April 11, 2008
Why is there no naturalistic description of astrology, that is, a description of astrology in terms of scientific materialism? Is it because there is a prior assumption that all aspects of this field can be dismissed on the grounds that the mechanism used to explain astrology does not fit with current scientific paradigms? But what if there were things being described by astrological systems that were compatible with modern scientific thought? What if there were something under the hood of the social phenomena of astrology that warranted investigation?
The prevailing tone of the modern scientific community is essentially combative - ideas gain credence by surviving the remorseless attacks of their opponents in journals, conferences or in the news. Certain systems - including but in no way restricted to astrology - seem to be excluded from consideration simply because the force of opposition would be too great. But shouldn't all matters be legitimate subjects for experimentation, research and theory formation?
I can see at least two elements of astrology which might warrant a scientific treatment (by which I do not mean a pugnacious sceptical dismissal - there are no shortage of these!)
Firstly, astrology as a noise system; a means for individuals to influence their actions without recourse to logic and sense; people with a more poetic bent might even say a chance to commune with fate. There are a variety of these noise systems in common use throughout the world - the I Ching, for instance, or tarot readings - and it seems clear even from a casual examination that there are genuine psychological processes being harnessed by these devices. It is insufficient to dismiss them simply because they are presented in a fanciful metaphysical wrapper: allowing noise to influence one's cogitations becomes meaningful. It seems to me that there is something worth investigating here (although it would take the dedicated agnosticism of a scholar of comparative religion to conduct a reasonable inquiry).
Secondly, why has no-one investigated the inherent claim of astrology that the time of year that one is born can affect one's personality? This is far from a fanciful claim (although the usual justifications provided by astrologers will struggle to fit a naturalistic perspective, of course). Consider that plants, for instance, grow into very different forms according to the temperature, light, altitude and other factors of their life history, and some reptiles such as crocodiles produce different gender offspring according to the temperature of incubation. It is certainly possible that similar factors might apply in human growth, and even if there were no biological basis, it could still have a psychological reality - a person could develop markedly different perspectives according to whether their birthday was in the Summer or the Winter, for instance. It is not impossible that a Capricorn (whose birthday celebration occurs in darker, colder months) might have measurable psychological differences from a Taurus (whose birthday is in warmer, brighter months), but no-one to my knowledge has actually checked.
The scientific community rarely if ever investigates such things because firstly, there's no funding for it, and secondly, scientists often fear their credibility would be harmed by investigating something which by enforced consensus is excluded from rational consideration. It is this unwillingness to explore all the avenues of exploration available to us - the myopic capacity for prior assumptions to weigh more heavily than direct observation - that leaves me highly sceptical of any claim that our modern scientific knowledge is even a remotely complete description of the universe.
Astrology is an integral part of modern culture, a symbolic language which is used by its practitioners to communicate abstract ideas about identity and behaviour (whatever the questionable nature of the foundations of that language), and a noise system which people use to disrupt their routines and create strange attractors in their lives. That it is usually presented in fanciful, superstitious terms should have no bearing on whether or not it qualifies as a subject for scientific investigation. The fact that anything might not qualify for unprejudiced examination should perhaps make us seriously question how we currently conduct science.
i had a similar idea and remember reading somewhere that children born in summer tend to be more introverted. a quick google search turned up this paper http://www.elsevier.com/authored_subject_sections/S05/S05_361/misc/PAID_Hartmann.pdf
Posted by: Pyr0 | April 11, 2008 at 02:39 PM
Just an aside. Michael Dummett, the philosopeher who wrote a seminal paper on the nature of realism and anti-realism, has a side-interest in Tarot cards.
Dummett, being a good philosopher, won't take any bull. He does assert that Tarot originates to the medieval period and there are a lot of misconceptions about the way Tarot is conducted today (as metaphysically leaning.
Identity, behaviour, or the sensitive disposition of people who are Cancer; is not really something for normal scientific analysis; well, I could imainge it could be, but it would fail to say much that is sympathetic or constructive; and it is for this reason: the categories are incompatible.
Scientific concepts are on a different continuum with human concepts like 'sensitivity'. They are surely expressions of the same thing in some occaisions (brain behaviour vs. mind behaviour), and then there are issues of the relation between the two; but I'm guessing that's not the kind of account that you want to have that explains how legitimate it is.
Maybe this simply isn't an issue for science; but some, possibly social psychology account. There are lots of phenomena which don't warrant the hard scientific reasoning; how to deal with grief in a way that helps the person, for instance; or, how we are to react to feelings of love.
Very interesting post, I must admit of my prior prejudice being in favour against astrology (but mainly due to my default Humean attitude and lack of familiarity...that's how all prejudices are these days). I will think a little about this.
Posted by: Michael Pereira | April 11, 2008 at 02:45 PM
Taking your second point about investigation, I recall a British television programme, probably over 20 years ago, that publicised some research that investigated day of birth against profession. A number of significant matches were noted - the one that has stuck with me is the saturnine scientist :-). I don't recall how the study selected its samples, or how rigorous the statistical analysis was, but there is more than zero work out there.
Me? I'm a skeptic, and you already know my point of view about such scientific topics as dowsing :-). Let's take a look at astrology and see what we find. I would be:
- utterly unsurprised to find statistically significant trends by day of birth;
- moderately surprised to find trends with periods similar to the apparent position of Venus (which has remarkably precise 8-year and 40-year periodic relationships with Earth's orbit);
- somewhat more surprised to find trends based on the apparent position of planets other than Venus;
- very surprised indeed if popular astrology was proven to be true when all Daily Mail readers born under Virgo were run over by a milk float on the same day.
Posted by: Peter Crowther | April 11, 2008 at 04:12 PM
It's not suprising that most of the social unpleasantness that comes from uber-rational materialists is antecendent to their attacks or defenses of their own ideas.
I enjoyed this, thanks.
Posted by: Patrick | April 11, 2008 at 08:05 PM
I recall the gamefaqs poll of the day once asking site visitors of their sign. If I recall correctly, Leo (known for playfulness) scored the highest with a notable margin, while Capricorn (serious) and Sagittarius (flakey) were at the bottom.
Posted by: Anon | April 13, 2008 at 03:47 AM
if a person can positivly say "this description is for me" without being aware of just which sign that description is meant for(this was done in several studies) and having it revealed that the description which they have read was infact NOT for their sign, than one must doubt the claims of astrology when it comes to date of birth determining characteristics.(if the date of birth is supposed to determine ones behavior than we should see a vary clear, high majority of people correctly identifying weather or not the days description matches their sign based on how they feel.)
and just because some animals have behaviors determined by things that can be pinned down to a date is no logical reason to assume humans have the same characteristics without actually investigating the matter directly by looking at humans.
Posted by: evirus | April 13, 2008 at 05:38 PM
Interesting... I rather suspected that there would be papers covering this material, but in the end decided to post in ignorance in the sure and certain knowledge that if there was material out there, it would come out in the wash. :)
A few scattered thoughts...
Pyr0: I couldn't get this link to work, alas. It sounds interesting!
Michael: "Maybe this simply isn't an issue for science; but some, possibly social psychology account."
Is social psychology not science? >:)
Seriously, I think the point I am making is exactly this: there must be a naturalistic account of astrology, if not in terms of function, then in terms of sociology. I contend the fact that there is not tells us something about the focus of the modern scientific endeavour. Glad to have made you ponder! :)
Peter: I like your scale of disbelief here. :) Interested in this report you saw - if you see a link about the subject anywhere, do let me know.
evirus: Thanks for taking this on from the Skeptics corner! Much appreciated.
"if a person can positivly say "this description is for me" without being aware of just which sign that description is meant for ... and having it revealed that the description which they have read was infact NOT for their sign, than one must doubt the claims of astrology when it comes to date of birth determining characteristics."
Well, yes and no. One must doubt the usual descriptions that astrology assigns to each sign, but that doesn't actually preclude there being a pattern that could be found, nor for that matter that the pattern to be found could already be embedded in the general fluff of astrology.
(For reference, you never need to link me through to the Skeptics Dictionary, as I already use this as an excellent resource for what the dominant materialistic perspective is on various fringe issues. It's a great tool for this purpose!)
I know about the study of which you speak, but these were studies about the *specific* claims of astrologers which were (unsurprisingly) found to be suspect. The Forer effect was always going to apply in these studies, but confirmation of the Forer effect isn't a disproval of all the claims of astrology by any measure.
The challenge I'm laying down here is something like this: the role of science isn't necessarily to evaluate phenomena and say which is real and which is not real. Astrology is a real phenomena, even in naturalistic terms: people conduct this activity (usually as a noise system); it is a phenomena that can be studied and described in naturalistic terms at some level.
But this isn't the nature of the relationship between skeptics and astrology (or indeed any other field): the skeptics goal, generally, in investigating, is to *disprove* the claims of the matter at hand (for instance, astrology).
My claim isn't that these attempts to "disprove" are incorrect, it is that they are misguided - they have looked at the issue in the wrong way. As a matter of scientific policy, I might even claim it is poor science to conduct a "study to disprove": we know that prior convictions affect the outcomes of scientific studies, and a "study to disprove" cannot claim a lack of bias! :)
The correct way to conduct a scientific study of the astrological claim that time of birth affects behaviour (I'm asserting) is to conduct a study into patterns between time of birth and behaviour - once this has been done, it could then be compared to astrological claims and conclude one of three things (1) astrology's claims are thoroughly valid (which is obviously unlikely!), (2) astrology's claim that time of birth affects personality are valid, but its specific claims therein are in error or (3) all of astrology's claims are invalid.
Science is a human behaviour, and as such is subject to all sorts of uncontrollable factors, but I feel to conduct really good science is to proceed with a healthy agnosticism about everything.
Thanks for the comments everyone!
Posted by: Chris | April 14, 2008 at 03:47 PM
@chris: click my name, i put the link there. you can also search for "season of birth" "large scale study" via google, it's the second result. the name of the paper is "The relationship between date of birth and individual differences in personality and general intelligence: A large-scale study"
Posted by: Pyr0 | April 17, 2008 at 12:00 AM
Typepad will reproduce the url in the browser, but the browser isn't showing it all. In my FireFox I can't see the entire url; I can click and drag to select the url, and keep holding the mouse while dragging way off the page to the right. That usually gets the whole of the url (including part that is there, but hidden).
In this case I have added the html to make it clickable: http://www.elsevier.com/authored_subject_sections/S05/S05_361/misc/PAID_Hartmann.pdf
Posted by: Neil | April 17, 2008 at 01:06 AM
Thanks Pyr0/Neil! Much appreciated!
It's interesting stuff... one study isn't definitive, of course (especially since the personality metrics chosen are a key factor - different metrics may track differently), but this broadly covers (and discounts) point (2) in this post, and I'm pleased to see the research has been conducted as much as anything!
That still leaves point (1) - a sociological description of astrology as a noise system. Perhaps this too is out there somewhere and I have just not seen it! :)
Posted by: Chris | April 17, 2008 at 01:14 PM