The Nov/Dec 1999 issue of Skeptical Inquirer contains a feature
"Debunking the Debunkers": A Response to an Astrologer's
Debunking of Skeptics. The author, Ivan W. Kelly, claims to rebut criticisms
of skeptics made by Valerie Vaughan in The Mountain Astrologer (Aug/Sept
1998). Vaughan is currently preparing her cross-examination of the holes
in Kelly's logic, which will be published soon at this website as
the Debunkers. In the meantime,
onereed.com is proud to present
(for your reading pleasure) the article that started all the hooplah, Debunking
the Debunkers: Lessons to Be Learned, reprinted below.
Just to set the record straight: The article published in TMA
(Aug/Sep 1998) was not the original text that Vaughan submitted,
but a an edited version that included statements and even whole paragraphs
that were not written by Vaughan but were inserted by an editor working
for TMA at the time.
This following is the original text that Vaughan submitted to
by Valerie Vaughan
"Astrology is neither harmless nor fun, and we should fight it seriously
as an enemy of truth. Why are astrologers not prosecuted for false representation
and driven out of business? Why are professional astrologers not jailed
"The interest in astrology may be dangerously distracting from rational
solutions to social problems, corrosive to rationality, and ...inherently
discrediting of science itself."
"Some 200 people are known to have killed themselves as a result
of believing an unfavorable horoscope."
"Believers [in astrology] may have a pathological medical condition...maybe
compatible with a diagnosis of schizophrenia."
These quotes are just a few of the typical statements made by debunkers against astrology, printed every day in newspapers, magazines and books; voiced on the radio, the Internet, and in the classroom. Despite the widespread prejudice against astrology, most of us continue to practice our "forbidden" art. Within our own little community, isolated from the war being waged against us and our discipline by scientists, the media, and religious fundamentalists, we are content to mind our own business and preach to the choir. So long as we maintain our client-based profession or write articles for our limited audience, why should we be concerned about the relentless debunking of astrology that goes on in the real and much larger world?
The surprising answer is that it will make us better astrologers. Astrologers can profit from a critical view. It is valuable for us to understand the objections made by debunkers because they raise important questions that we should ask about ourselves, our practice, and astrology itself.
First, we must distinguish debunkers from the other types of critics
and opponents of astrology. Debunkers are not the historians and philosophers
of science who are open to considering astrology as an alternative paradigm
and recognize its importance in past cultures, but who believe it has since
Debunkers are also different from the revisionists, who were discussed
in a previous issue of
TMA.6 Religious fundamentalists
are another special category which will not be discussed here. It should
be noted, however, that despite the general lack of intelligence in their
weak arguments, fundamentalists constitute a growing threat to astrology.
True debunkers are the diehard skeptics who claim to be scientists using rational arguments, asserting their authority in areas where they have little knowledge. If we carefully examine the debunkers' arguments, we find serious flaws in their "logic" which is ostensibly based on an "objectivity" which is supposed to be characteristic of science and the rational mind. We find that their criticisms are based on misinformation and ignorance. Observing these flaws can lead us to a better understanding of both what is science and what is astrology.
Let's get down to the level of motive. Why do the scientist debunkers bother to disempower astrology? If they are so convinced it is obviously useless, why do scientists persist in running tests to disprove astrology?
In today's world, science is upheld as the primary measuring rod, and any claim can be falsified or verified according to scientific criteria. According to this rather limited system of analysis, literally anything can be defined as either science or non-science. In most situations, unscientific claims are considered benign and are ignored (debunkers do not bother to "disprove" or "refute" music or the art of parenting, which are clearly non-scientific endeavors practiced daily throughout the world). So long as everybody minds their own business (i.e., scientists attend to science, musicians play their music, parents raise their children), there can be peaceful coexistence between the "two cultures." But in certain cases, debunkers feel compelled to define a non-scientific endeavor such as astrology as "pseudoscience," a special category of non-science that carries the connotation of false, evil, and threatening to the goals of science.
Just exactly how one is supposed to distinguish between what constitutes science, benign non-science, or pseudoscience is a very debatable topic. Philosophers and social scientists have been arguing about this for at least fifty years, and the only consensus they really have is that "science is what scientists say it is." Yet debunkers have decided they can determine not only what is science and what isn't, but also what portions of non-science deserve to be attacked as pseudoscience.
What are some of their methods of attack? (1) One is the "Let Them Eat Cake" argument, and it goes like this: Astrology is criticized for failing to design research and run controlled tests to supply evidence for its concepts. But ever since scientists threw astrology out of the Academy in the 17th century, astrologers have been outside the intellectual mainstream with no access to academic funding. Research is an extremely time-consuming and expensive endeavor. If academic scientists didn't have corporate-supported funding and posh jobs (complete with tenure, sabbaticals, grad students to teach their classes, and all the rats or Macs they need to run their experiments), how many do you think would dip into their own pockets to finance the research that "justifies" their existence? Yet they demand that astrologers should somehow find the time and money required to prove the validity of astrology.
The catch-22 here is that even if you manage to get inside the academic
establishment, astrology is generally considered a taboo subject for investigation,
so who is supposed to be doing all the research demanded by the debunkers?
Meanwhile, however, there is plenty of funding available for studying such
matters as how goldfish behave under the influence of alcohol, or the effects
of gravity on toilet paper.
(2) The "Pot Calling the Kettle Black" argument: Astrologers are also criticized for doing precisely the same things that scientists do. Debunkers claim that astrology is invalid because there is disagreement among astrologers over basic ideas such as which celestial configurations are relevant and how these are to be interpreted. Whereas, in science, a lack of mutual agreement over very basic premises is considered a healthy expression of intellectual debate and is called different "schools of thought." Astrologers using geocentric or sidereal or Koch house systems are accused of inconsistency, while in physics, one can discuss whether light is a wave or light is a particle; and in behavioral genetics, one can formulate competing theories like "nature-versus-nurture," and in medical science, doctors can make a respectable income by giving second opinions.
Another way that Scientist debunkers project their own behavior is by
accusing astrologers of using their art to control their clients' lives.
You can see how absurd this is if you try to think of some part of modern
life that is not depedent on (controlled by) science/technology. Contrast
this with humanistic astrology, which is devoted to the process of self-awareness.
Science searches for order with the ultimate goal of dominating nature,
while astrology searches for an order that connects man with nature.
In this sense, astrology constitutes a much more environmentally-friendly
discipline than science.
Astrology is also criticized for attempting to sell itself by associating with the latest theories that have caught the public's imagination, such as mythology. Whereas, when scientists do the same thing, as E.C. Krupp does in his monthly astro-mythology column in Sky and Telescope, it is considered an admirable method of "bringing science to the masses."
And speaking of mythologies, another method of attack is based on the
(3) "Myth of Objective Consciousness."
This is the idea that the scientific method or rationalism is the best
way to gain
knowledge about the world. There are just a few
assumptions going on here. Debunkers have extended the meaning of best
to indicate "only" and
knowledge has been equated with Truth. The
is limited by scientific definition to mean the material, physical world,
which in turn is assumed to mean "reality." Astrology functions in a much
broader way like philosophy; it is an alternative form of perception that
seeks knowledge of a reality that includes the metaphysical world, yet
scientists insist on testing it with the scientific method. Analyzing astrology
with the tools of science is as inappropriate as trying to measure consciousness
with a spoon.
Here are a few reasons why the scientific method cannot be applied to astrology: First of all, astrology is not a science in the narrow, specific sense like biology or physics. It is only a science in the broad definition of "a study, a discipline, a portion of knowledge." At most, it might be considered a social science. But the other social sciences, such as history, are not regularly attacked for their failure to pass scientific tests, so why should astrology?
Another reason the scientific method will not work with astrology is
that the rationalist view assumes that the whole equals the sum of the
parts. When the scientist tries to break down a person's birth chart into
separate components to test the individual parts (like whether sun signs
can translate directly into specific, isolated, predictable behavior traits),
the astrologer rightfully objects that this is ignoring the wholeness of
a chart, and of the person. If psychology is allowed to acknowledge the
complex unity of the Self, why can't astrology be granted the same right?
Scientists also insist on statistical analysis using random samples. But astrology cannot be "proven" or falsified by random statistics because astrology is based on the premise that conditions are never random. Take, for example, random conditions at the time of testing. Scientists might assume that any old time is just as good as another to perform a test of astrology, but what if you're testing whether Pisces is less aggressive than Aries and it so happens that Mars is rising during the time of the test? Or suppose that a certain test is performed that shows some validity to astrology, but in a later attempt at replication, the Moon is void-of-course during the test, or Neptune is rising, and the results are all vague.
Another complication with statistical analysis is that what scientists
call "expected frequencies" can vary in astrology -- for example, because
of certain facts about celestial mechanics, the Zodiacal signs can spend
different amounts of time on the horizon. People born at the latitude of
London are three times more likely to have Scorpio rising than Pisces rising.
Astrology is incredibly complex and there are innumerable variables. Scientific proof is based on the premise that an individual factor can be isolated and tested separately from all the other realities of life. Practicioners of astrology know that no one factor, such as the Moon in Aquarius, can "mean" anything in an absolute sense. That Moon could be void-of-course, out-of-bounds, in a different house, opposed Saturn, or any number of other factors that can qualify the "meaning" of Moon-in-Aquarius.
Debunkers don't bother to learn about these complex factors; they make
simplistic assumptions about astrology based on their kindergarten understanding
of a post-graduate-level subject. They are totally unqualified to test
astrology by any method. But speaking of educational qualifications, let
us now turn to the most recent and most disturbing and insidious manifestation
of debunking. With the ignorant bliss that characterizes our profession,
many astrologers are blithely unaware that debunkers have now penetrated
deep within the institution of public schooling. Perhaps more of us will
wake up and pay attention upon hearing the following story.
After long and serious studies were made in the early 1990s regarding
the low scientific competence of American high school graduates, the American
Association for the Advancement of Science set the Benchmarks for Science
Literacy in 1993, followed by a massive revision of the National
Science Education Standards in 1996. What these Standards determine
is a set of guidelines for what all students should know at various age
levels, as well as the direction for curriculum reform; i. e., a plan for
how science should be taught from kindergarten through high school. This
national master plan has been created with the support, approval or blessing
of various authoritative organizations (such as the National Science Teachers
Association) and has trickle-down effects through the creation of curriculum
frameworks on the state level. Textbook publishers have accordingly revised
their products and proudly advertised them as conforming to these national/state
standards and frameworks.
What should concern astrologers is that the new Standards promote something that has never been included in any previous educational guidelines: deliberate emphasis on science history and the scientific method. Boosted by lobbying and pressure from debunkers, current textbooks for every area of science (not just astronomy) now contain entire units or learning activities that are aggressively aimed at students learning to distinguish between science and pseudoscience.
As the director of a science education library, part of my job is to stay current with guidelines and trends in science teaching and to review the latest curriculum materials available. Among the hundreds of professional education articles, textbooks, and activity materials which I have reviewed since the new Standards went into effect, I have found almost unanimous targeting of astrology as the primary example to use in demonstrating that pseudoscience is not only ineffectual, but "wrong" and even "dangerous." School textbooks published prior to 1995 contained at most a bland paragraph or two about pseudoscience, occasionally mentioning astrology. However, since debunking scientists geared up for an all-out attack on the "flight from science and reason," their influence and bias is clearly apparent in the development and textbook interpretation of the latest National Science Education Standards of 1996.
A typical example can be found in the "Predictions" unit of Active Physics, a secondary school level textbook. This unit gives students the opportunity to pretend they are the head of an institution that will provide funding for science. In each activity, their assignment is to choose to fund one proposal based on scientific merit and to reject one that lacks it. At first glance, all the activities in this unit follow a strictly objective pattern: students explore magnets, measure light intensity and the speed of sound, model the solar system, study wave interference, etc. But then, stuck in among these activities that deal with the physical world (this is a physics book, after all), is the following: "Students analyze [newspaper] horoscopes and compare them to scientific predictions." The notes in the teacher's guide indicate that the concept this exercise is supposed to teach is that "Horoscopes are general, scientific predictions are not."
With this kind of set-up, can you guess who will be chosen to get the funding and who will be rejected? It doesn't take too much imagination to guess what those chosen will do with their funds -- publish more textbooks with exercises like these, inaccurately presenting astrology as consisting of newspaper horoscopes, indoctrinating future generations to reject astrology, and assuring themselves (scientists) of continual funding.
The fact that debunkers continue to use newspaper horoscope columns for targets is obvious evidence of a limited and faulty understanding of astrology, for no serious astrologer considers these columns a true expression of astrology. (In fact, many of these astrology columns are not even written by astrologers.) It is rather like attacking Dear Abby or similar advice columns as an example of the entire field of psychology.
We seem to keep stumbling upon a reality that underlies all the debunking -- power through funding. When Astrology was driven from the ranks of the intellectual elite during the Scientific Revolution, pushed out by the rising class of professionals called scientists, the war against astrology was begun as a class war, and it continues today in the same form. When astrology lost status as an academic discipline, it was able to survive through the last few centuries mainly as a folk art, kept alive by self-taught practicioners and the popular almanacs which (unlike scientific journals) were affordable for the "common man." Today, Science with a capital S is the most highly endowed intellectual pursuit of the academic and corporate world. Money (funding) means power and control, whether it's economic or intellectual.
We repeat our original question of motive-- Why are scientists so hot and bothered about what astrologers are doing? -- It's not like astrology is trying to take over as an intellectual power to replace science, much less is it even capable of doing so. So what's the problem? The scientist-debunkers are intellectual control junkies who cannot bear the thought of a phenomenon which cannot be explained according to science -- not so much because this would offend their near-religious belief that Science is the one Way to Salvation, but because they fear losing control of their power and status. And in order to remain in denial about their need for intellectual and financial control, they keep on expanding their territory, applying the scientific approach to areas which are just plain none of their business.
Traditional concepts which provided the foundation of human society
since time immemorial have all consisted of imaginative structures, none
of which remains tenable in the face of scientific enquiry. Science has
the capacity to debunk
anything of a non-scientific nature, not
just astrology but poetry, religion, mythology -- almost anything which
we can term the "humanities." Modern culture has been reshaped by the domination
of rationality and conformity to science. If taken to its ultimate conclusion,
this means the eventual elimination of any of these mythical sources, including
morals. Science as the ruling paradigm follows the "Law of the Instrument"
(Give a small boy a hammer, and he will find that everything he encounters
Scientists are invading many new territories with their hammer. According to the new Standards, the history of science is a major component of science education, and it is stipulated to be taught by science instructors, not social studies teachers. Science, which is designed to measure the material world, has been extended to function as a way to interpret history. With a new product (the teaching of history), Science has now expanded its market and can exploit a wider consumer base (our children). Scientist debunkers have discovered they can expand their power to the realm of public school education -- but what else would you expect with Pluto currently in Sagittarius?
Historians, not scientists, should be the ones interpreting history. Social studies are meant to establish an understanding of human behavior, culture, and morals. Can such learning be properly achieved via the scientific method, which is touted as objective and value-neutral, yet which is valued by scientist-rationalists above all other viewpoints? With scientists directing the learning of history, there will be an inherent tendency to enforce prejudicial attitudes against astrology, especially because of its major role in the early history of science.
Is there anything that astrologers can do about this? For those who
are willing to undermine the establishment, there are two principles outlined
in the National Standards that may offer avenues for advocating an unbiased
treatment of astrology. One is the stress on multicultural frameworks --
all educational subjects are now supposed to include the traditions of
diverse cultures. Since every single culture in the world has developed
a form of astrology, it is inherently diverse. This is why the Chinese
Zodiac can be prominently displayed in an elementary school during Chinese
New Year as part of the multicultural recognition of "other" ways that
cultures formulate astronomical calendars. A possible tactic is to approach
the school authorities about admitting Western Astrology as a valid cultural
tradition and see what happens.
The other Standard which could open the door for astrology to enter the classroom concerns the latest educational method now being hyped which emphasizes student participation. Education, like science, is susceptible to fads and fashions, all dependent on which theory happens to be in vogue. It is currently all the rage in science education to include more student-led "inquiry" than factual instruction from teachers. The idea here is that, if students show an interest in a particular problem (no matter how unrelated it is to the established curriculum), teachers are supposed to follow the direction of inquiry and incorporate it into the lesson, rather than denying it (for any reason) as not being what the students are "supposed" to be learning. In other words, if students in an astronomy class show an interest in astrology, the Standards stipulate that the teacher must follow that direction. It will be interesting to see how this kind of situation will be handled, because it is in direct confrontation with the Standards that allow science teachers to debunk astrology under the guise of instruction in science history, "critical thinking," and scientific method.
Turnabout's Fair Play
Andrew Fraknoi, a vehement debunker, is an active promoter of Project
ASTRO, which provides schools with materials for debunking astrology. Included
in the activities for grades 7 to 9 are Fraknoi's ten favorite questions
to ask supporters of astrology,
which are listed here, along with Vaughan's favorite answers for debunkers
1. What is the likelihood that one-twelfth of the world's population
is having the same kind of day? Only someone whose "knowledge" of astrology
is based on newspaper Sun-sign horoscopes would ask a stupid question like
2. Why is the moment of birth, rather than conception, crucial for astrology?
Again, the question reflects the ignorance of debunkers. Conception
charts exist and are used by many astrologers.
3. If the mother's womb can keep out astrological influences until birth,
can we do the same with a cubicle of steak? Is this a rhetorical question
or have you used your academic funding to run experiments to test this?
How would you test this?
4. If astrologers are as good as they claim, why aren't they richer?
is natural for those who have prestige jobs with high pay to assume that
others envy their power or share their goal to be rich. Fraknoi also
notes that astrologers could amass billions by forecasting general stock
market behavior, and thus not have to charge their clients high fees.
can't have it both ways, Andrew. (If they are charging high fees, they
must be rich. If they are rich, they must be as good as they claim.) Also,
I'd like to see some statistics on this, especially comparing astrologer's
fees with the hourly rates of psychotherapists, or the fee you charge
for a lecture.
5. Are all horoscopes done before the discovery of the three outermost
planets correct? Does the acceptance of modern quantum physics make
Newtonian physics incorrect?
6.Shouldn't we condemn astrology as a form of bigotry? Isn't refusing
to date a Leo or hire a Virgo as bad as refusing to date a Catholic or
hire a black person? If it is bigotry for astrologers to categorize
people as Leo or Virgo, then it is bigotry for Fraknoi to categorize people
as Catholic (or Protestant), black (or white). We categorize or "type"
people by characteristics all the time. When we identify people as talkative
and avoid this type when we want quiet....Is this bigotry?
7. If you have a reading done by ten different astrologers, you will
probably get ten different interpretations. Why do different schools of
astrology disagree so strongly with each other? For the same reasons
that scientists do. If you go to ten different doctors or therapists, you
will also get ten different opinions, but it's probably cheaper to go to
8. If the astrological influence is carried by a known force (gravity,
magnetism, tidal forces), why do the planets dominate? Who says it's
a known force?
9. If astrological influence is carried by an unknown force, why is it independent of distance? A force not dependent on distance would be a revoluionary discovery for science, changing many of our fundamental notions. I guess this means that scientists must be unconscious, since science has evidently not yet discovered consciousness, a force not dependent on distance. Has this guy ever heard of relativity?
10. If astrological influences don't depend on distance, why is there
no astrology of stars, galaxies and quasars? Here we go again. The debunker
is ignorant of an important branch of astrology -- the study of fixed stars,
which includes pulsars, quasars, black holes, nebulae, infrared energy
sources, radio sources, and galaxies.
Valerie Vaughan graduated with honors from Vassar College, where
she studied astronomy and mythology. She is a Level IV Certified Astrologer
(NCGR) and holds a Master's Degree in Information Science. Her books include:
Astro-Mythology: The Celestial Union of Astrology and Myth and
Persephone Is Transpluto: The Scientific, Mythological and Astrological
Discovery of the Planet Beyond Pluto.
Richard Dawkins, "The Real Romance in the Stars," The Independent (Dec. 31, 1995). Dawkins is a professor at Oxford University and the author of The Blind Watchmaker, River Out of Eden, and The Selfish Gene.
Barry Singer, "Occult Beliefs," American Scientist (Jan/Feb. 1991).
Boyce Rensberger quoted in "Panel Fears Vogue for the Paranormal," New York Times (August 10, 1977). No support was ever given for this statement, but Rensberger was awarded CSICOP's "Responsibility in Journalism Award" in 1986.
Gary Posner, M.D., "Faulty Sense of Reality," Skeptical Inquirer (1978, no. 2).
For examples, see the writings of Paul Feyerabend and Thomas Kuhn.
6Valerie Vaughan. "The Acceptance of Astrology in the 'Real World:" Revival or Revisionism? The Mountain Astrologer (Dec/Jan 1996-97).
For a view on religious debunking, see Bruce Scofield. "The Uranian Observer," The Mountain Astrologer (Dec. 1995).
For a view of non-rational behavior of scientists, see William Broad, Betrayers of the Truth: Fraud and Deceit in the Halls of Science, Simon & Schuster (1982). Note: this book reports only on what Science admits is fraud; it doesn't deal with the unreasonable attitude toward astrology.
During the past two decades, psychology journals have published an average of eight studies per year which are based on the testing of astrology. See I.W. Kelly, "Modern Astrology: A Critique," Psychological Reports (1997), pp. 1035-1066.
C.P. Snow argued in The Two Cultures (1959) that there are two groups who wield power in society and share almost no basic values, goals, or language -- the scientists and the literary humanists
For more true examples of scientific research, see William Hartston, Drunken Goldfish and Other Irrelevant Scientific Research, Sterling (1987).
A descriptive term created by Professor Morris Berman and used in his course on the history of science, taught at Rutgers University in the early 1970s.
For other special factors that need to be considered when carrying out astrological research, see Correlation - Journal of Research into Astrology, published by the British Astrological Association, 396 Caledonian Rd., London N1 1DN United Kingdom.
The title of a major scientists' convention, held in 1995 with the purpose of urging debunkers to attack the "enemies of science," such as astrology, alternative healing, and the paranormal. See New York Times (June 6, 1995), section C.
From a series of textbooks published by It's About Time (1998).
"Ten Embarrassing Questions" are quoted from A Project ASTRO Activity for Grades 7-9 by Andrew Fraknoi, Astronomical Society of the Pacific (1995).