Yeah, I made a Black Eyed Peas reference and a non-ad-hominem attack in the title. Whatcha gonna do about it?
I’ll be cross-posting everything below the fold at his site and will add the link here momentarily. I’ve cross-posted it here, though it’s apparently still in moderation due to the copious amount of links. Update: Jamie has pulled it out of the spam queue, right here. He edited it down to a link back here. Color me underwhelmed.
As I’m cross-posting, I plan on adding images and other kitsch to my post here to break up the wall-of-text effect, after the fact. I’ll save my most sarcastic commentary for their captions, naturally.
Brace yourselves. This is gonna be another long one.
Jamie Funk, of Funk Astrology, saw my post linking to his postdiction of the BP oil spill at Deepwater Horizon via the trackback I left enabled, and saw it as a glove across the face. He has invited me to debate with him over at his blog, ostensibly as it would “get my message to a larger audience”. I suspect rather it’s so that I would be forced to air my concerns about astrology in front of a hostile audience, one that’s already primed to believe astrology to be unimpeachable and supported by ample historical evidence, with many recorded “hits” and very few recorded “misses”. I will be cross-posting this post as a comment on his blog, in direct response to his invitation, and I strongly encourage proper, reasoned debate, with the understanding that I’m not terribly interested in what makes your special brand of astrology different from all the others, but rather am interested in proof that astrology as a field could have any kind of verifiable, falsifiable effect on humanity.
Any argument I can make against astrology, because the field is comprised of so many competing and conflicting arguments about specific methodologies, can be shrugged off with a simple “but that’s not what MY astrology says!” So, there’s a bit of a draw, in my mind, toward creating another overarching deconstruction of astrology along the same lines as my recent Why Prayer is Nonsense series. Others have done it so much more proficiently. There are even peer-reviewed scientific papers that deconstruct the whole concept. However, I’m aware that very few of these resources are going to be utilized by the majority of the readers of this post. The Dunning-Kruger Effect is very likely to dissuade many of Funk’s readers from even making an attempt at reading this (admittedly long) comment, much less honestly analyzing the arguments or falling into one of several counterpoints I hope to mention below.
I’ve made mention in the previous post of the concept of a pseudo-random number generator (PRNG). It’s a computer term, and the name is slightly misleading. In terms of using a computer to generate a random number, it’s pretty much impossible to guarantee randomness in this deterministic universe in which we live. The closest thing we can manage is to build formulae that take a defined bit of input (a “seed”), and output a seemingly random number. However, given the same seed, the PRNG will generate the same sequence of numbers every single time. So, it’s not REALLY random — it’s a mathematical formula that gives you the same result every time you feed in the same numbers. The word “random” doesn’t imply that you’re throwing dice when you draw up a natal chart. On the contrary — if you’re following the same rules and use the correct planets and locations and dates every time you draw up a chart, you’ll end up with the same results.
Natal charts function, approximately, as follows. The sun signs are placed around a circle, degree marks notching off the full 360 degrees in a slight simplification of the actual heavens, and based on whatever “house rules” you or your astrologer happens to use for your calculations, you mark where the planets were at a specific time and on a specific location on Earth. You then take those planets’ relative alignments and see what neat geometrical patterns you can find in them — the aforementioned Yods or Y-shapes, quincunxes, and a whole host of other configurations. You also take note of what houses the planets land in, and you get to work interpreting these auspicious correlations. It is as much art as science at this point — you can choose either to employ specific historical aspects for planets and the houses they land in, or you can make up some of your own, e.g. ignoring the sun sign as anything other than a convenient placeholder, a la Kepler.
Most astrologers like to ascribe the classical conception of the gods that particular planets were named after — e.g., Mars, despite being a barren and cold rustball, symbolizes war and passion and courage and heat. Pluto, despite being incredibly distant and so small as to be demoted to a dwarf planet, has all the influence of the god of the Underworld, driving evolution and life by meting out death and change (and for some reason, sex). To make matters more complicated and the results more elegant, each planet is associated with a gender, as with each star sign, and the combinations of genders also modify your results.
Every additional layer of information added to the formula increases the amount of interpretation that can be done on the results, and therefore to the amount of possible predictions that can be made. Because of the vast range of potentialities in any single set of aspects, you’d be hard pressed to find two astrologers who predict the same thing with the same chart. And results often include “X’s place in Y house may complicate/modify Z” giving every prediction a fuzzy margin against which you can lean when it turns out your predictions didn’t quite work. It’s only ever just enough to mask the misses, but never enough to sully the hits.
The pseudo-random number generator of natal astrology is deep enough that it will produce a very… VERY large range of configurations, which is a necessary prerequisite for any engine at the center of a machine that can ostensibly predict basically anything in the world. It’s like having a billion-sided die, in terms of randomness, even if the specific configurations can be predicted and calculated through known and duplicable methods.
The problem I have with astrology has nothing to do with what I’ve mentioned above. In fact, I have a sympathy for the idea of it — it all makes so much sense, if you just accept that the planets must have some sort of effect. That’s where it loses me, though. The whole thing pre-supposes an effect, one that can’t be measured, detected or verified.
In most fields of human knowledge, the process generally goes as follows:
- Observe an effect
- Test to see if the effect is real, and keep testing until you’re certain
- Measure the effect
- Try to figure out what causes it
- Make predictions based on the data you’ve collected in the previous steps
Astrology works on the assumption that the position of the planets and other celestial bodies has a tangible effect on the course of human events. It was built off of portends and omens, people trying to detect agency in jarring events like natural disasters and political upheaval. The second step listed above was never really done. It could be done easily — for instance, if you think for instance that Mars has a role in causing wars, find wars where Mars wasn’t in a position to influence. Or, conversely, find situations where Mars could theoretically cause a war, but didn’t. Remember the “misses”, as well as the “hits”, when you look at the sum total of all the predictions ever made. When Mercury goes retrograde, do you remember all the times Windows didn’t crash? Do you remember all the times Windows crashed when it wasn’t in retrograde? Did you count those as misses, or did you count them as the normal course of events? Did you ever tally up how often Windows crashes during the course of your computer’s lifespan, and see if there IS a statistical jump when Mercury’s doing its back-swing?
And if someone handwaves away the misses by claiming to have made a calculating error, or to have underestimated the influence of a particular celestial body, remember that as a miss, not a hit. Recognize it as a post-hoc rationalization, a “cooking the books” so to speak. Realize when a claim to superior knowledge becomes unfalsifiable — when it’s impossible to DISprove something because the goalposts move. And if you can think to do so, remember the times when you could predict something based on other factors — such as a several-year-old refridgerator fuse being due to blow out — and you went and ascribed that event to some magical influence from a planet, when old refridgerator fuses happen to blow every single day somewhere on Earth.
Astrology also skips part three, wherein effects are measured. Sure, there’s a ton of different aspects that can show up, but what effect does each one have? Is a quincunx a multiplier? How much of a multiplier? And how much potency does each planet have? What unit of measurement is used to determine how powerful a particular planet’s influence is?
And for that matter, what IS the planet’s influence? Astrology also skips part 4, in either postulating heretofore unknown and unmeasurable energies. We know that in this universe, by our current model of physics (without which much of the technology we enjoy today would not exist), there are only four fundamental “forces” — that is, four types of energy that can be transmitted between objects at a distance. There’s the weak force, the strong force, electromagnetic force, and gravitational force. The weak and strong forces act within the scope of atoms, and by the time you’re a billionth of a metre away from it, it ceases to have any effect whatsoever. One holds atoms together, and the other peels them apart via kickstarting the process of radiation.
Gravity is an obvious choice for a force, since we have empirical evidence that it can have an effect over very great distances. It’s powerful enough to bend light, even. However, in the context of the universe around us, the moon is the only celestial object near enough to perturb our orbit around the sun. It drives the tides that churn up the oceans and allow sea life to survive on the nutrients that get picked up from the sediment on the sea floor. And the sun has 99% of the mass of our solar system, so between it and the moon, any gravitational influence felt by an object as distant of Pluto is negligible. In fact, as Carl Sagan said in Cosmos, the gravity of the obstetrician is far greater than the gravity of Pluto when you were born — born in the hospital that is today possible thanks to the technology we’ve created with our scientific understanding of this universe.
And if you want to go the electromagnetic route, well, not every object has an electromagnetic field. Not every object is large enough or still hot enough internally to have a molten core, much less one with a solid nickel-iron alloy inner core that’s probably generating our electromagnetic field via the dynamo action from our angular momentum. And any electromagnetic influence in our solar system would be completely drowned out by the one celestial body upon which all life on this planet depends: the sun. The life-giving radiation of the sun wouldn’t exist without the nuclear inferno driving the sun, which generates an electromagnetic field large enough that a stray solar flare could wipe out our orbital satellites even if all the “fire” had long since dissipated in its eight-minute trip across space to reach us.
Which brings to bear another failing of astrology: how can tiny, distant objects have equal bearing on individual lives on Earth to the very close or very powerful ones like the moon and sun, at such a great distance? If every other force known to humankind diminishes over distance, but astrology posits that the planets have some effect that does NOT diminish over distance, then what of the fact that there are over a billion asteroids in our solar system that are over 100m across? That there are objects bigger than Pluto in our neighborhood, like Eris, which is three times further from the sun than Pluto; objects of approximately the same size and distance, like Makemake, which is at a steep incline compared to the rest of the solar system’s orbital plane; or objects like Sedna, which takes 12,000 years to orbit the sun but does so at such a strange incline that it is sometimes closer than Eris, most of the time not? What about the fact that there are 464 known extrasolar planets (at time of writing), and that’s just around stars we’ve investigated so far? What about the fact that there are hundreds of billions of stars in our galaxy, and hundreds of billions of visible galaxies in the visible part of the universe? Do those planets and stars have an effect? Does it decrease over distance? How quickly does it decrease? And did you just make up those numbers, since you have never bothered to measure or even verify that there’s an effect to be had? What about the mere fact that the position of any particular object you see, is lagged by the time it took for light to bounce off it and return to Earth, so you don’t actually know where it is NOW except by mathematical calculations that were probably never included in your already complicated pseudo-random number generators?
So there is, ultimately, no force that astrology can point to, to explain how distant planets can have any kind of effect; and there are too many distant planets and stars that your planetary effect cannot account for. The error bars on any of your calculations are so great that you’re probably just guessing anyway. There’s too much noise for any signal to come through, and nobody’s bothered to check to see if what you’re seeing is ACTUALLY signal, or if you’re reading tea-leaves. That is to say, you’re seeing the Virgin Mary in toast. Um, it’s saying you can read lumps on someone’s head and determine what kind of person they are. Err, I mean, you’re looking at a sorta-random pattern, and instead of marvelling at the fact that we’ve figured out how to predict how the pattern will proceed mathematically, you’re trying to tell me that it can predict things. I sense I’m losing my audience here, so I ought to wrap up.
If anything in the above explanation is incorrect in the context of astrology, I apologize. The point was not to make a caricature of your deeply held beliefs. It was to show that they are unfounded entirely. That I don’t understand what the Moon being in Virgo means in your field should not obfuscate the fact that the Moon only has influence over our tides, not our fates. I am acutely aware that you will probably not come out of having read the above, thinking anything other than that I am a poor deluded fool — I mean, you have your livelihood to defend, and you’ve invested too much of your life in this concept for it to turn out to be wrong. If you think that about me though, don’t be surprised if others think the same about you.
And understand that, if there were any kind of verifiable, measurable effect, if you could show me some evidence of what’s causing the effect, how it works, and make some predictions that couldn’t be ascribed to pure chance or keen understanding of local political, meteorological or social events, then you could convert me. You just have to show how it works scientifically. That shouldn’t be hard to do, if these planets have such a huge influence and if Jamie Funk is everything he says he is.
Johannes Kepler’s great achievement was not his astrological predictions. It was that he figured out some very hairy math about Mercury’s orbit, and helped to break humankind’s insistence that the universe is geocentric with fixed circular orbits of the planets, and a solid firmament sphere encompassing it. I am happy that astrology has assisted in turning stargazing into science, and I am happy at all the knowledge about the nature of our universe that we’ve since achieved. However, it’s time to put astrology back on the shelf. It’s outlived its usefulness in driving people to look up at the stars.
Now we have real reasons to look up at the stars — to discover more about our universe, and to do so with a truly open mind. Let the universe tell us its story. Be satisfied with the real answers it gives, and go only where the evidence leads, not where you wish it would lead. Every bit of the real science I’ve discussed (though in most cases grossly oversimplified) was directly derived from this evidence. And every bit of it is so amazing, I’m surprised anyone looks at the universe as it stands and determines that it is insufficient, that there “must be something more”.
Thanks for your time, and let the stone-throwing begin.
Religious Prophecies and Confirmation Bias, over at Atheist Climber. VERY related, despite the misleading title. At the very least, check out the James Randi video.