“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.