Re-Bunking the Debunkers

by Valerie Vaughan

When I wrote the article "Debunking the Debunkers" for the August-September 1998 issue of The Mountain Astrologer, my purpose was to draw the attention of TMA readers to the serious, widespread and organized nature of debunking attacks engineered by certain critics of astrology, particularly the so-called skeptics. My intent was educational: I wanted to raise some issues, rouse people out of their comfort zones, and get them thinking. In writing this article for TMA, I had assumed, quite naturally, that I was communicating mainly with students of astrology, perhaps some who call themselves professional astrologers, as well as some certified practitioners of astrology.

By and large, the feedback I received about this article was positive and supportive.[1] That is, except for the troubled responses voiced by a few people I had evidently roused who didn't like their rigid ways of thinking getting disturbed. Curiously, the negative response came mainly from people who were not the usual readers of TMA. These were not astrologers or people interested in learning about astrology; they were the debunkers themselves.

This became evident when an article responding to mine appeared in the Skeptical Inquirer, the principal organ for the Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, also known as CSICOP (pronounced sigh-cop).[2] Written by long-time astrology-debunker and Chairman of the CSICOP Subcommittee on Astrology, Ivan W. Kelly, this article purported to show that "astrology has almost no resources with which to respond to critics."[3]

In presenting his article as a "rebuttal" to mine, Kelly defined our respective views as constituting a debate. In other words, while I simply addressed an article to students of astrology, Mr. Kelly has determined that the situation is a debate between astrologers and skeptics. Very well, I accept the challenge. But let it be known that it is Mr. Kelly who has thrown the glove, and that I will answer his "rebuttal" only under the condition that we conduct our conversation according to the normal rules of debate. My sole concern in taking on this challenge is that I (or my readers) might succumb to debilitating vertigo while attempting to peer into the chasms in Kelly's logic.

Before engaging in this debate, I should perhaps make a general disclaimer. I do not claim to speak for astrologers in general, nor for TMA, nor any organization of astrologers. While Mr. Kelly would like to assume that many of my responses are, in his words, "representative of what is in the astrological media," the fact is that I speak for myself, and not everyone who practices astrology feels it is worthwhile to pursue this debate. Preparing to answer the critics takes a great deal of time and effort; some people feel it is much easier to mind their own business of studying astrology and simply ignore the fact that the actions and propaganda of debunkers make it quite difficult to conduct the practice of astrology.

One example of such denial is a recent TMA article,[4] in which Brad Kochunas urges readers to give up and accept Kelly's "dismantling" of astrology. While Mr. Kochunas evidently lacks the will or the insight to see through the flimsy arguments of debunkers, he did suggest that we all read and contemplate what Mr. Kelly has to say. If readers follow this advice, and look closely at both my article and Mr. Kelly's, it will be quite evident that Kelly has failed to address my points directly.

I repeat, it is Mr. Kelly, not I, who has defined the context as a debate. If this is how he wishes to play, then we should accordingly play by the rules, whereby one is expected to address the opponent's points. Instead, Mr. Kelly has attempted to cover up his lack of directness by presenting a great deal of irrelevant information (in some cases, misinformation) and fallacious "reasoning." That he should use this "smoke-and-mirrors" tactic is not surprising for a member of CSICOP, an organization which seems to attract unusual numbers of amateur and professional magicians (conjurers).[5]

Questionable Reasoning

Let's take a look at some of Mr. Kelly's "rebuttal" statements. He writes that my article "fails to note that astrologers generally have no training in how to conduct or evaluate research and therefore could not do it even if they had funding." Apparently, he is implying that astrologers are damned if they do and damned if they don't, but let's not race to conclusions. We can be less hasty than our opponents to judge and denounce, so let's read the statement again, slowly. Astrologers generally have no training in how to conduct or evaluate research and therefore could not do it even if they had funding.

While this statement may at first appear reasonable, a closer examination will reveal that it is a classic example of the non sequitur, an irrelevant conclusion offered as a consequence of another statement; an inference that does not follow from the premises. (Non sequitur is Latin and means "it does not follow.") It is usually obtained by the ambiguous usage of such connectives as "therefore." What Kelly has said is: since astrologers have no research training, they will therefore never be able to perform research, even if they had funding. The holes in Kelly's logic become apparent when we ask the following questions.

Does Mr. Kelly's statement apply only to the special case of astrologers? In other words, if anyone else (scientists, for example) had no training in how to conduct or evaluate research, would they also "therefore" be incapable of doing it, no matter how much funding they had?

Does this statement apply only to the special case of scientific research? Does Mr. Kelly's statement assume there is only one right way to conduct and evaluate research? In other words, are scientists, who generally have no training in astrology, likewise incapable of conducting astrological research "even if they had funding"?

If he isn't talking about special cases, does his statement imply that no amount of funding will ever change the fact that anyone doesn't have any training? (If so, we may as well abandon support for all education, including training in both science and astrology.)

Are we to understand that certain rules apply to some, but not to others, and are we allowed to ask who made up these rules? In this regard, can Mr. Kelly (excuse me, Professor Kelly) please explain how his statement relates to the stated purpose of organized skeptics to keep astrology out of the educational mainstream and the academic world of funding?[6] We might also wonder about his statement from the broader perspective of history. The history of science tells us that it was the organized scientists of the 17th century who first denied astrologers access to training by kicking astrology out of the universities, where it had been studied as a respected discipline for centuries.[7]

Kelly "supports" his statement about the astrologers' lack of training by claiming that "training institutions for astrologers do not require exposure to research methods." While he might be correct in asserting that some people practicing astrology have not been trained in scientific methods of research, does he know for a fact that "training institutions for astrologers" are the only place where they might learn research methods? Many people using astrology in their counseling practice hold Master's degrees in psychology, social work or related fields which require training in research and statistics.

In his blanket statement that "training institutions for astrologers do not require exposure to research methods," Kelly fails to mention the program of training at Kepler College. This omission is noteworthy as an example of disinformation promulgated by debunkers. Debunkers may complain that astrologers are not trained in research methods, yet when an attempt is made to organize an institution that includes research methods, such as Kepler College, skeptics spread disinformation about it. One example of this is found at the web site The Skeptic's Dictionary, where Robert Todd Carroll writes, "One thing lacking from the [Kepler College] curriculum is any requirement that the students learn statistics or scientific methodologies... Even the graduate program does not require that entering students have any background in statistics or scientific methodologies."[8]

According to the course descriptions,[9] the Bachelor's degree program at Kepler includes the following (and I quote): Researching psychological testing procedures and diagnosis; exploring various methods and designing research projects; analyzing the integrity of test data and the statistical significance of research data; researching and designing statistical models for analyzing and testing astrological techniques and theories; interpreting the results of research testing; instruction in astrophysics and planetary science, including quantum theory and its potential relationship to astrology; instruction in frequency analysis and cycles and understanding their relation to astrology; examining the evolution and technical progress in astronomy, the history of science, and the importance of astrology in scientific progress. For admission to the graduate program at Kepler, the recommended undergraduate coursework includes: psychology, sociology, astronomy, physics, and statistics.

You see? Our original understanding of Kelly's criticism was correct: Astrologers are damned if they do, and damned if they don't.

The Bottom Line: Funding

Immediately following his statement about the astrologers' lack of research training, Kelly states that "Even massive cash incentives of up to $5,000 have not motivated astrologers to produce evidence for central tenets." This kind of statement is well-known as the red herring, a form of logical fallacy used by many debunkers to sabotage an argument. (The red herring refers to a stinky fish dragged across a trail to throw a tracking dog off the scent. The technique is to raise an issue that is so volatile and controversial in itself that, once introduced into a discussion, it tends to sidetrack everyone from the real point of discussion.)[10]

Mr. Kelly's red herring is also a completely unprovable statement, but perhaps he could bolster his bald assumption by providing some pertinent information. He could, for example, present us with a current list of serious, fund-seeking science researchers who would define "up to $5,000" as "massive."

I am serious when I ask for such a list. Since astrology is not allowed in academia, it follows that astrologers like myself must be ignorant of how things work within those hallowed halls. Since there is almost no access to funding for research in astrology, I have to ask for realistic comparisons in layman's language. Was $5,000 the amount of "incentive" required to "motivate" Professor Kelly to produce his serious research on volleyball skills and "body image characteristics among bulimic university students"?[11] (I suspect that it is through published studies such as these, not his articles in Skeptical Inquirer, that Mr. Kelly maintains his publish-or-perish academic position in the Department of Educational Psychology and Special Education, University of Saskatchewan.) However, it might be more appropriate to compare $5,000 with the average faculty salary at a Ph.D.-granting institution -- according to a recent study, $64,594.[12]

Mr. Kelly might argue that I have no right to question these figures. According to him, I'm just a typical astrologer, one whom the debunkers characterize as getting rich by deceiving clients.[13] But according to my latest tax return, my income is about one-third of the average faculty salary, and it's earned mostly by working three part-time non-astrology jobs in order to support myself and my family while I pursue the study of astrology and history of science. My financial situation is likely to be familiar to many readers who practice astrology, and it's probably much more typical than the sleazy image portrayed by debunkers.

So I repeat my question originally posed in "Debunking the Debunkers," which Mr. Kelly has yet to address. "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 conduct their experiments), how many do you think would dip into their own pockets to finance the research to "justify" their existence"?[14] Put another way, how many would be "motivated to produce evidence for central tenets" with "massive incentives of up to $5,000"?

As an interesting side-note to this business of published research, we note the fact that CSICOP has instituted a policy of not performing any original research of its own.[15] Individually, CSICOP members like Kelly may perform research, but they seem to be particularly fond of performing reviews or meta-analyses of the research performed by others.[16] Having examined most of this voluminous material, as well as the individual studies from which these reviews have culled their results, I have found serious discrepancies in the "negative" conclusions that suggest a high degree of ignorance about astrology on the part of scientific researchers.

Let it be clearly understood: While the organized skeptics apparently like to eavesdrop and go window-shopping in popular astrology magazines, they generally have no real training in astrology and their view of the large body of astrological theory and technique is indirect and severely limited. It follows that they would have little understanding of how to conduct or evaluate astrological research. If we used Kelly's logic, we might even conclude that debunkers "therefore could not do it even if they had funding."

But wait a minute, isn't this the same thing that Kelly did in assuming that astrologers can't do research because they aren't trained in scientific methods? It's true, what I just said is an unprovable statement, and just as impertinent as Kelly's claim. However, I shall offer strong evidence to support my statement, and I challenge Kelly to give evidence of debunkers actually studying astrology. (When I say "study astrology," I mean as a study in itself, just as biologists study biology, not as a subject for statistically "correct" analysis by the astrologically-uninformed.)

Scientific Inquiry and Exceptions to the Rule

The scientific literature on proper procedure in scientific inquiry is replete with recommendations that scientists be fair in examining evidence that both refutes and supports their hypotheses. It is full of lofty claims that science is not authoritarian, that no scientist has special access to the truth, that scientists are expected to be alert to possible bias in their own work. Scientists are also expected to acquaint themselves with the object of their study. Yet, when critics turn their attention to the "scientific investigation" of astrology, they ignore their own "rules" for proper inquiry.

Look closely at the debunker's bibliographies. You be the judge. Whom do they quote, besides other debunkers and astrologically-uninformed "studies" of astrology? Do any of these materials show an understanding of astrological principles? Do any of them demonstrate the author's acquaintance with major works of astrological literature?

The answer to these questions becomes immediately apparent if you look at the debunking materials which are masquerading as education in our schools. Although I devoted three pages of my "Debunking the Debunkers" article to debunking in our schools, this was another issue that Mr. Kelly conveniently ignored addressing in his "rebuttal."

I suggest that the readers examine the numerous courses now offered on-line and in our schools and universities, purporting to teach critical thinking and the dangers of pseudoscience.[17] In the (anti-)astrology sections of these courses, you will search in vain for assignments that encourage the objective evaluation of writings by Dane Rudhyar, Charles Jayne, Marc Edmond Jones, Donald Bradley, or any other important authors of astrological literature. The scientists who claim to teach critical thinking do not require (or even suggest) that students read and discuss the astrological writings of Johannes Kepler, Claudius Ptolemy, or Carl Jung. Their courses give no mention of the numerous astrological allusions in Shakespeare, Chaucer or William Butler Yeats. Nor are students exposed to the original astrological research by Michael Gauquelin or John Addey, nor the astrologically-informed studies of Percy Seymour, Patrick Curry, and John Anthony West. Instead of presenting original sources from the topic being "studied," these courses offer superficial, secondary, derivative, astrologically-uninformed and biased debunker materials, authored by the same old, familiar crowd from CSICOP.

The skeptics who teach these "critical thinking" courses recognize the dangers inherent in opening up free discussion and fair evaluation of controversial issues. As one Skeptical Inquirer article warned, promoting equal time for different sides "may lead students to develop wrong answers."[18] Not to worry! As the former chairman of CSICOP's Education Subcommittee explained, education techniques can be developed which allow the instructor to "treat drivel as it deserves, without appearing to proselytize."[19]

Self-Proclaimed Authorities on Astrology
(Or, Who Is an Astrologer?)

The debunker reasoning goes like this: "Because it is such a superior method of analysis, scientific testing can be applied to any subject, including ones we skeptics know nothing about. We skeptics become self-proclaimed authorities, not by studying astrology or performing any original research based on an understanding of astrological principles, but by reviewing studies performed by others and criticizing them according to criteria of our own choosing." This is a bit like claiming you're an authority on cooking because you looked at a lot of (other people's) cookbooks and counted how many recipes did not contain your favorite ingredients or how many failed to describe your preferred method of sifting and combining those individual ingredients.

As it says in my trusty old logic textbook, "It is obviously a mistake to use as an authority in one field a person who is an authority in a quite different field. The mere fact that he is an authority does not make the value of his judgment extend to fields other than his own."[20] While the scientific method might be intelligently applied to analyze astrological data, anyone who does so without serious training in astrology is practicing a form of logical fallacy called "irrelevant appeal to authority." Not to mention disobeying the rules of scientific inquiry.

I would also like to ask Mr. Kelly to define his terminology. Whom he is talking about when he makes broad generalizations about "astrologers"? Does he base his ideas on whatever he reads in TMA (which is not a research journal)? Is he referring to anyone who calls himself an astrologer? Does he mean the large numbers of people who study astrology but make no claim to be practicing astrologers? Is Gauquelin one of his "astrologers"? Is Johannes Kepler? Geoffrey Dean? How about the people who have passed Level IV certification (NCGR) for technical research? Does Mr. Kelly have any idea of what is involved in preparing oneself to pass astrology certification exams?

The Bad News about Scientific Myths

Mr. Kelly claims that "Vaughan neglects to inform her readers that there already exists a large amount of scientific research conducted by astrologers, sympathetic scientists, and critics .... Most of them are bad news for astrology." Since he then proceeds to quote the same old, predictable and over-used supply of debunker's literature (his own camp), I submit that it is Kelly who "neglects to inform his readers" -- of the reports on investigations that either demonstrate positive support for astrological concepts or at least suggest there are apparent correlations of phenomena which are worthy of further investigation.

What Kelly does consider "bad news" are books and articles that have supposedly reviewed the scientific tests of astrology and found them lacking. If you take the trouble to read these studies (and I have, hundred of them), you will find that the "bad news" has been created by the debunking spin-doctors who use pat formulas for denying positive results. For example, debunkers are fond of denying the positive results of scientific tests of astrology because they "could be accounted for" by other factors, such as the "well-established" explanations currently accepted by science. Fortunately for the "progress" of scientific inquiry, many investigators have ignored this confining conditional. Copernicus, for example, ignored the fact that the movements of the planets were perfectly well explained by prevailing theories of geocentricity. (To understand this apparently off-hand remark, the following explanation is in order.)

Empiricism in the realm of science is the view that scientific knowledge derives from observation of manifest facts. While this is a nice conceptual ideal often voiced by advocates of the scientific method, the history of science relates an entirely different story about how science actually works. Nevertheless, public education in the sciences continues to promote the mythological ideal. Schoolchildren are told epic narratives of heroes such as Copernicus standing staunchly by the facts of observation and overcoming the obstacles of superstitious belief in order to achieve The Truth. Contrary to this scientistic folklore, Copernicus was not an empiricist. The embarrassing fact is, if empiricism had really been the only approach used in science, we would still be living in a geocentric world.

When the scientific approach is used to examine astrology, there must be a clear understanding of the limits of scientific analysis. Scientific empiricism works well with quantifiable subjects. But quantification is not the same as explanation (meaning). Quantifiable measurements are not a part of objective reality; they are a part of the cognitive framework that science has created to organize that reality. And when we are dealing with matters concerned with meaning (such as astrology), other non-scientific tools may be enlisted for more appropriate analysis. As one scientist observed, "By relying lopsidedly on abstract quantification as a method of knowing, scientists have been looking at the world with one eye closed. There is other knowledge besides quantitative knowledge, and there are other ways of knowing besides reading the position of a pointer on a scale."[21]

Who's Misinformed?

Kelly's principle conclusion is that "Vaughan's article only addresses misinformed critiques." I have to wonder which critiques he is referring to, since I made it quite clear whom I was discussing in my footnotes. Does he mean the opening quotation I used about astrology being an "enemy of truth" and that astrologers should be "jailed for fraud"? I was merely quoting Richard Dawkins, the best-selling science writer and winner of numerous international literary prizes, who is incidentally also a Fellow of CSICOP and has published in Skeptical Inquirer. Is Mr. Kelly suggesting that the eminent scientist who holds the Chair of Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University is "misinformed"?

Maybe Kelly is referring to the quotations I used about astrology being "corrosive to rationality and inherently discrediting of science itself," or about believers in astrology having a pathological medical condition, "perhaps schizophrenia." I took these statements directly from critiques written by members of CSICOP -- a medical doctor and a psychologist who are listed as "scientific and technical consultants" in every issue of Skeptical Inquirer. Or perhaps Kelly is referring to the quotation about 200 people killing themselves as a result of believing a horoscope, a statement made by a critic who was awarded CSICOP's "Responsibility in Journalism Award."

It would appear that, in accusing me of addressing misinformed critiques, Mr. Kelly is unwittingly admitting that CSICOP members produce misinformed critiques. I suspect this is not what he means to do, but my question still remains: What criteria do I use to determine what is an informed critique?

Having previously read the articles and books in the bibliography of Kelly's "rebuttal" article (many of them written by members of CSICOP), as well as hundreds of other books and articles in scientific journals which contain studies pertaining to astrology, my impression is the following: In general, the mass of these "bad news" studies have been conducted by scientists, psychologists and statisticians who are completely uninformed about astrology. It is easy to come up with negative results in tests on astrology when you know very little about it. To illustrate this, let's look at some of these "bad news" studies that report "negative results" in a scientific investigation of astrology.

How To Spin Negative Results

In a study purporting to examine the relationship between Sun-signs and self-disclosure, 240 subjects were identified by Sun-sign and asked to indicate how much information about themselves they disclosed to their mother, father, and closest friends.[22] The members of one group of Sun-signs were found to have disclosed significantly less than any other sign, and that was Capricorn. While the reticence of Capricorn is well-known to those who study astrology, the author of this report states that "this finding is difficult to interpret," and "we can only conclude, therefore, that the lower total self-disclosure score for the Capricorn group is the result of chance variation." Having easily disposed of a significant finding, the closing sentence of this report is, "If there is any intelligible association between the position of the stars and planets on the subject's dates of birth and their patterns of self-disclosure, it certainly is not clarified by the present data." (See how easy it is to come up with "bad news"?)

Here's another brilliant example of scientists explaining away their ignorance of astrology: A study found that subjects born under the even-numbered sun-signs had a significantly higher mean neuroticism score than those born under odd-numbered sun-signs. In his concluding remarks, the author states that this finding is "difficult to explain," adding that "astrological theory does not hypothesize such a difference."[23] Excuse me for asking, but which astrological theory is he referring to? The author does not tell us.

Finally, let's take a look at Kelly's own research. In a study that examined the timing of crisis calls over a three-year period, Kelly and others attempted to identify various periodicities, including lunar, weekly, annual, etc. [24] This study attempted to show that, contrary to common "folklore" and beliefs held by those who work in emergency rooms and crisis centers, moon phase has nothing to do with human behavior.

Several significant lunar cycles were uncovered in this study, but one after another, they were explained away. For instance, the researchers named several days during which an extremely high number of crisis calls occurred, but they "could find no common information that would explain them." This is not surprising, since the researchers are ignorant of astrology. For those readers who do understand astrology, the charts for these dates will be quite revealing. One date was Nov. 5, 1991, when the Sun, Moon, Mars and Pluto were conjunct in Scorpio. Two other days with unusually high numbers of crisis calls were consecutive -- Dec. 17 and 18, 1990, when the Moon was conjunct a massive alignment of Venus, Uranus, Mercury, Neptune, Saturn and the North Node in Capricorn.

The researchers found interesting ways to turn findings into "negative results." They found that the two peak crisis-call days of the lunar cycle were the 10th and 25th days, but that finding was considered "inconsistent with beliefs in folklore that more calls occur around the full moon." The fact that the peak number of calls occurred when the moon was near apogee was considered "contrary to theories of those who contend that the moon's tidal pull influences human behavior." (More about this apogee business will be discussed further on.)

Finally, after all the number-crunching, adjustments, and discounting of various results, the researchers came to their completely irrelevant, unfounded, and illogically-constructed conclusion: "Although belief in lunar effects is likely to remain high in the general population because these effects are consistent with occult and new age belief systems, it is unlikely that any understanding of human behavior will emerge from the beliefs of these perspectives regarding lunar phases."

It appears that Kelly considers studies like these to be the "informed critiques" that constitute the "large amount of scientific research" which is "bad news" for astrology. Of course, it was easy for him to uncover findings that were inconsistent with folklore beliefs. There remains just one tiny but rather important question -- What does this study have to do with astrology? Is he claiming that the hospital workers are practicing astrologers? Evidently, he equates the lunar folklore of hospital workers with the principles of astrology, in the same manner of debunkers who confuse newspaper horoscopes with the serious study of astrology. (And for the same reason --their own ignorance of astrology.) How can Mr. Kelly accuse me of addressing misinformed critiques when he keeps producing them himself?

Let us return to the interesting category of lunar cycle which has been explained away (the one involving apogee-perigee). Here's how Kelly (and his co-author) describe the problem in the article "Much Ado About the Full Moon:" "If the moon's pull on the earth is responsible for lunar periodicities, [then] more undesirable activities than expected should be observed when the moon draws close to the earth during the perigee period of its anomalistic cycle."[25] Why does Kelly assume that something "undesirable" should be expected, and why does he suppose it should occur at perigee, not apogee? Is this a scientific prediction or is he making this up from some distorted idea he has about astrological prediction?

Having established his premise that bad things might happen at perigee, Kelly and his co-author then proceed to describe scientific tests in which greater lunacy, more suicides and family disturbances were found to occur, not at perigee, but on or around the moon at apogee. Ultimately, the authors use this "negative finding" as yet another proof against (any) lunar hypothesis, and they conclude that further research on lunar periodicities is not recommended because it is "bad science." The authors complain of the persistent interest in further research on lunar cycles, but they have a solution. "In our own courses, we have had to dissuade students from pursuing the lunar hypothesis." (See what I mean about debunking in the schools?)

This so-called "negative finding" about apogee-perigee is hardly news to astrologers. For several thousand years, in fact, astrologers have been paying attention to the Moon's apparent rate of motion (fastest at perigee and slowest at apogee). Throughout the past four millennia, this information has been listed in almanacs designed by astrologers (Revisionist scientific literature refers to them as "ancient astronomers."). Likewise, modern astrological almanacs list the Moon's motion. All serious students of astrology must learn how to calculate the Moon's motion as part of the mathematics required to construct horoscopes. John Dee, the 16th-century astrologer and adviser to Queen Elizabeth I, urged astrologers to use apogee and perigee in his Propaedeumata Aphoristica.

The phenomenon of the Moon's motion is explained in The Astrologer's Astronomical Handbook[26] where author Jeff Mayo recommends its use in astro-meteorology. In this classic text from over 35 years ago, Mayo also explains the variation wave of lunar motion and disturbances from the Sun's force (a combined luni-solar effect) at 45 and 135 degrees in the 360-degree cycle. These occur at the midpoint of the lunar quarters, i.e., around the 3rd and 18th (accelerated motion) days and the 10th and 25th (retarded motion) days of the lunar synodic cycle. (Remember? The 10th and 25th days are the ones which Kelly found to be peaks of greatest crisis calls.)

This particular lunar cycle has also been discussed in a recent article by astrologer Michael Erlewine, who points out its relationship to cycles of geomagnetic disturbances.[27] He notes scientific studies showing that the 10th and 25th days are important days in the cycle of Polar Cap Absorption, and how this correlates with the significance attributed to these same days by ancient Eastern astrological traditions. For a reference in ancient Western tradition, we have the 2,800-year-old text of Hesiod's almanac Works and Days, which warns against the 25th day of the lunar synodic cycle: "Be on your guard ... [it is] harsh and dread. They say that [on this day] the Furies assisted at the birth of Oath, whom Strife bore as a scourge to perjurers."[28]

The "Could Be" Gambit

Another favorite tactic for debunking positive correlations in astrological studies is to claim that the test results could be skewed by the effect of "self-attribution." This term refers to the idea that people might attribute to themselves or to others the traits known to be associated with astrological factors, such as their Sun signs. In other words, people being tested might know something about astrology and that's assumed to bias their responses to test questions like "What is your occupation?" or "Do you approve of suicide?" (More about such test questions will be discussed further on.)

Here's how debunkers use the self-attribution effect: When the opinions or behaviors of tested subjects happen to correspond to an astrological principle, the self-attribution effect is called upon to suggest that the subjects actually have very different behaviors/opinions which they are not expressing, that they have been exposed to an astrological description of their Sun-sign and have accordingly changed themselves (or their responses) to conform to this information.

Let's look at an example the self-attribution effect used for debunking purposes in a study of the correlation of Sun sign with attitudes about suicide.[29] Among the 7,508 respondents tested, those born with Sun sign Pisces were found (statistical significance p<.05) to be more approving of suicide (for various reasons, such as having an incurable disease). Rather than acknowledge this as evidence reflecting an astrological phenomenon, the authors imply it could be due to a self-fulfilling prophecy (a variation on the self-attribution effect). In other words, believing that one's Sun sign is gloomy and negative will cause one to approve of suicide.

Note how easily the statistically-significant findings are dismissed. With the mere suggestion that results could be due to self-attribution, debunkers are presenting speculations as to how the evidence "could be" flawed, as though mere speculation were somehow as damning as actual facts. The assumption here is that any potential flaw, even a merely speculative one, provides sufficient grounds for throwing out the evidence. Once this is accomplished, it is easy for a skeptic to move on to other forms of doubt-casting, such as suggesting that the figures might be rigged or the experimenter could have cheated.

The application of the "self-attribution effect" as a debunking tactic neatly sidesteps the complex issue of self-knowledge and the possibility that astrology may be a language well-suited to describing what scientists call "psychology." Regardless of the level or quality of self-awareness, nearly everyone is self-attributed in one way or another, i.e., operating under the influence of a belief system. While it is possible to argue that the "self-attribution effect" may be, in reality, just one manifestation of self-knowledge (and therefore extremely difficult to measure), for this discussion I shall use the preferred term of self-attribution (which scientists apparently consider objectively measurable).

If debunkers insist on raising the self-attribution flag for tests concerning behavioral aspects of astrology and using self-attribution as a limiting factor in the selection of subjects for tests of astrology, then logically they should apply it to all other (non-astrological) behavioral tests (although doing so might sound the death-knoll of most psychological testing). Consider the following:

Depending on which survey you cite, the number of people who know their Sun-sign and/or what behaviors are associated with the signs (or who are just plain interested in astrology), has grown in recent years to be somewhere around 50 percent of the total population.[30] If the level of self-attribution is this great, wouldn't it suggest problems in the choice of appropriate subjects, not only for tests of astrology, but for all forms of psychological testing?

Who knows what statistic-skewing potential lurks among the pool of subjects? Imagine how many scientific behavioral studies might be invalid because a significant number of the subjects think about human behavior astrologically and are therefore biased! Oh dear, how will we be able to tell whether someone is truly an extrovert or just another human being who thinks he's one because he knows his Sun-sign? Measuring consciousness is so messy, isn't it?

Debunkers bypass all this by asserting that it's OK to discount the positive findings of astrological studies because the results "could be" (what they mean is "could have been") attributable to people making decisions based on knowing the characteristics associated with their Sun signs. This is how they dealt with the so-called "Guardian Study."

In 1984, the prestigious British newspaper The Guardian published the results of a massive search for correlations between Sun signs and occupations. This study was conducted by Alan Smithers, the head of the Department of Education at Manchester University. Smithers used the records of the 1971 British Census to obtain a sample of over two million men and women, each assigned to one of 223 occupations. These were compared with correlations proposed by astrologers as to the relationship of Sun sign and occupation. Smithers found that some of the astrological correlations were confirmed, but a debunking critique claimed that the results could be attributable to people making decisions based on knowing the characteristics associated with their Sun signs.[31]

We need to ask some questions about the so-called self-attribution status of subjects tested in such studies. When those same "self-attributed" people are tested by psychologists for occupational choice in studies which are completely unrelated to astrology, do the subjects suddenly drop their astrological preconceptions and answer the questions "correctly"? If not, do psychologists account for this terrible "effect" by screening every single subject in any kind of research project for prior knowledge of astrology? Do they screen subjects for prior knowledge of psychology? Do they screen them for previous exposure to the Skeptical Inquirer?

These questions point to the real problem with using self-attribution for debunking purposes: Do people self-attribute selectively, depending on what kind of test they are given? Or rather, depending on what kind of test is being critiqued by debunkers? Is it perhaps more likely that the self-attribution effect is selectively applied by skeptics in critiques of certain kinds of tests, i.e., those involving the A-word? How about testing skeptics for self-attribution? It might be interesting to find out if skeptics attribute to themselves the lofty traits that are supposedly associated with their status as scientists, such as pure objectivity. Perhaps then we could screen subjects for both self-attributed astrological knowledge and self-attributed scientific literacy.

Since skeptics use self-attribution as a factor in identifying badly designed tests, it follows that they would consider a good test to be one in which there is no self-attribution. In other words, skeptics evidently prefer to test people who, like themselves, have no understanding of astrology. This is very interesting from the standpoint of humanistic astrology, which maintains that astrology can be a path to self-knowledge. The underlying assumption in the whole self-attribution gambit is that science can only test that which does not know itself. It's not much of a stretch to reveal a hidden agenda: Making scientific empiricism the preferred method of obtaining knowledge can lead to the demise of self-knowledge.[32]

The problem is not in the scientific method itself, which can be just as useful for those practicing astrology as it is for psychologists. However, when science is donned as a mantle of authority in order to exclude alternative modes of thinking, then we must distinguish between science as a method and science as a belief system. The point is (and it cannot be repeated too often), the scientific viewpoint is one way of observing the world, and astrology is another. Any viewpoint can appear "biased" from the standpoint of the other. Only by studying both viewpoints, and becoming educated in both fields of knowledge, can our vision be broadened.

I have recorded my response to only a few statements made by Kelly. There is much more to be said, but the bottom line is that Mr. Kelly apparently knows so little about astrology that it is difficult to conduct a real dialogue. As my credentials show, I have bothered to learn the language of both science and astrology. When Mr. Kelly has prepared himself to pass a professional certification test in astrology, then perhaps we can debate on equal ground.

Valerie Vaughan holds a B.A. from Vassar College, a Master's Degree in Information Science, and Level IV certification (NCGR) in astrology. Two of her books which combine both astrological and scientific viewpoints are: Astro-Mythology: The Celestial Union of Astrology and Myth and Persephone Is Transpluto: The Scientific, Mythological and Astrological Discovery ot the Planet Beyond Pluto.

Both books are available from One Reed Publications, P.O. Box 561, Amherst MA 01004-0561.


[1] The single negative letter I received was from Geoffrey Dean. This should have alerted me that an organized skeptic uproar was afoot, since Dean is regarded by many as a turncoat, although I prefer Patrick Curry's view that Dean functions as a Shadow for astrology, in Jungian terms. It is interesting to note that whole paragraphs from Dean's letter to me were repeated, sometimes word-for-word, in Ivan Kelly's "Response to an Astrologer's Debunking of Skeptics," Skeptical Inquirer, Nov/Dec 1999. I have to wonder who was quoting whom -- did Dean feed remarks to Kelly or vice versa?

[2] Some parapsychologists have accurately described the mind-police nature of this organization by referring to them as the PSI-Cops. The Greek letter [Psi] (Psi) is representative of their study Psyche/Mind, and is also used as a logo for the American Psychology Association. Organized parapsychology groups have kept close track of the debunking tactics of CSICOP. For an enlightening history of this watchdog club, see "CSICOP and the Skeptics: An Overview," by George P. Hansen, Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, Vol. 86 (January 1992), pp. 19-63. For a view of the ideas of some of the leading figures in CSICOPS, see JASPR, Vol. 76 (July 1982), pp. 257-281.

[3] I. W. Kelly, " 'Debunking the Debunkers': A Response to an Astrologer's Debunking of Skeptics," Skeptical Inquirer, Nov./Dec. 1999, pp. 37-43.

[4] "Why Astrology Works," TMA (Dec 99/Jan.2000).

[5] Magicians who are or have been official members of CSICOP are listed in "CSICOP and the Skeptics: An Overview," by George P. Hansen, JASPR, Vol. 86 (January 1992), pp. 19-63. Current members and fellows include Shawn Carlson, Martin Gardner, Ray Hyman, Joe Nickell, and of course the Amazing (James) Randi. It is the unfortunate characteristic of conjurers to assume that magic equals trickery, and they project that concept unto their objects of "skeptical" criticism, accusing those who practice astrology of deceiving the public.

[6] See "CSICOP and the Skeptics: An Overview," by George P. Hansen, JASPR, Vol. 86 (January 1992), p. 47.

[7] Astrology was officially disclaimed by the French Academy in 1666. Science is currently the ruling intellectual paradigm. When you're the ones in power (scientists) and you maintain that position by segregating certain foreign elements (astrologers), there's a price to pay. You still have to deal with the noisy, foreign riff-raff. Like me.

[8] See the entry dated October 19, 1999, in the "Mass Media Funk" section of At this site you will also find "Astrology on the Attack," which begins, "Don't be surprised if we next hear from the astrologers demanding their 'rightful' place in our universities. Ivan Kelly ... sent me a copy of a troublesome article by astrologer Valerie Vaughan, Debunking the Debunkers."

[9] See

[10] Another logical fallacy which Kelly resorts to quite often (in order to avoid addressing my points directly) is the conditional "even if." He writes, for example, "Even if scientism were typical of debunkers, they could still be right about astrology." He follows this brilliant observation with a distracting red herring: "After all, human history is full of ...racists and sexists, all arguably as disreputable as disciples of scientism, who have nevertheless sometimes been right about some things." I doubt that I should even attempt to address this irrelevant statement by Kelly, especially since he has evidently suggested some approval of racists and sexists, as well as their affinity with debunkers like himself.

[11] Gusthard, J. L., and Kelly, I. W. "Relationship of Instructor and Student Variables to Achievement in Volleyball Skills," in T. Williams, et al. (eds.) Sport and Physical Activity: Moving Toward Excellence. London: E. & F.M. Spoon (1992). Geissler, T., Kelly, I.W., & Saklofske, D.H. "Bulimic Symptoms and Body Image Characteristics among University Women," Perceptual and Motor Skills, 79 (1994), pp. 771-775.

[12] Data from a 1998-99 survey conducted by the American Association of University Professors, as quoted in The Scientist (December 6, 1999), p. 32.

[13] For a typical example of a debunker describing astrologers as profiting from being "hucksters" and "quacks," see Richard Dawkins, "The Real Romance of the Stars," originally published in the British weekly The Independent (Dec. 31, 1995). The full text of this article appears at

[14] This is quoted from my original text that I submitted to TMA, not the over-edited version of my article which TMA published.

[15] See "CSICOP and the Skeptics: An Overview," by George P. Hansen, JASPR, Vol. 86 (January 1992), p. 44, as well as Pinch, T.J. and Collins, H. M., "Private Science and Public Knowledge: CSICOP and its Use of the Literature, Social Studies of Science, 14 (1984), pp. 521-546.

[16] These include: I.W. Kelly, "Modern Astrology: A Critique," Psychological Reports 81 (1997), pp. 1035-1066; I.W. Kelly, Geoffrey Dean, & D.H. Saklofske, "Astrology: A Critical Review," in P. Grim (ed.), Philosophy of Science and the Occult, 2nd ed. (1990); R. Martens, I.W. Kelly, & D.H. Saklofske, "Lunar Phase and Birthrate: A Fifty-Year Critical Review," Psychological Reports 63 (1988), pp. 923-934; S.J. Martin, I.W. Kelly, and D.H. Saklofske, " Suicide and Lunar Cycles: A Critical Review over 28 Years," Psychological Reports 71 (1992), pp. 787-795.

[17] At the University of California/Davis, they offer Quackery and Pseudoscience in America, a course described as the "history of humbug." (Is this a new technical term?)

[18] Lys Ann Shore, "Skepticism in the Light of Scientific Literacy," Skeptical Inquirer 15 (Fall, 1990), pp. 9-10.

[19]Ibid., p. 10.

[20] Manuel Bilsky, Logic and Effective Argument, Henry Holt (1957), p. 95.

[21] Thomas Blackburn, "Sensuous-Intellectual Complementarity in Science," Science 172 (June 4, 1971), pp. 1003-1007.

[22] Sidney Jourard, "Astrological Sun Signs and Self-Disclosure, Journal of Humanistic Psychology 18, 1 (1978), pp. 53-56.

[23] David P. Fourie, "Self-Attribution Theory and the Sun-Sign," Journal of Social Psychology 122 (1984), pp. 121-126.

[24] Mikelis Bickis, I. W. Kelly, G. F. Byrnes, " Crisis Calls and Temporal and Lunar Variables: A Comprehensive Examination, Journal of Psychology 129 (1995), pp. 701-711.

[25] James Rotton and I.W. Kelly, "Much Ado About the Full Moon: A Meta-Analysis of Lunar-Lunacy Research," Psychological Bulletin 97 (1985), pp. 286-306.

[26] Jeff Mayo, The Astrologer's Astronomical Handbook, L.N. Fowler (1965).

[27] Michael Erlewine, "Science and the Lunation Cycle" at

[28] Lines 801-803, from a literal translation by Apostolos N. Athanassakis, Hesiod: Theogony, Works and Days, Shield, Johns Hopkins University Press (1983).

[29] This study is reported in "Born Under a Bad Sign? Astrological Sign and Suicide Ideation," by Steven Stack and David Lester, Perceptual and Motor Skills, 66 (1988), pp. 461-462.

[30] According to a 1997 poll conducted by Yankelovich Partners, the figure is 37% who "believe at least to some degree" in astrology. According to a 1984 Gallup Poll, 55% of American teenagers believe that astrology works. In May of 1999, the Teen online Internet site asked readers to indicate "Does your sign match your personality?" Of 30,000 votes, 83% responded "yes."

[31] See Geoffrey Dean, I.W. Kelly, et al., "The Guardian Astrology Study: A Critique and Reanalysis," Skeptical Inquirer 9 (1985), pp. 327-338.

[32] For a full explanation of the connection between Western science and self-alienation, see Alan Watts, The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are, Collier (1966).