Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Monday, August 15, 2011

It's written in the stars

TODAY'S HOROSCOPE: Scorpio (October 23-November 21)

Your foundations are more important than you realize.  When you feel secure, nothing will bother you. If you are upset, everything could.  You are inspired by those close to you.  Understanding comes easily.  Tonight: Happiest at home.

Well, that certainly clears up my future.  Let's see if we can summarize the wisdom we have accrued from this entry:

1) If I'm secure, then I'm pretty secure.
2) If I'm not secure, then I'm not feeling very secure.
3) I have reasons for liking the people I'm close to.
4) I'm a pretty smart guy.
5) I better stay home tonight; if I don't, then wow, anything could happen.

Of course, this only applies to me because I'm a Scorpio.  If I was a different astrological sign, my horoscope would have been different, and (I'm sure) just as revealing.

Now, all astrology is based upon the positions of the moon and planets relative to twelve of the eighty-eight constellations.  The constellations, which were devised by extremely nearsighted ancient Greeks, are arrangements of stars that are supposed to look like something familiar.  So we have, for example, the Scorpion, the Bull, the Ram, and the Virgin (the last-mentioned has always made me wonder, how can they tell?).  I don't know how many of you are amateur star-gazers, but it occurs to me that the patterns of stars in the constellations don't really resemble what they're supposed to be all that much.  Libra, for example, is the Balance (whether it's an old-fashioned double-pan balance, a triple-beam balance, or a digital scale that reads to thousandths of a gram is unclear).  Now, in point of fact, Libra is made of four stars arranged in a lopsided quadrilateral.  If four stars in a lopsided quadrilateral could be the Balance, they could be damn near anything.  It could equally well be the constellation of the Computer Monitor, the Street Sign, or the Wombat.  But no, it's the Balance, and this is why supposedly Libras like to have things all nice and neat and organized, and hate it when a picture is hung crooked.

Now, why anyone thinks that the positions of the planets relative to an arbitrary arrangement of stars could have anything to do with your personality, future plans, or relationships, is an open question.  However, a recent Washington Post survey indicates that 32% of Americans do believe in astrology, and consider it "very scientific."  In my opinion, astrology is only slightly more scientific than the theory that thunder is caused by god and the angels having a bowling tournament.

Maybe I'm odd (okay, it's very likely that I'm odd), but whenever I run up against something like astrology, my first demand is "show me the mechanism."  If you believe that Jupiter's apparent position relative to a group of stars of varying distances from the earth (ranging from tens to hundreds of light-years), whose configuration is vaguely reminiscent of a guy carrying a water jug (Aquarius), has some effect on your day-to-day life, then show me how it works.  And vague, hand-waving "explanations" about "forces" and "energies" won't cut it. If you believe astrology is "very scientific," then explain the science.

Some astrologers evidently have made lame attempts to do just that, usually making appeal to the gravitational pull of the planets, stars, and so on.  But as Carl Sagan points out, the obstetrician was exerting a greater gravitational pull on you when you were born than Jupiter was, and we don't go around blathering about being born under the sign of Dr. Felkenberger.  ("Yes, everyone knows we Felkenbergers are highly intelligent, sensitive people, who like Thai food and listen to opera.")  Others claim some sort of Tao-of-Physics kind of approach, that the constellations influence your Quantum State at Birth and Exert Mystical Action at a Distance.

Yeah.  Okay.  That explains everything.  I bet my Quantum State at Birth was: I was a baby.  I probably cried a lot.  And I doubt that the fact that the Moon was in Capricorn at the time had a damn thing to do with it.

Yet despite this appalling lack of a plausible mechanism, many folks believe fervently in astrology.  And some people make lots of money off of it.  (It might be nonsense, but it can be highly lucrative nonsense.)  The same also applies to a lot of other kinds of baloney,  however.  People also believe in numerology.  And homeopathy.  And clairvoyance.  And auras.  And crystal energies.  (My dad was an amateur rockhound, and so I have a ton of his cool rocks and minerals around the house.  One time, a woman was visiting us, and picked up an amethyst crystal my dad had found in Arizona, and said, "Oooh, this one has amazingly strong energies!  I can feel its vibrations."  It was an effort not to guffaw right in her face.)

So anyway, if anyone can explain to me why astrology isn't a bunch of malarkey, I'd love to hear your explanation.  Until then, I'm of the opinion that it's certifiable 100% USDA Grade-A Bullshit.   And I probably will go out tonight, just to spite the stars.

1 comment:

  1. I'll preface this by saying the only reason that I would ever give any of this the time of day is because my Mercury is in Aquarius. (Deliberate circular reasoning there, haha). In short, if enough people believe it, then it's DOING SOMETHING regardless of whether it's 'real.' One of my problems is that I kinda LIKE dabbling in these many ridiculous systems of thought that people put stock in. Worst thing this could come off as is a defense!

    Obviously astrology doesn't resemble contemporary science or anything that the scientific method has led the rational to believe. No way. BUT I guess I'd argue that it's structured like a lot of scienceS (plural) that have occurred throughout history (Humorism? Alchemy? Phrenology?) in that it provides a detailed and needlessly complicated account of why things are the way they are. Pop astrology, like what appears in the newspaper, would never hint at astrology's complexity. While still not remotely valid, my response COULD be that the focus of daily astrology should be oriented around your moon sign (which fewer people know) rather than your sun sign, because the sun sign relates more to the arc of your life than your daily habits. Or whatever; the point is needless complexity adds a new layer that the 'expert' can use to address some nuance that most people aren't familiar with.

    Why anyone should even start down that road--that the alignment of stars means anything personally--in the first place is the trickier question. As you pointed out, it's the DISTANCE between us and the stars that really bothers most people. Unless it involves dark matter or something, 'energies' indeed do not cut it. So here's an alternate (more proximal) possibility that could be coincidentally related:

    I am a Capricorn. Capricorns are supposed to be "cold" and rational, occasionally at the expense of human relationships. Perhaps this has something to do with their first experience of the world being the dead of winter?

    Leos, born in high summer, are supposed to be one of the most generous and communal signs. Virgos, born just as the weather starts to get cold, are supposed to be a more conservative and nesting-oriented sign.

    I got this idea from reading about "Cardinal" "Fixed" and "Mutable" signs, which actually relates to whether someone was born at the beginning, middle, or end of a season. It's one of the parts of astrology that makes a little more sense to me, because I can see how one's psychology could be permanently affected when the world (and everyone in it) is particularly inviting or uninviting at your birth. No stars necessary!

    But on the "needlessly complicated"/"Grade-A Bullshit" end of the spectrum, God forbid I should fail to warn you about Sabian Symbols. Here's some food for your outrage: