Astrology at the New York Times

December 29, 2020 • 1:00 pm

In the past couple of days we’ve seen the Guardian tout astrology twice, and now the Globe and Mail. What I’d forgotten is that the New York Times has also been doing it occasionally—certainly more often than the Paper of Record should. For evidence, see Greg Mayer’s survey last year of the NYT’s treatment of astrology.  As Greg said:

 I did a search at the Times’ website for “astrology”, and the results were intriguing, verging on appalling. The first 9 results were all supportive of astrology; and all had appeared since since July 2017. Many treated astrology as a “he said, she said” affair, which is bad enough, but often the astrology critic was a token. If a respected news outlet treated climate change, evolution, or gravity this way, we’d all be rightly outraged. (This search did not catch the latest astrology article on which Jerry posted; I’m not sure why.) The 10th astrology result was from 2011, an article about a race horse named Astrology.

I haven’t updated his search, but today’s podcast/article will add at least another tick on the “supportive” side. It’s a 33 minute podcast discussion between NYT columnist and writer Kara Swisher and “famed” astrologer Chani Nicholas, who’s just developed a $15/month horoscope app that’s going to make her wealthy.  Click below to hear the podcast, or click on the “transcript” button (here) to read it.

Because I can read faster than I can listen, I printed out a transcript, which turned out to be 37 pages long in 8-point type (granted, there’s a lot of spacing). But I dutifully began reading it, so you don’t have to.

Well, I couldn’t get through more than 12 pages before my brain got the equivalent of a stomach ache: a mental nausea that made it impossible to continue reading. Swisher lobs softball questions at Nicholas, and Nicholas does a planet-based reading for her (knowing, of course, who she was talking to). Unfortunately, at least in the first third of the piece that I read, two questions were missing that a good journalist would ask of a quack:

1.)  What is the evidence that astrology works? (There is none, of course, and you’re welcome to request a pdf of this double-blind test, published in Nature, showing that professional astrologers aren’t any good at predicting your personality from your birth sign.)  This, of course, makes astrology a form of quackery, and its promotion like the NYT promoting the drinking of bleach to cure Covid-19. Well, there’s a difference, of course: astrology won’t kill you; it just makes your wallet thinner. To be more charitable, its promotion is like the paper touting Christianity as a helpful crutch in these dire times.

2.) If astrology works, how does it work? What is it about the alignment of the planets that can somehow materially affect peoples’ brains and upbringing to give them a particular personality and fate? How does Mars, so far away, exert a force on an embryo?

But only a petulant scientist, steeped in “scientism”, would ask these churlish questions. If people say astrology helps them—and Americans pay $2 billion per year for this form of quackery—who are we to question whether it works or not?

If you have a cast-iron stomach, by all means listen to this pabulum. What I want to know is the answer to a third question:

3.) How can a respectable journalistic outlet (one eager to call out Trump’s lies) tout astrology in this way without casting aspersions on it?

And readers might produce the theories, which are theirs. Is it a replacement for religion? A cheap for of psychotherapy? A form of amusement that nobody takes seriously? All three?

I don’t know. All I know is that its promotion in the country’s most famous newspaper, and in many other places, repels me.

Chani Nicholas. Mother Jones illustration; Getty, Don Arnold/Getty

46 thoughts on “Astrology at the New York Times

    1. Arguably, it wasn’t their fault that their lives weren’t together, it was because the moon was in the seventh house of cards when they were born, and Jupiter was colliding with Mars or some such nonsense.

    2. You know, I believe you’re right about that. They’re always people whose lives seem about an inch away from some form of disaster. Same with flakes who believe in naturopathic medicine, or whatever it’s called nowadays. Smacks of desperation.

  1. I’d LOVE to see a journalist just asking an astrologer your second question, in an earnest, well-meaning tone, as though expecting that the asstrologer would surely be be able to reply with something coherent. After all, if we could learn to harness and influence the forces supposedly involved in astrology, who can say WHAT we might be able to accomplish. And if the asstrologer gamely tries to invoke the quantum, as they almost surely would, the follow-ups could entail asking just how people DISCOVERED this amazing knowledge, by which processes of thought and experiment it was deduced. After all, we can do that for science and other realms of actual knowledge.

      1. Many years ago, before I’d heard the word retrodiction, or heard of confirmation bias, or had learnt how to calculate probability, I overheard some of my 15 year old students enthusiastically talking about their star signs, so I gave the class the local newspaper’s 12 astrology predictions for the week concluded, minus their identifying labels, in random order, and asked the students to find the prediction which most matched their experiences that week.

        Much frustration ensued until I gave them the correct labels to a chorus of, “Ah yeah, that’s the one…, true, that’s what happened…”

    1. One would think that astrologers could team up and make differing predictions, and when one hits, they could agree to split monies earned on rubes for the year. And then try again next year. For 2021 i predict a worldwide recession; partner 2 predicts a devastating asteroid strike; partner 3 a cure for pancreatic cancer – – – Actually, the person who “predicted” a cure for a cancer would achieve greater press coverage than the researchers who accomplished the feat.

  2. Decades ago I worked at a radio station which had a weekly “Astrology Report” that was scheduled in the middle of my on-air shift — so I saw the resident astrologer regularly. What I learned was that from her perspective, at least, astrology isn’t about the influence that the stars and planets have on humans, but about the synchronicity of the positions and motions of the celestial bodies (as perceived by us) and developments in our own lives. In other words, there is some kind of overarching system that controls both, in observable and predictable ways.

    Of course I never believed a word of it, but to be fair, it may be that to assume that they claim that the celestial bodies are affecting us is to straw-man what [some of them at least] actually believe.

  3. A few years ago I wrote a blogpost about what would happen if astrology were one day to indeed be scientifically confirmed. It’s an interesting thought experiment to run, and I think anyone who runs it seriously will conclude that astrologers should be careful what they wish for. I’m certain that everyone reading here would do a far better job on this than I did, but here is a sample of my initial initial speculations about what would happen:

    The first repercussions

    * Newspaper astrologers would find the rug being pulled out from under them. Classical astrologers would gloatingly remind them that they’ve been saying all along that it isn’t proper astrology, rather it just provides skeptics with an “easy target”.

    * People would realise that the daily astrology column is completely pointless, and newspapers would apologetically let their highly paid astrologers go back to the dole office. Planetary positions would be incorporated in the weather forecast.

    * Chinese, Mayan, Tibetan, Arab and Vedic astrologers would all be devastated by the news that their astrology has now been definitively shown to be wrong and would be out of a job. Or they would be desperately trying to square their system with the triumphant one.

    Some might try to ascertain that they are all “right in their own way”, but this won’t work. If that were the case, we would quickly have landed back at the current situation, where a random system is as good as classical astrology.

    Standards for evidence would now be let loose in the previously harmonious profession. And that would cause further problems.

    Here’s a link in case anyone’s interested, but I’d encourage people to ponder this for themselves. Astrologers especially!

  4. Everyone believes that the stars, planets, and their various configurations have an influence on objects and people on Earth. It’s called gravitation. There may be differences in the kinds and impact of those influences, to be sure, but those are differences among believers, not differences in principle.

    1. Give me a break. When you can show me that these difference in gravitation are even perceptible by anything but the most delicate instruments, and then tell me how these tiny differences can affect your personality in predictable ways, then I’ll consider the dumb hypothesis. The fact is, which I said in my post, astrologers have no greater success than anybody else in predicting personalities from planetary positions, so the “principle” is not even worth considering.

    2. Was it Carl Sagan who pointed out that at the moment of his birth, the obstetrician exerted a greater gravitational force on him than the sun?

      1. No idea, but it’s wrong. The force between a baby and the Sun, assuming a baby is 3kg is about 0.02N. The force between an adult and a baby 0.5m apart is about 5 x 10^-8 newtons. Even if their centres of mass were only 1mm apart (not possible for the obstetrician but certainly possible for the mother), the force is still smaller than that of the Sun.

        I haven’t tried to do the calculation of the variation of the Sun’s influence due to the Earth’s elliptical orbit and rotation compared to the variation of the obstetrician as they come into the room from far away. The latter might be bigger than the former.

        1. Yeah, that one didn’t sound right to me; otherwise, mass human migration would probably be capable of a local affect on the tides.

      2. It was Sagan. You’re correct. I forget which book, though. And the obstetrician’s gravity influenced far outweighed any celestial objects.

        1. See my comment above. It’s ridiculous when you consider that both the Moon and the Sun can alter the height of the surface of the sea but a crowded beach doesn’t, at least not by a measurable amount.

          1. Sagan’s commentary is from Demon Haunted World. I’m not sure you’re correct about celestial objects versus an obstetrician at a very close distance.
            object 1 mass (m1) = 3.4 kilogram
            object 2 mass (m2) = 86 kilogram
            distance between objects (r) = 0.1 meter

            gravitational force (F) = 0.00000195106824 newton

            So, what’s the F for the moon on the baby?

    3. You might argue that the star signs are really symbols for different times of the year. It could make a difference if your development in utero happens during spring and your first months are in summertime, rather than, say, winter. That doesn’t sound too far-fetched. But Astrology is not that idea.

      If gravity is the mechanism, it must somehow cause you having a great day where you laugh off any setbacks, and where it would be great if would started knitting today. Also, gravity must somehow cause certain people to be a better romantic match and so on. You aren’t really seriously defending that?

      Believers all too often come up with semi-plausible ideas that are however definitely not orthodoxy to rescue their hokum. That should not be allowed, no matter if astrology, religion or wokeness.

      1. yeeeah, sort of but it is a stretch. More schizophrenics are winter births for instance, but there’s nothing about personality types (or the future) in those kind of clinical co-incidences. Believers will come up with any ridiculous ideas – like throwing gay people off buildings or flying planes into them.

        Astrology is not so toxic but it is just as stupid. It is a good sorting mechanism on first dates though: “So? You tell me you’re an Aries, miss, and you ask me when *I* was born? Hmmm. Wait! Oh no! Lookie here, this is an urgent text about very urgent stuff somewhere not here… I’m afraid I’m going to have to cut this date short. But you’d have foreseen that, right?” (Actual date transcript).

    4. Of the stars and planets etc, only the Moon and Sun have a gravitational effect that is visible without specialised instruments and even then it varies from maximum to minimum about twice a day because of the Earth’s rotation. If gravity were the mechanism for astrology, the most important thing – in fact the only important thing – would be where you were in relation to the Moon at the moment of your birth.

      Come to think of it, why the moment of your birth? The only difference between you just before you’re born and just after you’re born is the thickness of your mother’s abdomen.

  5. I have a vision … it’s becoming clear … yes, here is my forecast for 2021:

    BS will continue to sell! Especially BS which flatters the readers, gives them emotionally satisfying stories, and predicts commonplace events in vague ways that almost anyone could interpret so as to come out true. Yes, astrologers, you can rekindle an old romance with mystery – not to mention with money!

    And if you encounter a few setbacks (wrong predictions), look to those nearby (in the pages of the newspaper, i.e. pundits). They get right back on the job as if nothing happened! And soon they are restored to fame and fortune.

    1. That’s good to know. I always thought it was because astrology is bullshit. (Or maybe horseshit– I can never remember the subtle difference..)

      1. The fact that it’s demonstrably a crock of shit of *some* variety should be all that’s needed to explain why someone would dismiss it. But if Vice thinks the real reason is that it reflects gender preconceptions… well, Vice has published more than its share of shit in its time, so not really surprising.

  6. And again, there is no opportunity to voice one’s opinion on the article. I am really getting angry about the NYT’s cutting back on interaction with its readers.

  7. British comedy team Flanders and Swann had thoughts on the subject:

    Jupiter is passing through Orion
    And moving to conjunction with Mars.
    Saturn is wheeling through infinite space
    To its pre-ordained place in the stars.
    And I gaze at the planets in wonder —
    At the trouble and time they expend
    Just to warn me to be careful
    In dealings involving a friend.

  8. “3.) How can a respectable journalistic outlet (one eager to call out Trump’s lies) tout astrology in this way without casting aspersions on it?”

    As an erstwhile believing religionist I once took seriously the bible’s observation that a good tree produces uniformly good fruit and vice versa. A news organization, however, isn’t a single entity. The sane voices that rose to criticize Trump aren’t the voices that now rise to preach astrology. Perhaps a more appropriate passage in the bible would be where the demon-possessed man says “My name is Legion, for we are many”.

  9. Based on discussions with some of the undergraduates I get to know in the smaller upper division classes I teach, many in the younger generations are flocking to astrology. It seems it a replacement for religion for some of these kids (they are searching for meaning in their lives and if god ain’t it, then I guess the alignment of the planets and stars gives them meaning. I also got into an argument with a student who seemed to imply that my questioning of astrology made me a bigot because it is culturally important to some underrepresented minorities. I asked the students if this was just a Santa Cruz thing, and a few thought it was pretty widespread.

  10. It should not escape notice that the language of Astrology is typically uplifting, whereas that of conventional Astronomy is a compendium of microaggressions, filled with such offensive terms as “black holes”, “dark matter”, “red shift”, “trans-Neptunian object”, “superior planet”, “inferior planet”, and “Hubble’s Law” (Hubble was a dead white male). It is surprising, really, that academic Equity Offices have not yet raised the alarm about all this microaggressive language. In any case, we can confidently look forward to student activists at Haverford, Bryn Mawr, Oberlin, and Santa Cruz, among many other institutions, demanding that the Astronomy Department be abolished altogether, and replaced by an Astrology Department.

  11. Three things boss, and friends:
    1. Again, thank you for enduring this hideous idiocy so we don’t have to. Also again… I saw that article when it came out and thought: JAC is going to see that and he’ll hit the roof. (Try tums for tummy ache, there are other things for brain ache…..)

    2. Perhaps yesterday (?) here I said “I’ve been seeing more of this astrology s**t in “respectable” grown up periodicals in the last few years.” For a few moments I thought it was just me getting old and intolerant, early dementia maybe…. but you have confirmed my suspicions it is more common. There IS more of it and it is depressing my hometown newspaper is all in for it.

    3. Kara Swisher is the WORST. A grotesque. Not only is she a tiresome virtue signaling gold medalist, but she busted out and published the location where Sam Harris (y’know, Islam and religion critic? Death threats, one fatwa away from Rushdie-dom?) goes for coffee regularly very near his home, thus endangering his safety. Her “insights” are as juvenile as her is writing shoddy. I hope an onion falls on her head and completely wrecks her hairdo.
    So that’s that, then. regards,

    Aries – which means I don’t believe in astrology or any other bs.

  12. Permit me a plug for a new subject I have just devised: Critical Astrological Theory. This subject area uses the signs of the Zodiac to determine the best times of the year at which to impose treatments for implicit bias, white fragility, and similar complaints. Experts in CAT will soon be available for consultation, at appropriate fees, by Equity Offices and Schools of Education in our institutions of higher learning.

  13. People who are REALLY into astrology know that actually, there is an additional zodiac sign that is not being used. Astrology charts now are using the old system from hundreds of years ago, when the relative position of the earth on it’s axis was completely different! So yea, take it with a grain of salt. But what it ultimately comes down to is that newspapers need to sell copies/subscriptions, so they print whatever their readership likes. I have no problem with “news for entertainment.”

  14. Astrology is important to me and should be more respected and recognized. Astrology is the study of the planets and stars and their influence on our lives. These influences are very real. And people should take it more seriously!

    1. No, it should not be respected and recognized because the influences are FAKE. Studies have repeatedly shown that there is nothing one can predict about a person’s personality or character from the planets and stars at their time of birth. You need to take it LESS seriously–in fact, to regard it as a fairy tale.

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