Delusions of the Past (or why I don’t believe in astrology)
I remember reading “human-beings can learn to read thanks to their ability to notice coincidences because it helps them establish similarities and distinguish differences” in a psychology magazine while I was in high school. It appears that patterns and noticing regularities helped us survive, too, by enabling us to point out the “risky” irregularities. It is a piece of information I sometimes remind myself of when I notice a strange pattern or when someone talks about their fulfilled fortune readings.
I recalled the same information while reading Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers” a couple of years ago where he discovers patterns in success stories. In the very first chapter, he talks about how most of the top ice hockey players in Canada are born in the first three months of the year. Nothing mysterious about it… Evidently, the teams start to train in January and you cannot participate in these sessions before reaching a certain age. So, by the time someone born in June started to play hockey, January-born players had already been training for six months and normally had more experience. (In this case, Gladwell says, if a July-born player manages to become an MVP, that is the indicator of their aptitude in hockey).
A similar argument popped up in a Psychology Today article from 2011, too. The article explains how the month you are born actually has an effect on your personality with examples such as high incidence of bipolar disorder during winter, schizophrenia in February, dyslexia in summer in Northern Hemisphere and a reversed effect in Southern Hemisphere. Astrology believers might be happy to say “ah-ha!” But no. The author of the article does not suggest in any way that the position of the stars has something to do with it all. Instead, it probably is about mechanisms like weather, temperature, activity level, consequent disease exposure etc.
Obviously, it is all about patterns.
Twinkle, twinkle little star, how I wonder what you are
Human beings have been looking up at the sky in the hope of finding answers to the meaning of life, the meaning of their lives and their purpose in the great scheme of things for thousands of years now. Some looked careful enough to notice such patterns and created maps of them — noting how they coincided with the harvest or the seasons. This knowledge led to the birth of astrology which eventually influenced the development of astronomy. The two were considered to be twin disciplines until Johannes Kepler separated them in the 16th century. Despite losing its credibility over time, astrology found its way back into the popular culture in Great Britain in 1930 and from there on, it invaded the planet. The advent of the New Age movement in the 1970s fuelled it even more. In 2020, astrology was reported to be a $2.2 billion industry despite the absence of evidence to back it up.
As you might have guessed from my opening remarks, I do not believe in astrology. I am not going to waste your time or mine debunking it with a million different arguments. The Internet is full of them. If you care to read one, for instance, astronomer Phil Plait has a lot to say on the matter, here. My disbelief stems from what scientists like Mr. Plait have been trying to explain for years: the lack of evidence to support it and its inability to demonstrate effectiveness in controlled studies in proving how the way that planets are aligned can influence our actions, our future, our psychology and our characters.
Ignoring all these arguments, astrologers will criticise scientists and deniers saying that “there is much more to astrology than the horoscopes published in newspapers and magazines” and that we get it wrong or take it from the wrong side. Some will say things like “stars only suggest, they don’t force”. (So, do they or do they not influence people’s lives?! Whatever… )
Often you will read and hear astrologers bringing up the phrase “ancient wisdom” to justify their counter-arguments. I guess they expect others to back off like “Oh, if it is ancient, then OK”. As it is very well said here, “[Can] ancient wisdom — namely that of the Greeks — can be applied to modern problems? Most Greeks thought the earth was flat, that slavery was OK, and that women were second-class people. Plato thought democracy sucked, that poetry and drama were bad things and that freedom of speech is a sort of joke. He even thought that Philosophers, of all people, should be Kings”.
During a visit to India, Stephen Hawking said “When it was discovered that the Earth was not the centre of the universe, astrology became impossible”, describing astrology as “bunkum”. So, let’s stop using “ancient wisdom” as a validation point.
People cannot stand the fact that everything that happens is accidental
For centuries and centuries, human beings had the desire to gain a sense of control in a world that is full of uncertainties. As they noticed they can predict the ways of the sky and, thus, things like the time of the harvest and seasons, they started to believe they could control other aspects of life as well.
That’s because it is hard for people to accept the fact that everything that happens throughout their lives is just random, purely accidental. In an episode of Ozark, Martin Byrde (played by Jason Bateman) says “Things happen because human beings make decisions, they commit acts and that makes things happen. And it creates a snowball effect with their world around them, causes other people to make decisions. The cycle continues, snowball keeps rolling.” Yes, just like that.
Studies trying to understand why people are drawn into astrology show that “people often turn to it as a response to stress they are facing” as a coping device. No wonder why the first astrology column in a newspaper appeared during the Great Slump (or the Great Depression, whichever you call it). Psychologist Margaret Hamilton explains astrology has a placebo effect where the belief itself makes people feel better in addition to making them see themselves as part of the world. She also found that people are more likely to believe favourable horoscopes.
So, you might think “OK then, that’s awesome if it makes people feel better”.
Well, I agree… It is also great that people feel such a need to connect with the universe. It should fill us with hope, let’s say, for the future of the life on the planet as it is being threatened by a climate crisis that is triggered by and worsened through human actions. Establishing a bond with the planet might help us care about it more. Yet, unfortunately, the need for connection seems to be limited to individual futures only.
This does not make astrology harmful, right? Yes, but this is not why astrology is not harmless. The problem with astrology is that it contributes to the rise of “uncritical thinking” and suggests “dangerous fatalism”.
Astrology is stereotyping
There is also one more thing that is problematic about it: Stereotyping.
Stereotyping is a human tendency. Its roots can be found in a basic cognitive need to simplify the extremely complex world around us, categorise it, process it and alleviate the cognitive load. While all stereotypes aren’t harmful, stereotypes become a threat when they keep us from seeing an individual’s attributes, attitudes and features beyond the “label” we stick on them, ignoring the differences between individuals and making generalisations. Be it gender, age, race, ethnicity or religion, the fight to narrow down the gap between the ideals and reality has been going on forever. Even brands are in for it. With the “purpose” invading the business and marketing scene, consumers are increasingly exposed to brand activism around reducing or eradicating harmful stereotypes and biases.
So, my question when starting to write this article was: “In a world where everyone is clearly aware of the damage stereotypes can cause, why zodiac signs/ astrology are not classified as a form of stereotyping?”.
In an interview with Jonathan Cott for Rolling Stone in 1980, astronomer/astrophysicist/cosmologist/author Carl Sagan famously said: “[Astrology is] like racism or sexism: you have twelve little pigeonholes, and as soon as you type someone as a member of that particular group, as long as someone is an Aquarius, Virgo or Scorpio, you know his characteristics. It saves you the effort of getting to know him individually.”
(When you mention Sagan’s name in an online debate, some would immediately copy and paste Carl Sagan’s response to the “Objection to Astrology” petition signed by 186 prominent scientists. If you care to read the petition and his response in return, you will see he refused to sign it for its authoritarian tone — not because he thought astrology had any validity.)
We fume when men talk about women’s driving skills, people say men cannot wear pink, older people are incompetent, youngsters are rude, people from this nation are ignorant and that country are arrogant. But why do we normalise stereotyping through astrology? Well, I, for one, know that I am sick of it being brought up in random conversations. I find it particularly funny when people automatically label me as being this or that kind of person because I was born in September (The most common labels I hear are “Aaaah… Virgos are control freaks, so organised and extremely practical! Your logic leads you!” I know lots of people who have the same attributes but birthdays in totally different months). Let’s not go into the famous “Barnum Effect” and make this article any longer than it already is. But all these “vague” definitions attributed to each zodiac sign just do not mean anything.
I think it is ridiculous that zodiac signs are asked in job interviews or the first thing that is mentioned when someone reveals their pregnancy due date (followed by sentences like “She will be very stubborn and emotional, let’s see how we will deal with her” about an unborn baby). I think it is particularly dangerous when people establish a strong belief in these definitions and predictions supposedly offered by the heavens and make life decisions based on them. And I think, like you would not (or should not) ask someone about their religious beliefs or political views, you should not ask about their zodiac sign either. A fan of scientific knowledge, I know I would take it offensive and as an insult to my intelligence — to be asked about it or to be labelled on its basis. Let me echo the words of Sasha Sagan: “It is time for secular people to stop settling for pseudoscience”.
There is a lot we know about our collective future. We know that the world needs real science and real action. We do not need stars to tell us where our planet is heading towards and what the future looks like. Science has been providing us with a great deal of data and predictions that can be tested as well as informing us about what could be done to make it better for all. Meanwhile, in our individual lives, whatever will be will be. Let’s focus on the realities of life and the future, not the delusions of the past.