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Self-Defence / Case for Astrology
An expanded version of a book review in Skeptical Inquirer 1993, 18, 42-49, and (in a Dutch translation by Wim van Dam) Astrologie in Onderzoek 1993, 8(1), 48-53. In a postscript to the Dutch version, van Dam notes his wholehearted agreement with most of the review, except on four points in the second half, to which Dean then responds. These exchanges are included below, in smaller type, as they arise.
Astrology's Complete Book of Self-Defence. By Robert Parry. Quantum (an imprint of Foulsham), Slough UK 1990. 224 pages. Paper, £7.95.
The Case for Astrology. By John Anthony West. Viking Penguin, 1991. 527 pages. Cloth, 20.00 $US22.95 $Can29.95; paper (1992), £8.99 $Can15.99.
Abstract -- In these two books a pro-astrology author strikes back at non-believers. The blurb on Parry's book promises "a carefully argued defence against all possible attack" based on "great depth of research". The blurb on West's hardcover book says "Sceptics will never lightly dismiss astrology again", while on the paperback version Colin Wilson calls it "The most serious and important study of astrology ever written". The implication is that convincing new evidence in support of astrology will be revealed. What actually happens is the selective reporting of dated studies with a relentless blind eye for crucial issues. Parry identifies 12 main attacks on astrology (eg sun sign astrology is nonmsense, tropical signs ignore precession), of which 7 are also identified by West, who adds 5 more (eg the sun cannot affect our consciousness, astrology cannot predict mass deaths). Both authors attempt to refute these attacks with varying degrees of success. But the real problems arise when the authors cite evidence to allow astrology to fight back. Parry's evidence is seriously out of date (much had been overturned even when it was written), and West deliberately suppresses negative evidence because the details "do not really concern us". As a result both books perpetuate confusion and error, and neither book contributes towards a balanced assessment of astrology. 13 references.
In these two books a pro-astrology author strikes back at non-believers. The blurb on Robert Parry's book, Astrology's Complete Book of Self-Defence, promises "a carefully argued defence against all possible attack" based on "great depth of research". The dustjacket on John Anthony West's hardcover The Case for Astrology says "Sceptics will never lightly dismiss astrology again", while on the paperback version Colin Wilson calls it "The most serious and important study of astrology ever written". The implication is that convincing new evidence in support of astrology will be revealed. What actually happens is the selective reporting of dated studies with a relentless blind eye for crucial issues.
Astrology's Complete Book of Self-Defence (Parry)
In the first book, Parry aims to provide believers with a defence against attack by critics. The first of three parts (42 pages) looks briefly at astrology's popularity, techniques, history, and types of astrologer (pop, hobbyist, semi-pro, pro). Part 2 (97 pages) is the defence proper.
Four types of enemy
The 12 main attacks
Sun sign astrology is nonsense (agreed, it is not real astrology but journalism). Free will makes astrology nonfalsifiable (free will is part of astrological philosophy) evades the issue. Astrology is heathen superstition (many astrologers are practising Christians). Astrology is old-fashioned and irrelevant (it is widespread and popular). Few accurate world predictions are made (many are successful) meaningless because no allowance for chance hits. People born at the same moment in time do not lead similar lives (some do) ditto. Tropical signs ignore precession (precession is not important) Eastern astrologers might disagree. Should be moment of conception (but the birth moment works) contradicted by controlled studies, see later. Earth-centred views are out of date (they are merely a convenience). Astrologers ignore new planets (they do not). Gauquelin says induction ruins astrology (most astrologers disagree). Planets cannot affect us (extraterrestrial influences exist) see later.
Advice to astrologers
Parry then cites direct evidence, mainly Nelson (forecasting shortwave radio propagation), Gauquelin (planetary links with occupation and heredity), and matching tests of astrologers (eg pick the murderer's birthchart). This evidence is seriously out of date, and Parry seems unaware that much of it has been overturned by recent studies. Furthermore Gauquelin's negative results (no support for signs, aspects and transits) are ignored, and the support from his positive results is overstated -- astrology does not predict that only half the planets work for eminent people and none for ordinary people, it predicts weakness not strength for the favoured positions, and the effect sizes are trivial. In short, Parry's evidence for astrology is no evidence at all.
To put it another way, as pointed out for parapsychology by Glymour (1987), no sensible person will opt for a paranormal explanation of tiny effect sizes. Tiny changes in experimental outcomes can be due to a huge number of ordinary causes, most of them impractical to control even if known. So a sensible person will say that, as long as the effect is tiny, it is more probably due to some combination of ordinary causes. For astrology to be plausible what is needed is not tiny effect sizes but Big Stuff that nobody can ignore, like guessing sun signs with perfect accuracy all the time.Van Dam feels my point about Big Stuff is mistaken, because even very good physicians do not demonstrate "perfect accuracy all the time", so why require it of astrology? Look at it this way. No doubt physicians have a poor record in some areas like diagnosing rare diseases. But in other areas like diagnosing a broken leg or low blood sugar they do demonstrate good accuracy. And it is the latter cases, not the former, that compels recognition and respect by skeptics. I am suggesting that the same should apply to astrology. Nevertheless, perhaps my point would be more acceptable if Big Stuff was exemplified as "like guessing sun signs with near-perfect accuracy".
Astrology means different things
If I am freaked out by this painting of Taurus at bay, or by Shakespeare's use of astrological symbolism, or by zodiacal iconography inside a church, or if I am spiritually uplifted by the writings of Dane Rudhyar, or if I gain insight into my behaviour by studying horoscopes, or if I find an especial closeness to ladies with Ophiucus rising, or if I find it more rewarding to circulate at cocktail parties saying what's your sign? rather than hi, then these things would be generally uncontroversial and hardly deserving of a defence, if only because they involve my personal values. An attack on scientific grounds, say by quoting controlled studies, would be useless because to me it would not address anything that matters. But quite the reverse applies if I claim that astrology is a source of knowledge, and that the sky when you were born will indicate your destiny, because scientifically there seems to be no way it could work to the required extent. (Of course we cannot deny thr possibility of a finite effect, just as we cannot deny the possibility that surfing in Hawaii affects the waves in Australia, but my claim here is for an effect that is usefully large.) Such a claim requires a rigorous defence.
To be sure, my values are not immune from criticism, any more than art is immune from literary and artistic criticism, but the criticism is of a different kind from that appropriate to astrology as knowledge -- the first involves values, the second validity. It is one thing to prefer apples to oranges, and quite another to say they fall upwards. In Parry's book these distinctions are not made. Which did not stop a reviewer in the UK Astrological Journal (1991:208) calling it "a real godsend".
The Case for Astrology (West)
The same defects apply to the second book, The Case for Astrology by John Anthony West, which is a rewrite of the original 1970 edition co-authored with the late Jan Toonder. The original edition is historically important because, back in 1970, based on the then-emerging research, skeptics could reasonably believe that some parts of astrology might have substance. In the new edition West claims that the case has strengthened, albeit with a new twist -- this time he is arguing the case for astrology, not the case for astrologers, on the grounds that astrologers rarely perform better than chance whereas the evidence for astrological effects (extraterrestrial influences, Gauquelin effects) is substantial. More on this later.
Ancient origins of astrology
This view of astrology's ancient origins is provocatively in tune with modern resonance theories such as those of Dr Percy Seymour. However, it rests crucially on Muses's interpretation of a bas relief from the Second Shrine of Tutankhamen, shown in West's Figure 8 (a standing figure in profile), which seems to show rays of energy from the stars influencing the mind of man. West comments "Taken by itself, this little relief is enough to prove astrology existed in Egypt" p.57. However, when the original relief in the Cairo Museum was inspected on my behalf by Roz Park, an astrologer and student Egyptologist, she found that a crucial element had been omitted from Figure 8, namely the face (which appears clean-shaven) should have had a curved beard. A curved beard indicates that the person is dead. So a more reasonable interpretation is not the arrival of energy but the departure of the soul to the imperishable stars. In which case the relief proves nothing about the existence of astrology in ancient Egypt.
Popular objections and rebuttals
West then takes C&I's statement that science "is fair and objective, even if scientists are not" p.160, and says it "may well be among the silliest statements ever made by human beings. It is like saying justice is impartial, even though judges are corrupt" p.161. It is also like saying astrology works even if astrologers perform no better than chance, which is West's rationale for his entire book. So by his own argument his book could not be sillier. Why did he bother?Van Dam objects that I make a false analogy between science being "objective" and astrology "working". However, C&I's statement continues with "it [science] transcends bias and personal opinion ... and produces evidence for anyone to see and judge" (West p.160). So the statements being compared in my analogy are as follows:
- Evidence for science is substantial and does not depend on the
quality of scientists (C&I's statement).
I hope readers will consider this to be a fair analogy. In passing, van Dam feels I should have given an opinion on C&I's statement. My opinion is that their statement seems uncontroversial.
Having concluded that "The Gemini Syndrome is not science", West then argues that, because people are moved by astrology in much the same way as they are moved by a Mozart flute solo whose significance is beyond scientific measurement (not true, see Valentine 1962), the whole application of science to astrology is invalid. No matter that this instantly disallows his later reliance on the Gauquelin results as proof of astrology -- the point is that it absolves West from examining C&I's results in detail, and from the nitty gritty of deciding whether a person fits his own chart better than a control. If astrologers, like composers, made no claim of a link between their work and external reality, then West's argument would be valid. But they do, and it isn't. The rebuttal of Bok & Jerome is in a similar inept vein.
12 popular objections
The sun is merely an incandescence with no direct effect on our consciousness (maybe, but it is more scientific to assume that consciousness is universal and is thus possessed by the sun) begs the question. Fraternal and identical twins should be alike but they are not (a legitimate problem, but then science itself is not without anomalies, also it applies only to the interpretation and becomes serious only if interpretation is a science, which it is not) evades the issue. Astrology cannot predict mass deaths (does not deny that an individual astrologer can) like who?. Births at high latitudes have distorted houses (houses are not essential). Tests of horoscope factors are negative (does not deny that better tests may be positive) like what?
Speculation in lieu of evidence is not the only problem in this section. The text is frequently unbelievable, for example "science cannot prove a difference between Spaniards and Swedes" p.215 (try giving them a test in Swedish). And having assured us that "there is no major objection to the astrological premise or practice that goes unanswered or unaddressed" p.11, West ignores the same crucial issues and distinctions that were ignored by Parry. The result is the same needless confusion that can only perpetuate the shouting match between astrologers and critics. Surely the case for astrology deserves better than this?
Evidence for astrology
West then looks briefly at a handful of other positive studies such as sun-sign guessing and matching tests (but not at the subsequent studies which negated their results), at extraterrestrial influences such as sun spots and the Piccardi effect, and at physical explanations, notably that of the astronomer Percy Seymour. Of interest here is a reprint of Nigel Henbest's critique from New Scientist (12 May 1988) and Dr Seymour's lengthy reply. Briefly, Seymour suggests that the planets exert a tidal force on the magnetosphere, which modulates geomagnetic activity, which induces currents in the neural network by resonance. Henbest points out that, due to planet retrogradation, the diurnal planetary frequencies overlap, so they cannot be distinguished by resonance. Seymour's answer is that the phases will differ, so once the fetus locks on to the right planet it will stay locked on. West fails to ask how it locks on to the right planet in the first place. There is also the problem that diurnal planetary frequencies (around 10-5 Hz) are some six octaves below the known lower limit for a reasonable biological response.
West concludes that the two basic astrological premises are established beyond doubt. These are (1) celestial events correlate with terrestrial events, which is uncontroversial but not its implication -- what has say moonlit baerbecues or people waking at sunrise to do with astrology? If astrology is reasonably defined as anything requiring a birth chart, the answer is nothing at all. And (2) planetary positions at birth correlate with human personality. This is based on the Gauquelin results, which West describes as "unsinkable" p.191. But such a conclusion is premature because in Skeptical Inquirer Ertel (1992) has shown at least some of them to be sinkable. It is also dead wrong for 99.994 per cent of the population, namely those who are not eminent. Moreover the correlation with personality (but not with occupation), and by extension the results of Addey, now appears to be a methodological artifact. So, contrary to West's claim, the basic astrological premise is not even established, let alone beyond doubt.Van Dam says that the validity of the Gauquelin results "should be admitted even by Dean". But the review was appearing in a journal where such matters had been thoroughly aired a year earlier by Ertel (1992), so other than my reference to this, a longer admission seemed hardly necessary. Furthermore, if I had claimed that the Gauquelin effect was scientifically proven, readers might rightly object that by scientific standards the number of people who have studied the Gauquelin effect is very small. So artifacts might still be discovered. In other words, as with the sun-sign attribution effect, I could reasonably claim that the effect is proven, but I could not reasonably claim that the cause is astrological, at least not in the sense meant by astrologers. [That was in 1993. Later work has reinforced this point, see this website under Gauquelin.]
Validity of astrological practice
West's approach is thus like that of a Flat Earther who says never mind the negative evidence for a flat earth, just look at the positive evidence. Which of course is a recipe for disaster. Reasonable judgements can be made only by considering all the evidence, not just the bits that happen to fit a particular case. Else we are in danger of pulling tomato out of the pizza and declaring it to be tomato pie. When selection bias is removed, the evidence for the validity of astrological practice becomes distinctly unfavourable, see the review by Kelly et al (1990). For the record, West was sent a copy of this review by Kelly, but no reference to it appears in West's book.
Parts 4 through 6 (98 pages) are largely irrelevant, being a diatribe again skepticism, the press, and rationalism, with comments on counselling, interpretation, and free will. The book ends with a useful 10-page summary, an appendix listing the 186 scientists who signed the 1975 statement against astrology, a bibliography of more than 120 books (but no articles), a subject index, and a name index.
A big book with big faults
In summary, both books perpetuate a needless confusion. To be sure, anything as popular as astrology deserves serious consideration. But anyone familiar with the results of controlled tests, and with the pitfalls of human judgement, must inevitably be suspicious of astrologers' claims. Unfortunately astrologers have mistaken this sensible indifference for dogmatic hostility. In both books there was an opportunity to explore this confusion and set the record straight. But it was missed, and neither book contributes towards a balanced assessment of astrology -- in fact quite the reverse. If nothing else, you could always give copies to astrologers to set them up for later slaughter.
ReferencesAnon (1992). Towards improving astrology: Ideas from an AIR think tank. Astrological Journal 34(3),136-138.
Dean G (1987). Does astrology need to be true? Skeptical Inquirer 11, 166-184 and 257-273. 120 references. Reprinted with an update and a further 16 references in K Frazier (Ed). The Hundredth Monkey and Other Paradigms of the Paranormal. Buffalo: Prometheus Books. The answer to the title question is no.
Dean GA (1992). The Bottom Line: Effect Size. In BL and DF Beyerstein (Eds). The Write Stuff: Evaluations of Graphology. Buffalo: Prometheus Books. Many comparisons including astrology. 250 references.
Dean GA, Kelly IW, Saklofske DH, and Furnham A (1992). Graphology and Human Judgement. In BL and DF Beyerstein (Eds). The Write Stuff: Evaluations of Graphology. Buffalo: Prometheus Books. The arguments apply also to astrology. 175 references.
Enright JT (1993). Oyster rhythms long buried (letter). Skeptical Inquirer 17, 448. Cites his thorough re-analysis of Brown's oyster data in Journal of Theoretical Biology 1965, 8, 426-428.
Ertel S (1992). Update on the Mars Effect. Skeptical Inquirer 16, 150-160. 42 references.
Glymour C (1987). ESP and the Big Stuff. Behavioural and Brain Sciences 10, 590.
Kelly IW, Culver R, and Loptson P (1989). Astrology and Science: An Examination of the Evidence. In SK Biswas, DCV Malik and CV Vishveshwara (Eds). Cosmic Perspectives. New York: Cambridge University Press. Their responses to pro-astrology arguments are summarised in Dean (1987). 48 references.
Kelly IW, Dean GA, and Saklofske DH (1990). Astrology: A Critical Review. In P Grim (Ed). Philosophy of Science and the Occult. Albany: SUNY Press. No overlap with Dean (1987). 78 references. Now superceded by Dean G, Mather A & Kelly IW (1996). Astrology. In Stein G (ed). Encyclopedia of the Paranormal. Prometheus Books, Amherst NY, pages 47-99 with 15 general references. A comprehensive scientific survey.
Parker D (1991). Book review. Astrological Journal 33, 264-265.
Quincey P (1993). The strange case of the New Haven oysters. Skeptical Inquirer 17, 188-193.
Valentine CW (1962). The Experimental Psychology of Beauty. London: Methuen. Still the best survey of experimental tests of reactions to pictures, music and poems.West JA (1991). Letter. Astrological Journal 33, 381-382.
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