Astrology: millennials in search of woo hoo


Astology debunked“Astrology is not a science; there’s no evidence that one’s zodiac sign actually correlates to personality.” I was disappointed to read that line in a story in The Atlantic, a piece titled, “The New Age of Astrology: In a stressful, data-driven era, many young people find comfort and insight in the zodiac—even if they don’t exactly believe in it.

Disappointed not because it isn’t true – it is: astrology is woo hoo – but rather that writers still feel the need to state the obvious. It’s like a movie reviewer starting with “There’s no evidence that Batman is actually a real person.” Or a political columnist starting with “There’s no evidence Donald Trump can actually distinguish between truth and fiction.” Or a medical writer in an article saying, “There’s no evidence homeopathy actually works.” Some things are just so obvious they should not need to be repeated.

No one should ever have to remind others that astrology ISN’T a science. Or even an “alternate” belief because there’s no collective agreement on pretty much every part of it: hardly any two astrologers agree on interpretations, there are different types of charts and calculations used in different countries, the constellations are not the same as they were 3,000-plus years ago when astrology was first concocted, and constellations themselves are arbitrary associations of distant stars, not actual connections. Plus the whole thing was created before anyone knew about planets beyond Saturn, or the asteroids, or the moons of any planets.*

But sadly, what is evident to anyone with even a modicum of critical thinking is not always so for many people on social media, where simplistic memes – the digital equivalent of bumper stickers – often take the place of informed discussion and learned conversation. In part it comes with the declining IQ from people not reading longer articles, newspapers or books. And as the article’s author, Julie Beck wrote,

…astrology is perfectly suited for the internet age. There’s a low barrier to entry, and nearly endless depths to plumb if you feel like falling down a Google research hole. The availability of more in-depth information online has given this cultural wave of astrology a certain erudition—more jokes about Saturn returns, fewer “Hey baby, what’s your sign?” pickup lines.

Internet erudition is an oxymoron. It has allowed people to put words or terms into their vocabulary of which they have neither knowledge or understanding.

Words show up in memes in entirely the wrong use or context. Political terms like liberal, socialism, fascism and communism are all highly misused (especially, it seems, by Americans). GMO, health, natural, detox and chemical are frequently misused by diet-fad followers and “alternate healthcare” providers. Creationists dismiss evolution as merely a “theory” with no evident grasp of what a theory actually means in scientific terms.

Newspaper horoscopes
That “low barrier” is low for many popular things on the internet. It’s easier to read and accept short statements as fact without fact checking, even when they are just opinion or even outright lies. Research, critical thinking, analysis and reading are the high barrier and take a lot of time and effort. Much easier to wade in the shallow end of the intellectual pool than swim in the deep end. No wonder the Russians had such an easy time influencing American elections.

Beck notes millennials may be turning to astrology much the way a child turns to a favourite fluffy toy for comfort:

Millennials and Gen Xers have been significantly more stressed than older generations since 2012… If stress makes astrology look shinier, it’s not surprising that more seem to be drawn to it now… Astrology offers those in crisis the comfort of imagining a better future, a tangible reminder of that clichéd truism that is nonetheless hard to remember when you’re in the thick of it: This too shall pass.

Geez. Where’s the pluck? Life is hard and then you die. I don’t want to go all Jordan Peterson here, but if I were the parents of these sensitive, stressed, cocooned children I might have words with them like “buck up” and “stop whining.” Astrology isn’t the answer to anything. It’s a path that leads nowhere, an intellectual dead end. Sure, you get some false comfort, vapid statements about your future, and your ego stroked reassuringly. But at some point, when you’re all grown up, you have to out Fluffy Bunny down and act like an adult.

Take responsibility for your own actions and life. Astrology just takes that away from you. It’s not your fault you broke up: it’s Mercury’s. Jupiter in transit is the reason you’re sad. You didn’t get the job because the Moon was in the second house. A grand trine in water screwed up your love life. Scorpios and Leos just aren’t made to get along.

Diaphanous piffle, as Conrad Black would say.

Maybe my upbringing was different. My views were shaped by grandparents who lived through the First World War, and parents who lived through the Second. Both generations survived the Great Depression, survived the wreckage of post-war life. Both got knocked down – several times – and got back up again. They managed to rebuild a broken world, raise families, hold down jobs and live normal lives. They even dang and danced. And they did it all without smartphones, wireless connections or apps. Or astrology.

Back in the early 1970s, several of my friends were into astrology, some even seriously so, calling themselves “professional” astrologers and being paid for casting charts and interpreting them. I learned how to do it, too, and read a lot of books about it back then, about its history, the mathematics, the interpretations. I had a shelf of ephemerides to look up planetary positions for more than a whole century, hour by hour. And after a couple of years of study, of casting charts and calculating planetary positions, pondering the role Mercury had over the seventh house… I concluded that it was all, as Conrad Black would say many years later, diaphanous piffle (you can tell I love that phrase). Which, of course, it is.

Gizmodo writer George Dvorsky wrote that astrology is bad for people because it, “…gives rise to uncritical thinking.” He also quotes astronomer Phil Plait who wrote, “Uncritical thinking is tearing this world to pieces, and while astrology may not be at the heart of that, it has its role.”

Beck tells us, “Humans are narrative creatures, constantly explaining their lives and selves by weaving together the past, present, and future (in the form of goals and expectations).” Yes, that’s true, but before smartphones and the internet, we collectively wove our narratives and shared our stories moreso than modern generations who retreat into screen-focused isolation. That makes them much more vulnerable to the hoaxsters, con artists and snake oil sellers who populate the internet. Astrology is just another shell game to sneak the money from the wallets of the gullible.

We also make collective narratives through story, through literature, plays, poetry and film/TV. Those narratives have remarkable sticking power. A recent study revealed that the “most influential” film of all time was the 1939 Wizard of Oz. The most recent film in the list was Star Wars, from 1977. The whole point of religion – every and all faiths – is a collective narrative that stretched back millennia. 

But astrology’s narratives are all personal and self-focused, not collective. They aren’t shared, they aren’t communal – rather appropriate for the smartphone generations who have mistaken the leash that binds them to their technology to actual shared connections with humans. No matter what you post on social media about your horoscope, it’s about you, not about us. 

New Agers try to horn in on religion’s heritage that by calling their balderdash “mysticism” and “spirituality” – much like Donald Trump calling himself a very intelligent man. I’m sure some of them also believe it (the mystical or spiritual part: only trump believes he’s intelligent). It also makes it sound more profound to use the word “spiritual” in your Facebook post about your cosmic energy. Sure makes you feel like you’re special and not just deluding yourself with woo hoo.

And do you really believe what some stranger tells you about yourself based on the arbitrary and changing constructions called constellations? Beck writes:

Studies have shown that if you write a generic personality description and tell someone it applies to them, they’re likely to perceive it as accurate—whether that’s in the form of a description of their zodiac sign or something else.

In other words, people already attuned to believe, so making stuff up doesn’t actually change anything, just gives them a focus for that belief. Sorry if I don’t have a lot of respect for those doing the lying, however.

Astrology’s newfound popularity isn’t just the result of a hard-of-thinking generation’s inability to distinguish reality from woo hoo. Astrology has  long been at the civilization party. It wasn’t really kicked away from the governing table until the Reformation. It wasn’t banished from the house until the Enlightenment and subsequent Scientific Revolution. But it stayed in the yard waiting for the invitation to come back to the table. And the internet provided it – now all sorts of long-debunked malarky has come back.

As we drift to an increasingly secular world, the door opens again for many beliefs not founded on either religion or science to return. Or to be invented whole cloth. Astrology is far from alone in the tin-foil-hat sector of the Net: GMO fear, the anti-vaccination movement, homeopathy, chemtrails, detox fads, UFOs, the New World Order – these are all examples of pop-culture trends and conspiracies based not on any facts or cultural significance. All of which have large online audiences. And memes. Plenty of memes.

I understand that some people are looking for something to believe outside of conventional or traditional social forms like religion and politics. But I would hope people would have at least a critical eye, if not a skeptical one, that helps them see clearly the man behind the curtain of their beliefs. The Great and Powerful Oz was a charlatan, after all.

Woo hoo is big business, too. Look behind every single one of these fads and conspiracy theories and you’ll find a website with a huckster promoting their own books, products, courses and devices. It pays to shill astrology like it does to shill “psychic” readings, tarot cards, magic crystals and “natural” foods. Thanks to the internet, we have a platform for an infinite number of New Age P.T. Barnums to bamboozle and defraud the public.

What Beck doesn’t address is the connectivity of woo hoo. Astrology is not simply a one-off belief: people who believe in one woo hoo notion are more likely to believe in others such as homeopathy, magic rocks, psychics, reflexology, iridology, gluten-free and detox. Conspiracy theories are webs of self-replicating self-deception. Sticky ones at that: they entrap people, ossifying their beliefs into rigid ideologies.

As Lewis Carroll wrote in Through the Looking Glass:

‘I can’t believe that!’ said Alice.
‘Can’t you?’ the Queen said in a pitying tone. ‘Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes.’
Alice laughed. ‘There’s no use trying,’ she said: ‘one can’t believe impossible things.’
I daresay you haven’t had much practice,’ said the Queen. ‘When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast. There goes the shawl again!’

Once the door to claptrap is open, it’s much easier for more claptrap to get inside and spread. And people get defensive about these beliefs, rather than examining them critically. Beck quotes a 28-year-old woman bemoaning that, “I think it’s become generally less acceptable to just arbitrarily shit on things as like ‘that’s not rational, or that’s stupid because that’s not fact.’”

Well, no it’s not less acceptable. And yes, when you believe something that isn’t fact, or isn’t rational, it is stupid. You just don’t like anyone pointing it out. Stop pouting and grow up. Treat your beliefs like Russell’s teapot and examine them in the cold light of reason and common sense.

No, I won't respect your ridiculous beliefs.In fact to prevent this sort of codswallop from spreading, I encourage people to shit on ALL forms of pseudoscience or pseudo-medicine. It’s not just that they are intellectually wanting, but can be dangerous, even lethal to both mental and physical health. Think not? Just drink the Kool-Aid said Jim Jones… imagine what would have happened if someone had told him just once he was full of crap. Hundreds of his followers might have awaken and lived.

The notion that simply because you believe in something, no matter how ridiculous or gonzo or distant from facts, it – and your belief in it – are worth my respect and even admiration is self-entitled bunk. These are not simply differences of opinion: we are on different continents. I have to shout to be heard across the rift between the Land of Fact and the Land of Woo Hoo.

While I might be less shirty to people I know about their beliefs in woo hoo, I don’t feel the need to be respectful of the feelings of people who spread and profit from bullshit like anti-vaccination conspiracies. These are not merely stupid: they threaten the well-being and lives of others. Some beliefs are simply not acceptable to be shared in civilized society.

Richard Dawkins wrote a passionate statement to take astrology seriously – as a threat:

WE SHOULD take astrology seriously. No, I don’t mean we should believe in it. I am talking about fighting it seriously instead of humouring it as a piece of harmless fun…
Scientific truth is too beautiful to be sacrificed for the sake of light entertainment or money. Astrology is an aesthetic affront. It cheapens astronomy, like using Beethoven for commercial jingles. By existing law neither Beethoven nor nature can sue, but perhaps existing law could be changed. If the methods of astrologers were really shown to be valid it would be a fact of signal importance for science. Under such circumstances astrology should be taken seriously indeed. But if – as all indications agree – there is not a smidgen of validity in any of the things that astrologers so profitably do, this, too, should be taken seriously and not indulgently trivialised. We should learn to see the debauching of science for profit as a crime…
Astrology not only demeans astronomy, shrivelling and cheapening the universe with its pre-Copernican dabblings. It is also an insult to the science of psychology and the richness of human personality. I am talking about the facile and potentially damaging way in which astrologers divide humans into 12 categories.

I can be very respectful of differences of opinion and discuss religion and politics in a civil manner (at times). But when it comes to out and out claptrap, my patience is sorely put to the test. Astrology is bunkum. I’ve said in the past and I’ll keep saying it.

What the world desperately needs today is MORE skepticism, MORE science and MORE reading, not less. Don’t surrender your intellect to the memes.

* Uranus was discovered in 1781, Ceres in 1801, Neptune in 1846, Pluto in 1930. Modern astrologers have also added some imaginary planets to their charts like Vulcan and Apollo because, well, why not? Bunkum is always better when it’s bigger. Read the Smithsonian’s take on astrology here. It notes:

One reason we can rule out is scientific validity. Of all the empirical tests that have been done on astrology, in all fields, says Dr. Chris French, a professor of psychology at London’s Goldsmith College who studies belief in the paranormal, “They are pretty uniformly bad news for astrologers.”
There’s very little scientific proof that astrology is an accurate predictor of personality traits, future destinies, love lives, or anything else that mass-market astrology claims to know.

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