Proof of Astrology?
The British astronomer Percy Seymour has recently published a new book entitled The Scientific Proof of Astrology (2004). Two reviews of the book were published in the mainline press—Ian Sample’s “Written in the Stars” (The Guardian, May 18, 2004), and Johnathan Leake’s “Top Scientist Gives Backing to Astrology” (Sunday Times, May 16, 2004). Both articles are misleading in some ways in which they present the information.
For a start, Seymour’s recent ideas aren’t overly different from those he published in Astrology: The Evidence of Science (1988), revised edition (1990), and The Scientific Basis of Astrology (1997). Seymour is not interested in star -sign horoscopes so popular with much of the astrological community. You will also look in vain in his books for surveys of the hundreds of tests conducted on astrology by researchers. His main interest is the results of the French researchers Michel and Francoise Gauquelin, notably the Mars Effect. Those ignored or played-down studies have consistently failed to produce results commensurate with astrological claims. Even the Gauquelin findings involve weak effects.
- Sample notes that Seymour contends that he does not believe in horoscopes, which means that much of what he says does not fit with what the majority of astrologers believe. They unlike him, contend that the moment of one’s birth is related to all one does in the future. Oddly, in the next sentence in the article by Sample we read, “Could it be that countless devotees ranging from Charles de Gaulle to Ronald Reagan had it right when they kept one eye on the stars?” But Reagan and others were involved with horoscopes, which Seymour rejects! Seymour would not be impressed with the typical claims that astrologers would have us believe (e.g see Star IQ).
- All Seymour’s theory would illustrate is that the position of the moon and some planets could be another speculative (and weak) factor to be taken into account in explaining human behaviour. But the links between geomagnetic resonance and personality are not as straightforward as made out. For example, important aspects of behaviour such as aggressiveness are determined to a large extent by hormone levels, and it is difficult to see how a hormone level could resonate. The induced voltages would be around a billionth of a microvolt, which (given that brain activity is commonly around 100 microvolts) seem very unlikely to say the least, to have any effect., especially as planetary frequencies are some six octaves below the normal 3-50 Hz range in brain frequencies. It is hard to see how such weak and disparate planetary influences could override the neural pacemakers that control brain function, especially when neural networks differ between people, change quickly over time, and are highly individual. Real neural networks do not seem to have the properties required by Seymour. The word ‘Proof’ in the book’s title is also hardly a term that will endear scientific or philosophical readers. Talk of proof may be understandable in geometry or logic or even religion, but even a cursory awareness of the history of science should make any scientist wary of the p-word.
- Sample’s article mentions studies about effect of season findings. But these have nothing to do with astrology. For example, the seasons are reversed in the southern hemisphere, but the zodiac signs of people remain unchanged. Furthermore, astrology is based not on causal connections (as occur in seasonal effects which could change in the future given climate change) but on symbolic connections. For example, when Chiron was discovered, astrologers consulted mythology books and determined that Chiron was a satyr associated with healing. And its connection with healing is a part of its role in those who use it in horoscopes. The same occurred when Pluto was discovered. In neither case was the astrological meaning of the planet determined by large scale studies, it was determined by library research and armchair exchanges among astrologers. Indeed, many astrologers claim that causal effects are by definition not astrology, but they enjoy the positive publicity (unless the findings are negative, in which case they are automatically wrong). Unlike biological rhythms and social and psychological factors, astrological relationships are not affected by age, or gender, or socioeconomic background, and people don’t differ in their susceptibility to astrological ‘influences’ as they do with everything else in the social and physical sciences.
- Leake says, “Astrologers were delighted with Seymour’s claims”. He cites astrologer Richard Grant who tells us, “If the moon is connected with the ebb and flow of the tides, and humans are 70% water, then why can’t the moon be affecting us? So we have good moods or bad moods depending on the position of the moon?” Some real problems here, Richard. For a start, tides occur because the gravitational pull on the oceans is sufficiently different between the near and far sides of the earth. People would have to be huge to be similarly affected. Also, moon phase does not usually play a role in horoscopes, rather it is the moon sign, which is quite different. Regarding published studies on the relationship between the moon’s position and human behaviour, the results are not clear cut enough to reach such conclusions anyway. About half of the studies give negative results, and half positive. And unfortunately the positive studies are not in agreement regarding which position or phase is statistically significant. Finally, the positive studies give such small effects that they would hardly justify talk such as “we have good or bad moods depending on the position or phase of the moon.”
- Leake further tells readers that “Several years ago it emerged that the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development was using astrology to help manage it’s 5 billion pound investment portfolio…”. One might ask, did the bank do better than it would have without using astrology? How would they find out? We aren’t told. George Bush consults the Bible for guidance. What follows? Other institutions may consult all sorts of sources for investments, including psychics and spiritualists—perhaps some comparative studies are needed.
- We are further told by Leake that “This year’s Sunday Times Rich List included an analysis of the star signs of Britain’s 1,000 richest people—finding significant differences with 110 born under Gemini but only 73 under Pisces.” Is this astrologically significant? Would most astrologers have predicted this result in advance? Actually the numbers (via Shermer), if correct, add up to 1067, and by chi-squared test (df=11, expectancy =1067/12, i.e with no corrections for demography and astronomy), p= . 26, so the results are not even marginally significant. So on what basis are they seen as “significant”? To be sure, something has to come top and something has to come bottom, but so what? Would not ANY other differences have been equally reportable as “evidence for astrology”? One might point out that studies with star signs which produce negative results (which is most of them, and almost all of them when artifacts are controlled), have been roundly criticized by members of the astrological community for violating the basic astrological dictum that astrological factors should never be studied alone.
- Is astrology science as Seymour suggests? Given its connections are determined symbolically, along with the majority of astrologer’s expressing disinterest in promoting large scale studies and abiding by the results (unless they are positive), it is difficult to think so. While scientists continually re-evaluate their basic assumptions and constantly revise basic theories on evidential grounds (consider the theories in astronomy and physics before and after the 20th century), astrology remains basically the same as two millennia ago. Does any reader believe it possible that headlines similar to “ The universe could be a billion years older than we thought” (BBC News), will ever surface in astrological periodicals? News flash, “Top astrologers contend Mars has been determined to have the astrological characteristics of Neptune and vice-versa” or “Astrologer’s determine that Saturn is an astrologically insignificant planet after all.” Whatever Seymour finds, it won’t change the way astrologers conduct their business and erect horoscopes. No astrologer whose results Seymour’s are at variance with are going to change their minds.
I.W. Kelly, Department of educational Psychology & Special Education, University of Saskatchewan, Canada.
Readers wanting more information will find the following critical reviews pertinent:
Modern concepts of astrology: A critique.