June 26, 2006

"A touchstone to determine the actual worth of an 'intellectual' -- find out how he feels about astrology."

So wrote Robert Heinlein. RedState mobilizes the quote in the context of excoriating beseiged blogger Jerome Armstrong. Commenters on my various "Kosola" posts keep pushing me to talk about the astrology angle, so I'll just say this. I don't think writing about astrology means you're nutty, though it's great material for people to use if they want to portray you as nutty. While I think it's perfectly idiotic to actually believe in astrology, I think many people are either playing with it -- using it to stimulate thinking about themselves and their relationships -- or trying to make money off of the people who enjoy fooling around with it. I'm assuming Jerome is the kind of guy who falls in the latter category.

But how big is the third category -- those people who actually believe? Once, quite a while back, I had a long conversation with a man whom I was considering going out with, when he brought up the topic of astrology, which caused me to instantly write him off as someone I couldn't take seriously. (I admit I was looking for an out, and that was convenient.) I told this little anecdote a friend, a law professor, who burst right out with the statement: "I believe in astrology." I then told the anecdote, with the new coda, to another friend, also a law professor, and I got the same response: "I believe in astrology." These people were not joking -- unless their humor was very, very dry, and they were both also sadistic enough to leave me wandering through the rest of my life with diminished faith in the strength of the human mind.


SWBarns said...

All right thinking people know that biorhythms overwhelm any influence the stars might have on our lives.

tiggeril said...

It's even worse when you grow up Indian. My parents tried to make me pick a college based on which had the most auspicious astrological chart based on the date it was founded.

No, I'm not kidding.

Yes, I put the kibosh on that.

Ann Althouse said...

Roger: I know these characters enough to know they weren't. And I very much wanted to think they weren't.

Gahrie said...

One of the reasons I'm glad that I'm a Gemini is that all of us Geminis refuse to believe in astrology.

J. Cricket said...

Let us not forget the cover story in Time magazine (May 16, 1988) on Astrology in the White House. A certain president, who probably cannot be criticized on this blog, let his kooky wife affect decisions in the White House based on astrology!

That is far scarier and depressing, I think, than some law professor holding such beliefs.

J said...

"sadistic enough to leave me wandering through the rest of my life with diminished faith in the strength of the human mind"

Don't discount the possibility. They were lawyers, after all.

goesh said...

Fondu and astrology, not my favorite things. A friend once hooked me up with this woman based on astrological compatibility. It was a nightmare. We drank too much and got into a heated verbal fight. I think she won.

Danny said...

Ann: It might have been a cultural thing. We're any of your astrology enthusiast friends from Hong Kong or China/Korea/Japan?

Laura Reynolds said...

Our street numbers skip by fours (4600, 4604, 4608, etc.) except at one point where it skips by two and then six. When the area was first built about ten years ago, a Chinese couple asked the city to change the address because it was an unlucky number.

David Foster said...

Not sure why law professors would have any particular immunity to this belief. There aren't very many science courses in the typical lawyer's education, are there?

J. Cricket said...


1. You have a vivid imagination. I have no idea who the xxoo person is.

2. I have enough of a life outside of the blogosphere that I don't read every single post and comment here. And I never will. If you do, well, uh, good for you.

3. On a blog where it is never too late to talk about Chappaquiddick, how fascinating that you need to quickly change the topic from the kooky wife who had all too much influence over a fading president.

Bruce Hayden said...

One of my highpoints of my career as a software engineer was when I wrote a biorhythms program when I worked for the Bureau of the Census. I spent about six months trying to figure out an elegant way of doing it, and when I did, I wrote it in an afternoon, and for the next six months, it was the most heavily used, not strictly work related, program at Census. And note, that this is an agency that is/was run by and dominated by statisticians (and programmers).

As for astrology, of course, I don't believe in it, but I also know what signs I am supposed to be most compatible with, etc. And, once every year or two, I will check my horoscope in the paper.

Actually, it probably falls best under that small talk thread we had a couple of weeks ago - most everyone knows enough astrology to be dangerous, but most of us don't take it seriously enough (at least here in the U.S.) to get into fights over - and, thus, perfect small talk.

Balfegor said...

Technically, I don't believe in astrology (or rather, all of that: I Ching, Feng Shui, auguries and so forth), but if you go by "revealed preference," I behave pretty much as though I do.

I went to law school, despite coming out of a maths and sciences background, largely because when I was born, my family's longtime soothsayer said it was my fate to become a lawyer. I have cancelled travel and even vacations because I have been informed that they are inauspicious at a particular time (e.g. last year, I could not travel across large bodies of water, so I cancelled a trip to Rome). In my daily life, I count the number of scoops of rice I take -- never one (dearth), never four (death). I never pass food from my chopsticks to someone else's. I am careful to orient my utensils correctly. I pay a symbolic fee for any bladed gifts.

Strictly speaking, I don't believe, though.

Unknown said...

Ann, if Jerome is truly falls into your later (opportunistic) category of astrologer, this recent defense of his practices seems to suggest otherwise.

Specifically, "I have done the new age type things over the years—life’s never boring that way. Down that line, I dabbled with planets and predictions in the most abstract manner, as one of several different predictive mathematical disciplines..." (I don't intend to Dowdify here, click the link if you are concerned about the ellipsis...) "But hey, like JP Morgan once said, “millionaires don’t use astrology, billionaires do!”

"Predictive mathematical discipline?" My gosh! These are not the words of someone brushing off his astrology practice as simply a folly of his youth. He seems quite content to continue defending it as a perfectly healthy practice.

As for your law professor friends who claimed to believe in astrology---it would be very interesting to show them some of the more far-out passages that Jerome has penned on the topic to see if they're willing to take that belief as far as he does---or whether they are limited to the casual coincides they see when they read the vague entries in the local newspaper horoscope.

And to those that recall Nancy Reagan's interest in astrology, and the surrounding worries about how much that was influencing Ronnie and White House policy---yes, that was definitely a very troubling development, and I say that as a fan of the Gipper.

Randy said...

AJD: I had no idea that you weren't allowed to criticize Ronald Reagan here! I must have missed the memo sent out to everyone on that subject (and the one to talk endlessly about Chappaquiddick).

I hope you aren't implying that Ann is actively stifling conversation and only that you feel intimidated by those who disagree with you. I can't imagine why know why, though. Certainly not about the two subjects you mention, which I have rarely noted anyone here mentioning. I'll encourage you to go off-tangent if you want. I agree that Nancy Reagan's belief in astrology was ridiculous, childish, and even frightening. How's that for a start? Have at it, AJD. But don't be too surprised if no one is particularly interested in people and events that ceased being imporant or remotely entertaining about 20 years go.

And no, her idiotic superstitious beliefs don't make Jerome Armstrong's reported equally idiotic superstitious beliefs any more acceptable (or interesting) to me.

Word Verification: ozism --- I kid you not!

Unknown said...

Now having said that, I know of a certain group of historical figures who apparently practiced astrology, and in doing so involved themselves in a seismic historical upheaval. It's really fascinating, IMO, that while the Bible takes a dim view of astrology, divination, and the like (see, e.g., Jeremiah 10:1-3), God uses its practitioners on multiple occasions to accomplish His ends.

Ann Althouse said...

Danny: No.

Whoever said you can't say anything against Reagan here is just faking knowledge of this blog. When have I even talked about Reagan? There's this. Here's how I talked about him when he died. There's this (noting that I didn't vote for him, though I did once prior to '04 vote for a Republican for President).

As for cultural differences and superstitions. I'm sorry, if you're intelligent and educated, I hold you to the same standard. This doesn't refer to acting out old rituals or playing with old ideas, but actually believing these things.

Joseph said...

I think astrology is absurd, but mainstream religious explanations of our world also leave me dumbfounded. It strikes me as a bit odd how comfortable people feel insulting the intelligence of people on the basis of their belief in astrology but not on the basis of their belief in religious concepts that strike me as equally absurd.

AllenS said...

Ann, I was wondering, do you get your word verifications, by throwing a handfull of chicken bones? That was the way people used to predict the future before astrology. Remember the movie Moby Dick?

Unknown said...

Well Joseph, absurdity is in the eye of the beholder, isn't it? I frankly am unwilling to concede that I can't render judgements on belief systems that are different than mine in fear that others might practice the same against me. If you aren't willing to hold your beliefs in the face of criticism or even ridicule (as opposed to genuine oppression) then frankly they aren't worth much.

I mean hey, I believe that some guy 2000 years ago was bludgeoned and executed for his beliefs, and yet who managed to come back to life a couple days later. That's either true, or it's wacky. There's not much middle ground.

Kurmudge said...

I suspect that there is no group more prone to superstition than are athletes and sports fans. Even the most rational and materialistic person seems to find him/herself adjusting positions or motions during a tight game based on what happened or did not, etc. And the same person will swear that every other element of "directed happenstance" is pure bunk (most likely they are right about the latter).

What it comes down to, I think, is that the cost of playing certain innocuous superstitions is very low compared with the perceived payoff. Crossing your fingers costs nothing, buying a lottery ticket is (expected value) expensive.

BTW, that has absolutely nothing to do with religion. Those sorts of cheap shots reveal a bit of unfounded superiority complex over persons far more able and learned than is the person who foolishly makes the dig.

buddy larsen said...

A lot of people born on my birthday are really cool, so of course astrology is not bunk.

Bruce said...

I totally believe in astrology. It is an internally consistent belief system which has a great many followers. I also know my physics. Any effects of far away planets is totally overwhelmed by, at the very least, gravitational differences due to elevation above sea level, magnetic fluctuations due to whatever, and let's not forget the chemical and audio and mechanical influences while in the womb, not to mention air pressure and the fact that when you're born can vary by weeks or even months from when you're conceived (it's a fairly arbitrary milestone).

However, there is one huge environmental factor that correlates quite highly with astrological signs and that's the fact that they're synchronized to the seasons. In the temperate zone of the Northern Hemisphere, your very early childhood will be significantly different based on when during the year you are born. It's quite possible that this factor could cause measurable differences between people born "under different signs."

What I'm saying here is that astrology is real in the sense that it is a system of beliefs that some people follow. In addition, a given astrological sign could have a disproportionate number of people with a given trait (I don't know of any studies because I frankly don't give a damn about the topic). Astrological predictions may have a self-fulfilling nature, especially given that they tend to be very vague. And I'll even add that people using astrology on a daily basis may find that it provides a framework in which to think about abstractions, even if that framework doesn't have any established basis in empirical fact. So given all that, I suppose you should count me as a believer.

Chris said...

Most people don't even realize that daily "horoscopes" are just spat out by phrase-generator software. But what really blows me away is how many otherwise seemingly intelligent people will pooh-pooh the daily horoscopes but then turn around and claim that if you really want an "accurate" forecast, you need to get a full chart done by a 'professional' astrologer! That's like claiming that alchemy can work if only you have proper lab equipment.

Jim O said...

My wife has come to believe in it, and it's a real nuisance. Always telling me what's gonna happen if I do something. She's right about as often as chance would have it, which she takes as a sign that she's almost got it figured out.

Anonymous said...

So, we can conclude that Jerome Armstrong is either an idiot or a huckster? Quel suprise.

Actually, the study of astrology is important to understanding the history, mythology and psychology of many cultures, including our own. As a musician, one example springs to mind. In the 17th century, as the concept of key tonality (you know, C major, d minor, etc.) was developed, each key became associated with, among other things, a Zodiacal sign. So the key of D major had the sign of Aries, F major, Pisces, etc. This sort of thing was definitely part of Bach's mental landscape, and his music is shot through with symbolism of this kind. Having an inkling of this helps deepen one's understanding and appreciation of music of this time. Astrology loomed large in other arts, too, and helped form the conceptual framework for pre-Enlightenment cosmology. I hasten to add that belief in astrology today tends to, paraphrasing Ann, diminish the faith of others in your mental strength.

Unknown said...

Well yes, but how many of us can fit the sun in our lab?

Unknown said...

(that last comment was meant for mike)

buddy larsen said...

o'sullivan--thanks for the LOL--

Chris said...

I doubt that even a cyclotron could turn cattle urine into gold, for example, which is the brand of alchemy I was referring to :-)

Unknown said...

Right, Chris. I know mike is trying to be clever but I think it's safe to say that those who practice what mike is calling alchemy do not, in fact, call it that (when being serious); and those who would attempt to practice alchemy as it is tradtionally understood would not be satisfied with the output of a cyclotron. :)

Anonymous said...

tcd, suffering from delusions again? I have just the link for you.

joeschmo1of3 said...

I have an astrophysics degree, so I agree with bruce that the stars and planets can have no effect on our actions here on Earth. So, that does leave room for the animistic sorts among us to believe in the personality traits aspect of astrology, how being born in different seasons can affect our upbringing. Well, I'm one of triplets, all born on the same day within ten minutes of each other, and so I know firsthand that the personality and compatibility aspect of astrology is pure hokum. Then again, I am a scorpio, so I believe that astrology is just full of taurus.

Anonymous said...

Keep your eyes on the road, your hands upon the wheel
Keep your eyes on the road, your hands upon the wheel
Goin' to the Roadhouse
Gonna have a real
A good time

Yeah, back at the Roadhouse they got some bungalows
Yeah, back at the Roadhouse they got some bungalows
That's for the people
Like to go down slow

Let it roll, baby, roll
Let it roll, baby, roll
Let it roll, baby, roll
Let it roll, all night long

Yeah, my man! Come on!

You gotta roll, roll, roll
Gotta thrill my soul, all right
Roll, roll, roll,
Gotta thrill my soul
You gotta
[Unwriteable improvisation]
Aah, ride

Ashen lady, Ashen lady
Give up your vows, give up your vows
Save our city, save our city
Right now

Well, I woke up this morning, I got myself a beer
Well, I woke up this morning, I got myself a beer
The future's uncertain, the end is always near

Let it roll, baby, roll
Let it roll, baby, roll
Let it roll, baby, roll
Let it roll, all night long

"...All right! All right! All right!
Hey, listen! Listen! Listen, man! Listen, man!
I don't know how many you people believe in astrology..."

"You're a Sagittarius!"

"Yeah, that's right...that's right, baby, I...I am a Sagittarius"
"The most philosophical of all the signs"

"I know, so am I!"

"But anyway, I don't believe in it"

"I don't either!"

"I think it's a bunch of bullshit, myself
But I tell you this, man, I tell you this
I don't know what's gonna happen, man, but I wanna have
my kicks before the whole shithouse goes up in flames
All right! All right!"

George Burdell said...

People do not understand Newton's Law of Gravity. The don't understand that gravitational attraction is directly dependent upon the masses of both objects and inversely proportional to the square of the distance which separates their centers.

The best summary of astrology I ever read, "this book [a modest 300 page tome] has a greater gravitational effect on you that any heavenly body except the moon." (I believe that it was in Paul Davies' God and the New Physics). That being the case, why would it matter what constellation is in the background behind Mars, Venus, Jupiter or Mercury at the moment of your birth.

Anf have you ever noticed that astrological predictions are just vague enough to always seem "true"?

LoafingOaf said...

I'm not surprised Armstrong went from allegedly defrauding people by shilling garbage stocks to writing about astrology. Astrology is also a fraud, and something a hack can make bucks from without having skill, intelligence, or training.

many people are...playing with it -- using it to stimulate thinking about themselves and their relationships

I don't get how meaningless B.S. can stimulate. The only reason anyone would regularly read horoscopes is because they sort of believe in them. If you don't sorta believe in them they are not enjoyable to read. How sad that our newspapers and magazines across the country encourage people to believe in such rubbish.

And I'm not sure what convincing people into stereotyping others by their star signs does to stimulate thinking about relationship, unless you mean stimulated into thinking idiotically about relations. "He's a sagitarius, they're not compatible with me, and I hate their traits. I'm dumping him."

And the fact that Nancy Reagan believed in astrology while her husband was Prez and she was his closest advisor proves how scary this stuff can be.

buddy larsen said...

Personality traits do seem to conform somewhat (being a student in the 60s, couldn't help but pick up a little of the stuff, by osmosis if nothing else). The explanation for irregular individuals--those who did not comform to their Sun Sign--was the Moon Sign, and/or the Rising Sign, which will usually be different than the Sun Sign, but nearly equal in influence.

So, if you're not what your Sun Sign sez, it must be due to influence from the Rising, or Moon, or some combo of the two, or three.

Most folks who went in all the way, to diligently figure out all the permutations, usually flunked out and moved away.

These celestial flunk-out events were predictable with some certainty prior to the happening, meaning I suppose that the acolytes had been onto something, and hadn't flunked out in vain, maybe.

goyishekop said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
goyishekop said...

The other day, a friend was railing that science is "under attack from 'The Right' in America." Some conservatives, she said, actually believe in creationism.

"Well, most of the adult women I've dated have had medicine cabinets full of homeopathic remedies," I said.

After a startled pause, she said, "What's wrong with homeopathic remedies?"

At least Nancy Reagan was spending her own money.

buddy larsen said...

And, too, a flunk-out is a sort of alchemy, where gold is turned into nothing.

LoafingOaf said...

I suspect that there is no group more prone to superstition than are athletes and sports fans. Even the most rational and materialistic person seems to find him/herself adjusting positions or motions during a tight game based on what happened or did not, etc.

Haha. Yeah, I often wonder why, even though I know better, I sometimes find myself unable to resist doing little superstitious things during a baseball game. A tight baseball game can drive you crazy.

M.C. said...

There are all kinds of superstitions that people believe in for irrational reasons.

stoqboy said...

My problem with all this is that I don't know how to choose among the belief systems. How do I know whether I should be a Presbyterian, or a Catholic, or a Jew, or a Muslim, or a Buddhist or a pagan or whether I should believe in astrology? I don't possess a framework that allows me to choose one over the other(many of the religions are audaciously predictive: if you behave this way, God will allow you into heaven, overwhelming the modest day-to-day predictions of astrology). And, there is no unfounded superiority here, just lack of a basis for understanding. I freely admit that many finer minds than mine have explored these issues and chosen a belief system. I don't struggle with this either, I'm perfectly content in my lack of understanding.

M.C. said...

How sad that our newspapers and magazines across the country encourage people to believe in such rubbish.

It's probably a lot less harmful than a lot of the rubbish more "rational" people like to believe in.

buddy larsen said...

stoqboy, you ain't alone. We're only a few hundred generations out from swinging thru the trees, and here we suddenly confront simultaneously ever bit of info that has ever existed, and are supposed to sort it out, when according to nature we should probably still be basking in the afterglow of learning how to peel a banana.

Ann Althouse said...

One of my earliest post on this blog made fun of Kerry for using a homeopathic remedy.

Eddie said...

A number of posts back Bruce suggested that the astrological signs correlate with the seasons and thus may be connected to something physically meaningful. A problem with this account is that the astrological signs are not consistent with the seasons over the very long term, due to the earth's wobble. For that reason I don't think many serious astrologers would even explain astrology that way.

Anonymous said...

goyishekop -- I really like your nickname. The best man at my wedding, a very good friend, lubavitcher, his father was some famous physician, this son was a scientist for a very well known FORTUNE 50 company at their research center looking into physics, ee, cs. But he was like totally into homeopathy.

I found it bizarre.

I think there is an enormous difference between a highly dubious belief in homeopathy and trying to keep evolution out of biology classes and try to get creationism in.

Beth said...

How sad that our newspapers and magazines across the country encourage people to believe in such rubbish.

I've always suspected a little bit of sociological engineering in those newspaper astrology columns. "It's a good day to call an old friend." Well, that's a nice thing to do. Or, "it's an auspicious day for investing." Indeed, and our economy will be better for it. I suspect they have a core set of positive recommendations and innocuous little promises ("Watch out! There's an opportunity coming your way; don't miss it!") and just rotate 'em through the signs.

buddy larsen said...

remedy-wise, the senator ought to lay off the botox--he's starting to look like a Transylvanian smiley face.

Bill Dalasio said...

My suspicion is that astrology, at one time, may have had some marginal predictive power on personality traits simply due to the correlation of seasonal effects with the astrological chart. That said, any effect would undoubtedly be modest and largely overshadowed by genetic and post-birth environmental factors. Whatsmore, any such effect would be rapidly diminishing over time as prenatal nutrition and exercise habits become far less a function of the seasons.

Daniel said...

I would leave open the possibility that some people have paranormal or psychic powers, and that they use astrology or similar belief systems as metaphorical representations of their abilities.

While my engineering nature would normally cause me to ridicule this possibility, I try to remain open-minded because my wife has burned out enough street lights and other light bulbs in her presence to strain the concept of "coincidence". (Not to mention other things which I won't mention.)

Robert Heinlein made a similar point in Stranger in a Strange Land. His astrologer used the terminology to rationalize her predictions, which were based on her inate abilities rather than the actual configurations of astral bodies. It's not impossible that a real-life talented "astrologer" might do something similar.

So perhaps Jerome Armstrong is simply a highly skilled and intuitive political consultant (and stock analyst?) who uses astrology as a metaphorical mental map to integrate his thoughts and express his conclusions. After all, whatever works...

Oh wait, I almost forgot that he and Kos are 0-for-20 (or is it 1-for-20?) in their political victories.

Unknown said...

Actually, going 0-for-20 proves they really do have good predictive powers. Just not the way they had hoped.

buddy larsen said...

IIRC, there's four elements (fire, earth, air, water) and each contains three Sun Signs distributed around the calenar wheel.

Inside each element, the three Sun Signs are either Cardinal, Fixed, or Mutable--in order.

So the four seasons (planting, growing, harvesting, and fallow) each contain three different Sun Signs, which comprise a complete set of the three intensity factors (cardinal, fixed, mutable).

For example, in the planting season you got your tail-end of Pisces/fixed-water right next to Aries/cardinal-fire, as un-alike in personality traits as is astrologically possible, tho merely late March-to-late May.

Then, still in planting season, comes Taurus/fixed-earth, and then planting season blends into growing season in the beginning of Gemini/mutable-air.

So you can be Spring (or any season) born, and be any of the sharply-diverged signs inside Spring (or any season).

The seasons are all like that, and to my imagination that pretty much squelches the 'seasonal personality' explanation of astrology.

jimbino said...

Roman Catholics believe in the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, but I have yet to find one who doesn't confuse it with the Virgin Birth. But then, Wikipedia knows more than the pope.

I used to do straight card tricks at coffee houses until I found out that young girls would line up around the block to hear their "fortunes" told. I was also amazed that fundamentalist girls of that time would let me count their ribs, in front, to "prove" that girls had one more than I did, since "God took a rib from Adam."

As a physicist, I marvel at the universe and despair of the ability of most of my fellow humans to shun religion and superstition.

Daniel said...

Abraham, believe me I have been trying to compile the relevant statistical evidence (including the fact that some of the street lights involved were indeed sodium vapor bulbs which recycled back on after they were no longer in her presence) in a frantic effort to prove that it has all just been plausible coincidence and psychological effects.

And I'm not going to give up my quest while there remains a shred of hope that this is all it is.

KCFleming said...

Well I'm just glad Jerome Armstrong is using something relatively clean, like astrology, instead of something really messy, like reading entrails or scat.

That would make for one gross blog, in my view.

Synova said...

I hate to point this out to everyone, but the motivation and mechanism behind superstition and science are exactly the same.

The human brain is compelled to identify patterns and recognize shapes. No matter how random something is we *must* find a pattern where it fits. No matter what shadow or afterimage, our brains try to process it into something that makes sense. Cloud bunnies anyone?

Religion, superstition and science all strive to be predictive. The central tenent of science is actually the assumption that whatever is true today will be equally true tomorrow just as it was true yesterday... reminds me of a song... "Yesterday, today, forever, Jesus is the same. All may change but Jesus never, Glory to His name."

We aren't hardcore at our house, "playing" is okay, everyone knows their Chinese calendar sign (mine is dragon), but the kids aren't allowed to watch "psychic" shows or anything spooky that pretends to be real. Because our brains are designed to mess us over.


Quadraginta said...

I'm not the least surprised that lawyers, or law professors, should believe in astrology. Astrology is, after all, quite logical, internally consistent, and rational. Indeed it greatly appeals to the rational person who wants to "understand" why what happens happens. It's the furthest thing from a random collection of blind faiths: astrology tells you that far less than at first one might think happens by chance, that there are in fact complicated and subtle causes for things that you might "ignorantly" assume are just random chance.

Astrology also happens to be utterly bogus, in the sense that it has no real predictive power whatsoever. Any congruence between reality and the predictions of astrology is coincidence.

But that fact isn't very apparent unless you are not only rational and intelligence but also have a good helping of down-to-earth common sense, based on plenty of skeptical empirical observation. And that is something lawyers indeed tend to be short on. They're very brainy and logical folks, but they don't tend to be strongly connected to reality.

Paddy O said...

I like how Douglas Adams described astrology in his book Mostly Harmless. I still don't believe it, I just like how he described it:

"I know that astrology isn't a science,' said Gail. "Of course it isn't. It's just an arbitrary set of rules like chess or tennis or, what's that strange thing you British play?'

"Er, cricket? Self-loathing?"

"Parliamentary democracy. The rules just kind of got there. They don't make any kind of sense except in terms of themselves. But when you start to exercise those rules, all sorts of processes start to happen and you start to find out all sorts of stuff about people. In astrology the rules happen to be about stars and planets, but they could be about ducks and drakes for all the difference it would make. It's just a way of thinking about a problem which lets the shape of that problem begin to emerge. The more rules, the tinier the rules, the more arbitrary they are, the better. It's like throwing a handful of fine graphite dust on a piece of paper to see where the hidden indentations are. It lets you see the words that were written on the piece of paper above it that's now been taken away and hidden. The graphite's not important. It's just the means of revealing their indentations. So you see, astrology's nothing to do with astronomy. It's just to do with people thinking about people."

Eowyn said...

Quadraginta had it closest, vis-a-vis astrology -- as a predictive tool, it's too fraught with easily misread variables. (Heck, we humans ourselves are fraught with same.)

However, personality astrology is usually right on the money. I challenge all readers to visit astrodienst.com, input their particulars, and see if it isn't close to the mark.

The reason, I've decided, after many years of studying this science (which, after all, has existed for thousands of years) is this -- and Bruce alluded to this same factor -- the energy being bandied about the solar system, much less the cosmos, is huge, far-reaching and nowhere near being quantified by us humans. One only has to view films of the earth being bombarded by the Van Allen radiation belt to realize that is is energy, baby, on an unimaginable scale. Couple that with the fact that we are organic beings, largely made up of liquid components, and it isn't hard to see how we might be affected by energies outside our comprehension.

This is what the earliest astrologers recognized -- and what they fatally decided to "harness" in terms of predictability. Not even an Einstein or a Hawking could possibly weigh all the variables involved and confidently assert a working model of whether Reagan should wear black or blue on a given day, or whether Hitler should have concentrated his forces at Calais or Normandy.

However ... there is verifiability in personality astrology.

Not the sharpest tack in the shed by any means, I listen, humbled, to my intellectual betters when they dismiss astrology in the same terms as snake oil -- but at the same time, I know what I've seen.

Harry Eagar said...

The idea that alchemists were trying to transmute base metals into gold -- although that was what we were taught in Catholic school -- was a cartoon parody.

The genuine quest -- by Newton, among others -- was for the Elixir of (Eternal) Life.

Unless the Transylvanian smiley faces among us are keeping their birthdates very quiet, no alchemists ever succeeded.

When I was younger and more of an activist newspaperman, I persuaded my editor to solicit opinions about whether the paper ought to continue to print the daily horoscope.

I expected that a few rationalists would say no. And that many more believers would defend it.

Wrong on both counts. We didn't get a single response.

Protagonist said...

I'll say this about "astrology":

For purely empirical reasons, a person's development from childhood can arguably be affected by the time of year when they were born.

A child born in April will most likely get more sun and fresh air in the very first months of life, but then be cooped up inside once he becomes more developed and cognizant--with grownups around possibly acting less gregarious. Vice versi for a kid born in November. There's no telling how these factors would affect a developing child.

So maybe there's something to astrology. Has there been a scientific study about behaviorial differences of children born in different times of the year?

buddy larsen said...

Harry, some might keep their birthdate quiet because they share it with Hitler and Mohammed (pulls collar, tries to chuckle).

Eowyn said...


I would respectfully submit that the reason was, in most people's minds, there's *something* to it, but they weren't motivated either to dismiss or embrace it. It's one of those universally shared phenomena that is far more easily accepted -- like why more women have babies under a full moon -- than critically examined.

One of astrology's overarching maxims is "the stars do not dictate, only indicate." Too many people -- including "astrologers" -- tend to lose sight of the pith here. We can try -- and in small part, succeed -- in reading cosmic energies, and their effect on organisms. But it is egregious at best, and dangerous at worst, to assume we "know" everything related to it. To anything, come to that.

But then, I was one of the last of a generation of students that was actually taught ~critical~ thinking ... arrogant of me to draw any kinds of conclusions at all! *S*

Quadraginta said...

Eowyn, just FYI, the idea that energy per se can make things happen is not true. The energy has to have the right "frequency" (in a generalized sense) to match the resonant "frequency" (in the same sense) of what you think might be affected.

For example, the energy in a single ocean wave is pretty stupendous, far more than in a speeding .22 bullet. But the ocean wave won't harm you at all and the bullet will. Why? Because the energy in the wave doesn't "resonate" at the right "frequency" to pour damaging energy into vulnerable degrees of freedom in your body. The energy in the bullet does.

I'm simplifying the physics a great deal, of course, but the general point remains: a great deal of energy all by itself means nothing. It's the "ease of communication" (or lack thereof) of the energy with things that might change that matters.

So whether or not there is a great deal of energy in the cosmos isn't at all relevant. The question is whether energy beyond the sky can be of the right type, form, frequency, et cetera to affect whatever Earthly variables cause our personality, events in our lives, et cetera. (And the short answer is "no".)

That said, I wholeheartedly approve of your last statement. Never be convinced by authority when your personal experience disagrees.

kipwatson said...

Your clock face doesn't cause your favourite TV show to start, but it starts at 9.30 all the same.

As a Christian. I reject astrology and I have no idea whether it works or not, but I suspect if pursued on a 'serious' level, it might (although for different reasons). Nevertheless I'm depressingly familiar with the Rationalist tendency to judge others as idiots and assume the most idiotic and simplistic caricatures of any belief or knowledge they don't understand.

This from people who would base their understanding of human nature on whether monkeys poke things with sticks...

Eowyn said...


External demands prevent me from doing instant scholarship, but two examples of the effects of energy come immediately to mind -- one, a study done on oysters in Iowa opening and closing in the exact rhythms as those in the Gulf of Mexico, and the reactions of plants to external electrical stimuli.

These are extremely small-scale observations performed within an extremely fragile biosphere. My observations -- not being a physicist, which I readily and happily admit (hoping to receive eludication to the observations of a naif) -- are that how much more powerful must cosmic energies, like the sun, be on this, only one of many, relatively benign and passive entities in the cosmos. And on us, the most impressionable of organic organisms.

Just questioning, here, as I hope you understand. In no way will I ever ~endorse~ astrology as ~the answer~. I'm just saying it's an accurate predictor of individual personality -- and that further exploration into just why is not only commendable, but necessary in the advancement of knowledge.

Also why it saddens me to see otherwise rational and intelligent beings dismiss it out of hand ... (for the record, I feel the same about Wilhelm Reich's explorations into orgone energy, but I guess that's a subject for another tangent *S*)

Eowyn said...


Speaking also as a Christian, I quite agree -- and I see no fundamental disagreement between what Christ tried to put across and scientific observation. (Having spent time actually reading what Christ had to say, rather than what people said, or interpreted, what He said ....)

It is my opinion that the regrettable tendency of humans to assume they are the ascendant entity in the universe may well be their undoing. I have a real fear -- nay, terror -- of slipping my own beliefs into this comfortable, but ultimately destructive, stream. Till I pass on, I will always question. And not only respectfully listen, but listen with the intention of changing -- instantly, if the ring of truth is there -- my own beliefs.

Sometimes my own mind needs to be kept open with a vise grip *S* ... but that it must be kept open, is an imperative, as Christ Himself said.

The Buddha said that too, by the way. All contain important pieces of the same puzzle. May Universe preserve me from deciding I, myself, have found the Rubik's solution *S*

Sam said...


The way to see if astrology works is not to say, "hey, I read my horoscope, and it really fit me!"

It's to have various people fill out questionnaires or be interviewed, or submit their "star charts", or what have you — and then have a team of astrologers try to determine their various signs.

This has been done (for example, in this and other studies), and the astrologers failed dismally.

Astrology is hence no different from palmistry, psychic "readings", and other scams that prey upon human credulity. But then, perhaps you believe in those, too.

Eowyn said...


Thanks for the scholarship -- this is exactly the kind of critical examination that should be taking place.

However, I question the approach --

"For each client's chart, astrologers were provided three anonymous personality profiles - one from the client and two others chosen at random - and asked to choose the one that best matched the natal chart" -- rather than the established mathematics. This is asking astrologers to back into the personality, rather than the other way around.

Having said that, I can see that this approach is perhaps the only way to scientifically establish a link, under communally agreed-upon methodology. And, as such, it is valid, insofar is it is communally accepted.

Thanks for that. (Wondering if there are more such studies having been published?)

Ann Althouse said...

Quadracintra: That was very elegantly explained. Thanks.

Unknown said...

I dunno - how is believing in astrology any different than in believing that the Bible is actually true?

Except for the fact that there's probably a better chance that astrology is actually true.

There are lots of people in the world who believe in very silly things. As long as they don't try to force their views on me, I'm not bothered by it.

Would I date someone who believed in astrology? I guess if he was hot enough.

buddy larsen said...

I know what you mean about politics and romance, downtownlad--I still have a crush on Maggie Thatcher.

Ann Althouse said...

"Would I date someone who believed in astrology? I guess if he was hot enough."

My situation was a phone conversation. If this had been in person and he was "hot enough," I'm sure I would have had a different standard. How much trouble would you go to to meet someone in person? A lot less if he believes in astrology. You have to be pragmatic about your time.

buddy larsen said...

I'd say, believing in it would not be an automatic breaker, but it would more of a breaker than would disbelief be a maker. I think I said that right--but best post it quickly as it's threatening to swim on me.

Balfegor said...

I would expect astrology, and (more generally) quasi-deterministic models of human behaviour, to become more popular as the range of choices for an individual expands. Theories whereby our fates are placed beyond our immediate control should help us avoid the the hedonic impact of the tyranny of choice that, empirically, seems to have emerged in advanced market economies. That is, if our fates have been already determined by the stars, we have less reason to engage in endless self-doubt, second-guessing, and recrimination. We are permitted the hedonic pleasure of choice, and, through vaguely worded astrological predictions, partially insulated from the malaise and anxiety that comes from wondering whether we might not be ever so much better off had we chosen a path, years back. Whatever choice we make, we can read that choice as confirming prior astrological predictions, and comfort ourselves that, even if our present circumstances are sub-ideal (as inevitably, they must be), our choice was foreordained by inexorable Fate. Those paths untaken were mere illusion, so it is no use speculating over what might have been.

Or, I suppose, one can opt for a flat Panglossianism, or perhaps a religious faith that all adversities are placed there for some inscrutable divine reason. These are, I think, pretty common in modern society too.

Michiel de Mare said...

I once repeated a joke I heard: "I don't believe in astrology, but then, I'm an Aries, and they never believe in astrology." A girl remarked, tongue not in cheek, that she was an Aries and believed in astrology. What do you respond to that?

buddy larsen said...

Re all jb's Freudian terms, Freud was born May 6, same as Tony Blair, George Clooney, Willy Mays, Orson Welles, and Hurricane Carter.

jimbino said...

I'll never forget the day my cousin, known throughout the family as a slow learner and a malaprop, visited us for lunch while she was studying to become a practical nurse. My mom, her aunt, was doing the dishes when my cousin turned to me and asked, "Jimmy, what's your sign?" I answered, "Libra, I think; what's yours?" My gentle, restrained mom couldn't resist bursting into laughter when my cousin responded, "Feces."!!!

Nowadays, when anyone asks my sign, I respond, "Feces" with a perfectly straight face.

amba said...

Y'all need to read James Hillman. He would say something like: the "soul" (by which he means a particular way of looking at things, not a vaporous substance) enjoys astrology even while the mind (a subset of the supercilious spirit) disdains it. That helps to explain the otherwise rational and intelligent people who indulge in it. "Believe" is probably not the right word for what they're doing.

amba said...

James Hillman.

Eowyn said...

I'm beginning to think the problem may lie in people's willingness to throw all their eggs in one basket -- that is, astrology, or Christ, or worshipping Prince Philip is the answer. (Perhaps just as insidiously, their own worldview.)

If I lived a thousand years, I'd never solve the puzzle of just how I ~know~ each of these things contains a piece of the larger puzzle; but I can say this -- none occupies a pedestal in the eternal hamster-wheel that is my own questioning. Equally -- none is dismissed out of hand.

And, well, *helpless shrug* -- give me your birth date, time and place, and, without knowing you, I'll give you back to yourself. With spooky accuracy. Will I bow down at the shrine of the sage mystics of yore, and preach the gospel of "this is all ye need to know"? Nope. Astrology begs more questions than it answers. And too many other tantalizing signposts to too many other truths knock down much of it out of hand. But ...

I will say this -- it is with huge appreciation I say these things to, if skeptical, respectful listeners.

Many thanks :o)

Eowyn said...

amba --

Awesome link. Up till now, the roster of psychology-types-who-actually-say-things-that mean-something has been painfully small. (James is one; Reich is another)

Hillman's way up there. Many thanks.

Eowyn said...

another aside to amba --

"People are about as happy as they want to be." -- Abraham Lincoln

Unknown said...

Perhaps some of those who are shocked at Nancy Reagan's beliefs in astrology should comment on the extent of her knowledge of the prospects for embryonic stem cell therapy.