea that "no one has ever disproved astrology" might have pleased astrologers but it tended to view astrology as a yes/no effect, which today is adequately countered by considerations of effect size and artifacts. The appeal to "a psychologically meaningful link" with the cosmos was true of any religion and hardly amounted to claimed evidence. The idea that "astrology has contributed to the knowledge of modern science" (and will end up as science) was plausible only by redefining astrology as physics, which most astrologers today would vigorously reject. Overall a reminder of how limited our scientific understanding was of astrology only thirty years ago, and of the great advances made since then (as will be evident from the articles on this website under Doing Scientific Research).