The astrology wars and abandoned scientific research programmes.

In case you haven’t noticed the intertubes have descended into a series of skirmishes on the subject of astrology. The whole thing started with an astronomer in Minnesota who pointed out that the constellations move around the ecliptic (that’s the apparent path of the sun around the earth during the year) due to procession of the equinox, which means that a given constellation is no longer where it was two thousand years ago. Mr Astronomer seemed to think that this means that astrologers are stupid because they talk about the sun being in Aries when it’s actually in another constellation. Unfortunately for Mr Astronomer astrologers are well aware of this and in fact it was Hipparchos, who was almost certainly an astrologer, who first discovered procession. Mr Astronomer is actually being an idiot as he doesn’t appear to know the difference between astrological star signs which are 30° divisions of the ecliptic starting at the spring equinox point and astronomical constellations which are join-up-the-dots pictures imagined in the heavens in order to make it simpler for astronomers to find their way around the heavens. A certain amount of confusion is generated by the fact that the astrological star signs are named after the constellations that occupied their positions on the ecliptic about two and a half thousand years ago as the Greeks invented horoscope astrology.

A second front in the wars was opened as two BBC television science presenters started behaving like pubescent public schoolboys who think it is cool to scream out fuck in the middle of a crowded shopping mall and blurted out that astrology is rubbish in the middle of a programme on astronomy that had absolutely nothing to do with astrology.

The result of all this is the claim that astrology is rubbish has gone mega-viral in the intertubes with blog articles on the subject shooting up in cyberspace like the proverbial mushrooms in the forest. I don’t intend to add anything more to the direct debate as my standpoint has been very adequately presented by the excellent Rebekah “Becky” Higgitts here and here and by the equally excellent Darin Hayton here. However in the comments on various blogs a couple of statements/question have popped up that I seriously think need to be addressed. Somewhere on Becky’s post on The Guardian Website a commentator asked:

Do you think we should take phlogiston theory seriously?

Somewhere else another commentator posed the same question in terms of geocentricity both commentators meaning we should no longer take scientific theories seriously that have been abandoned in the mists of history. My answer to the questions is yes we should take phlogiston, geocentricity and astrology very seriously!

My answer is based on a belief that all scientists should learn about the history of science. Science does not and has never progressed by being continually right but does so through being gloriously wrong, again and again. Abandoned scientific research programmes such as astrology, geocentricity and the phlogiston theory made major and important contributions to the progress of science and in my opinion an awareness of this fact is necessary for students of science if they are truly going to learn how the scientific method functions and how science progresses.

The scientific research programme astrology can be defined as ‘the practice of relating the heavenly bodies to lives and events on earth’ (Patrick Curry). Babylonian astrology generated the science of astronomy that is the Babylonians practiced astronomy to deliver data for their astrology. This programme also contributed substantially to the development of the sexagesimal place value number system and algebra both of which the Babylonians used to record and analyse their astronomical data. With the Greeks this combination continued with the most important of the Greek celestial scientist, Ptolemaeus, writing the definitive books in antiquity on both disciplines, the Syntaxis Mathematiké (astronomy) and the Tetrabiblos (astrology), in the latter he divides the study of celestial phenomena into two area the movement of the heavenly bodies (astronomy) and their influences (astrology). As with the Babylonians astrology was the chief motivation for astronomy.

The astronomy contained in the Syntaxis Mathematiké is the product of between seven hundred and eight hundred years of Greek astronomical research but here I shall only evaluate the end product. Ptolemaeus’ astronomy is of course geocentric but as I have said in the past, and will probably repeat many times before I die, geocentricity is a perfectly rational theory based on the available empirical data and is therefore a perfectly reasonable scientific theory. The Syntaxis Mathematiké not only contains the geocentric model of the then known solar system but also the methods of observing and recording that system, methods that continued to be used up into the 20th century. Ptolemaeus lays out the whole of the standard system of recording the position and movements of the heavenly bodies still in use today. He also describes the instruments that were used by astronomers to make their observation up till the invention of the telescope and beyond. Apart from the telescopes he would have felt perfectly at home in John Flamsteed’s observatory at Greenwich at the beginning of the 18th century. Even the telescopes would not have caused him a great deal of problems as in trying to deal with the problems of atmospheric refraction he conducted detailed research into optics, writing the most advanced text on the subject in antiquity, a text used as a model by Ibn al Haytham, the so-called father of modern optics, in the 10th century in the same way that Copernicus used the Syntaxis Mathematiké as a model for his De revolutionibus in the 16th century. As well as laying the foundation for observational astronomy and the recording of astronomical data Ptolemaeus and the Greeks also delivered both plain and spherical trigonometry as mathematical tools indispensable for astronomical calculations. I really don’t think that anybody who takes astronomy seriously should ignore Greek geocentric astronomy, driven by astrology, and the positive contributions it made to the evolution of the sciences.

If we move on to the Early Modern Period a series of new developments starting around fourteen hundred propelled a new astronomical research programme that would eventually lead to heliocentricity, Kepler and Newton the main driving force of that programme was astrology or better said astro-medicine. The concept that the movements of the heavenly bodies also controls sickness goes back to the Greeks and it experienced a major revival in the Renaissance. The demand for more accurate astrological data to improve astrological forecasts led astrologer-astronomers like Peuerbach, Regiomontanus, Apian, Copernicus, Gemma Frisius, Tycho and Kepler to improve and in the end to reform astronomy. Astrology is a research programme that most would love to deny the status of scientific but it was the main driving force behind the astronomical revolution. In a famous comment the historian of astronomy Robert Westman noted that there were only ten Copernican astronomers in the entire world between the publication of De revolutionibus in 1543 and 1600 and as one historian of astrology has correctly pointed out they were all practicing astrologers.

Of course the astrologers of the Early Modern Period were painfully aware that their discipline did not live up to the standards of empirical science that they themselves believed in and practiced and so a number of research programmes were launched to provide the empirical underpinning that astrology lacked, principle amongst these was meteorology. The belief that the heavens control the weather goes back to antiquity and was one of the major sub-disciplines of astrology. In the Early Modern Period astronomer-astrologers such as Johannes Werner and Tycho Brahe keep weather diaries in which they meticulously recorded the weather and the positions of the heavenly bodies. In the end these diaries proved that there was no correlation between the two sets of recorded data thus refuting one major aspect of astrology but at the same time establishing through their weather observations the foundations of modern meteorology.  A second empirical programme was the recording of the biographies of famous people together with their horoscopes again to demonstrate correlation. Again the attempt failed but those collections, of which the most famous is Aubrey’s Brief Lives, are an invaluable source of data for historians. Going back over the whole history of astrology the astrological records of lunar and solar eclipses and other astronomical phenomena are also an invaluable data resource for modern astronomers. Call astrology rubbish and banish it out of existence and you banish an incredibly large part of the evolution of science.

This whole post was inspired by a commentator’s dismissal of the phlogiston theory. I’m not going to deliver a detailed analysis of the of the phlogiston research programme but it is by no means an exaggeration to say that the majority of the data and discoveries on which Lavoisier and his contemporaries constructed the foundations of modern chemistry were generated by chemists working within the phlogiston research programme.

Don’t reject failed and abandoned scientific research programmes but study and learn from them. If you are a working scientist there is a pretty good chance that the research programmes in which you do your own work will in their turn one day be abandoned but before they are they will also have generated a lot of very useful science.


Filed under History of Astrology, History of Astronomy, History of science

32 responses to “The astrology wars and abandoned scientific research programmes.

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  2. Rebekah Higgitt

    Great post Thony! And thanks for entering the “Astrology Wars” by offering some real perspective on the issue.

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  4. John S. Wilkins

    One of the reasons why I like reading Umberto Eco on these failed systems, and not Dan Brown, is that Eco treats them with respect in their context, while Brown makes them into mystical modern solutions, an error equally as bad as the one you describe. They were what they were, and as good as they could be when done by smart and educated people. We know now what they didn’t, but we are no smarter, just luckier in our choice of time to exist.

  5. The fact that a large number of astrologers don’t see (or don’t know about) any distinction between constellations and sections of the elliptic is primarily what’s relevant. “Mr. Astronomer” is not being an idiot. The problem is just that simple. Also, the fact that Hipparchos also had an interest in astrology simply isn’t relevant in any way to evaluating the role and correctness of astrology *now*. It is completely possible to have respect for early astrologers and their work and still understand that anyone today who takes astrology today is either ignorant, stupid, or deeply irrational, and very likely all three. In that regard it is exactly like phlogiston; it was in some forms a good hypothesis. However, if anyone believed it today, they’d deserve the ridicule they got.

    • Joshua I think you are confusing people who believe in astrology, who almost certainly can’t tell their arse from their ecliptic, with real astrologers that is people who can draw up a birth chart from a set of ephemerides. It was the latter that my Mr Astronomer was addressing and they are very much aware of the procession of the equinoxes and do know the difference between star signs and constellations.

      My other point was addressed to the unfortunately very large number of self appointed supporters of science who think that scientists whose science has with the fullness of time been refuted such as Ptolemaeus or Lamarck are some sort of idiots because they propagated ‘stupid things’ such as geocentricity. Science and that is also true for astrology which was considered a science for a couple of thousand years must be evaluated in the context in which it flourished.

      Yes astrology is rubbish in the 21st century and yes somebody who believed in the phlogiston theory today would be a case for the asylum but that does not mean that we should not pay them the respect due to them for their contribution to the accumulation of human knowledge.

      • *shrug* I’ve met and talked to self-identified professional astrologers who almost certainly knew next to zero about precession or anything else.

        I don’t think that anyone is arguing that we shouldn’t appreciate the historical role that astrology played. But paying tribute to the very impressive work done by astrologers in the past doesn’t mean I need to take seriously the astrologers around today, even the ones who do know quite a bit. This is similar to how there are some young earth creationists who are around today who are both smart and well-educated (Jonathan Sarfati and Kurt Wise both come to mine), and there’s no question that historically many good scientists were YECs and that their YEC beliefs actually helped guide them in doing good science (especially in regards to early studies of geology and fossils). But that doesn’t mean that modern YECism needs to be taken with any substantial degree of respect (except in so far as having some pathological criticism around might actually be helpful to catching problems in a branch of science if it really becomes degenerate).

    • astrologerthe

      Some people would take great offense to your comments Joshua. Plank! Go read some Jyotish you Tosser!

      • I’m afraid I must ask you to desist in calling my commentators “plank” or “tosser”. I am the only person around here who is allowed to abuse a commentator and I refrain from doing so.

      • Jyotisa is actually a really interesting example of what happens when bad science tries to use political and religious force to prop itself up. It fails at basic testability but continues to be practiced and taught even in university settings by sheer political and cultural force. In that regard it provides an excellent example what might happen in the US if we aren’t careful about keeping out creationism from the public schools, and what might be the end result of some trends in hospitals in both the US and Europe to include uncritical, untested, alternative medicines in CAM programs.

        But, one doesn’t need to study it in much detail. Jyotisa like other forms of astrology doesn’t produce often helpful testable predictions and those that it does produce are false. There’s good reason why scientists in India in many different areas of science have been unhappy with the introduction of astrology into university settings. And many of those scientists are religious Hindus.

  6. jeb

    As a student of history and ethnology the statements you see with regard to belief systems past or present on science blogs make me cringe. Presentism as a means of historical analysis also has much the same effect.

    I have no interest in cherry picking history to make contemporary moral or political statements. But then I am not a biologist and have no scientific background so my interests are different.

    My knowledge of science is as bad but I am aware of how poor my education is here.

    If you were to take the rhetorical statements on belief, common on science blogs at face value they would appear ignorant, stupid and somewhat irrational. The habits and disposition of the tribe often seem so to outsiders when they are taken out of context and deployed in argument for other purposes.

    • Rebekah Higgitt

      I think you are absolutely right about the apparently ignorant and irrational statements made about what is ‘right’ and what is ‘wrong’ by some in the skeptic camp. Likewise, they seem to expect people to accept statements by leaders in the movement, or by other scientists, without justification or questioning – a mode I would have thought was entirely contrary to their understanding of ‘the scientific method’.

      I understand the value of the rhetoric and antagonism for creating group identity, loyalty and clarity of message but, since they, ultimately, surely, want to convince people that their position is the correct one, they must consider its effect on those outside the group. If they can effectively put off potential allies (such as myself) – let alone the waverers, the merely curious – then they must be doing something wrong.

  7. sbej

    Given the very real threat and growth of anti -science beliefs on a range of issues from health to climate, I think it is doing something very wrong and engaging in a very reckless and completly un-acceptable form of discourse.

    Trying to fight mis-placed beliefs with the sword of historical illiteracy and a willful bending of the historical record does not strike me as a sound method for success in an argument that is of such crucial importance.

    The fact it entirely lacks the rigour and method that forms the basis and succesess of the scientific project is extremly alarming.

  8. Arguments about the legitimacy or illegitimacy of astrology in the past may make us lose the opportunity to study the downfall of astrology as a well-documented case of how scientific programs fail. I’m not a historian, though I read a lot; and I don’t have a very clear idea of how it happened during the 17th and 18th Centuries that astrology lost its legitimacy and was relegated to a sad after life in the Metaphysics sections of used bookstores. Its my impression that astrology lost its mojo in England around 1650. I’d like to find an explanation of how and why that occurred assuming I’ve got the dates roughly right. (Goethe began his memoir by summarizing his natal horoscope in his memoir (Dichtung und Wahrheit) in the early years of the 19th Century so maybe I’m assuming that astrology became crank science earlier than it actually did.)

    • Jim I will answer your comment more fully in a separate post.

      • sbej

        Jim’s comment has got me rather interested in the impact of astrology on popular culture in the 17th and 18th cen. The almanac has a role in the spread of a group of prophecies I have an interest in, which certainly do not lose their mojo and maintian mass appeal.
        They also have relationship with astrology in the 12th century in elite text.

        Prophecy would be a much simpler sell than astrology in popular culture and in some sections of elite culture. Not aware of astrology having any impact on human or animal medicine in popular practice which would have been one road in.

        But would be interesting to contrast the two.

        Thanks Jim. Nice to read something that makes you think.

    • astrologerthe

      Jim, read up on Jyotish.

  9. DiscoveredJoys

    No matter how pleasant we are, and how useful historical reflection is, modern astrology is still ineffective and without scientific underpinning. To call it ‘rubbish’ is not inappropriate.

    • It’s all a matter of context. If a scientist wishes, on television, to disabuse people who, in my opinion, mistakenly believe in a completely fallacious and spurious practice such as astrology then he should do so in an instructive and constructive manner in a programme especially conceived for that purpose.

      If he just blurts out in a programme about something totally other that astrology is rubbish all he is going to do is to offend the people who believe in astrology, a frightening 70% of the population, and probably convince them at the same time that scientists are idiots!

    • Rebekah Higgitt

      It might be worth remembering that many (most?) astrologers would agree that there is no scientific underpinning to astrology. Many things that we do everyday – crossing fingers for luck, hoping for a certain outcome, the means by which we make decisions – are equally ineffective and without scientific underpinning. Perhaps such things are “rubbish” in your sense, but they’re very human. They also don’t strike me as things worth discussing during a programme about astronomy, although all of them and astrology may well be worth investigating as social scientists, anthropologists or psychologists.

      • DiscoveredJoys

        Perhaps we should study chicken entrails or sacrifice a goat? I know of no studies to suggest these work either.

        There are all sorts of human behaviours arising from superstition and a magical view of the world. To say that they should not be challenged when they can influence modern people’s behaviour is, in my opinion, short sighted.

        Were you happy that Nancy Regan consulted astrologers? That Cheri Blair engaged the services of a New Age guru? Tony Blair went through a ‘rebirthing ceremony’. How about Bush and his view of the end of days?

        Peoples’ behaviours have consequences; the more rationality we can muster, the better.

      • You might well find my answer personally insulting but it is not intended as such but as an honest expression of my feelings

        I’m the life long atheist son of an atheist father, I studied and I teach mathematics and have devoted a very large part of my life to the study of the history and philosophy of the mathematical sciences but when I read the rhetoric propagated by people like yourself I hear the bleating of sheep in a cold, grey, soulless Orwellian dystopia. The world is not rational learn to live with it. Any attempt to force rationality on to humanity can and will end in a disaster.

      • astrologerthe

        Consider Jyotish or Vedic astrology. Are there more Vedic astrologers as they see themselves more as a science?
        There is plenty of friction, deeply divided are tropical & sidereal astrologers. They “rubbish” each other LoL, pity they can’t work together, similar in a way to the divisions, banter, indifference within the science faculty itself if you know what I mean, when I was at Uni anyway.

  10. sbej

    I don’t disagree with that DiscoveredJoy.

    But their does seem to be a consensus from a particular group of scientists that non-scientific beleifs, which are partly reinforced by supernatural explanation are the result of ignorance and stupidity.

    Its not inapproriate to describe this belief as rubbish, it would be inappropriate to describe it as stupid, irrational or ignorant no matter how much it appears this way on the surface.

  11. DiscoveredJoys

    Any attempt to force rationality on to humanity can and will end in a disaster.

    Force? I mentioned no force. I don’t find your answer insulting at all, although I don’t know where you’ve got the cold grey soulless Orwellian dystopia from…

    I can see the possibility of a dystopia though when the food, water, minerals get scarcer while the population continues to grow. How will the warm fuzzy feelings help?

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