The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Stars & Superstition

Posted by mattusmaximus on January 27, 2009

Today there was a solar eclipse – it was really only visible from the Indian Ocean and surrounding region.  But if you happened to be nearby, you would have been treated to some pretty spectacular sights, like this sunset over Manila Bay in the Philippines…

solar-eclipse

Whenever relatively rare events such as eclipses take place, they quite understandably draw our attention. All people seem to have, if you’ll pardon the pun, a universal interest in the stars & skies above us. Unfortunately, this sense of wonder that we have when viewing the heavens can all too easily lead us down the path to woo & uncritical thinking.

Leaving aside the fact that there are still a number of people who believe in geocentrism (the view that the Earth is the center of the universe), it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that somehow mysterious cosmic forces are influencing our daily lives. I am talking about, of course, that infamous bugaboo, astrology.

Aside: “Astrology” is NOT the same thing as “astronomy”. Astronomy is a real science, and it just kills science geeks like me when we hear people mix the two terms up. It’s like saying oil & water are the same thing…

Now, don’t get me wrong, given the evidence around us it’s easy to see that various celestial objects in the sky influence us. After all, our own Sun is a star, and it constantly bathes our planet in life-giving light. Our calendars, indeed our entire concept of time, is based upon motions & cycles of the Sun, Moon, and stars. And if a dinosaur killer asteroid were to suddenly whip out of deep space and impact the Earth, I think we could all agree that would qualify as some kind of influence, right?

We accept that those sort of celestial influences upon our daily lives are real because there are understandable and have concrete physical processes behind them (such as the inverse-square law of light and Newton’s law of universal gravity). But astrology doesn’t provide any mechanism for explaining the supposed influence that it peddles – modern astrology merely makes random connections and inferences, much as any other form of prophecy or divination. Despite the implications & claims of its practitioners that astrological systems are scientific, there is no peer-review system for astrology. In fact, most “predictions” by astrologers are little more than guesses, overly-broad generalizations that anyone could make, or post hoc fabrications which seem to fit events after they’ve occurred. For example, this can be seen in this astrology blog entry where the writer attributes events such as 9/11 and the current economic recession to something called the “Cosmic Trigger.” My favorite line is this one…

When we see an activation of the Aries Point, we always get big news. This has happened a dozen times in the past decade — stuff like Sept. 11, the tsunami and other events. The Aries Point is like this bell waiting to be rung, only it’s not a bell, it’s like a crystal bowl that vibrates the universe.

Wow, it would sure be nice if these astrologers could actually predict something big like the stock market crash before it happened, wouldn’t it?

Needless to say, in all forms, astrology employs heavy doses of magical thinking in order for it to make sense to its adherents.

astrology

For a much more thorough analysis of astrology and why it doesn’t work, I refer you to an excellent article by Dr. Phil Plait, “The Bad Astronomer” – check it out here! I’ll give the last word on debunking astrology to that master of skeptics, James “The Amazing” Randi…

I want to close this post by telling you why I think it is important to beware of pseudoscientific nonsense like astrology. Everyone knows that we’re in quite an economic downturn now, but one thing you may not know is that a disturbing number of Wall Street traders & brokers have used astrology (called financial astrology) in their daily work! Really, I’m not kidding. And, sadly, astrology is not the only psuedoscience which influences the investment trade.

And if that wasn’t enough to give you a little thrill, think about this – former First Lady Nancy Reagan regularly consulted an astrological adviser, and she would use the astrologer’s advice to influence the schedule of events for President Ronald Reagan! So the daily activities of the most powerful man on the planet (with his finger on THE Button) were being set by a pseudoscientific crank. Wow, sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.

In uncertain times such as these, it is often comforting to take a night-time walk and gaze upon the heavens, drinking in the vast reaches of our cosmos. But in our desire to seek solace in the skies, we must be careful not to abandon our reason. As I like to say to my students, “It’s okay to keep an open mind, just not so open that your brain falls out.” :)

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One Response to “Stars & Superstition”

  1. [...] of a chill up my spine. This is eerily similar to something I blogged about earlier – in my post Stars & Superstition – called financial astrology, where some financial advisers & investors actually use the [...]

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