Astrology in the Infinite Monkey Cage

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.


When he's not tired, fixing his car or caught in train delays, Alun Salt works part-time for the Annals of Botany weblog. His PhD was in ancient science at the University of Leicester, but he doesn't know Richard III.

2 Responses

  1. Geoff Carter says:

    Science is a com­plete ana­chron­ism when dis­cuss­ing ancient intel­lec­tual tra­di­tions like astro­logy. It is a relic of early attempts to ration­al­ise the world and find order in the chaos.

    The ancient idea that things out­side our world, par­tic­u­larly above and below, influ­ence events in our real­ity remains cent­ral to many forms of reli­gious thought today.

    Intriguingly, and inad­vert­ently, astro­logy attempts to estab­lish a con­nec­tion between events on our planet and it’s pos­i­tion rel­at­ive to other local bod­ies in our space; the idea that the events on the earth are influ­enced by its pos­i­tion in space is essen­tially true, not least its pos­i­tion rel­at­ive to the sun.

  2. smuhlberger says:

    I’ll admit my opin­ion of astro­logy tends to be tidal. It could be a bit more pos­it­ive tomor­row, or a lot more negative. ”