Enough with the astrology claptrap already


Claptrap“No,” wrote Phil Plait on Slate, “NASA Didn’t Change Your Astrological Sign.” Which it didn’t. But that hasn’t stopped the wingnuts from wailing over the recent announcement from NASA allegedly changing your horoscope.

Let’s start with the basics. Plait sums it up nicely:

Astrology isn’t science; it’s nonsense. It’s been tested 10 ways to Sunday and every time it fails. Even astrologers have come up with tests for it, and it’s failed those. Astrology doesn’t work.

Ah, but that doesn’t seem to dampen the belief of those hooked on superstition. Astrology is a business and the sheep must continue to be shorn. So let me take a shot, too. Yes, it’s fish in a barrel, but I love spending my Saturday mornings debunking this claptrap.

Yes, it is made up...

First: astrology isn’t science. Never was, never will be. It isn’t astronomy or psychology: it’s entertainment. Nothing more relevant to your life or your future than your weekend cartoons (and less relevant than the Dilbert cartoon…) or Sudoku puzzle. Sure, even smart people love to read their horoscopes over coffee and toast, and laugh about them, but then they get dressed and move on with their lives. They don’t plan their days around superstition and fantasy.

Despite its historical roots, today astrology mostly used by con artists to prey on the gullible. “Professional” astrologers are like professional car washers or professional Wal-Mart greeters. It’s a job they do for money. Lots of it. More than half of Americans think astrology is some sort of science. A 1999 report said Americans spend $100 million a year on astrology (up from $35 million in 1988). Italians spent more than 5 billion pounds on astrologers and fortune tellers in 2010!

Estimates of how much Americans (or any other nationality) spend on astrology today varies between $200 million and almost $1 billion (which total seems to include other New Age codswallop). Small compared to, say, gambling ($586 billion), alcohol ($97 billion) or tobacco ($88 billion), but money wasted is still money wasted.

(Digression: Here’s an amusing comment from a “professional” astrologer warning people not to spend their money on “fake” astrologers, as if there’s any difference:

A fake will tell you about “your stars.” A real astrologer will tell you about “your planets.”

I know, I know… stop guffawing.)

But which astrology are you talking about? Every culture, every pre-scientific civilization has had its own astrology and for the most part, they don’t agree with one another. Indian (Vedic) charts don’t even look like western natal charts and produce very different results. Someone’s gotta be wrong.

There isn’t any scientific basis for astrological claims. Astrology is based on, as Phil Plait calls it, a “farce of nature.” Since it doesn’t require any real education or apprenticeship, you can become a “professional” astrologer fairly easily: just buy a software app to calculate natal chart, ask some stock questions, add some New Age mumbo-jumbo to the result and charge $100. Or more. Bingo: you’re a pro!

Second: NASA didn’t change the constellations. They are all still there. All NASA did was look at the math and the sky. The constellations we name in astrology have drifted out of whack with the actual dates thanks to the 26,000-year wobble of the earth’s axis. So NASA published the corrections. They’re not the first, by the way. Astronomer Parke Kunkle opened this can of worms back in 2011 (story here).

NASA can’t change the actual star positions or alter arbitrary formations we call constellations any more than it can change Tom Cruise starring in the abysmal remake of War of the Worlds. Constellations are simply a way to view the night sky in convenient shapes, but the stars in them are not related with one another. They are trillions of miles apart. Any order you see in them, any apparent structure or shape is imagined. And any relevance they have to your life is equally delusional.

Third: astrology is as meaningful as a magic eight-ball result. NASA didn’t change that because, well, science. Astrology isn’t. That’s why having their constellations moved around didn’t bother a lot of astrologers: they’ve been ignoring the actual locations for the last two millennia and instead used generalized sections of sky as their talking points. They fire off bafflegab when confronted with the science. The Washington Post quotes New York-based astrologer Susan Miller:

“The point is, the constellations do not give you your personality. The planets always gave you your personality,” Miller said.

But how could a body millions or billions of miles distance have any effect? Well, it can’t, said Kunkle:

“The obstetrician standing next to you when you were born had a much greater gravitational impact on you than Mars did,” Kunkle said. He added: “If it’s a real phenomenon, it’s measurable. And it’s never been measured” when experiments were conducted in search of an effect.

A 2006 study by scientists in Denmark and Germany looked at more than 15,000 individuals and reported that “no support could be found” for associations between personality and astrological signs.

I doubt these studies actually convince the true believers. What’s interesting is how the astrologers hedge when asked to explain the discrepancies. As the WP story continues about Miller’s responses:

But she turned vague and changed the subject when I pressed her to say why a Scorpio born in one year would supposedly have traits similar to those of one born two decades later – given that the planets would have moved to completely different places by then.
“We haven’t figured out why it works,” Miller said.

Haven’t figured it out in 3,000 years? Quick, we need more bafflegab! There’s money at stake! Miller got plenty of media time when the story first surfaced, apparently failing to convince anyone. An astrological blog bemoans

Unfortunately, Susan Miller does not come off as well during a CNN story that should provide her ample opportunity to talk affirmatively about the benefits of Western astrology.

The “benefits” of Western astrology? Guffaws all around. It benefits the astrologers who know a cash cow when it presents its udders, that’s about it.

Okay, all pseudoscience is bullshit, but New Age pseudoscience is particularly stinky because in this age we really should be less gullible. You aren’t in touch with angels, reiki and refloxology are stupid, homeopathy is not medicine, magic crystals don’t work, psychics aren’t psychic. It’s all a bunch of con games. But I digress… it doesn’t matter how emotionally connected you feel to your sun sign: astrology is less relevant to your personality than your sofa.

Fourth: NASA didn’t add a constellation (Ophiuchus). They simply re-identified it. It has always been there. The Babylonians identified it more than 3,000 years ago, and the Greeks named it, but later western astrologers simply ignored it. Like they ignore Arachne and Cetus the Whale, two other constellations that lie in or very near the ecliptic. (Arachne was promoted as the “13th sign” back in 1977 by astrologer James Vogh.)

Astrologers in Babylonian times selectively identified 12 constellations in the zodiac (a “circle of twelve 30° divisions of celestial longitude employed by western astrology”) for convenience. It’s not based on science but rather on numerology (itself a crackpot notion…) and symmetry.

But why just 12 constellations? Or 12 months? Why not 13? 24? 103? It’s arbitrary, and has changed over the millennia and in different cultures. But 12 made it easier to do the calculations than 13, so bye bye 13th constellation and 14th and so on.

There have always been more than 12 constellations on the ecliptic. We just ignore the others for the sake of astrology. All NASA did was point them out, calculated when the sun passed through that patch of sky and reminded us. Again. This is just an old story being resurrected.

A wingnutty article in Cosmopolitan (that internationally respected venue of science, reason, logic and female orgasms) reported that;

…here’s what the ~new~ star sign dates look like:

  1. Capricorn: Jan 20 – Feb 16
  2. Aquarius: Feb 16 – March 11
  3. Pisces: March 11 – April 18
  4. Aries: April 18 – May 13
  5. Taurus: May 13 – June 21
  6. Gemini: June 21 – July 20
  7. Cancer: July 20 – Aug 10
  8. Leo: Aug 10 – Sept 16
  9. Virgo: Sept 16 – Oct 30
  10. Libra: Oct 30 – Nov 23
  11. Scorpio: Nov 23 – Nov 29
  12. Ophiuchus: Nov 29 – Dec 17
  13. Sagittarius: Dec 17 – Jan 20

Oh yeah, let’s talk about ol’ Ophiuchus, shall we? NASA sneakily added a 13th zodiac sign a while back, like’s it no big thing. WELL. IT. IS.

Well of course it isn’t a big thing because it’s astrology. Which is as relevant to your life as the feng shui of your living room: just more New Age superstitious claptrap. Since the sun travels through Ophiuchus for 18 days of the year, ignoring its presence basically gives lie to everything else in astrology… NASA didn’t add it. It’s always been there.

But the author, Charlotte Warwick, freaking out in Cosmo, added her comment about NASA’s explanation:

Essentially, what they’re saying is that astrology is not the same as astronomy. Glad that’s cleared up, then.

Doh… of course astrology isn’t the same as any science. Or any other form of reality. It’s a fiction, a fantasy. It is to astronomy what Harry Potter is to Newtonian physics. As the NASA blog points out, the reason for this reassessment is simple: science:

…a birthday between about July 23 and August 22 meant being born under the constellation Leo. Now, 3,000 years later, the sky has shifted because Earth’s axis (North Pole) doesn’t point in quite the same direction.

Now Mimi’s August 4 birthday would mean she was born “under the sign” of Cancer (one constellation “earlier”), not Leo.

In other words, astrologers have not been keeping pace with the actual movement of the sun. They’re the ones to blame. But hey, they’re not astronomers or scientists, so we can forgive them their inability to calculate or do anything as difficult as observe the sky. Can’t we?

The CS Monitor noted:

The origins of the zodiac come from a time when astronomers believed that the universe was geocentric, that is, that the heavens revolve around the Earth. Early civilizations examined the stars in a search for patterns that could explain how everything worked. Many people ascribed meaning to patterns of stars in the sky, giving rise to the idea of constellations of stars that represented various aspects of their respective mythologies. As time went on, humans would chart the movements of these constellations and realize that there were predictable patterns in the night sky. These predictions would form the backbone of both astronomy and astrology.

Well, there are still flat-earthers (admittedly the far fringe of the wingnut camp), chemtrail conspiracists and creationists, so basing your beliefs on a geocentric view instead of science isn’t the wackiest of ideas around. There are wackier beliefs out there and believers in all of them. But in 2016 none of this nonsense, none of this superstitious pseudoscience claptrap should have legs.

Astrology is bunk. Don’t waste your money or your time on it. Stick to science. And Dilbert cartoons.

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  1. http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-astrology-conference-20161011-snap-story.html

    Of course, you expected the starry-eyed wingnuts to weigh in on the US election… listen to this bafflegab:

    “There are many, many moving parts that affect the outcome. It’s like a wave that collapses into a particle,” said Glenn Perry, founder and director of the Academy of AstroPsychology, adding that the answer “exists in a state of potentiality.”

    Doesn’t that piffle just curl your socks?

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