I’m an upside-down pony!

At times on this blog I use my modest super powers to poke some fun at “the world’s oldest science”, astrology. That’s because it’s a bunch of silliness masquerading as science, sounding ever-more sciency to keep up with actual scientific advances. It’s mirror in the world of medicine would seem to be homeopathy.

I’m glad that Rebecca Watson has finally put a stake in the heart of this sciency-sounding pseudoscience. She’s brilliant (and now we’re the same sign, Upside-Down Pony!) Wait, maybe I’m Peanut-Butter Jar now, or Homeopathic Striking-Board…but who can keep track of such stuff without a proper knowledge of fancy-sounding words? Ahh!

100% nonsense

Despite Phil Plait’s infamous “Don’t Be a Dick” talk last year, I still like him. I just didn’t like his message much. But that’s fine, because disagreement is what I do best (if you don’t count foot massages and omelets). He’s especially good – and kind of dickish in a mild-mannered way – on things like astrology. Here are a few words that should be written on a t-shirt. I know I’d wear it.

We knew this already, but it's still good to hear.

The curious case of Shermer vs. Armstrong

Searching for skeptical responses to astrology, I came across this video entitled Vedic Astrology: Michael Shermer vs. Jeffrey Armstrong. The video is a clip (not a whole episode) from Exploring the Unknown. In the clip Armstrong, a “Vedic astrologer” – after assuring us that Vedic astrology is the only “scientific” astrology out there – appears to “read” a group of people with nothing other than the date, time and place of their birth, and their gender.

Armstrong got a 77% overall result. So does this validate Vedic astrology?

There is a long thread on James Randi’s website dedicated to Armstrong vs. Shermer. Most of the commenters are skeptical of the clip, mainly because Shermer doesn’t get his two minutes to explain the seemingly overwhelming success of Armstrong’s powers. Mostly people seem interested in Shermer’s silence. Why didn’t he promptly and clearly debunk his astrological debunker? Was Shermer a defeated skeptic after all?

Shermer pops up midway through the thread, in an email response attributed to him. We can probably assume these are Shermer’s words, because Randi’s site would have probably taken them down had they been exposed as a fabrication.

Here is meta-Shermer:

“The short story is this: we ran out of time at the end of the filming day to conduct any more experiments with Armstrong. I protested that it was going to make it look like he was successful, but to no avail as I did not have final authority over what was produced for the show, Exploring the Unknown, and so I just hoped that in the editing process it would be cut in a way that dealt with that problem, but it wasn’t and I couldn’t do anything about it, so it aired and no one noticed back then (in 2000), but someone posted the clip you reference and now we’re dealing with the fallout from it. It is an unfortunate reality of the series that I didn’t have enough control over the production and filming process. You can post this explanation if you like.


“My memory on what we were trying to do that day of filming is a little vague, but if I recall correctly there was to be another stage of the experiment where Armstrong had to match his astrological readings with the profiles of a group of new subjects, and then have them do the same, picking out their reading from a batch he produced, and then compare them. But we ran out of time. Here’s how it works in the film/television industry: camera crews are unionized and have strict rules about working only so many hours in a day, after which they get paid double time and even triple time, need a certain number of breaks in the day, etc. Our budget for that show required that we were done by 5pm, and we simply ran out of time and the producer called the shoot over, and there was nothing I could do about it. Very frustrating.”

If you’re interested, watch the video and judge for yourself. But keep in mind that if Vedic astrology really is all Jeffrey Armstrong and his commenter trolls crack it up to be, then why hasn’t it been more widely embraced by the scientific community? Or, why hasn’t it been embraced at all? Is he a lone rogue scientist, a modern-day Copernicus, a Galileo who will be vindicated long after those who ridicule him are forgotten, their memory scattered by the winds of time?

I doubt it. Armstrong and his visionary cronies are on the outer rings of science, the fringe. To penetrate the inner core of accepted scientific knowledge, Vedic astrology would have to amass mountainous proof of its validity and its ability to stand up to ceaseless testing and prove itself compatible with the existing body of scientific knowledge. Anything less than this, no matter how many lucky hits he brings home (who couldn’t get a few hits just by taking a stab in the dark?) means that astrology – Vedic or otherwise – is destined to remain on the outer limits along with mind-reading, tarot cards, Bible codes and legion other curios of the human intellect.

Or is Vedic astrology, like Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, a game-changer?

Further objections to astrology

Do the constellations exist? Well, yes and no. Obviously, to the naked human eye, a few specks of light on a dark screen may suggest a pattern. One sees a lion, a ladle, an archer. These forms are vague at best. At worst, they are the products of our innate ability to find patterns in everything. Here is an outline of Leo.

Now this doesn’t look terribly much like a lion, does it? But we can easily see (as long as the dots are connected for us) how the mind can make out the vague outline of some lazing animal. There are the haunches, there is a neck, and a head is suggested by the final upper curve. But why a lion? It could just as easily be a housecat, or a St. Bernard. Or nothing at all, which is what it is.

Let’s pretend we can travel across the constellation Leo to it’s far side and look at it from there. What would we see? The lion’s left side? Consider that when seen from the perspective of another part of the galaxy, any suggestion of a lion would simply disappear. What we are looking at is not a pattern of white dots on a flat black surface, but stars caught in what is perhaps a kind of four-dimensional space. The science of topology seeks to understand things like the shape of the universe. Here is an example of a topological coffee mug.

Now, I’m no cosmologist, nor am I a topologist, mathematician or even philosopher. I don’t have to be to understand the basic principle that the constellations are mere optical illusions. Consequently, so is astrology. Here is a paragraph from “Obections to Astrology,” published in The Humanist in 1975:

“In ancient times people believed in the predictions and advice of astrologers because astrology was part and parcel of their magical world view. They looked upon celestial objects as abodes or omens of the gods and, thus, intimately connected with events here on earth; they had no concept of the vast distances from the earth to the planets and stars. Now that these distances can and have been calculated, we can see how infinitesimally small are the gravitational and other effects produced by the distant planets and the far more distant stars. It is simply a mistake to imagine that the forces exerted by stars and planets at the moment of birth can in any way shape our futures. Neither is it true that the position of distant heavenly bodies make certain days or periods more favorable to particular kinds of action, or that the sign under which one was born determines one’s compatibility or incompatibility with other people.”

I used to be fixated with astrology. I had a girlfriend who was into it at the time (for all I know she still is), and I came to recognize that Virgins are rather anal retentive, Cancer men are annoyingly self-obsessed, and Leos are natural-born leaders. It even appeared that facial characteristics conformed to a ziodiacal predisposition: Leos had a wide, grinning visage; Arians had a pronounced “t-zone” (resembling a ram’s horns); Sagittarians had a tendency toward red hair and freckles (think “fiery”). All of the above examples were taken from our circle of friends, and I took astrology for a kind of rough social science. I never pursued it further afield, and eventually I lost interest in it.

The zodiac is child’s play when you consider what stars are really out there. Even a weak telescope will convince you of this, but our most powerful telescopes are simply overwhelming. Here is a Hubble image worth scrutinizing.

Suddenly, in this bath of light from a million stars (no, I haven’t counted them), all hints of design simply disappear. There is no archer lost in the woods, no lazing lion, no bears or anything else here but a cluster of stars about 10,400 light years away from Earth. In our galaxy there are billions of stars. Carl Sagan’s voice ricochets down the ages, “Billions and billions.”

Yet many people speak of astrological signs as if they were an accepted barometer of social compatibility. “Oh, you just can’t get along with Libra men. Trust me, my ex-husband was a Libra.” But as the constellation of Libra is an obvious fiction, and as astrology itself has been widely discredited by actual scientific discoveries, then what can it mean to call oneself a Libra, a Capricorn or a Virgo? They are nothing but a kind of folk religion, a link to a more ignorant past when princes summoned the court astrologer for a prediction of famine, or whether or not to invade a neighboring land if Venus is rising. Astrology is on par with crystal balls, tarot cards, fortune telling and all the other types of silliness human beings should be mature enough to laugh at.

“Objections to Astrology” concludes: “It should be apparent that those individuals who continue to have faith in astrology do so in spite of the fact that there is no verified scientific basis for their beliefs, and indeed that there is strong evidence to the contrary.”