NYT goes soft on astrology

March 15, 2019 • 10:15 am

“It is wrong, everywhere and for every one, to believe anything on insufficient evidence”.
—W.K. Clifford, The Ethics of Belief

If a newspaper has an astrology column, write it off. Unsubscribe. It may be justified as a form of amusement, but many people accept astrology, and such a justification feeds into the acceptance of woo and faith. And a lot of people spend a lot of money on astrological advice, just as they do on psychics. The two phenomena are, after all, related.

The New York Times doesn’t have an astrology column, but it just published an article that could be seen as soft on astrology, for while it points out that many people don’t accept astrology, it doesn’t point out that scientific tests also debunk it. (For a very good test of astrology, see this pdf.) And the article (below) copiously quotes those who accept it. It’s like the NYT publishing a piece on creationism and saying “creationism is sometimes met with ridicule or derision by scientists and non-believers” but that there are many creationists around and those folks urge caution about accepting evolution. If you don’t like creationism, it implies, just shut up and move on. Don’t quibble about “evidence”.

Nor does this piece present any evidence against astrology, though one linked article says there is such evidence. Rather, it says that Mercury is in “retrograde”: an optical illusion that occurs a couple of times a year when Mercury, which circles the Sun about four times faster than does Earth, appears to be going backwards because of its greater speed. That alarms some people. Read and weep:

Here’s all the stuff in the piece that implies that astrology might have something to it:

Do not sign contracts. Do not buy electronics, or anything with moving parts or gears. Do not be surprised if the mail is screwed up, or something goes awry when you’re in transit. And be mindful: You’re liable to forget something, like your glasses or phone.

That’s the advice from astrologers while the planet Mercury is in retrograde, which lasts until March 28 this time around. The phrase has become a go-to explanation — or scapegoat — for when things go a little haywire.

But two prominent astrologers we spoke to said there was some exaggeration in the popular mind about the chaos caused by Mercury’s motion.

Susan Miller, the force behind the popular site Astrology Zone, finds the alarmist headlines about “surviving” retrogade to be a bit much.

“It’s not tragic,” she said. “It’s annoying.”

Chani Nicholas, whose writing is infused with political and social commentary, agreed. “It’s given way too much emphasis generally,” she said.

They preach caution, not panic. For example, you might have to purchase a gadget during Mercury retrograde. That’s fine.

“Just keep your receipts,” Ms. Nicholas said.

Imagine. That’s like interviewing a flat-earther saying, “Well, don’t panic. It’s okay if you take a cruise; but be sure to take out life insurance in case you fall off the edge.”

But wait! There’s more!

Call it a sign of the times.

“The meteoric rise of New Age practices may be trendy, but it’s one way millennials are acknowledging that the current system isn’t working,” Krista Burton wrote in a Times Op-Ed last year.

“We’re trying out new things that are actually old things; we’re seeing what else could make life a little more meaningful, a little more bearable.”

. . . “It’s a waste of your energy to be hating on astrology, because we really aren’t out here trying to harm people,” she said.

Yeah, they’re just deluding people to make them feel good and taking money in the process.

At the end of the piece, astrology is touted as a sort of feel-good practice, like being a liberal Methodist. The difference, of course, is that astrology does make specific predictions that can be and have been falsified, whereas many religious claims are untestable. Accepting astrology is like accepting flat-earthism. While it doesn’t cause as much harm as, say, accepting climate-change denialism, it still weakens the organs of rationality, and in places like India it is dead serious, with marriages and other events—even launching satellites—timed to coincide with a propitious conjunctions of the planets.

Here’s how the piece ends.

Many people, of course, may peruse their horoscope without embracing all of the teachings of astrology. And having “Mercury retrograde” as a go-to phrase to describe things going wrong can be pretty useful.

Both Ms. Miller and Ms. Nicholas said that there were positive aspects to Mercury being in retrograde, and that it was a good opportunity to look back, reflect and regroup. Ms. Nicholas is using the time to complete revisions on her upcoming book about astrology and radical self-acceptance, due out in December.

“My main concern is that everyone has access to the therapies and practices that are healing to them,” Ms. Nicholas said.

“And if astrology is not that for you, then great, move on.”

If palm-reading and seances aren’t for you, then great, move on.  If anti-vaxism isn’t for you, then great, move on. If creationism isn’t for you, then great, move on. If Bigfoot isn’t for you, then great, move on. The thing is, astrology shouldn’t be for you, for it weakens your rationality and, for many who pay astrologers, picks your pocket on false pretenses.

In contrast, here’s the entirety of criticism in the article, with one sentence even giving some pushback:

Of course, actual scientists point out that any “retrograde” motion by Mercury is an optical illusion. And they vigorously dispute the core belief of astrology, that the motion of the planets can influence events here on Earth. In fact, studies have shown no correlation between the behavior of planets and of people.

. . . But astrology is sometimes met with ridicule or derision by scientists and non-believers. Ms. Nicholas said she was emphatically pro-science, and “baffled” about the negative reaction that some people have to astrology.

They do proffer some depressing statistics about American belief in astrology, although they aren’t seen as depressing by the NYT:

The National Science Board, which submits biennial reports to Congress on the state of science and engineering in the United States, including attitudes toward “pseudoscience,” has also found that younger Americans are less likely to reject astrology. Its 2018 report found that 54 percent of those 18 to 25, and 53 percent of those 25 to 34, said astrology was “not at all scientific.” Among all respondents, that number was 60 percent.

And a Pew Research Center survey of American adults released last year found that 37 percent of women and 20 percent of men said they believed in astrology. The numbers were highest among people ages 30 to 49, followed by those who were 18 to 29.

Below is a video, embedded in the article, which I thought would be critical, as it’s called “Astrology is fake but it’s probably fine,” about the “mystical internet” and the rise of astrology apps and the like. At least they seemed to say it was “fake”. But did it really?

Nope; they show Spencer Pratt using crystals for healing. They say that you don’t have to actually believe in astrology to use it, for the practice is about “helping us understand ourselves.” After all, “a piece of rose quartz stone is an expression of unconditional love.” They tout Goop’s jade vagina eggs without criticizing them, saying that woo “fulfills a legitimate need”, as it’s “a rejection of all the algorithmic, data-driven, hyperlogical, crypto-libertarian values that run so much of what we do online. In their place, it carves out room for intuition and empathy. . . In this context [the fact that it’s even more idiotic than flat earthism], retreating into the mystical internet actually feels like quite a rational move.”

There you have it: faith trumps facts; what makes you feel good trumps what’s true. It’s idiotic, and it’s in the New York Times.



Again, my twin beefs:

1.) Why was this published in the New York Times? Of what value is it to anyone? Why is the paper giving voice to people who accept woo because it “seems rational”?

2.) Astrology is not benign, but harmful. It not only weakens the mental barriers between faith and rationality, but it also enables a whole group of shysters—those who profit from astrology—to prey on the gullible.

Greg Mayer, who brought this piece to my attention, wanted me to add this, as he teaches a course on pseudoscience:

It’s not just that astrology harms your mind; it also harms your pocketbook. Astrology is just one of a long and sorry list of scams that are designed to separate the gullible from their money. I’ve covered many of these over the years of teaching a course called “Science and Pseudoscience”. On one memorable occasion, after we had covered these various scams, a student raised her hand and told the class, “You wouldn’t believe how much I was spending on palm-reading until I took this class!”

The Times should have thrown this piece in the bin.

h/t: Greg

87 thoughts on “NYT goes soft on astrology

  1. There is more to the appeal of astrology, and it is shared by religion. I’m not sure what, but I think it has to do with thoughts along the lines of “well, I tried those things, and they aren’t working for me – why not see what this silly astrology say? What’s the harm? It might be fun, I might learn something.” The seduction is working at that point, and soon will encrust the victim with notions of how nobody has answers to everything, how we know so little, how nobody can say what’s best for you… where does one start to solve that? Even if the article said astrology is bogus, that might just reinforce the seduction.

    1. People want explanations for the many random and inexplicable things that happen in life, and astrological charlatans provide them. Of course, the NYT should steer clear of promoting such garbage. That said, if it had published a total takedown of astrology there are plenty of people who would see that as the mainstream media trying to hide the truth! Education and rationalism are the only solutions, but sadly not easy ones to implement.

    2. I think a good part of the seductive aspect of both astrology and religion is the flattering nature of being reassured that everything which happens is in some way about you. The stars in the sky are giving you messages or revealing truths about your personality and goals; the universe itself was created as a forum for you to make choices and grow.

      I call it the Playpen Theory of Reality. You’re both the meaning and focus of attention *and* just a humble little baby impressed by the Big Things above you. Every challenge, joy, sorrow, success, and setback are basically toys deliberately placed in your path to teach you things. You are loved; you matter; you can grow wise without having to actually grow up.

      Supernatural systems allow one the freedom of contradictions. Once inside, you will simultaneously manage to be breathtakingly arrogant while congratulating yourself for avoiding the breathtaking arrogance of being closed minded.

      The article probably intended to reinforce this seduction. It’s “spiritual” — and who wouldn’t want to be spiritual?

      1. Interesting points – I see a number of components that are ostenstibly valuable, like “make choices and grow”, blended/diluted into “the universe itself was created as a forum for you”.

        I like the Playpen theory, it has a strong intuitive component.

        Can you elaborate on what you mean by “freedom of contradictions”, and is it what I see as a blending/dilution of valuable ideas with invented fantasy?

        1. Sorry, just saw this.
          The contradiction I was referring to was the one in the next sentence. The believer simultaneously considers themselves the focus of the universe AND considers this human-centric view a humble one because they’re not in charge.

      2. Agreed. Your Playpen Theory also provides another emotional comfort – the feeling that tough decisions are all made for you. A willingness to be controlled and give up a share of autonomy and responsibility to keep life simple and stress free. Hitch described this as the appeal of totalitarianism. A kind of masochism.

        1. _the appeal of totalitarianism_, what a powerful image! When I was born, Uranus entered the Constellation of Andromeda, consequently my path was laid out before me….
          Seriously, I also found astrology attractive when I was young; fortunately, that happened just when I had begun to think for myself!

      3. It seems to me that the mindset of astrology harkens back to an era where the assumption was simply that all things were interconnected, not that humans were front and center. I think this baseline assumption is actually correct (there is some manner of experiment involving a swinging pendulum that shows we are connected to the goings on in outer space, I think – I cannot for the life of me remember enough about it to Google it though, maybe someone else remembers,) even if the details are way off base. We are connected by physics, not the pop culture dating advice one finds in horoscopes – but even there, astrology does not promise the beatific if only you please the stars, it’s more an ebb and flow of positive and negative events based on cause and effect. From a psychological standpoint, I think you see the human mindset shift into a much more “humans first” attitude once Abrahamic religions arrive on the scene. It’s really an interesting experiment in how culture and time and place impact human mindset, I think.

        1. Indeed we are all connected within the matrix of the physical universe. However, the problem with astrology is that it does not discriminate between the way physics and matter tie things together, often very tenuously, and the notion of active agency or strongly directed cause and effect which is the result of wish thinking.

    3. I wonder if there is a basis to astrology in evolutionary psychology. The night sky would have been a huge fixture in the lives or our ancestors, and unlike the more observable living world up close, the strange and seemingly inexplicable movements they observed unfolding above them would appear to be coming out of nowhere. I would say almost any average person feels a sense of awe when gazing up at the night sky on a starry night (although I could be wrong, I’m just assuming we all feel that, for the most part) – perhaps this sense transfers to mystical belief in some people.

      1. oh I see – yes, the sublime terror of knowing there are Big Things up there, and we are small things down here….

        enter the Meme, I suppose – handed down by word-of-mouth, stories…

  2. As a kid, I recall going through a “phase” where it was fun to read my, “Your Daily Horoscope” at the end of the day –just to see how Wrong they were. On a rare occasion, the vague, bland “prophesy” would sound similar enough to my experience to seem ” genuine”. Nonetheless, even as a naive kid, it was not difficult to sense spam scams.

  3. You can make an argument that individuals use unconscious predictions and post event justifications as a means of making the best fit with their surroundings. This is the result of evolutionary processes working on populations.

    Predictions and justifications as a way of life appear to work reasonably well in fitness terms, but there will always be a temptation for individuals to try and predict the unknowable future (e.g. astrology) and justify mysterious past events (the supernatural).

  4. In the film [Wonders of the Solar System] I said astrology was “a load of rubbish” and the BBC asked for a statement about this after some criticism so I said “I apologise to the astrology community for not making myself clear, I should have said that this new-age drivel is undermining the very fabric of our civilisation”.

    That wasn’t issued by the BBC complaints department.

    — Prof. Brian Cox OBE, “Royal Television Society Lecture, Huw Wheldon Lecture 2010: Science – a challenge to TV Orthodoxy”


      1. A tungsten carbide fist under a velvet glove.

        (NB : WC has a density of 15.6 g/cm³ – a fist-size mass of that is going to weigh [retires to kitchen] 320cm³ *15.6 g/cm³ = 4992g damned near 5 kilos, and getting walloped by that is going to smart.)

  5. You know how you can protect yourself from the effects of Mercury retrograde? Quit believing in astrology!

    I ask people who post stuff about Mercury retrograde on FB *WHY* does it ‘make bad things happen’? If it’s a matter of it being in retrograde, why doesn’t the moon do the same thing, but only much worse – as it’s ALWAYS in retrograde, and way closer. The reply is usually something about how they don’t have to explain their beliefs to a skeptic, etc…but never once have I gotten anything even remotely like an actual explanation.

    1. It’s the black box approach to belief. They’re only open-minded and curious enough to embrace the pre-established system of astrological belief. Then suddenly that open-mindedness and curiosity dry up, and any skeptic who asks how exactly it works is either treated with hostility or fobbed off in an ad hoc manner.

      Another reason to distrust the moralistic attitude of believers. They’re only “open-minded” and “curious” long enough to give special pleading for their favourite brands of mysticism, and then suddenly it stops. Alternative rationality? Wishful thinking, more like.

  6. It seems like the astrologer’s interpretations of the planets is based on a Ptolomaic understanding of the solar system – ie. the retrograde ‘backward’ movement of mercury should be a time for us to reflect on things past etc etc.

    I doubt any scientist described mercury’s motion as an “optical illusion” Optical illusions happen as a result of the way our brains and retinas process information. Mercury really does appear to move backwards relative to the sun.

  7. I always come back to the thought that not all people are above average. The ability to sustain rational thought is not distributed evenly through the population. Thus, there will always be a certain amount of woo. But, the New York Times? Say it ain’t so!

    1. I sometimes worry that we’re reaching the point where the average person is below average. I know that’s a mean thing to say.

      1. If I still had my notes from Sadistics I’d still have the second lecture of the series : “Measures of Central Tendency”. There are three popular such measures (and a potentially infinite number of less popular ones), the mean, the median and the mode. For a finite sample size where your measure is bounded at a lower value and unbounded upwards, then the mode (the most frequent value in the sample) will be lower than the median (the middle value in the sample when ordered by value) which will be lower than the mean (sum of the sample valued divided by the number of elements in the sample). We were given the proof as an exercise for that week’s tutorial – and I’ve forgotten the details. The important factor, as I remember, is that there can be very high values in the sample.
        As Ant🐜 says below, you’re looking at the mode (or possibly the median) and comparing it with the mean. So, yes, the most frequent person you’d meet is likely to have a less than average (mean) shoe size, or whatever it is you’re measuring.
        A properly designed and scaled IQ test (not all “IQ” tests are) will be set up so that the mean IQ is 100 and the standard deviation is 15. If, in your sample from your population you have one person with an IQ of 140 or more (an event of probability 0.02275) then that person will contribute 140 to the total of values for the sample which would match the contribution of two people of IQ 70 (probability 0.0455). That’s why you’re more likely to meet people who score lower in your metric than the average. (There are a lot of valid questions about the “IQ” ; this is about the maths, not the test.)
        I spat my tea back into the cup a day or two ago when someone mentioned “if you have a person of IQ 200”. Which I mentally calculated “200 is 100 above average, which is 100/15= six and a bit SDs from the mean. There might be ONE person on the planet that high.” I was wrong, it’s a little less than 0.1 people. Or, to have a 50% probability of having one person of IQ 200, you need a human population of about 76 billion.

        1. I remember Truman Capote said he was tested for IQ and scored over 200. Google confirms,
          “Even as a child, Capote wanted to be famous. When he applied to the prestigious Trinity School, he was given an IQ test as an entrance exam, and he scored 215, the highest in the school’s history.”
          It may be that test was not the standard IQ test you describe.

          1. If Truman Capote said that … well, I know little about him (something to do with entertainment, American, and flamboyantly gay in the 1950s, which must have been a tough gig), but to sustain such a claim shows innumeracy down closer to the 120s not the over 200s.
            I could write my own IQ test which would give me a score of 500 if I wanted. Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

              1. Is he the one of whom it is said that he had a lot to exaggerate about.
                One of the many?

              2. He was an outstanding writer, although I don’t think he won any big awards. Breakfast at Tiffany’s, In Cold Blood, many short stories are among his better known works. A number of films used his material. A few years ago a film was made about his later life – Capote. Capote was played by Philip Seymour Hoffman.

            1. I’d be interested to know if anyone has done the leg work to figure out the specifics. Perhaps it is destined to remain one of the great mysteries of the universe.

  8. We look forward to a NYT dispatch about how the little messages inside Chinese fortune cookies make life a little more meaningful, a little more bearable. And, whether you fully embrace them or not, you can eat the cookie.

  9. All planets have apparent retrograde. That is why they are called planets (wanderers.) What is special about Mercury in the “theories” of the woo masters?

    1. Well, perhaps that explains (what I perceive to be) the fatuous, breathless, narrative piffle constituting the first two or three paragraphs of not a few NYT articles. (It’s rare that I resist the temptation to line through those paras reading hard copy.) I don’t recall seeing anywhere near as much of that a generation ago. Apparently some sufficient plurality of market-researched contemporary readers need to be “entertained.”

  10. Ah, Professor – don’t be hating on astrology. You grew up in the same age I did, the Age of Aquarius. Youth then was rejecting The War, The Man, The Establishment, by checking out astrology, marijuana, LSD, psychedelia and Eastern religions. Remember the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour? Maharishi Mahesh Yogi? Ravi Shankar? Paisley? I had my chart done, and continued to see my astrologer for annual updates until she moved to Sedona (!) just because I liked her and talking to her was like seeing a counselor of a particular school of psychology. Also, she had cats. I agree that astrology is a pseudo-science, but it’s one that requires astronomy (mapping stars), math (measuring angles), literature (Greco-Roman mythology) and logic (interpretation of symbols). I found it mildly challenging fun, like a crossword puzzle or murder mystery with a side of personality reading. No one should give up rational thought – which is, after all, required for the astronomy/math/literature/logic – and blindly follow the “guidance” of a particular astrologer/guru/priest. My own astrologer told me that her readings only provided a view of influences/pressures I might be feeling at a particular time, not “bet on this number and you’ll win the jackpot” or “if you take the job in Chicago, you’ll die”; not even “if you hang out at the fly lab, you will meet a tall, dark stranger”. If it’s not for you, move on.

    1. Sorry, it’s not remotely even a “pseudo-science”. It’s complete bollocks.

      If you’re trying to be ironic, it’s not working. If you mean it, you’re bonkers.

    2. Really? Expressing skepticism about something is “hating on” it? Are you telling him to be quiet? I gather that you yourself will now, as you say, move on?

      1. Of course it is. After all, we’re not talking about premises that may be made likely or unlikely depending on their evidentiary support and robust theoretical frameworks. It’s a morality contest. Believing = good guy. Disbelieving = bad guy.

        How can you be so heartless as to question him? 😉 Therefore, he is right. 😛

  11. I’d love to see these notorious writers bash the main stream religions this hard.

    Astrology was used heavily especially by the Jews. Just read the rituals in the Kabbalah. There’s entire scripts on when to do things throughout the week on specific days because it’s godly.

    That same outlook rubbed off on ancient Greece, Rome and Christianity. One of the reasons why the influence of being a ‘sabbeth’, a specific day written in the stars by god that people are supposed to worship him – that apparently, no one can agree on.

    Astrology has just as much validity as those knock off’s of pagen religions dating back from the Babylonians and Akkadians. Serious astrology doesn’t claim a mystical power of the planets and sun. It’s simply a pseudo science based off of patterns to understand the human psyche based off of the timing of someone being born. Much like the ‘science’ of psychologists and therapists. The planets are used as a clock. But half the people that bash astrology still believe in the woo-woo bullsh!t of religion based off of gods, but written by man.

    Like I said, bash away. But I’d love to see an objective piece, from sites like these, that really dives into the core, nonsensical beliefs of mainstream religion. Since this website is on the topic of what is bullsh!t

    1. You clearly haven’t been reading this site, because I’ve been writing about the follies of mainstream religion here for ten years, and I wrote a book about it. Faith versus Fact. You’re clearly ignorant of that, so don’t tell me to do something I’ve been doing for over a decade.

  12. As a Pisces I find myself in stark disagreement with this post…

    No, seriously though. I’ve been quite ambivalent about things like astrology. I think they’re silly but I usually see them as mostly harmless. But Professor Coyne makes a good case for why it’s actually rather insidious. I have to say I’m at a loss whenever a very good friend of mine talks about astrology. I just kind of go along with it, nod my head, but maybe I should be more assertive in my skepticism. Ah, but I might be accused of sexism- there was an article somewhere a while ago, can’t remember where, extolling the virtues of astrology as a female empowering system or some such claptrap. Makes one weep.

    1. For a bit of ammunition against such claptrap, Google “manglik (Mangal Dosh)”:

      Mangala Dosha is a Hindu belief prevalent in India. A person born under the influence of Mars (Mangala) as per Hindu astrology is said to have “mangala dosha” (“mars defect”); such a person is called a Mangalik (or Manglik).

      Some women have cesareans to ensure their child isn’t born a Mangala. Some consider Manglas to be cursed, doomed to an early death and/or failed marriage. Many will not marry or date a Mangala.

      There are many in India who will remove the curse – for a price.

      In 2011 an Indian court ruled that astrology is science. Since then the government has financially supported doctorate programs in Indian universities on astrology.

  13. The great thing about superstitions is that they still work, even if you don’t believe in them. Thanks, Niels Bohr. And it’s still true even if you don’t believe he said that.

    1. I have also dabbled in horoscope writing. The local paper I used to work for in the UK had a daily horoscope column but, like many/most local rags, bought it from an agency. At times there were wire problems and not all of our syndicated stuff would arrive, then whoever was least busy in the office would type a bucket of drivel to be used for the horoscopes.

      Most of us enjoyed it as it was a nice bit of light relief.

      1. Someone somewhere must have written an “Astrology Bullshit Generator” to go with the “Daily Fail Headline Generator” and such heights of the depths of the Internet.
        And naturally, GitHub comes through. With a side-serving of diced Deepities.

  14. “And if astrology is not that for you, then great, move on.”

    Sure thing. As soon as the NYT reimburses me the penny of my paper cost spent on the astrology bit.

    The idea of ‘moving on’ here implies I am free to spend my time and resources elsewhere if I don’t believe in it. Which is generally true, but not true in the case where I’ve bought something not knowing some of my money went to astrology, and now I can’t get those resources back.

  15. There was a show I saw on TV (PBS?) some time ago where they had a room full of people, asked them their astrological signs, and then gave them each a sheet that described the personality traits for their particular sign. Each participate was then asked whether his/her particular list of traits accurately described him/her. As I recall, all (or virtually all) of the participants agreed their respective descriptions. It was then revealed that the sheet for each sign contained exactly the same personality traits.

  16. When the discussion of astrology arises I’m always reminded of a cartoon which appeared in Punch many years ago.

    Television news commentator:

    “And in other news today, the science of astrology took a major step forward when, as predicted, everyone born under the sign of Scorpio was run over by a milk truck”.

  17. Remember that most Universities now teach that Science, reason, logic et.al. are all ‘tainted’ because ‘White Man’ and are thus mentally, physically and spiritually incompatible with anyone who is not cis-male, white and/or Jewish.

    Therefore everyone else should embrace and promote magical thinking (aka ‘Other ways of knowing.’)

  18. I believe Nancy Reagan was into astrology. She would advise Ronnie on when to schedule meetings and other things relating to decisions he made as president, and he would listen to her advice.
    Glad the country made it through his terms. Or did we. Effects are still being felt. We never know what us going on behind the curtains.

  19. This reminded me of a mildly amusing TV show, “Shut Eye”, which stars Jeffrey Donovan of “Burn Notice” fame. Here’s the description from IMDB (https://www.imdb.com/title/tt5520392/):

    “Charlie Haverford is a scammer with a small chain of fortune-telling storefronts and contracts building tricks for a family that controls the business in the greater chunk of Los Angeles.”

    Similar to “Burn Notice”, the main character also narrates, giving the audience the inside scoop on how fortune-telling scams work. If I remember correctly, it has some astrology in it too. After all, it is all one big scam, right?

  20. “The difference, of course, is that astrology does make specific predictions that can be and have been falsified, whereas many religious claims are untestable.”

    Does it? I thought most astrological predictions were couched in such vague terms they would fit anything. Just like all fortune telling.

    Historically of course, though, astrology fulfilled a very noble function as the motivation for all serious astronomy. It was vitally necessary to understand the planetary motions in order to make ‘accurate’ predictions. But eventually astronomy and astrology diverged.

    Just like alchemy and chemistry, really.

    (Disclosure: My favourite coffee mug has ‘Virgo’ on it, with a (presumed) maiden a bit like Starbucks’. Because it’s a nice mug and I am one, astrologically. I had to look up the dates to find out, though, I have no clue when these ‘star signs’ happen).


    1. I was going to say the same, horoscopes are personal and so varies – or at least their personal interpretation varies.

      The direct analogy to religion is personal intercessory prayers that also could be about anything. Yet such prayers were falsified against a null hypothesis in a 2006 meta-analysis, just 20 years after a similar statistical test on horoscopes was performed.

      It seems to me that when people describe religious claims as non-specific and putatively untestable they are thinking of such things as the magic agencies behind the intercessory prayer magic. But the analogy may fit also here, astrology describes generally non-specific “star patterns” as responsible (though they may specify astrological patterns) while theology describes generally non-specific “god agencies” (though they may specify religious gods).

      So if star patterns that are man made projections of star light from various distances can be rejected as influencing us – too weak remaining gravitational interactions – why is it so curious that man made projections of anthropomorphic agencies can be rejected as influencing us? Specifically since the remaining interaction influence is less than 1/1000 averaged over the entire universe. (Or less than 10^-18 averaged over the ordinary matter that makes up us.)

  21. “Of course, actual scientists point out . . . .”

    As opposed to NOT actual scientists? Are there any NYT articles written by not actual reporters?

  22. Not entirely on point, but related: thankfully, whether we like it or not we all have to exercise the irrational sides of our brains by way of dreams, which—let’s face it—are a form of woo. People deprived of dreaming go mad. As G. K. Chesterton noted: “The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.”

  23. Honestly, the worst part for me is the moralistic attitude adopted by such believers. They give the game away with that nonsense pitting “algorithmic, data-driven, hyperlogical, crypto-libertarian values” against “intuition and empathy”. As if you’re suddenly a caring person if you’re also anti-intellectual, or anti-establishment.

    I don’t like a lot of what goes on online or in modern commercialist society, but that doesn’t somehow prove stars pull the strings of your personality from dozens or hundreds of lightyears away. And on top of that, deploring modern society’s cold commercialism by spending your money on a multi-million-dollar industry founded on transparent nonsense… is the height of hypocrisy.

    It’s like what Ben Goldacre said about the pharmaceutical and “nutritionist” pill industries. There are legitimate problems with the former, but you don’t solve them by falling for the latter, especially when they’re basically the same industry.

    1. I don’t like a lot of what goes on online or in modern commercialist society, but that doesn’t somehow prove stars pull the strings of your personality from dozens or hundreds of lightyears away

      I’m looking forward to the utter chaos that is going to happen when someone discovers the hypothesized Planet Nine of Brown & Batygin 2016 (i.e. about 10 Earth-masses and semi-major axis at around 210 AU).
      I look forward even more to them “leaking” slightly different parameters – swapping signs on the inclination and longitude of ascending node or something – to the press so that they can sneer at the astrologers who have to re-do all their calculations and change everything.

  24. I have been trying to muster the energy to discuss this more, but this subject is something of a Sisyphusean task – it seems all you need to do is tell people all the astrology debunking things and it’ll go away – but it doesn’t, just like religion. It morphs, reconfigures, absorbs criticism and is strengthened by it, rationalization enters the fray – “it is harmless”, or “it is a mere amusement” – dare I suggest it is akin to “just trying” highly addictive drugs?

    need a break, I guess…

  25. Astrology makes all sorts of claims, as we know. At root, I have no problem with this – and I think this is the source of people’s dismissal of astrology as amusement, or harmless silliness. The key question about these claims, for instance, if my friend started talking about Sagittarius and predicting the future, is “how do you know that?” Of course, there is no way to know, because there was no work or observations to show any truth to the claims.

    Since astrology is an invention, like religion, from a period of time marked by scientific illiteracy, it’s claims therefore are left unsupported by observation of the natural world. I am still reading the Wikipedia article as a start to understand how it could grow alongside astronomy, and how it stalled out – possibly in the state we know it today. Likewise for alchemy and chemistry. I know there is a false dichotomy I am suggesting by that, but it’s a start… but there doesn’t seem to be a modern equivalent of religion… maybe politics…

    1. from the Wikipedia article on astrology :

      “Throughout most of its history, astrology was considered a scholarly tradition and was common in academic circles, often in close relation with astronomy, alchemy, meteorology, and medicine. [6]”

      ref. 6. Stars, spirits, signs: towards a history of astrology 1100–1800


      … it is amusing to replace “astrology” with “religion” in this sentence.

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