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A comedian and a physicist monkeying about.

A comedian and a physicist monkeying about.

The Infinite Monkey Cage tackled astrology this week, amongst other things. Ben Miller visited to Jonathan Cainer, astrologer extraordinaire, to see how astrology works. This seems to have come as a shock to Prof. Brian Cox who doesn’t think that it works. Ben Miller, who was ABD in Physics, argued it did work. For Ben mathematics and physical models are representations of reality which are not strictly ‘true’. Astrology is also a model for understanding reality, so it wouldn’t have to be ‘true’ either. It’s a way of organising information and coming to a conclusion which works for many people. It depends on how you define ‘works’.

A physical model works. With a physical model you can put people in a rocket, fill it with fuel, find a launch window and land people on the Moon. A physical model can tell you when the rocket will land and at what speed. It’ll also tell you if there’s any chance the people will be able to return to Earth, or if they’ll be spending the rest of their lives on the Moon. You can argue that Astrology works too. It can tell you “Today is a good day to travel, though you may not end up where you expected!” Even if they are both models, that doesn’t make both models equally useful.

If you want to say how something works, then you have to say what it is that is working, and what is the output you will are seeking. I think Astrology works. But it doesn’t work for any reason to do with the stars or planets. Here’s why I think the connecting the mechanism with heavenly bodies is misleading.

In 1781 Herschel discovered Uranus. That was great, but it was soon clear there was a problem. In the mid-nineteenth century it was clear that another planet lay beyond Uranus and it was possible to use mathematics to predict where it should be. It’s a big achievement, because Neptune was found by studying one body. But if we take astrology seriously then it should be far easier to astrologically discover planets.

For astrology it’s not just the positions in the zodiac that matter, it’s also the way planets interact with other planets. So it should have been possible to discover Sedna, not just by seeing what sign it was in, but also noticing that odd things happen when Jupiter or Venus were trine to a point where no known planet existed or when the Sun was in opposition to this mystery point. This is a reasonable thing to look for because, after Pluto was found, it was claimed that it was astrologically observable. Indeed Pluto’s influence is said to be so strong that despite the astronomers revising their opinion, Pluto remains an astrological planet. That means it should be possible to astrologically discover planets as the influence known planets should briefly alter as they go past a mystery point on a regular basis.

If you’ve downloaded the podcast you could quite reasonably say I’m being unfair here. Indeed Jonathan Cainer says there’s plenty of explanations for astrology and he doesn’t believe any of them, and rejects the notion of cause and effect. Fair enough but there must be some observable correlation else the whole thing is meaningless in its own terms. And sure enough after rejecting cause and effect Jonathan Cainer puts forward an explanation which depends on exactly that. He talks about clocks and how people universally respond to things at certain times like stopping work at five o’clock. This falls apart if you stop to think about it? Why do people stop work at five?

You can come up with lots of reasons. Some are proximate, like “I stop getting paid at five o’clock.” Some are systemic like, “The economy is based on the diurnal cycle as originally used in agriculture and so it’s most efficient to deploy workers at that time.” They could be biological, “After five people get progressively more tired so it’s best to have them work during daylight.” There are many answers, but there is no big ineffable mystery. No one sits in the city at five and wonders, “Why is it that so many people are leaving their offices? Perhaps it’s a mystery beyond that humans cannot answer within four dimensional space-time.”

The way astrology works is via cold reading, which may be intentional or accidental. Ben Miller mentioned Jonathan Cainer intuiting information, which sounds like cold reading in action. I don’t mean that in a sneery way. Some people say that cold reading is just a matter of telling people what they want to hear. That’s true. And being a gourmet chef is just a matter of cooking things for the right length of time. If you’re seriously interested in cold reading then I’d recommend Ian Rowland’s book on the subject. It’s amazingly brilliant and astrology is one of the examples he uses, at least in the edition I have. The ritual and procedure of astrology provides a scene for cold reading to operate in. It’s not about wildly guessing the truth. Talking through the horoscope provides a scaffold for the subject to build her own narrative over.

That sounds suspiciously like deception, but I don’t think there’s much intentionally dishonest about it a lot of the time. While the correlations may be spurious, they’re not arbitrary. Serious astrologers will spend a long while learning the techniques and traditions of the subject. It may have no effect, indeed there seems to fairly regular and sometimes quite funny debunkings of astrology, but they may believe it themselves. Success is measured in terms of numbers of clients so there’s a reinforcement for performance. You could say the same about a doctor in private practice, but there is the extra element of mortality rates. I don’t know any astrologers who quiz their clients to determine their success rates.

Even so I don’t know anyone who argues that the daily horoscopes in newspapers are anything other than rubbish. That’s why I’m not sure I agree with Brian Cox when he says astrology is a ‘slippery slope’ to other forms of pseudoscience. Unlike homeopathy or chiropractic I don’t think there is so much confusion of astrology with science. The giveaway is Ben Miller’s description of Jonathan Cainer’s place as the ‘most purple’ room he’s been in. If you were visiting an astrologer, what would you expect to find? Me, I’d expect some purple along with a crystal ball, crystal chandeliers and just plain crystals around the place. I’d expect some occult signs including at least one pentagram and a crescent moon. There’d be ethnic drapes, a north American dreamcatcher and a small statue of an Indian god. Either Ganesh, or one of the ones with lots of arms. I’d accept there’d be a computer, but otherwise I’d be expecting a lot of stuff that you would not find in a lab.

I think this could make astrology helpful, From the file marked I’ve no evidence for this – but I’m going to say it anyway, you could argue that astrology helps as part of an intellectual hygiene hypothesis. If astrology provides a helpful easily identifiable pseudoscience, does exposure to it help build up resistance to other pseudoscientific ideas? It wouldn’t be a simple thing to test. You’d expect people who accept astrology to also believe in homeopathy, chiropractic and past life regression. Also you’d expect them to have come into contact with astrology first, as it’s the most public pseudoscience, so that would be consistent with the slippery slope argument. That means looking at astrologers wouldn’t be a lot of help. What you’d need to see is if astrology turns many more people off, and if association with astrology increases or diminishes the credibility of another pseudoscience. That sounds like a serious media studies / anthropology project which would require a lot of effort.

I’ll admit my opinion of astrology tends to be tidal. It could be a bit more positive tomorrow, or a lot more negative. The more mystic it gets the closer it is to a spiritual belief system rather than a science. I don’t feel the urge to stand outside Buddhist temples yelling about the lack of evidence for transmigration of souls, and I don’t see astrology as a major problem either. The belief isn’t based on demonstrable evidence, but what you feel.

I think the failure to tackle belief was really the only slip up in the episode. A psychologist or anthropologist could have added more to the discussion, particularly a chronopsychologist. Despite that I’m really enjoying the series. Between this and It’s Only a Theory there’s been some entertaining science sneaking onto the BBC recently. Now all it needs is a weekly sci-tech news programme about what the world will be like tomorrow.

The latest edition of the Infinite Monkey Cage should be available to everyone as a podcast. See the programme’s homepage for more details.