One of my favorite things about my blog has always been the ability to sit down on the weekends and write about whatever topic it is that plagued my mind all week. Sometimes it’s paleoanthropology or progressive Christianity, and this week it’s been astrology. I’ve written about astrology before (why it is pseudoscience, and why mercury retrograde is strictly an astronomical rather than astrological phenomenon), so one might wonder why I can’t just let it go. The fact is, something about astrology really rubs me the wrong way, and anyone close to me knows it.
We’re living in a time when it is quite the unpopular opinion to say that astrology is garbage and it ought to be entirely abandoned. I don’t want to give myself a persecution complex, but I will say that if you want to make it known to all the world that you believe astrology should have died with Ptolemy, then you can expect some pushback or even some resentment. I don’t care. I hate astrology.
The most common reaction that a skeptic will receive to this kind of attitude is that they’re a grump who just wants to ruin the fun. Again, think that if you want to. Even I have written off astrology as silly and harmless in the past, but my tolerance for pseudoscience has faded to nothing over time. This might sound harsh, but it is a good thing: “If the comfort, consolation and hope delivered by mysticism and superstition is high, and the dangers of belief comparatively low, should we not keep our misgivings to ourselves? . . . If we offer too much silent assent about mysticism and superstition—even when it seems to be doing a little good—we abet a general climate in which skepticism is considered impolite, science tiresome, and rigorous thinking somehow stuffy and inappropriate.”1
I find astrology harmful not for the reasons one might think: of course, I take great issue with those who live and breathe astrology and whose lives are entirely dictated by it. In general, however, I think that we all usually view those people as superstitious quacks. In my experience, it is far more common for someone to take an interest in astrology and enjoy contemplating it, even if they’re not 100% persuaded by its validity. I’m arguing that this is actually the more harmful stance, because it is a ubiquitous phenomenon, and it seems that anyone can fall prey to it, no matter how skeptical they are to more obviously harmful theories.
I could sit here and explain to you why astrology is unreliable pseudoscience, but chances are, if you fall into the “casual astrologer” category described above, then you’re probably not concerned with its validity in the first place. Those who merely dabble usually haven’t given much thought to whether astrology provides an accurate description of reality or whether it might actually be detrimental. They might not be willing to look deeper into it, but even by playing around with the idea that their zodiac sign affects their personality, they’re perpetuating astrology. In other words, they’re normalizing pseudoscience.
Something that I have never understood but have always been bothered by is that people who are otherwise very logical and skeptical will casually check their horoscopes or take extra cautions while Mercury is retrograde. This calls to mind a man who might not be religious on a normal day, but who will kneel in prayer when tragedy strikes. How can it be reasonable to only allow something to stand up to your scientific standards when you want it to? Almost everyone I’ve come across who has an interest in astrology is against multi-level marketing schemes, organized religion, bigoted nationalism, conspiracy theories, and other forms of science denial. Something about astrology is too tantalizing for people to pass up: it’s “in”, it’s perceived as harmless, and it’s fun whether or not it’s true.
One might think that astrology really is less harmful than the other things I listed. To be clear, I would reluctantly choose to associate myself with someone who is passionate about astrology than with someone who doesn’t wear a mask because they think COVID is a hoax. But that is not to say that astrology is completely harmless, like I used to think. As these otherwise smart people perpetuate astrology and thus normalize pseudoscience, they are cheapening real science.
All forms of pseudoscience are insults to science; they “purport to use the methods and findings of science, while in fact they are faithless to its nature.”2 Everything in astrology fits this definition, down to its very name. I’ve seen far too many embarrassing instances of people confusing astrology with astronomy or even with astrophysics. For the unfamiliar, the similar names can give people the impression that astrology and astronomy are one and the same, when we’ve known they were different for millennia. It doesn’t help that astrology could not exist without leeching off of the findings of astronomy. And you can guess which of the two more people enjoy learning about, despite its innocence of having any educational value whatsoever.
This insult to science by astrology is truly my greatest problem with it. The study of the Cosmos, of the movements of the stars and planets, is incredible and deeply inspiring by itself. The same goes with psychology. The undertaking of knowing oneself, knowing one’s own personality and why one is a certain way, is commendable, and we all ought to strive to do it. But we do that by learning about psychology, speaking to psychologists and therapists, and practicing mindfulness. Astronomy and psychology are both captivating independently, even if they never mix.
The truth is, “We seek a connection with the Cosmos. We want to count in the grand scale of things. And it turns out we are connected—not in the personal, small-scale unimaginative fashion that the astrologers pretended, but in the deepest ways, involving the origin of matter, the habitability of the Earth, [and] the evolution and destiny of the human species.”3 You can call me a cynic if that’s what it means to appreciate the grandeur of the Cosmos and revel in the discoveries that the most intelligent and creative minds in science have revealed using the same skepticism that they use to decry astrology.
Sure, you can go ahead and toy with the idea of your zodiac sign impacting your life. You can normalize pseudoscience and muddle the public’s perception of what science truly is. You can cheapen astronomy and make people second guess their own personalities.
But where’s the fun in that?
- Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, First Ballantine Books Edition (New York, New York: Random House, 1997), 298.
- Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World, 13.
- Carl Sagan, Cosmos, Ballantine Books Trade Paperback Edition (New York, New York: Random House, 1980), 48.