“The limit’s the sky” (Astrology)


In a piece this month for Quartz, Ida Benedetto outlined her case for giving astrology more respectability. To help with this venture, I can state that I knew pseudoscience would continue to thrive in 2018, so this is could be a point in favor of correct visions of the future.

Benedetto had two main points, both of which lean on the appeal to antiquity. Her first argument was to blame astrology’s tattered reputation on pop psychology, which she says permeates modern astrology. She lays into modern seers, writing that they rely too much on feel-good platitudes instead of that tough love from above approach she credits the ancients with. She wrote that texts from days of yore show that astrologers told it like it was, not how the customers wanted it to be.

As to the modern-day charlatans, Benedetto wrote, “The nurturing approach psychologists take has polluted modern astrology with watered-down interpretations that seek to protect their clients. Even if an astrological configuration spells trouble, the modern astrologer will describe it as an ‘opportunity for growth.’” Benedetto rejects horoscopes and astrological signs as counterfeit currency deposits in the astrological bank.   

As to the good (really) old days, Benedetto writes that before the Common Era, “Astrology flourished alongside various sciences like mathematics, medicine, and engineering.” Here, she is trying to piggyback astrology on legitimate gains and is committing the division fallacy. This is where one asserts that if something is true for the whole, it must be true for all parts. In this case, Benedetto figures that since disciplines which benefit us today flourished in the Hellenistic period 2,300 years ago, astrology must also be of value since it likewise had its heyday during this place and time.

During that era, Benedetto wrote, “Astrologers based their interpretations on centuries of observations recorded by the Mesopotamians who came before them. They kept careful records of astronomical phenomenon, looking for correlations between what happened in the sky above them and the material world around them.”

However, Steven Novella called this an instance of Tooth Fairy Science. This refers to research done on a topic before that topic has been shown to exist. Novella wrote, “If you carefully documented the amount, denomination, and timing of money left in exchange for children’s teeth, and correlated that information with all sorts of demographic variables, you might create a convincing imitation of doing real science, but none of that data would actually test the underlying premise: Is the Tooth Fairy real?”

“Likewise,” Novella continued, “documenting the position of the stars and planets and then correlating those positions with events on Earth is not science. This type of observational behavior is not capable of asking the important underlying question of if there is a causal relationship between what is observed in the sky and events on Earth.”

To do that, one would need to test a hypothesis through the Scientific Method. That would entail, at a minimum, making an observation, then a prediction, followed by testing it, trying to falsify it, attempting to replicate it, then making one’s data available to other scientists and submitting the findings and methods for peer review.

Novella further wrote that holding ancient wisdom in unjustifiably high esteem serves to minimize the efforts and accomplishments of the visionaries, inventors, and discoverers who have contributed to the wonders of the last thousand years. Persons who have this reverence possess it selectively.  Benedetto composed her essay on a word processor and posted it on the Internet, rather than chiseling it on clay tablets and transporting it by donkey.

In this non-equine delivered piece, she claimed, “If we can set modern judgments aside and learn the language of the ancient astrologers we may discover lost insights.” In other words, it’s our fault for being closedminded, not astrology’s fault for being without a plausible mechanism.

And the truth is the same now as it was in the Hellenistic period. Neither astronomers nor astrologers have uncovered empirical evidence that the positions of stellar bodies impacts Earthly events, other than the comet that obliterated the dinosaurs.

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