An intriguing checklist is applied to astrology by the Understanding Science project of the University of California at Berkeley at http://undsci.berkeley.edu/article/astrology_checklist. The title of the article is “Astrology: Is it scientific?”
Well, that is the question, isn’t it? The article proposes to use a so-called “science checklist” in order to evaluate astrology as it is commonly used. As the sidebar explains, “science cannot be absolutely defined; however, scientific endeavors have a set of key characteristics, summarized in the Science Checklist.” A more thorough examination of what science is (and how to test whether a subject is science) starts here: http://undsci.berkeley.edu/article/0_0_0/intro_01.
The checklist consists of the following items:
Before we delve into answering these questions, let us first understand what Understanding Science is. According to their website, “the mission of Understanding Science is to provide a fun, accessible, and free resource that accurately communicates what science is and how it really works” (http://undsci.berkeley.edu/about.php). The project site was produced by the UC Museum of Paleontology and funded by the National Science Foundation. A thorough evaluation in 2010 by BSCS, an independent research and evaluation group with expertise in science education, “indicated that site materials generate a high level of teacher buy-in, meaningful increases in student understanding, and reports of increased student motivation.” In the same year, Understanding Science was recognized by the Science Prize for Online Resources in Education (SPORE) by Science Magazine.
That sounds like a credible source on science to me. Now let’s find out what it is they are evaluating. In other words, what is this “astrology” they are referring to in the title? This can be a very thorny question even among astrologers, let alone to people not focusing on astrology. Let me quote from the introduction to the article:
“In some ways, astrology may seem scientific. It uses scientific knowledge about heavenly bodies, as well as scientific sounding tools, like star charts. Some people use astrology to generate expectations about future events and people's personalities, much as scientific ideas generate expectations. And some claim that astrology is supported by evidence — the experiences of people who feel that astrology has worked for them. But even with these trappings of science, is astrology really a scientific way to answer questions?”
It is apparent that the paragraph refers to natal astrology. We will keep that in mind as we progress down the checklist. So then:
That’s an easy hurdle to pass for astrology, and there is no argument from the article. Next…
No problems here either. The example cited (“some forms of astrology predict that a person born just after the spring equinox is particularly likely to become an entrepreneur”) is veering towards sun-sign astrology. Next…
Here the author concedes that some forms of astrology might actually be testable. The example (“according to astrology, one's zodiac sign impacts one's ability to command respect and authority”) reinforces the article’s direction towards newspaper horoscopes. The single reference included here (J. McGervey, “Probabilities in Everyday Life”) is cited in support of demonstrating that astrology doesn’t work because one study didn’t find any bias towards particular suns-signs in scientists. Moreover, this book focuses on something entirely different (from the back cover: “Increase your chances of winning in blackjack…” “Get the most for your dollar when buying insurance…” “Judge the risks of such common activities as smoking, using drugs…” “Avoid faulty gambling systems…”), and is cited only by one source appearing as two articles in separate publications according to CiteSeerX: http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/index. This book is certainly not a credible reference on this topic, especially considering the large number of sun-sign tests available to cite. Perhaps the author should have ventured into studying Gauquelin’s findings with respect to scientists.
The author’s answer here is an unequivocal ‘no’: “Astrology has not changed its ideas in response to contradictory evidence.” Now, for someone familiar with the history of astrology and how its ideas have evolved over time, the answer would be ‘somewhat’. Perhaps not in the rigorous way scientists are used to today, but that is mostly because astrology as a discipline to study gradually fell out of favour starting with the Age of Enlightenment, and therefore a support structure similar to what the scientific community enjoys today could not be built up over time. Whether sun-sign astrology relies on evidence is another question. Although the zodiacal archetypes have changed over the millennia, my impression is that this has more to do with cultural shifts than with evidence.
It is ironic that the only other reference to the article is Carlson’s highly flawed study that was published in the Commentary section of Nature in 1985 (a facsimile of this article is available in our Research section). Unfortunately for the author, Carlson was thoroughly debunked during the past few years, and, as it turns out, his results are actually showing strong support for astrology and astrologers (a good summary of the state of research on this topic appears in a 2011 article by Robert Curry, “U-turn in Carlson's astrology test?”, also available in the Research section).
Here is where things get interesting. It is true that the vast majority of practising astrologers don’t have to publish or attend conferences in order to survive as an astrologer. It is also true that that the vast majority of astrological publications are not subject to critical scrutiny by the scientific community. However, this is due in large part by an institutionally sanctioned censorship and marginalization of astrology by the scientists themselves. It is a priori judgment and condemnation that is preventing researchers of astrology to publish in mainstream scientific publications and to attend mainstream scientific conferences. And because of this, it is next to impossible to receive funding for astrological research. Needless to say, there are no astrological research departments in universities where one could be part of the scientific community.
I also note that to the right of this paragraph there is a picture of a newspaper clipping as an exhibit to prove that astrologers are not participating in the scientific community. Sun-sign astrologers, that is.
The two sentences under this heading in the article are simply false: “Scientific studies involving astrology have stopped after attempting and failing to establish the validity of astrological ideas. So far, there are no documented cases of astrology contributing to a new scientific discovery.” Astrological research is being continually published in the various astrological journals. While many are not scientific studies, most of them adapt rational methods of inquiry. There are a number of well-documented studies that support basic tenets of astrology, the most notable ones being: Gauquelin’s Mars effect and other findings (summarized by Nick Kollerstrom in his 2005 article titled “How Ertel rescued the Gauquelin effect”, available in the Research section); and the already mentioned Carlson research (see above).
The author basically says that scientists are busy doing research to test their ideas while astrologers are content with accepting ideas as they are. While there is some truth to this argument, let us not forget that astrologers do not have the luxury of paid positions in which they could conduct their research studies. In fact, astrologers provide a service that people pay for to make a living. If scientists were not supported by taxpayers’ money, only that handful who could afford to would conduct any scientific research. There wouldn’t be any universities, scientific publications and conferences, either. How soon we forget the state of science not too long ago, before the establishment of academies and universities.
The other argument the author makes is that astrologers ignore contradictory evidence. The only instance I can think of is the peaks of the Gauquelin effect that occur not on the house cusps but well after them (in time). I haven’t seen a wholesale change in the paradigm that assigns peak influence to the cusps as a result. At the same time, research is ongoing on this topic and the jury is still out.
So is astrology science or not? The author’s answer is clear: “Astrology is not a very scientific way to answer questions” because astrologers don’t take a “critical perspective on their own astrological ideas.” When it comes to sun-sign astrology, which the author seems to equate with astrology, I don’t really have much to argue with (even though I’m sure some of the columnists are more self-critical than others). It is harder to pass judgment on astrology as a whole given the wide variety of approaches and practitioners. Perhaps it’s not even possible to paint this figurine of Hermes with such a broad brush.
All in all, this is a disappointing article on a great topic, even though it’s coming from a promising source. In contrast, the series of articles on what constitutes science is a good treatment of the subject (starting here: http://undsci.berkeley.edu/article/0_0_0/intro_01). Astrologers and researchers would be well-advised to familiarize themselves with its content, including the walk-through example on Rutherford and the structure of the atom.
In a follow-up article, I will attempt to gauge whether the work I am doing can be considered scientific in terms outlined above. One of the criteria will be whether I am able to apply the measuring stick in an objective manner to myself and my work. Without that, there is no science to speak of in my view.