Over the past week or two I’ve seen a steady trickle of tweets from astronomers, science writers and journalists having a good laugh about astrology. Fair enough, perhaps, except that this all began with a story on NBC News (and video here), reporting on the comments of one Parke Kunkle, an astronomy instructor linked with the Minnesota Planetarium Society and Minnesota Community and Technical College (where, it appears from Rate My Professor, he goes down a storm with students), who provided a new calendar of zodiac signs and claimed we should be adding in a 13th sign, Ophiuchus.
Kunkle’s point was that because of precession, the Sun now appears in a different part of the ecliptic on any given day than it would have done “3,000 years ago when the study of astrology began”. Now, Kunkle admits that precession has been going on for some time (rather more than the ‘thousands’ of years he mentions) but what the article doesn’t make clear that it has also been known about and calculated for since at least the Greeks. So I couldn’t figure out what the news was; what the big deal could be.
It bugged me, though, that this was being used to jeer as astrologers, and it bugs me that it has gone viral, with the original story being recommended so far by over 40,000 readers. I am sure that the vast majority of people who’ve enojyed this story either think it’s a good example of astrologers being idiots, or they think they actually need to change which horoscope they read in the paper. Both are wrong. Frankly, we should question anyone who thinks this is going to shock serious astrologers.
There are a number of issues that need to be cleared up here. Firstly, people who just have a hunch that there might be something in astrology – who know their sun sign and read their newspaper horoscope – probably know equally little about astronomy and astrology. Secondly, anyone who thinks astrology is nothing more than horoscopes that cover roughtly a 12th of the population in one go is also very ill-informed. Thirdly, while I agree with the best skeptics that “astrology is rubbish”, this is because there is no evidence that celestial objects can affect our lives, events and emotions in the way that is claimed, not because practising astrologers don’t understand basic celestial mechanics and positional astronomy.
Yet more hilarity has been caused by the fact that astrologers have a petition requesting “fair representation for astrology in the media”. Now, the wording of this document is not particularly clear, but again science writers (most recently, see Martin Robbins’ Guardian blog post) have got hold of the wrong end of the stick. I recommend reading the post by Deborah Houlding that is linked to the petition, which explains clearly why practising astrologers are not phazed by Kunkle’s ‘revelation’ and what it was that Brian Cox and Dara O’Briain recently said on the BBC that has particularly annoyed them. [NB Robbins has misrepresented the thrust of its content.]
The Astrological Association is not annoyed simply because Cox and O’Briain have said that “astrology is rubbish” but because it was said in the context of explaining the mechanics of the solar system. It was suggested that they did not understand the basics of planetary motion, and therefore astrology is rubbish. This is NOT why astrology is rubbish: many astrologers have an excellent understanding of positional astronomy and have professional pride in this knowledge, but they do still hold to an hypothesis that is, fairly, utter nonsense.
Astronomers, skeptics and fans of science are doing themselves a disservice by focusing on the wrong grounds for dismissing astrology. Astrologers who do know their astronomy can fairly cry foul and will, as a result, gain more respect from their followers or clients. And their accusers will simply sound jeery, sneery, and completely ignorant of what they’re arguing against. In addition they are showing themselves to be completely ignorant of their own history.
When science happens there is always a reason: astronomy developed because, broadly, it served three masters: navigation, timekeeping and astrology. These were, all three, supremely important in ensuring development of accurate positional astronomy, because all were things for which people were willing to pay.
Although the words astronomy and astrology were often used interchangeably, I think it can be helpful to think about astronomy as the means by which data was generated (observations taken, mathematics applied, models created and tables drawn up) and the others as uses made of that data. The need for all three applications drove astronomy. Good, accurate astronomy would ensure good, reliable and accurate time-telling and navigation, and the best possible basis for astrological interpretation to take place. There are clear historical examples of astrology rather than the others being the impetus behind particular instances of patronage of astronomers or mathematicians to undertake observations or produce tables. This was the case up until the late 17th century.
Thus is astrology intermingled with the history of astrology, and not just in individual cases like those of Tycho Brahe or Johannes Kepler. Martin Robbins’ post is seriously wrong on the history. He writes that ““astrology is a load of rubbish.” …[i]s a position that was first reached by Islamic scholars at least 650 years ago” and later adds that “was already being ridiculed in the Dark Ages“. The link (the same for both these quotes) is to a 1971 article in the Journal of the American Oriental Society by John W. Livingston, on a ‘Fourteenth-Century defense against astrological divination’. This article is about theological arguments against astrology as a legitimate means of predicting the future. This is not the same as showing that “astrology is rubbish”, but demonstration of a fear of real (astrological) knowledge getting in the wrong (non-clerical) hands. It also highlights the difference between judicial and natural astrology. The former includes casting horoscopes and making predictions about people and events, while the latter included being able to predict or understand the weather, the outcome of a seaonal crop and the health of an individual. To connect these to astronomical events and cycles has, I think, a logic that casting a horoscope does not and it’s not surprising that, while judicial astronomy was often criticised (by the church, by rulers and by philosophers), natural astrology lasted well into the 18th and, in popular discourse at least, 19th centuries.
I do not suggest that astronomers are required to engage deeply with modern practising astrologers but, while theory and practice has changed hugely since the 17th century, they should realise that their common heritage makes ignorance of precession deeply unlikely. They should stick to the issue of celestial ‘influence’ and step away from that of celestial mechanics.