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Phillipson interview of researchers
Dean, Ertel, Kelly, Mather, and Smit

An expanded version of the interview in Chapters 9 and 10 of Astrology in the Year Zero.
Phillipson G (Ed). Flare, London, September 2000. ISBN 0-9530261-9-1

Abstract -- Garry Phillipson grills a team of five prominent researchers (Geoffrey Dean, Suitbert Ertel, Ivan Kelly, Arthur Mather, Rudolf Smit) with more than 150 questions covering the main issues of scientific research into astrology, to which they reply collectively. It took an entire year to establish the questions (and the questions raised by questions) and to ensure that the answers are concise, readable and complete. Issues normally evaded by astrologers are tackled head on. The five researchers have been investigating astrology for at least twenty years. Two have been full-time practising astrologers, two are university professors, and all have had numerous articles published in the astrological and scientific literature, their collective total in astrology being over 200 articles and several books. Part 1 (background) covers research methods, tests, what researchers investigate, whether astrology needs to be true, reasoning errors and their disastrous effects, intuition, unconscious processes, ESP. Part 2 (research results) covers Gauquelin, sun signs, the whole chart, isolated vs multiple factors, time twins, open-mindedness, influence of world views, reactions of astrologers to research outcomes, white crows, prestige, whether the dismal outcomes to date might improve, resources, parallels between astrology and poetry, credibility problems, education, critical thinking skills, whether modern science supports astrology, our inability to cope with complexity, how reasoning errors make mind/reality/etc issues premature, sources of research information, prospects for the researcher, questions to ask oneself. To help retrieval there is a list of topics and an index with over 700 entries. Figures have been updated to December 2005. Conclusion The researchers conclude that astrology is neither science nor magic, and is more likely to be a delusion arising from pervasive artifacts. The interview is nontechnical, easy to understand, and cross referenced. Much of the information is not readily available, especially in astrology books. For new readers it is the best available overview of research into astrology on this website. Don't get involved in astrology without reading this interview first.

The book version contains about 90 questions. This expanded version contains a further 65 questions, cross-references, and many new headings to aid retrieval. To find the new material, see start of Index. Each question is numbered. Comments (or new questions) are invited, especially if they correct errors or add significantly to the dialogue.

To find the topic you want

Check the section headings below (21 entries, second figure = number of items), or the index (over 700 entries) given at the end.

Part 1. Background to scientific research into astrology.
01. Introduction by Garry Phillipson
02. How the researchers got involved in astrology (5 questions)
03. Research methods and topics (8)
04. Subjective and objective -- two views of astrology (7)
05. Do researchers differ from astrologers? (4)
06. Reasoning errors and their disastrous effects (14)
07. Intuition, unconscious processes, ESP (15)

Part 2. Results of scientific research into astrology.
08. The picture emerging from research (4 questions)
09. Gauquelin, sun signs, whole chart (8)
10. Isolated vs multiple factors, time twins (8)
11. Open-mindedness, influence of world views (7)
12. Reactions of astrologers to research outcomes (7)
13. White crows, prestige, resources, could results improve? (12)
14. Parallels between astrology and poetry (5)
15. Credibility problems, education, critical thinking skills (9)
16. Does modern science support astrology? (5)
17. Our inability to cope with complexity (6)
18. Mind, reality, divination: are such issues relevant? (21*)
19. Sources of research information (1)
20. Summing up (4)
21. Index (725 entries)

* Provides a more thorough discussion of the book's final topic (What is Astrology -- Science or Magic?), which in the book was inconclusive. Here the researchers conclude that astrology is neither science nor magic, and is more likely to be a delusion due to reasoning errors and other artifacts.

Part 1. Background to scientific research into astrology

1. Introduction by Garry Phillipson

In contemporary western society science is commonly seen as the final arbiter between reality and illusion, and this book would be incomplete if it did not represent the scientific view-point on astrology. I chose to approach Geoffrey Dean -- an experienced researcher who is well-versed in scientific methodology, astrology, and what happens when the two collide. Dean suggested that he recruit others to help out, and the upshot was that I interviewed by email a team of five prominent researchers scattered across the globe. Their collective answers led to further questions, and also to changes and clarifications. To meet size constraints, we then collectively edited the entire interview down to the version that appears in Chapters 9 and 10 of Astrology in the Year Zero.

We have tried, in this interview, to cover the main issues which have arisen between astrology and science. Trying to accomplish this in a finite number of words made compromise inevitable -- in the questions asked and not asked, the amount of discussion and illustration possible for any given topic. The researchers have asked me to point out that, although they are similar in their scientific approach, this does not mean they are incapable of disagreement. They report that some of my questions led to differences of opinion (for example on the relevance of religion to astrology), but that once these differences were explored they tended to disappear. These explorations do not appear in the interview, whose hard-won unanimity may therefore be deceptive. My sincere thanks and gratitude go to each researcher, and particularly to Geoffrey Dean for collating their input.

2. How the researchers got involved in astrology

It seems rare for scientists like yourselves to be involved with astrology. How did it happen?

Researchers: We were intrigued by astrological claims, and by the depth and complexity of the subject. Was astrology true? Could the stars really correlate with human affairs? How could it work? Scientists love challenges like that. The problem was the lack of evidence whether for or against (a situation no longer true). So we set out to explore the claims in depth. That was how our research started. Along the way some of us became practising astrologers, so we were able to approach the subject from both the inside and outside.

How did the astrologers become astrologers, and what effect did your researches have on your astrological practices?

Researchers: One of us (Mather) was a self-taught student of astrology and was sufficiently impressed by results to become Research Co-ordinator for the Astrological Association 1971-1978. Two of us (Dean, Smit) were full-time practising astrologers and teachers of astrology. Dean was the founding president of the Federation of Australian Astrologers WA branch. Smit was the founder of NGPA, at the time the only Dutch society for professional astrologers, and while in Australia was the distributor for Matrix Astrological Software. Both of us have lectured at international astrology conferences, and in 1988 we both received an AMR Commemorative Bi-Centennial Award for contributions to astrology, specifically for our work in research. (AMR = the Sydney-based Astrological Monthly Review. The Award was an international one, for example other recipients included Doris Chase Doane, Liz Greene, Robert Hand, Alan Oken, and Lois Rodden.)

We started in much the same way as any astrologer starts -- we calculated charts, saw that they seemed to work, and were hooked. Astrology became our passion. Every spare moment became devoted to it. We read more and more books, we did more and more charts for more and more people, we went to meetings and talked to more and more astrologers (whose experience was much the same as ours), and we became more and more convinced that astrology worked. Nothing we saw or experienced told us otherwise. Astrologers were generally nice people, they seemed intelligent and well-educated, they spoke from the heart, and they based everything on practical experience. Other than sun sign columns, which most of them rejected, there seemed to be nothing for anyone to complain about. We did not understand why some people should be so hostile to astrology. Nevertheless problems remained, for example chart readings still seemed to fit when by accident the wrong chart was used.

So what happened next?

Researchers: Those were the days when scientific tests of astrology were hard to come by. So we began to make our own tests. That is, we controlled for artifacts and other sources of error, something astrologers rarely did. (An artifact is something spurious that mimics a genuine effect, for example the varying number of days per month will mimic a dependence on month unless we adjust the arithmetic.)

We were dismayed to find that artifacts and errors seemed to explain everything. At which point our beautiful world of astrology began to collapse. For example when Mather used the data for 900 major earthquakes to test the claim that they tended to occur when Uranus was on the MC or IC, the claim could not be confirmed (95 earthquakes fitted but so did 91 out of 900 non-earthquakes). When Dean used volunteer clients to test charts that, unknown to the clients, had been altered to reverse their meaning, the reversed charts were accepted as readily as authentic charts. When Smit tested the main predictive techniques on people who had died an accidental death (nothing ambiguous here), the claims in astrology books could not be confirmed.

Ultimately we took heed of the mounting evidence and ceased actual practice, as did a few rare astrologers like David Hamblin (a former chairman of the Astrological Association), Terry Dwyer (a former tutor for the Mayo School of Astrology), and Jan Kampherbeek (a former editor of the Dutch magazine Spica). As Aristotle might have said, astrology is dear to us, but dearer still is truth. But we did not lose our interest in astrology.

Of course such U-turns can be personally traumatic. For example Smit was originally an amateur astronomer highly skeptical of astrology, so his conversion to astrologer was of momentous personal significance, making his unconversion even more so. When he realised that astrology seemed to have no basis in scientific fact, and probably never would, his rich and rewarding astrological life suddenly lost its meaning. He fell into a mental depression that lasted several years, and which was perhaps the main reason for the breakup of his marriage at the time. Even today he finds it painful to realise his initial skepticism of astrology had been justified, albeit for reasons more valid than those given in astronomy books, and that for over a decade he had been neglecting his original interests in favour of astrological ones. If nothing else, his experience illustrates the passion that astrologers can have for astrology. To dismiss them as frauds (as some skeptics do) is to miss the point.

How did the non-astrologers become involved?

Researchers: We had long been interested in related matters, namely solar effects on people (Ertel) and lunar effects on people (Kelly), so in due course we also became interested in how astrologers conceive of relationships between heavenly bodies and people.

How did this new interest affect you?

As with the others, we experienced a kind of conversion, not from science to astrology or vice versa, but from bad closed-minded science to good open-minded science. By forcing us to be neither believers nor disbelievers, astrology has helped us to be genuinely open-minded, so it is easier to be open-minded in other areas. In short, astrology has made us better able to observe the spirit of science, which ironically seems quite the opposite to its effect on astrologers.

3. Research methods and topics

How would you define scientific research as applied to astrology?

Researchers: In astrology there are millions of opinions and we can have them for nothing. But for knowledge we must work. We must do research. Scientific research in astrology has the same aim as scientific research in general -- to improve what we know and to improve what we do. To us it reduces to four simple guidelines: (1) Be careful because pitfalls are everywhere. (2) Consider other explanations for claimed astrological correspondences. (3) Investigate all promising ideas. (4) Follow wherever the results of sound investigation lead even if they conflict with existing beliefs.

These four guidelines really look like applied commonsense. Are they really any different from what a competent astrologer would do?

Researchers: The four guidelines may look like applied commonsense but to our knowledge few astrologers actually follow them. Even the most competent astrologers seem unaware of pitfalls, they do not consider other explanations, and they do not follow where the results of sound investigation lead. In fact these are the main objections that scientists hold against astrologers. Nevertheless your point is true in one sense -- researchers investigate the same testable claims as do astrologers. The crucial difference is that researchers are more careful and more rigorous. Researchers and astrologers differ not so much in their ideas as in the approaches used to test those ideas.

To put it another way, astrologers seem to see research as being consistent with a philosophy that says "We use X, therefore we need research to confirm X." Here X might be anything from the most trivial of techniques to astrology itself. Or as Donald Bradley (then the leading US research astrologer) said in 1950, "It appears to be an unwritten article of faith ... that all improvements are welcome so long as the complacent surface of tradition is not disturbed." But we see research as being consistent with a philosophy that says "Research by many people has shown that X works under conditions where alternative explanations can be ruled out, therefore we use X."

Are there different schools of thought advocating different methodologies for scientific research in astrology, or are researchers unanimous in their approach?

Researchers: Yes and no. Methodologies in science generally may differ in detail but all involve the critical examination of ideas. The same applies to scientific methodologies in astrology -- nothing is accepted just because astrologers say it works. What matters is whether it stands up to critical examination, of which tests are an important part.

So what is your own approach to scientific research? From start to finish, what do you actually do?

Researchers: Our own approach is quite ordinary. First, we survey the literature to determine what research already exists. Very little research into astrology by scientists existed before the 1950s. Today there is a great deal, although few astrologers seem to know about it.

Second, we perform tests of promising ideas according to our interests and resources. Thus we might test astrologers to see if they get the right answers, or we might test the charts of say extraverts to see if they differ from those of introverts, or we might re-examine old studies to see if they might provide new information.

Third, we submit the results to informed critics and act on their comments. If flaws are uncovered, or if we fail to follow up a promising line of enquiry, then we must try again. Science is a tough business. Finally, at the end of years of painstaking work (nobody said research had to be easy) we survey the totality of results to get an overall indication. No individual study stands alone.

What types of test are there?

Researchers: Tests can be qualitative (what kind?) or quantitative (what amount?). A qualitative test involves categories (yes/no, male/female, Jupiter/Saturn), so shades of grey are not allowed. A quantitative test involves numbers that express position on a scale (20 kg, 50% certain, orb 5 degrees), so shades of grey are allowed. Which is best? Some astrologers say qualitative, but to us this applies only if people were never shades of grey.

Qualitative tests tend to be exploratory (finding out what might be present) rather than confirmatory (testing what is known to be present), so they tend to incorporate as many factors as possible, which might seem to make them well suited to astrology. But astrologers claim to know what is present (read any astrology book) so an exploratory method seems inappropriate. Furthermore, incorporating many factors greatly increases the chance of spurious interactions, which in effect makes qualitative tests incapable of detecting complex interactions of the kind said to be characteristic of astrology. They also tend to use small unrepresentative samples that are unable to detect weak effects (large samples are more sensitive than small samples). So once past any initial exploration stage, we prefer quantitative tests.

Indeed, much of astrology is already quantitative, as when astrologers use orbs or when they weight factors prior to chart synthesis, which they presumably would not do if qualitative really was better. But qualitative tests may be preferred by astrologers because they are easier to apply non-rigorously and are therefore more easily persuaded to give the desired outcome. Or because they are more open to creative interpretation, which amounts to the same thing.

I'm not sure I can agree. Quantitative tests require using statistics, but many astrologers feel very strongly that the statistical approach is quite unsuited to astrology.

Researchers: There are two kinds of statistics. If astrologers mean descriptive statistics, as in births and deaths, their argument is that statistics deals with groups whereas astrology deals with individuals. That is, each chart is said to be unique, so the success or failure of judgements for other charts is irrelevant. But this is like saying each day is unique, so whether the sun rose on previous days is irrelevant. Those who depend on the sun might disagree.

Alternatively if astrologers mean inferential statistics, as in p = 0.05, their argument is invalid. Astrology is said to incline rather than compel, so we have no way of knowing whether a particular chart judgement is a hit or miss until after the event. Astrology works only sometimes. In other words it is essentially probabilistic, which means that probabilistic (i.e. statistical) approaches could hardly be more suitable. Furthermore, whether we describe our observations qualitatively (e.g. by categories) or quantitatively (e.g. by scale positions), we still need to count their numbers, so we still need statistics to make sense of them. Calling our approach qualitative does not avoid the use of statistics.

Although astrologers and researchers both use qualitative approaches, only researchers follow them with quantitative checks to avoid being led astray by artifacts and reasoning errors.

What sort of questions do researchers investigate?

Researchers: Is it true that positive signs are extraverted, that an elevated Neptune is musical, that adverse Mars transits indicate accidents, and that Bucket patterns become agitators? What is the best zodiac, house system, aspect system, dynamic technique? Does Saturn mean the mother, the father, or neither? Are sun sign columns plausible? Should the signs be reversed in the southern hemisphere? What about distance, latitude, the 99th harmonic? How important is experience, intuition, a friendly client, an accurate birth time? Do astrologers perform better than computers, graphologists, palmists, psychics, tossing a coin? Is X easy to see in charts? How strong are astrological effects? How important is the search for new techniques? What makes a good astrologer? How to choose and astrologer? And so on. But perhaps the most important question is one that astrologers rarely ask, namely could we be fooling ourselves? Could astrology seem to work for reasons that have nothing to do with astrology? This too has been carefully investigated.

Are there some astrological claims to which scientific research might be irrelevant?

Researchers: Some astrologers claim that scientific research is impersonal or unspiritual or insensitive to deeper truths. For example they claim that the personal direction and purpose revealed by astrology cannot be tested. Or they claim that astrology involves subtle factors not yet known to science. In each case they conclude that science is unsuited to astrology, period. But apart from its emphasis on critical evaluation, science requires only that events be observable in some way. Astrology is the same, for example the Larousse Encyclopedia of Astrology (McGraw-Hill 1980) says the central tenet of astrology is that the heavens and their terrestrial counterparts "are related in a significant and observable manner" (p.19).

We recognise that astrological "observations" are often little more than mere impressions. Nevertheless if astrologers can observe the claimed correlations, so can scientific researchers, and vice versa.

In fact we all use scientific methods every day whether we realise it or not. Thus when our car won't start we form likely hypotheses, all of them involving observables (such as blown fuse, flat battery, faulty starter), and then test them. If our hypotheses did not involve some observables then by definition we could never discover the problem and therefore we could never fix it. Similarly if someone is ill, or if someone is said to match their chart, we use the same approach based on observables. We act like prototype scientists. It is unlikely that astrologers could survive if science did not apply to general everyday matters of the kind that clients consult astrologers about.

Does this mean that science must apply to all areas of astrology? Not at all. If no possible observation could rule out a particular claim, then the claim is untestable, and scientific research is irrelevant. It is as simple as that. We can test the idea that Leos are more generous than other signs, say by analysing the tips given in restaurants, but as yet we cannot test the idea that Leos were Cancerians in their previous life. Even so, we can still compare astrology to other systems that claim to give direction and purpose to our lives (astrology has no monopoly here), in the same way that we can compare the origin and maintenance of religious beliefs. Perhaps more importantly, we can explore the distinction between subjective and objective astrology.

4. Subjective and objective -- two views of astrology

Are you putting "subjective" and "objective" forward as distinct categories of astrology? I'm sure that many astrologers view astrology as existing half-way between subjectivity and objectivity.

Researchers: For such astrologers the distinction is a philosophical one, as for example in whether or not we create the world we live in. But this is not the distinction we mean. We use these words in a particular way, so their definition is crucial. For our purpose we can divide astrology, however defined, into subjective and objective components as shown in Figure 1. Figure 1 shows that subjective-objective is not a matter of black-white but of shades of grey. Nevertheless we can still describe what each dimension represents, as follows:

Subjective vs objective

Figure 1. Subjective (vertical axis) vs objective (horizontal axis).

In principle we can take any practice and divide it roughly into two components, subjective and objective. If we make the total equal to 100%, the plot of one component against the other will then be a straight line as shown above. At the top, only feelings are important, as in pure faith-based religion. At the bottom, only facts are important, as in pure science. In between are those practices that are nominally a bit of both, such as astrology, phrenology, and cooking. To illustrate the subjective-objective distinction we have aligned them with feelings-facts. Alternatively we could have aligned them with say spiritual-material or benefit-truth or values-facts or religion-science. Of course the terms are not strictly equivalent, but our aim is to illustrate the distinction without being dogmatic about what subjective-objective should mean.

In subjective astrology only subjective values matter. The correctness of a particular statement, or of a chart reading, or even of the chart itself, is of no direct concern. What matters are issues like: Does astrology give a direction and purpose to our life? Does it provide benefit, self-understanding, insight, empowerment? Do astrologers feel that it always works? Are clients always satisfied by astrology? Does it enrich our lives in ways that the rational cannot? As say religion, myth, poetry and fiction do? To be accepted, subjective astrology does not need to be true.

In objective astrology our subjective values do not matter. That millions of people may feel empowered or dismayed by astrology is of no direct concern. What matters are issues like: Are the statements of astrology true? Are Leos more Leonian than non-Leos? Which techniques are the most accurate? Do rectified times agree with actual times? Can astrologers pick the real chart from a control? Can clients pick their own interpretation from a control? Does astrology provide information not available from elsewhere? To be accepted, objective astrology needs to be true.

Figure 1 also shows how we cannot conclude that a false or problematic belief is due to nothing more than simple-minded gullibility. The belief might be due to its spiritual value, its social value, or its cultural value. A material feast cannot appease a spiritual hunger, a point underlined by the sheer longevity of major religions. In other words there is more to astrology than being true or false. Let us look at this crucial point in another way:

The distinction between subjective and objective astrology reflects how believers and critics tend to view astrology differently. The typical believer is looking for a spiritual experience that transforms the self (does astrology give meaning, understanding, direction?), but the typical critic is looking only for material proof (is astrology true, what is the evidence, where are the tests?). So the believer sees the critic as having missed the point, and vice versa.

In summary, any particular astrological claim could fall anywhere on the straight line in Figure 1. If we do not make the distinction between its subjective component (sought by typical believers) and its objective component (sought by typical critics), we will be unable to choose the proper criteria for judging the claim, thus creating conflict where none may exist. Which is not helpful to either side.

My concern is this: many astrologers believe that astrology works precisely because the subjective and objective domains interact. In this view, subjective qualities such as detachment, confidence or empathy might be necessary conditions for an astrologer to accurately answer a question such as "when will my daughter give birth?" -- objective information.

Researchers: There are two separate issues here. First, as shown in Figure 1, we are using the terms subjective-objective as a convenient label for a distinction that could also be seen as spiritual-material or benefit-truth or value-fact or religion-science. But astrologers (and yourself) are using the terms subjective-objective in a different way. For example Rob Hand in his 1989 Carter Memorial Lecture says "astrology does not accept that subject and object are independent. If astrology did, how could one talk about someone's spouse from a horoscope?" (Astrological Journal Nov-Dec 1989). Here his usage is grammatical -- horoscope (subject) indicates (verb) spouse (object), which is the same as saying that everything (subjects, objects, apples, oranges, the above, the below) is linked to everything else. In principle we can tell what our fingers are doing by looking at our toes. Nothing here about spirit-benefit-religion being a necessary condition for an astrologer to deal with matter-truth-science, or about astrologers who want to be accurate having to be X rather than Y.

Nobody denies that empathy is important for astrologers to have, but this has nothing to do with the accuracy of astrology itself. No doubt hugely empathetic phrenologists existed, but so what? To imply that their empathy converted an untrue phrenology (see 6.3) into a true phrenology is like saying empathy will convert you into a person for whom a wrecked car or TV set will instantly work. Obviously the world does not work like that.

Second, we are merely dividing astrological claims into what for convenience we have called subjective (spirit-benefit-religion) components and objective (matter-truth-science) components to make sure we choose the proper criteria for testing them. If the claim is about spiritual matters then a material test is clearly inappropriate, and vice versa. To not make the distinction would be like dismissing Christianity because archbishops cannot walk on water.

Another concern has to do with your reference to a "subjective astrology", which "does not need to be true". It seems to me that astrologers generally need to believe that they can access objective information from reading a chart. Those who lose this belief do the honourable thing and stop practising. Astrologers do not think of themselves as practising purely "subjective astrology" -- most would consider it to be fraud.

Researchers: Again there are two separate issues here. First, the need to believe that astrology is objectively true, which we will come back to in Part 2 when we discuss research outcomes (see 14.4). Second, the idea that a purely subjective astrology is a fraud, which is like saying spiritual astrologers are frauds but not archbishops.

If I try to picture someone, who is not a fraud, practising "purely subjective astrology", I have to see them as not saying anything which is falsifiable about the person, event, or whatever they are using astrology on. This seems to exclude virtually all statements of the form "You are like this", and "You will experience this".

Researchers: Exactly right. Nothing is falsifiable anyway, simply because astrology is said to only incline and not compel, or because contrary factors can always be found, or because the manifestation is not typical. So the statement can never be of the form "You are like this", only of the form "You may or may not be like this". Although astrologers and clients seem quite unaware of this nonfalsifiability, it nevertheless implies that this part of their astrology is purely subjective as defined by us, but presumably they do not consider it to be fraud.

I don't see that such statements can be labelled "astrology". Astrology is, by definition, about getting information from the positions of planets and stars; and if no information has been obtained, then no astrology has taken place.

Researchers: We do not see why charts containing opposing factors, or an astrology that only inclines, should deny the getting of information. No astrologer argues that nonfalsifiability stops astrology taking place. Also, the information can be inaccurate, as research repeatedly confirms, but an astrologer's reliance on mythology and reasoning by analogy is unable to detect error or to separate the wheat from the chaff, see 6.5-6.6. So the mere fact that astrology has taken place as opposed to not taken place is no guarantee of anything.

But many astrologers argue that astrology is about getting meaning rather than information, where (like religion, myth, poetry and fiction) it enriches our lives in ways that the rational cannot -- a disagreement readily resolved by our subjective-objective distinction (meaning is subjective, information is objective). It also introduces another set of problems to do with meaning, but we have already touched on those in 4.1.

Perhaps you could go ahead and explain something more about the uses of your subjective-objective distinction.

Researchers: Our subjective-objective distinction is especially helpful when we come to judge the relevance of science because it avoids any shouting match between astrologers and scientists. Where astrology limits itself to areas where only subjective or spiritual values are required, science hardly matters. But where astrology makes objective and testable statements such as those that fill astrology books, then science becomes essential, at least for those unwilling to accept everything on faith.

How does this affect the aims of scientific researchers?

Researchers: It is not for researchers to dictate which kind of astrology (subjective or objective) is important. Their aim should be a more modest and respectful one -- to point out for astrologers the need to be careful, and to show what happens when this need is neglected.

5. Do researchers differ from astrologers?

What do you think astrologers could learn from the discipline of the researcher?

Researchers: What we do is no different from what astrologers do in that we both make observations. But we are more careful. In fact hugely more careful.

What does this mean in practice?

Researchers: Consider first how astrologers do things. Each time they erect a chart they see how remarkably it corresponds with the person or event. They see with their own eyes that astrology works even though science (apparently) cannot explain it. This is their everyday experience, and on this experience they rest their claims. What could be more fair, more reasonable, and more disarming of criticism? Who could argue against "it works"?

But consider what "it works" actually means. It means that all non-astrological influences leading to the same result have been ruled out. Astrologers seem to take this proviso for granted, but researchers have to be more careful. Ruling out non-astrological influences is harder than it might seem. We are too easily misled.

Why is that?

Researchers: Throughout human evolution we have been deluged with incomplete and ambiguous information arriving via our senses. But survival required us to see, hear and move instantly in response to food or danger. To stop and reason carefully on every occasion, as when a predator was about to pounce, would have been disastrous. A man seeking truth by reason did not live long. Today we have inherited the consequences -- speedy sense perception as in recognising faces but poor reasoning skills as in assessing astrology. In short, when it comes to reasoning we are easily misled, a liability that went largely unnoticed until the rise of experimental and cognitive psychology in the early 1900s. So we have to look at astrology under conditions where we are less likely to be misled.

And you see this as being where your approach differs from that of most astrologers?

Researchers: Yes. We want to avoid being misled, and avoiding being misled is part of what being scientific is about. Unless we are careful, unless we are aware of where we can go wrong, we can look at the Earth and conclude it is flat. Things are not always what they seem, a point most astrologers seem unaware of.

6. Reasoning errors and their disastrous effects

Can you illustrate what you mean about "things not always being what they seem"?

Researchers: Here's an example anyone can try. With a ruler draw a vertical line a few cm long, then close underneath draw a horizontal line of the same length. The vertical line looks distinctly longer. The illusion prevails even though many credible authorities might claim the lengths are equal. Worse, it prevails even though you re-measure the lines to check their accuracy. This example shows how, without measurement, without tests, the error would never become apparent. The thing is not what it seems.

The dangers of error become immensely greater at the higher levels of reasoning, i.e. at the levels where astrological ideas are formed, taught and applied, which is why we are so easily misled. Indeed, errors at these levels are as diverse as human experience itself.

Can you give examples?

Researchers: Ordinary people have embraced countless things now known to be untrue, such as the belief that the Earth is the centre of the universe, or that the number 13 is unlucky, or that sleeping in moonlight sends you insane, or that rubbing frostbite with snow is helpful, or that the Moon is covered in ice 140 miles thick, or that bloodletting cures illness, or that the Fox sisters were genuinely psychic, or that the 23,28,33-day cycles of biorhythms work. Books such as Charles MacKay's Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (Noonday reprint 1977) and Martin Gardner's Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science (Dover 1957) attest to the pervasiveness and often amazing longevity of delusions (false beliefs). N-rays, polywater, and canals on Mars are examples where even scientists saw things that subsequent investigation showed not to exist. Cold fusion may be another. Such delusions (other than optical ones) are almost always due to our poor reasoning skills, and here the example closest to astrology is phrenology. A look at phrenology is enormously revealing about astrology.

Tell me more.

Researchers: Phrenology is a system of philosophy based on reading character from brain development as shown by head shape, or in popular terms by the bumps on the skull. Phrenology is now effectively dead but in the 1830s its popularity exceeded that of astrology today. Thus in the UK one quarter of the then 25 million population was illiterate, and a phrenology book cost one quarter of the average weekly wage. Yet roughly 1 person in 3000 was practising or studying phrenology, roughly three times the proportion practising or studying astrology today. It was just as popular in Europe, the USA, and Australia. So in terms of popularity it compares more than favourably with astrology. No obscure restricted system here.

Like astrology, phrenology predicts the general tone of life (albeit not specific events), and it encourages you to assess yourself and act on its findings to achieve harmony with the world. Like astrology, its ideas were expressed with complete authority, it lent itself to cookbook interpretations (feel your bumps and look up the meanings), and it attracted people of intelligence and a vast literature wherein every criticism was furiously attacked. Most important of all, like astrology, phrenology flourished because practitioners and clients saw that it worked. Unlike their critics they had been there.

So believers in phrenology were unmoved by what the critics said, and for what seemed the best of reasons. As in astrology, their views exuded overwhelming confidence. For example, according to the 1896 Year Book of the British Phrenological Association, phrenology was "so plainly demonstrated that the non-acceptance of phrenology is next to impossible." No ifs or buts here.

Nevertheless scientific research upset everything. The experience-based claims of phrenologists were shown to be completely wrong. Character was not indicated by brain size and shape because the brain did not work like that. Nor did character break down in the ways required by phrenological theory. So a certain head shape did not mean what it was supposed to mean, nor was there any way it could possibly do so. The system that millions of people passionately believed in, and passionately acted upon, was totally without foundation.

Note the problem: Experience led phrenologists and their clients to believe in phrenology, just as experience leads astrologers and their clients to believe in astrology. In each case the reasoning is the same -- the interpretation seems to fit the client, therefore the system works. But the reasoning was wrong for phrenology, so why should it be any different for astrology? Might astrology be just a figment of our poor reasoning skills?

One obvious distinction is that phrenology was around for not much over 100 years before its decline, whereas astrology has been around for thousands of years, continuing to appeal to people in a huge range of cultures. What would you say about this?

Researchers: One answer is that an idea has free reign only up to the point where scientific methods become capable of testing it, which gave astrology a head start. Thus much of the necessary methodology for testing astrology was not available until the 19th and 20th centuries, and the really decisive technology (computers) has been available for only two or three decades. An example similar to phrenology is that of Freudian ideas, whose initial untestability steadily disappeared as methods improved. Another answer is that physiognomy, the forerunner of phrenology, is as old as astrology. If we see the relation between modern astrology (say post Alan Leo) and traditional astrology as similar to that between phrenology and physiognomy, the comparison is almost exact. In any case longevity is irrelevant for our purpose -- ideas just as old and stable as astrology, such as the geocentric view of the cosmos, the four elements, planetary gods, alkahest (universal solvent), and the philosopher's stone, have now all been overturned.

But if the claims of phrenology were wrong, how could experience lead to the opposite belief? How could the experience of practitioners and clients support non-existent effects?

Researchers: What matters here is that systems like phrenology and astrology rest on correspondences, otherwise known as reasoning by analogy, the assumption that things similar in some respects are also similar in other respects. Thus a high forehead or a strong Mercury indicates a strong intellect. The number four and the fourth planet have the same qualities. Big handwriting indicates power and dominance. Mars the red planet indicates blood, anger and war, and by extension anything vaguely red, hot, or aggressive.

Reasoning by analogy seems at first sight to be similar to ordinary reasoning. Size indicates strength, so a big man is stronger than a small man. Loudness indicates activity, so a loud noise suggests more danger than a faint noise. The difference is that these statements involve clear causal links, so we have reason to believe them. They do not claim to tell us anything new. By contrast, reasoning by analogy involves no causal links. It requires only that X correspond with Y in some way, from which correspondence we supposedly discover something new. The problems should be obvious.

Such as?

Researchers: First, it is impossible to specify any two things, no matter how dissimilar, that do not show some kind of correspondence. A raven is like a writing desk because both cast shadows. But knowing something about ravens does not necessarily tell us anything about writing desks.

Second, we have no way of deciding between conflicting correspondences. Are black cats lucky as in ancient Egypt or unlucky as in medieval Europe? Is the keen edge of our intellect blunted by over-use or sharpened? Is Mars unfortunate because red = blood (war) or fortunate because red = blood (life)? Who can believe any correspondence when it is so easily contradicted by another?

Third, our chances of being correct are not good. No longer do we believe, as Aristotle did, that death can occur only at low tide. No longer do midwives open the door to ease a painful labour. No longer do doctors use the lungs of foxes, noted for strong respiration, to cure asthma. No longer do alchemical ideas appear in chemistry courses. In fact reasoning by analogy is generally so spectacularly wrong that it survives in scientific textbooks only as an example of fallacious reasoning.

But doesn't much of scientific thinking depend on analogy?

Researchers: Analogy can be a wonderful source of insight and inspiration, and it can lead to exciting new ways of looking at things. In science it has been an invaluable guide to the discovery of new truth, as when Darwin was led to his theory of evolution by considering the analogy between what nature does and what animal breeders do, hence the name natural selection. But analogy is only suggestive. It is not an arbiter of truth. Analogy cannot decide the cause of AIDS, or the location of endangered whales, or the longevity of a new romance, or whether the Earth is flat, square or circular. For this we need an independent investigation.

But what if the correspondence actually exists?

Researchers: We still have problems because we are so bad at judging correspondences. Even if the correspondence is strong, as between human height and weight, we are still bad at judging it accurately. We can also see correspondences where none actually exist, so a system such as phrenology can seem to work even though it does not. This is why researchers have to be so careful. They cannot afford to be misled.

Please explain how we can see correspondences where none actually exist.

Researchers: Consider the Draw-A-Person test. You draw a person on a sheet of blank paper, and the person's size, detail, clothing, and so on, supposedly reveal your inner conflicts. This is reasoning by analogy. Close-set eyes mean you have a suspicious nature. Big eyes indicate paranoia. A big head means you worry about being clever. This is an example of the correspondences that have been widely accepted. Nearly everyone believes these particular ones. It is also an example of the correspondences that have been critically examined, and in this case dozens of studies have found them to be wrong -- people with such features do not draw such pictures. But it does not end there.

In one famous set of studies, groups of 56 college students were given 45 drawings of a person from a Draw-A-Person test. Each drawing was accompanied by six personality statements about the drawer from which each student had to work out the meaning of features such as head size. So they were rather like astrologers trying to work out the meaning of a new chart factor, say a new asteroid, using the traditional method of comparing charts with their owners. But unknown to the students the personality statements were deliberately unrelated to the drawings. For example the statement "worried about being clever" appeared just as often for small heads as for big heads.

So did the students see what was actually in the data, namely nothing? Not at all. Nearly every student saw the correspondences even though they did not exist in the data. Worse, they continued to see them despite corrective strategies such as repeating the exercise, sorting the drawings into piles for closer study, and even when offered money for accuracy. Worst of all, when the statements totally opposed the correspondences, so that "worried about being clever" appeared only for small heads, never for big heads, the students still saw them, albeit to a lesser extent.

In other words the students saw only what they expected to see. They reasoned by analogy. The actual data (the only thing that mattered) had almost no effect. Or as the late Professor Eysenck would say, "my mind is made up, don't confuse me with facts." The important point is that these studies could not have made it easier to avoid seeing non-existent correspondences, yet the students still failed miserably. So there is no reason to suppose that astrologers do any better once their minds are focussed on astro symbolism -- and this process is only one of the many ways we make errors in our reasoning.

Can you say something about these other errors?

Researchers: Reasoning errors are the focus of dozens of books and thousands of published studies, where they are given intriguing names like anchoring, Barnum effect, cognitive dissonance, confirmation bias, Dr Fox effect, halo effect, hindsight bias, illusory correlation (this is the one we just described), misattribution, placebo effect, Pollyanna principle, Rumpelstiltskin effect, regression effect, stacking the deck, and vividness heuristic. And a fascinating lot they are.

For example the Dr Fox effect involves blinding you with style and jargon rather than content (we just did exactly that). Cognitive dissonance is the painful consequence of holding incompatible views -- if we are committed to astrology then it is painful to find evidence against it, so we search for confirmation, almost anything will do, and ignore the painful bits. The Barnum effect is where we read specifics into generalities, and is often thought to be the most important error in astrology. But other errors can be just as important, such as the placebo effect (it does us good if we think it does), the Pollyanna principle (the power of positive thinking), hindsight bias (afterwards we knew it all along), stacking the deck (ask only confirming questions), safety in complexity (so even the wrong chart fits), and vividness heuristic (judging by vividness not content).

There are many more, all of them leading us to believe in seemingly spot-on correspondences where none actually exist. They prevent us learning from experience, a result that says it all. Perhaps the cruellest blow is the absence of errors leading in the opposite direction, which means we are stuck in a one-way street -- a point to keep in mind when reading what astrologers say in your other interviews.

But wouldn't prejudice, the rejection of astrology for emotional reasons, be an error leading in the opposite direction?

Researchers: No, because we are talking about the reasoning errors made by astrologers, who presumably are not prejudiced against astrology. The only thing that might persuade astrologers to disbelieve in astrology is the informed critical mind, which of course is not a reasoning error but rather a defence against reasoning errors. Fortunately anyone can have an informed critical mind.

But don't you think it's a bit of a jump to then conclude that everything in astrology can be attributed to reasoning errors? As the great 19th century psychologist Herbert Spencer said, a belief may appear entirely wrong, but nevertheless its very existence implies that it contained (and might still contain) some small amount of truth. Might you be in danger, as Johannes Kepler said, of throwing out the baby with the bathwater?

Researchers: This is always a concern. But we still have to find that small amount of truth, and we can only do that by being properly critical. Ironically those who complain about throwing out the baby tend to be those who offer no hints on how it might be rescued from the bathwater. Not for them the grubby business of being practical. Furthermore the cautious attitude prescribed by Kepler is rarely present in astrology. Even supposedly serious astrological publications like The Mountain Astrologer never hint that astrology has severe problems. They give the impression that all is well and that only prejudice stands in the way of astrology being recognised. In their world bathwater does not even exist. However, note how our subjective-objective distinction sorts out the mess -- the baby is objective astrology (which needs to be true) and the bathwater is subjective astrology (which does not need to be true). But to return to your question:

Obviously no scientist wishes to reject an idea that later turns out to be right. But it does happen. Nobody is infallible. The history of science is as much the history of mistakes as of successes, as when the idea of continental drift was initially rejected. But ultimately mistakes are of no consequence because they are corrected by other scientists and other studies. It may take time but it happens in the end. Which is why science changes over time and astrology generally does not.

Be that as it may, this still carries the implication that science as it is right now contains mistaken views which are currently seen as true. The ramifications of that are probably obvious enough.

Researchers: More misleading than obvious. Your argument seems to be that "science contains mistakes, therefore science cannot be trusted", which is like saying "the sea contains gold, therefore we can all be rich" or "ideas about electrons have changed, therefore power stations will no longer work." What matters here are not mistakes as such but:

(1) The ability to find and correct mistakes. Scientific method ensures that mistakes are recognised and corrected, whereas present astrological method is nonfalsifiable (see 3.6, 4.4, 17.5) and therefore ensures the opposite. By definition, no astrology book could give agreed procedures for finding errors.

(2) Their magnitude. What matters is not whether science contains mistakes, or whether the sea contains gold, or whether ideas about electrons have changed, but whether the outcome is enough to decisively affect our trust in science, or our becoming rich, or our being suddenly without electricity. Here the outcome in each case does not start to be even weakly decisive. Compare this with objective astrology, where so much has been disconfirmed that we might reasonably distrust all of it. Nobody denies the practical success of science, but plenty of people deny the practical success of astrology

But how does this self-correcting tendency of science help the individual, fallible, scientist right now?

Researchers: It helps in two ways. (1) By ensuring that current information is the best available until replaced by something better. Current information may be perfectly adequate (Newton got us to the moon) even though a better theory (Einstein) came along.

(2) By increasing their confidence in the collective effort, where other scientists act as quality controllers (which is how we identified problems in cold fusion). The problem faced by each individual scientist is how best to choose a path between the Scylla of embracing falsity and the Charybdis of rejecting truth. In practice the only solution is to be as good a researcher as possible. Be hugely careful, consider alternatives, and act on criticism. This will not prevent mistakes but it will make them much less likely. Of course, if a claim has failed our most careful scrutiny, then we are obliged to say so, just as we would be obliged to change our views if better scrutinies than ours showed us to be mistaken. Scientists are just as interested as astrologers in possible links between cosmic conditions and terrestrial life even though such links might well have an entirely non-astrological basis.

To return to your earlier point (6.12), researchers supposedly in danger of throwing out the baby with the bathwater might also hold that it is up to astrologers to show (as opposed to merely speculate) that the baby actually exists. To merely speculate that the baby exists is of course futile because we need only speculate the opposite to create a gridlock. On the other hand, others might feel that the existence of a possible baby is a challenge to be addressed, which is fine if they then take up the challenge rather than blame others for not doing so.

Unfortunately this is invariably what astrologers do. When faced with negative findings they are quick to invent faults, for example they may claim that the test was inappropriate or not sensitive enough, but they never spell out what an appropriate or sensitive test should consist of. They curse the darkness but seem incapable of lighting candles. Note the problem -- until astrologers generally make an effort to overcome this entrenched occupational hazard, they can hardly expect to be taken seriously.

7. Intuition, unconscious processes, ESP

You have focussed on reasoning errors. But many astrologers would claim that successful chart reading isn't possible without some degree of intuition. Might this avoid reasoning errors?

Researchers: No. Intuition has been a rich source of inspiration in all fields of human endeavour including science. Yet it can be totally unreliable simply because it is not self-verifying. We have no way of resolving opposing intuitions except by reasoning. So intuition does not avoid reasoning errors. Furthermore, the golden rule to consider the whole chart is immediately broken if we select a focus, yet this is what intuition encourages us to do. Astrologers generally seem unaware of this conflict. (See also 7.8)

But is intuition really so unreliable? I know quite a few astrologers who would disagree with you.

Researchers: Their disagreement with us might be more persuasive if they did not disagree so spectacularly among themselves. If their intuitions were in fact reliable, the disagreement between astrologers, between astrological schools, and between traditions (Arabian, Aztec, Burmese, Chinese, Hindu, Jewish, Mayan, Tibetan, Western and so on, excluding purely cultural differences), should not exist.

But astrologers are here in the same boat as palmists, phrenologists, physiognomists, numerologists, and the readers of cards, colours, tea leaves, and so on. Such people frequently claim to rely on intuition, as if this somehow allowed them to home in on the truth despite the disagreement between astrologers on how to read charts, between palmists on how to read hands, between numerologists on how to read numbers, and so on. They are like mechanics who claim that intuition allows successful repairs to cars despite having no workshop manuals.

To be sure, our intuitions, for all their unreliability, serve us well in everyday life. To adopt alternatives would be unrealistic. Nobody seeks formal arguments to decide between strawberry and vanilla ice cream, and most errors are of little consequence. It would also be incapacitating -- life is simply too short. But this does not alter the fact that intuitions are unreliable. Just take a look at selection interviews, which rely for their success on the interviewer's intuition. Here many hundreds of studies are virtually unanimous in their findings -- interviewers frequently disagree completely with each other, e.g. the same candidate can be rated top by one and bottom by another. So much for the supposed benefits of intuition.

The word "intuition" is often used quite loosely, so maybe we should define exactly what we are talking about.

Researchers: In psychology the word "intuition", also called insight or hunch or gut feeling, refers to the method of arriving at a conclusion, not to any property of the conclusion itself. The key features of intuition are: (1) Everything happens in our head. (2) Answers pop up out of nowhere, especially after a rest period, so we end up knowing but without knowing how. (3) We are usually confident of being right. (4) We may be right but we can also be spectacularly wrong even though it still feels right.

However, there is no reason to believe that an answer which pops up has actually come from nowhere, or that ESP is involved (at least not during a chart reading). Instead the evidence suggests that such answers are largely based on previous experience. The relevant experience may not be quickly remembered or even remembered at all, so the rest period in (2) can be essential to allow for unconscious retrieval and unconscious processing of possibilities. Thus the supposedly effortless and unanalysable nature of intuition means nothing -- driving a car requires endless decisions of exactly this nature, but judged by our first fumbling steps at learning to drive they clearly owe little if anything to intuition as traditionally conceived as "knowing without knowing how".

More on the unconscious. Due to a process known as priming, things not important enough to form a conscious memory can still affect our later actions, so they work without us knowing. We see or hear something that seems trivial, so we forget it (that is, we have no conscious memory of it), nevertheless it can stay behind the scenes to subtly affect our later judgement and decisions. So we end up being affected but without knowing how. Priming is probably behind much of what is traditionally seen as intuition.

Conscious problem solving (i.e. high cortical arousal) narrows the pool of possible ideas and suppresses our unconscious workings, which is another reason why the rest period (i.e. low cortical arousal) can be essential. If having gone to sleep on a problem we wake up to find the answer mysteriously before us without effort, this is intuition at work. Sleeping, or doing nothing, has worked better than thinking furiously. Most scientists including ourselves have had many such experiences.

What if there is no rest period, as in a chart reading?

Researchers: If there is no rest period, intuition can still apply, the main feature here being a quick confident conclusion based on a small (and therefore seemingly inadequate) number of clues. Studies using problems with known clues and known answers have revealed two underlying dimensions, namely clues (few-many) and answers (correct-incorrect). The dimensions are independent, so correctness is generally unrelated to number of clues, which is not what we might expect. Getting the right answer also increases with IQ but only slightly.

Interestingly, a person's position on these two dimensions seems to be inherent. Thus a person can be few-correct or many-correct, or few-incorrect or many-incorrect, just like any personality trait, where correct = intuitive and incorrect = non-intuitive. These are not rigid categories, so most people are a shade of grey. Intuition is not a yes/no quantity but something we have more of or less of.

These two dimensions also align with the personality dimensions of tough-tender mindedness (few-many clues), and emotionally stable-anxious (correct-incorrect answers). Non-intuitives tend to be tender-anxious. Intuitives tend to be tough-stable (also creative and unconventional). On this basis the genuinely intuitive chart reader is tough, unemotional, and uses only a few chart factors. This is so different from the warm caring emotional (and therefore non-intuitive) stereotype using the whole chart that we might doubt whether intuition really does play a part in chart reading. Even if it did, it could only work if the chart factors thereby selected actually had the meanings they are said to have, which (given the research results to date) seems doubtful.

In any case, the bottom line is that unconscious processes are as fallible as conscious processes, which is why intuition (despite our confidence) is not necessarily correct. Even self-proclaimed psychics cannot tell when their intuitions are correct, otherwise they would rule the world. No wonder that intuition has been defined as the strange instinct that can tell us we are right even when we are wrong.

You mentioned the need for prior experience, and that people rarely have intuitions about things they have no experience of such as the moons of Saturn. But quite a few people have predicted and described life on other planets on the basis of what would seem to be "leaps of intuition." What (if anything) do you think this tells us about the need for prior experience?

Researchers: Since the time of the visionary scientist Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772), many hundreds of intuitives, psychics and mediums have documented such leaps in hundreds of books -- see Martin Gardner's The New Age: Notes of a Fringe Watcher (Prometheus Books 1988), pages 252-263 on Psychic Astronomy. The results are generally glowing descriptions of exotic landscapes, undiscovered moons, and abundant life (usually hominoid), most of them conflicting and all of them wrong. We now know that the other planets are not like that. The supposed leaps of intuition were to no avail. They produced only heroic delusions. So in this case the results amply confirm the need for prior experience.

Has any research been done into the reliance of astrologers on intuition?

Researchers: The use of intuition by astrologers has not been systematically studied. One 1960 survey of 250 professional or semi-professional astrologers (mostly in the USA) found that over half claimed to use intuition in their chart readings, which of course does not prove that they did or that it was useful or accurate. Nevertheless this still leaves a substantial proportion who claimed not to use intuition.

You have argued that the astrologer's reasoning errors make it unlikely that they will learn anything valid from doing chart readings for clients. But surely this experience has to be good for something.

Researchers: Experience of people can make us more astute, and more aware of cold-reading cues, allowing us to make better judgements in ways that have nothing to do with astrology. Experience can also bring insight, and the bigger the similarity between problem and experience the better the insight. Consider this interesting test made in 1945:

Six laboratory-raised chimpanzees are put one at a time into a cage containing a stick. Outside beyond reach there is food. Will they use the stick to get it? Each animal is given half an hour. The first four have no history of stick-using, and in each case the answer is no. The fifth has used sticks before and gets the food within 12 seconds. The sixth has no history of stick-using and reaches for the food without success. After four minutes his thrashing arm brushes the stick and moves the food slightly. He stops, pushes the stick against the food, and sees it move. A few more trials and the food is his. The four unsuccessful animals are then given sticks to play with for the first time in their lives. After three days the use of sticks is old hat. The food test is then repeated, and all get the food within seconds. Conclusion: there is no insight that does not go back to actual experience.

Of course if our experience is illusory due to our reasoning errors, then so is our insight. Furthermore, the insight that brings a truly creative achievement may come only after months or years of uneventful labour and general floundering. Thus Newton did not suddenly happen on the law of gravitation in his mother's orchard. Instead it came "by thinking on it continually."

All of which actually suggests an important role for unconscious processes.

Researchers: Yes, just as in intuition. But we should remember that, as in intuition, unconscious processes are just as fallible as conscious ones. The role of unconscious processes was shown by an ingenious study in 1990 in which subjects were presented with numerous items like the following. Imagine you are doing a crossword puzzle. You have to guess a certain word, for which you are given two sets of clues:

(1) Bird. Pipe. Road. (2) Goat. Pass. Green.

Only one of the sets is correct. What is the word? If you cannot guess the word, which is the correct set of clues? (We tell you the answers in a moment.)

The test seems completely bizarre and meaningless. Unsurprisingly, only 4% of subjects could guess the word, yet (and this is the interesting part) no less than 67% picked the correct set. Why? In each case the correct set of clues had an association with the target word, so it was coherent, and the other set had no association with the target word, so it was incoherent. It seems that the subjects perceived the coherence unconsciously, which activated the relevant mnemonic networks, which kept on working until the outcome reached awareness as an intuition or gut feeling. They knew without knowing why. In this case the correct set of clues is (2) and the word is Mountain.

The same principle suggests that an astrologer will select from a chart those factors that are the most coherent, which in effect could mean ignoring the whole chart in favour of isolated factors. To the extent that different schools disagree on what factors to use they will also tend to disagree on what is most coherent, in which case their respective intuitions are likely to be unhelpful.

PS. If you cannot see any connection between Mountain and Green, think of alpine meadows and mountain greenery

Does this mean, do you think, that astrologers should try to interpret charts on a purely linear non-intuitive basis, as a computer program might?

Researchers: Not necessarily. It would depend on whether the aim was subjective astrology or objective astrology. If the former, then coherence (which in effect would narrow the range of options shown by the chart) might in some cases be counter-productive. It might stifle discussion. But what astrologers could do is look at the strategies used by top experts in other fields. Various studies have found that ordinary people tend to use intuition and naive reasoning, whereas experts gather information systematically, use systematic decision rules, use sound foundations such as empirical evidence and empirical equations, keep careful track of hits and misses, and remain alert for improvements.

For example one recent study looked at experts recognized by their peers as being the best in auditing, business management, livestock judging, nursing, personnel selection, or soil judging, all areas where there are well-known proven principles and systematic feedback, which is not true of astrology. These top experts had several characteristics that set them apart from lesser experts. They could home in on the relevant information, were always up to date with the latest developments, and knew which problems to tackle and which to avoid. More importantly, they also used strategies designed to overcome reasoning errors. For example they sought feedback from associates, learnt from past successes and failures, used aids such as written records to avoid judgement biasses, focussed on avoiding really bad mistakes rather than on being exactly right, and solved large problems by dividing into parts and then reassembling the partial solutions.

You mentioned (in 7.3) there are reasons for believing that ESP is unlikely to be involved in a chart reading.

Researchers: At first sight it might seem that ESP (if it exists) could account for all astrological predictions that are difficult to explain yet appear to be correct, whether personal, electional, horary, or whatever. Similarly it might seem that ESP could also explain any successes due to palmistry, tea leaf reading, and so on. But if ESP was really responsible, planets would be interchangeable with tea leaves, and we would have no grounds for claiming that such methods are valid in themselves. In fact the study of astrology would become irrelevant, which presumably is not a view supported by astrologers. This alone is good reason for believing that astrology is not merely ESP in disguise.

Furthermore we should recognise that ESP can be defined as not the result of any means we know of. So if an outcome can be explained by normal intuitive processes in the brain, no matter how mysterious they may seem, we are not entitled to invoke ESP. We can invoke ESP only if all other explanations can be ruled out, which would require safeguards that are generally never present during a chart reading.

Are you saying that ESP could never be involved in a chart reading?

Researchers: Parapsychologists have explained such ESP effects as may occur in terms of two models. In the reduction of sensory-noise model, the key is relaxation and a constant low-level sensory input. If the subject is relaxed, hears white noise, and sees only a featureless warm glow, sensitivity to ESP (should it occur) begins only after 15-20 minutes of habituation to these conditions. That is, under conditions of unvarying sensory input it takes 15-20 minutes for the brain to stop attending to the senses and become attentive to internal mental events instead. But if the astrologer is having sensory inputs, as is necessarily the case when reading charts for clients, habituation cannot occur and ESP is unlikely to manifest.

Alternatively, in the reduction of bias-and-rigidity model, the key is the absence of preoccupations and constraints. ESP can then be triggered by need, e.g. to avoid a not-consciously recognised hazard, but not too much need, which produces stress and impairs performance. If the subject is preoccupied, e.g. with finishing before the next client arrives, or is constrained, as is necessarily the case when addressing particular issues for clients, ESP is unlikely to manifest.

In both cases, contrary to what some astrologers have claimed, the process of reading charts, or focussing on mandalas, seems not conducive to ESP, at least not in the presence of clients. Nevertheless, if astrologers could consistently score above chance under conditions where ordinary explanations could be ruled out, then ESP would have to be considered, even though we have no reason to suppose that ESP would be any less fallible than our ordinary senses. But the prospects do not seem promising, given that a direct test of top psychic readers found them to be no more accurate than matched non-psychics.

Could you describe this test?

Researchers: It was a remarkable study finished in 1988 that took five years. It monitored a total of more than 130 readings by the top 12 counselling psychics in the Netherlands, and then rated their accuracy against matched groups of non-psychics. Typically each reading involved 60-90 statements spread over personality (35%), general circumstances including occupation (25%), relationships (15%), and physical matters such as health (25%), much the same as for a typical astrology reading. Over 10,000 statements were obtained, of which 10% were sufficiently specific to be tested, of which 14% turned out to be correct, i.e. only about 1.4% of all statements were both specific and correct. No difference in hit rate was observed between psychics or between psychics and non-psychics. It was concluded that psychics were no more accurate than non-psychics, but their sensitivity to human ills and their huge experience (their own lives were often traumatic) still made them useful counsellors.

What might this mean for astrology?

Researchers: It would seem to deny that intuition and ESP (or at least claimed ESP) could play a useful role in the reading of charts, though intuition might play a useful role in the reading of clients. But regardless of whether astrologers use intuition, they are in effect claiming that chart factors have real intrinsic meanings as opposed to ones imagined by the ancient Greeks, and that their permutations can be accurately disentangled by astrologers as opposed to the mere appearance of disentangling.

In fact some astrologers leave us in no doubt that chart factors have real intrinsic meanings. For example Charles Carter, the leading British astrologer of the 1930s, says "Practical experiment will soon convince the most sceptical that the bodies of the solar system indicate, if they do not actually produce, changes in: (1) Our minds. (2) Our feelings and emotions. (3) Our physical bodies. (4) Our external affairs and relationships with the world at large" (Principles of Astrology 1925 page 14). Similarly Julia and Derek Parker tell students that "over the years ... your own files will increasingly convince you ... of the basic and valuable truths to be found in the birth chart" (Parker's Astrology: The Definitive Guide to Using Astrology in Every Aspect of Your Life 1991 page 9). Nothing here about astrology needing intuition before it can work.

But we need not rely on selected quotes. You have interviewed many astrologers. Generally speaking, did they have any doubts that chart factors have real intrinsic meanings?

There is a range of opinion. Certainly, all the astrologers I interviewed believe that they can access real information from the chart, but views differ as to how this happens. Some see astrology as an empirical science where each chart factor has an intrinsic meaning, much as H2O always means water to a chemist. Others consider that meaning does not inhere in chart factors per se, but is created by the coming together of chart factors with the astrologer's mind, so H2O could mean Antarctica, emotion, making tea, ships, or anything else with watery connections. These are extreme positions, with most astrologers existing at points on the spectrum between them. So do astrologers think that chart factors have real intrinsic meanings? Some do, some don't, and most are somewhere in the middle.

Researchers: The issue boils down to our distinction between objective and subjective astrology, so it is good to see how well it agrees with your astrologers' responses. Some believe that chart factors have real meanings, so theirs is objective astrology. Some do not, so theirs is subjective astrology. Others try for both, quoting scientific evidence if positive but ignoring it if negative. Astrologers can check their position by asking the questions listed in the discussion of Figure 1.

Part 1 has looked at questions that science raises about astrology in principle. Part 2 will look at some of the research that has been carried out to test astrology in practice.

Click here for Part 2 (requires two downloads plus one more for the index)

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