|Saint Petersburg Branch of the Russian Humanist Society|
|Can Astrologers Be Believed? Science Says: "NO!"|
|| home | ZS magazine | library | links ||
Astrology as a hobby and as a type of business has taken firm root in Russia. Usually such phenomena do not attraction scientists' attention: a harmless hobby is the private matter of citizens and officials ought to verify the legality of a business. But astrology is a special case. Practicing astrologers call their profession a "science", desiring to use the authority which has been honorably earned by natural science. But scientists are no longer indifferent: in the first place, it is unpleasant to realize that your good name is being exploited by crooks, and in the second, many scientists feel they are responding in what is presented to the public in the name of science.
Astronomy is subjected to the greatest exploitation by astrology. Having read in astronomical calendars about upcoming eclipses or the appearance of bright comets, "star fortune-tellers" issue this as their prediction, flavoring purely scientific facts with their "wise" recommendations: what one ought to dress in for the eclipse and how to conduct business when the comet appears.
When, having bought a product in packaging from a known manufacturer, we notice an imitation item inside the case against the seller goes to court. But when fine-looking ladies and gentlemen with thoughtful expressions juggle scientific words "playing you for a fool" we are helpless because we cannot tell an imitation from the real thing. Therefore let me report:
- The scientists of various countries, including Russia, have repeatedly expressed their opinion about astrology as the purest speculation, without a scientific basis, which has not once proven (or even tried to prove) the reliability of its methods, and having no moral nor factual right to speak in the name of science.
- Without any proof and while declaiming about the influence of some sort of "cosmic forces" on the fate of mankind, no practicing astrologer is concerned by the main unresolved question of their teaching – the search for a physical agent which exerts this influence. Astrologers are much more interested in literary and advertising supporters, which exert influence on the purchasers of their predictions.
- Among professional scientists there is the firm conviction based on calculations and experiments that not one of the known physical interactions associated with known astronomical objects is able to exert that influence on the biosphere of which astrologers speak.
- In the past there were and still are a small number of enthusiasts who have tried to identify even a rational kernel in astrology. Having embarked on this path, researchers usually come to two principally different conclusions. Not having detected a physical mechanism of influence, some decide that there is a general absence of a causative association between heavenly bodies and mankind but "the movement of heavenly bodies" used by astrologers plays the role of traditional "clocks" with whose aid ancient observers observed some natural rhythms. Representatives of the second group of enthusiasts think that known forces (gravity, electromagnetism,….) bring about a weak association of the biosphere with the planets, having different resonant phenomena as amplifiers (a trigger effect). A third group of "scientific astrologers" prefers the existence in nature of yet unknown interactions.
It ought to be noted that all the above enthusiasts work outside the framework of the traditional scientific process, meet at "their own" conferences and are published in "their own" unrefereed publications. Their work does not withstand the rigorous demands of scientific methodology.
Of course, scientists do not reject those natural phenomena which do not yet have a scientific basis "right off the bat". Rather, they constantly look for them. With respect to astrology this means that if someone managed to demonstrate the ability of a prediction which went beyond coincidence then scientists would be the first to study this phenomenon. But as yet no astrologer has been able to convincingly demonstrate his predictive power.
Here are some facts. Astrologers say that with the aid of a horoscope it is possible to determine a person's predisposition toward a particular profession. Therefore American economists J. Bennett and J. Barth from George Washington University, decided to find whether the position of the planets relative to zodiac signs influences the professional inclinations of people, in particular the frequency with which young people volunteer for military service. The signs "controlled" by Mars were studied especially carefully. This research did not confirm astrological predictions.
Trying to identify people's predisposition to a profession physicist J. [MacJervie] researched the distribution of dates of birth of 17,000 scientists and 6,000 political leaders relative to zodiac signs. It also turned out to be completely random. Psychologist B. Silverman from the University of Michigan studied the influence of the zodiac sign corresponding to the birth of each of married couples and the probability of their marriage or divorce. Data about 2987 weddings and 478 divorces were used. The scientist compared the real information with the predictions of two independent astrologers against a favorable or unfavorable combination of zodiac signs for the married couples. It turned out that there was no coincidence between the predictions and reality and therefore Silverman concluded: "The position of the sun in the zodiac at the moment of birth does not exert an influence on the formation of personality".
The quality of a complete prediction of a person's character by astrologers was also studied. Chicago psychologist J. McGrew turned to the Astrologers Federation of Indiana for this purpose. Six experienced "specialists in astrology" were called upon to participate in experiments. At McGrew's request 23 volunteers filled out a questionnaire which contained both astrological and traditional questions about the qualities of their character, work, etc. Then the time and place of birth of the volunteers were reported to the astrologers and six members of a control group who were ignorant of astrology. Then the characteristics of the volunteers indicated in the form were compared with the predictions of the group of astrologers and the control group. The following results were obtained: the astrologers' predictions turned out to be no more accurate than the predictions of the members of the control group and neither [group's predictions] correlated at all with the real qualities of the volunteers being tested. It is curious that the characteristics of the volunteers themselves and the information from the various astrologers differed from one another in the strongest fashion.
Astrologers themselves often refer to the works of Parisian statistician M. Gauquelin for a justification of their craft. Gauquelin studied archival data containing the date, time, and place of birth of 41,000 European residents, among them 16,000 famous scientists, artists, writers, athletes, etc. He compared the positions of the planets and constellations at the moment of a person's birth with his personality type and kind of occupation. Those who are not too lazy to read Gauquelin's conclusions will find out that the horoscopes were completely wrong: there was no connection between the character and the personality of a person on the one hand and, on the other, his zodiac sign (that is, the season of birth) and the position of the planets in houses (that is, their height above the horizon) and also their mutual aspects (that is, angular distances) at the moment of birth. Therefore Gauquelin consigned astrology to the ranks of conjecture.
It is true, he wrote, that in the course of research he managed to observe some curious regularities which gave him the right to consider his work the cornerstone of a new science, cosmobiology. He says that for "ordinary" people the choice of profession does not depend on the arrangement of the planets at the moment of birth, but for famous people, it does.
Gauquelin's conclusions have been repeatedly double-checked: some researchers have partially confirmed them and others have refuted them. I refer those wishing to familiarize themselves in more detail with the results of the statistical verification of astrological predictions to my article "Pochemu astrologiya – lzhenauka? [Why is Astrology a Pseudoscience?]" (the journal Nauka i Zhizn' [Science and Life], 2000, N? 11, 12).
famous American skeptic and rationalist James Randi conducted a very simple experiment. He came into a classroom where the teacher introduced him to the kids as a famous astrologer. Randi offered all the students their free personal horoscope. Each student placed a sheet of paper with their date and place of birth in a separate envelope and some time later everyone received their envelopes with the horoscopes inserted into them.
Randi asked the kids to read and evaluate the accuracy of [their] horoscope. The majority evaluated the horoscopes as quite accurate. Then Randi asked each student to pass his horoscope to the student sitting in front of him and those in the first row to pass their horoscope to the last row. The class found to its surprise that the same text had been inserted in all the envelopes! They contained the standard phrases like: "You would like to be smarter" or "You like to get signs of attention from those around you". Of course, who doesn't? Thus J. Randi demonstrated a simple means which astrologers use to convince credulous people of the power of their guesses.
Do you still believe that astrology is a science? Then you ought to familiarize yourself with the work of real scientists. How We Find Out About the Work of Scientists
We assume that you are interested in following developments in science and finding out about its new problems and discoveries. But where is the source of this information, and who can be trusted? Who can speak with us in the name of science? And, finally, how can one distinguish between a scientist and a crook? With the present diversity of public organizations and private higher educational institutions the title of professor and even academician doesn't mean anything. It remains to rely on authoritative people who represent scientists and their work to us. The supply on television is not great: on minor channels any wizard can buy himself advertising time and on national government channels he doesn't need to buy it – the unscrupulousness of journalists and the frank desire of other politicians "to play up to the people" leads to quite dubious types on the major airwaves. Of course, one can also find reliable guides on TV: N. N. Drozdov, S. P. Kapitsa. We have not yet been disappointed in the qualifications of their speakers. And, all the same, the broadcast channels are not the best means to contact scientists: we cannot select a broadcast time or a topic or speaker that is convenient for us. Popular science literature was always a much more flexible and richer channel for communications with scientists.
I address "experts" and fans of quiz programs: remember the sources of your outlook. The journals "Nauki i Zhizn", "Znanie-Sila", and "Khimiya i Zhizn'" were always a nutrient medium for our intellect. Their impeccable reputations made us the interlocutors of real scientists and protected us from imposters. This was not "elite reading matter": if today TV programs pride themselves on a rating of 1 million viewers, then the journal "Nauki i Zhizn'", for example, had a circulation of more than 3 million and each copies went through several hands. Was this not a means of mass communication?
Why did these journals attract us? With their high scientific authority at a quite modest price.
I think that not everyone knows that these journals are still being published and, what is most important, have not changed their appearance. Why have the majority of us stopped subscribing to and reading them in recent years (see the table)? Have our interests changed? Have alternative sources of information appeared? Yes, but there is a more serious reason – the cost of a subscription has risen by several times in comparable prices. In the middle of the 1980s a copy of a journal cost 25-30 kopecks, but today it is 50-100 rubles. In relation to items in constant demand this means the following: previously the average journal cost two loaves of bread, or one liter of milk, or 150 grams of meat; today, 10 loaves of bread, or 5 liters of milk, or 500 grams of meat. The relative price of the journals has risen by four or five times! This is what has made them inaccessible to the majority of people who want them. The same thing has literally happened with popular science books.
The situation in this area has changed for the better this year: several interesting journals have just appeared – "Lomonosov", "Universum", "Populyarnaya Mekhanika [Popular Mechanics]", "Chto Novogo v Nauke i Tekhnike [What's New in Science and Technology]", "Yuniy Erudit [Young Erudite Person]", and the journal "V Mire Nauki [In the World of Science]" has been revived. They mainly use translated materials but they also prepare their own about the work of our scientists. I hope that these new publications can win prestige from the readers.
However their subscription prices are high all the same; this problem cannot not be solved without government support. Science and Culture?
Just that, "Science AND Culture" is the pleasant way that we have to express ourselves. These two concepts are even separated by ministries: there is a Ministry of Science and a Ministry of Culture. Probably those who thought of this never looked in the Dictionary of the Russian Language where it says that "culture is the sum of the achievements of mankind in the industrial, social, and intellectual sense". However, cultured people understand that science is part of culture; the question for them is, which part.
"Science is central, not a separate part of our common culture along with art, history, and the social and humanitarian disciplines", British Prime Minister Tony Blair said a few months ago speaking to members of the Royal Society, their Academy of Sciences. In Russia we are now trying to build capitalism with a human face. Therefore it is worth looking closely at what kind of guidelines those who long ago set out on this path select for themselves.
In his speech the British Prime Minister talked about the government's determined desire to make natural science more prestigious and well-supported and also about the need to help each citizen better understand the essence of scientific research. He said, "Science is vital to our country's continued future prosperity…I want to make the UK the best place in the world for this research. For that we need our people, equipment, and infrastructure to be properly funded.
However the British government's plans do not at all come down to "giving money for science". Their leadership is looking deeper. "We need to ensure our bright young people share our excitement about the potential of science and the role they can play. We particularly need to reverse the decline in maths, physics and engineering, and make science a career to aspire to, for girls as well as boys. We have recently reversed an [eight-year] decline in teacher training applications for science subjects, partly through "golden hellos" for science and technology teachers. But we are not complacent - recruiting and retaining more science teachers remains a key priority", said Tony Blair. He further talked about the priority of natural sciences education, about the allocation of 60 million pounds to reequip school laboratories…A complete translation of this most interesting speech was published in Vestnik RFFI for December 2002 and can be found at http://www.rfbr.ru/default.asp?doc_id=5917.
Sometime I hope to hear similar words and, the main thing is, to wait for their affirmation in the deeds of our country's leaders. When citizens who have graduated come to clearly understand the structure of the world around them they can independently investigate and decide to whom they ought to entrust their future, scientists or fortune-tellers.
Translated by Gary Goldberg
|| home | ZS magazine | library | links ||