In memoriam astrologiae. Why do academics continue to bury astrology?

In December, the RAS Commission for Combating Pseudoscience pub­lished a new mem­o­ran­dum - “On the pseu­do­science of astrol­o­gy”. For some, this came as a sur­prise due to rumours on the ter­mi­na­tion of the Commission’s activ­i­ties. Others were sur­prised by the choice of top­ic for the mem­o­ran­dum, which seemed irrel­e­vant to the agen­da. We did a kind of back­stage, telling some inter­est­ing facts about the prepa­ra­tion of the mem­o­ran­dum and the work of the Commission. 

1.

On the day of pub­li­ca­tion of the mem­o­ran­dum, even the par­tic­i­pants expressed bewil­der­ment at the choice of top­ic. “Now we can only fight with astrol­o­gy.” “Does astrol­o­gy need to be proven to be pseudoscience?”

Alas, it is nec­es­sary to prove. Actually, the mem­o­ran­dum begins with this: “every sev­enth Russian trusts horo­scopes, and in the United States almost every third per­son believes in astrol­o­gy.” That is, the lies of astrol­o­gy are not obvi­ous to every­one. And even those to whom it is obvi­ous should remem­ber the soci­o­log­i­cal the­o­rem Thomas: “If sit­u­a­tions are defined by peo­ple as real, they are real in their consequences.” 

Of course, against the back­drop of war and dic­ta­tor­ship, belief in astrol­o­gy looks like inno­cent fun. But it is pre­cise­ly mass inad­e­quate beliefs that under­mine com­mon sense and ide­o­log­i­cal guide­lines, facil­i­tat­ing the cyn­i­cal manip­u­la­tion of peo­ple. Of course, no mem­o­ran­dum can con­vince the adher­ents of astrol­o­gy or restore the com­mon sense of an entire coun­try. However, it can give sup­port to those who resist mass psy­chosis: yes, noth­ing has changed, despite cen­sor­ship and moral pan­ic, astrol­o­gy is still a pseu­do­science, and there are peo­ple who don’t call a deer a horse.

2.

But maybe it was worth choos­ing some­thing less obvi­ous non­sense like astrol­o­gy for crit­i­cism? After all, even among the think­ing pub­lic, deep mis­con­cep­tions are wide­spread, for exam­ple, about the caus­es of glob­al warm­ing or meth­ods of con­tain­ing the AIDS epidemic.

In fact, the Commission began work on a mem­o­ran­dum on HIV/​AIDS. However, it soon became clear that the chances of mak­ing a sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly flaw­less state­ment on hot top­ics were becom­ing less and less. Memorandum 2017 “On the pseu­do­science of home­opa­thy” pro­voked a num­ber of law­suits against the Russian Academy of Sciences, mem­bers of the Commission and the media where they were published. 

The attacks were repulsed, but at great cost and with vir­tu­al­ly no help from the RAS. The Academy, in order to avoid new attacks, con­di­tioned the pub­lic state­ments of the Commission on the approval of the Presidium of the Russian Academy of Sciences, which seeks to avoid any aggra­va­tion. Against the back­ground of the pol­i­cy of strength­en­ing the bonds, it was clear that a mem­o­ran­dum on such a com­plex and politi­cized top­ic as the fight against AIDS was unlike­ly to be approved. The top­ic of warm­ing is even more politi­cized - even among the mem­bers of the Commission, con­spir­a­to­r­i­al motives are some­times heard. 

Under nor­mal cir­cum­stances, dif­fi­cult ques­tions would be raised, spark­ing aca­d­e­m­ic and pub­lic debate. But the sit­u­a­tion in soci­ety required an indis­putable state­ment that would not meet resis­tance and, in fact, would allow us to remind soci­ety that com­mon sense has not yet been abol­ished. And here the top­ic of astrol­o­gy came in handy. The approval of the lead­er­ship of the RAS Expert Council (to which the Commission has now been reas­signed) was obtained with­out complications. 

3.

But crit­i­ciz­ing astrol­o­gy is just bor­ing. The argu­ments have been known since Soviet times, if not earlier.

It’s sur­pris­ing, but crit­i­cism of astrol­o­gy con­tin­ues to evolve. After all, astrol­o­gy itself, as a form of busi­ness, also devel­ops based on people’s mis­con­cep­tions. In good books half a cen­tu­ry ago, for exam­ple, in “Renix” Alexandra Kitaigorodsky or “Cosmos”  Carl Sagan, the claims against astrol­o­gy are such that it is not dif­fi­cult for today’s expe­ri­enced char­la­tans to dis­miss them. 

Moreover, in the process of prepar­ing mem­o­ran­da­mind, the work­ing group had to face the fact that a num­ber of state­ments that are usu­al­ly con­sid­ered refu­ta­tions of astrol­o­gy were in fact con­struct­ed method­olog­i­cal­ly incor­rect­ly. This, nat­u­ral­ly, does not mean the reha­bil­i­ta­tion of astrol­o­gy. It’s just that its incon­sis­ten­cy is demon­strat­ed by oth­er argu­ments, and not those that first come to mind.

4.

As it turned out, it is incor­rect to say that astrol­o­gy con­tra­dicts the fun­da­men­tal con­cepts of the nat­ur­al sci­ences. It sim­ply does not con­tain any ideas about the mech­a­nisms of inter­con­nec­tion of phe­nom­e­na that could con­tra­dict something.

In the first draft ver­sions of the mem­o­ran­dum there was a sec­tion on the con­tra­dic­tions of astrol­o­gy with physics and biol­o­gy. It was explained, for exam­ple, that the idea of the influ­ence of the plan­ets on earth­ly events is unten­able, since the force of their influ­ence through any of the four fun­da­men­tal phys­i­cal inter­ac­tions is too small. This means that the “astro­log­i­cal inter­ac­tion” must be some unknown fifth force. However, exper­i­ments also impose strict restric­tions on such a fifth force, so that on the scale of the Solar System it will not be stronger than the oth­ers. Sounds log­i­cal. But…

Under cer­tain con­di­tions, any influ­ence, no mat­ter how weak, can have a sig­nif­i­cant impact. Voyager’s radio trans­mit­ter at the edge of the solar sys­tem reg­u­lar­ly caus­es thou­sands of peo­ple to write texts about it, and mil­lions of peo­ple to read them. Isn’t this an influ­ence on fate? 

Let’s act for a moment as the lawyers of astrol­o­gy: why not assume that in the human brain a mys­te­ri­ous anten­na receives spe­cial sig­nals sent by equal­ly mys­te­ri­ous trans­mit­ters on the plan­ets? After all, our brains receive (albeit with the help of equip­ment) radio sig­nals car­ry­ing, for exam­ple, mil­i­tary pro­pa­gan­da. With their phys­i­cal force, these sig­nals are inca­pable of mov­ing a hair, but with their con­tent they set entire armies in motion. 

Another argu­ment dis­cussed was that the genome and phys­i­o­log­i­cal process­es influ­ence a per­son not only more strong­ly, but also much more selec­tive­ly than any con­ceiv­able influ­ence of dis­tant plan­ets at the moment of birth. Such an impact sim­ply must be indis­crim­i­nate, because the dis­tances between peo­ple are neg­li­gi­ble in com­par­i­son with inter­plan­e­tary ones. This rea­son­ing also seems rea­son­able, until you look at two mobile phones lying next to each oth­er, each of which responds only to its own call. But it seems that we are get­ting car­ried away. 

Who could cre­ate such super-selec­tive anten­nas and trans­mit­ters? Aliens? Striped dev­ils? All this direct­ly con­tra­dicts the pri­ma­cy of nat­u­ral­ness that under­lies sci­ence. Here the lawyer of astrol­o­gy perks up: is the pri­ma­cy of nat­u­ral­ness some kind of dog­mat­ic philo­soph­i­cal prin­ci­ple? Why not believe in the pre-estab­lished har­mo­ny of all things? However, super­sen­si­tive and super­s­e­lec­tive anten­nas could also arise nat­u­ral­ly. The cells of a liv­ing organ­ism are cre­at­ed by evo­lu­tion, but demon­strate the high­est selec­tiv­i­ty: a cat’s sperm will not fer­til­ize a dog’s egg. Checkmate. 

What does this mean? Are we being beat­en with our own argu­ments on our own field? And all because the cho­sen strat­e­gy of crit­i­cism itself is wrong. The deprav­i­ty of astrol­o­gy does not at all lie in the fact that the sup­posed influ­ence of the plan­ets on the des­tinies of peo­ple sup­pos­ed­ly con­tra­dicts physics and biol­o­gy and it is fun­da­men­tal­ly impos­si­ble to find any mech­a­nism for them. Its flaw lies in the fact that it does not attempt to build or test explana­to­ry mod­els of pos­tu­lat­ed connections.

“One of the dif­fi­cul­ties in writ­ing the mem­o­ran­dum was to prove that it was pseu­do­science, since it turned out that astrologers and pseu­do­science don’t have any,” sum­ma­rized this dis­cus­sion by the Chairman of the Commission for Combating Pseudoscience, Academician Evgeny Alexandrov RTVI inter­view. “There is no attempt to jus­ti­fy all this, so it turns out to be some kind of stu­pid­i­ty. We attribute some ideas to them and we our­selves refute them.”

Academician E.B. Alexandrov, Chairman of the Commission for Combating Pseudoscience under the Expert Council of the Russian Academy of Sciences

5.

How can one not recall Johannes Kepler’s state­ment that astrol­o­gy is the fool­ish daugh­ter of the wise moth­er of astron­o­my. By the way, in the process of check­ing this quote with the orig­i­nal source, lit­tle-known details on our top­ic became clear.

In the draft text of the mem­o­ran­dum, Kepler’s phrase was quot­ed from one of the Soviet pub­li­ca­tions. But it soon became clear that there were sev­er­al ver­sions of the quote in dif­fer­ent books, all of them with­out clear attri­bu­tion. Attempts to find a link to the orig­i­nal source in English were also unsuc­cess­ful. Only by alter­nat­ing Google with requests to the AI Claude.ai, we were even­tu­al­ly able to deter­mine that the source was Chapter XII of Kepler’s trea­tise “De stel­la nova”, ded­i­cat­ed to the super­no­va 1604. The trea­tise was pub­lished in Latin in Prague. It is dig­i­tized and pub­licly avail­able. All that remained was to retype the page and trans­late it from Latin, which was done well by the same Claude.

It turned out that Kepler was dis­tract­ed by astrol­o­gy in the mid­dle of his trea­tise on a com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent top­ic. He makes excus­es to the read­ers for refer­ring to the pas­tor’s obser­va­tions David Fabricius who was also an astrologer, and there­fore did not inspire con­fi­dence. And so Kepler explains that stu­pid astrol­o­gy still feeds its wise moth­er astron­o­my. And if it weren’t for the stu­pid inter­est in astrol­o­gy, maybe we would nev­er have grown to study astron­o­my. And most impor­tant­ly, he asks not to neglect Fabricius’s obser­va­tions just because he is inter­est­ed in astrology.

Johann Kepler, “On the new star in the con­stel­la­tion Ophiuchus,” Prague, 1606, p. 59 /​ Johannes Kepler, De stel­la nova in pede Serpentarii, Praga, 1606, p. 59

“It will be use­ful to sup­ple­ment our obser­va­tions with those made by David Fabricius in Ostfriesland - a man tru­ly so out­stand­ing in astron­o­my that after the death of Tycho Brahe he alone has all author­i­ty in the mat­ter of astro­nom­i­cal obser­va­tions. I will­ing­ly con­cede this pri­ma­cy to him, since I myself suf­fer from poor eye­sight. In addi­tion, he has a keen mind in study­ing the move­ments of the plan­ets and is tire­less in con­tem­plat­ing the heav­ens. As for astrol­o­gy, I admit that this man some­times suc­cumbs to the author­i­ty of the ancients and the pas­sion for pre­dic­tion, when these two fac­tors con­verge, and he is, as it were, seized by an enthu­si­asm that leads him away from ratio­nal grounds. But he shares these weak­ness­es with many out­stand­ing sci­en­tists. And for that rea­son alone it deserves for­give­ness. Why do you grum­ble, pam­pered philoso­pher, when a stu­pid daugh­ter, as astrol­o­gy seems to you, sup­ports and feeds with her bab­ble the wis­est moth­er, even a beg­gar, if she does not find her right­ful place among the crowd of peo­ple so far from wis­dom, except through the inter­ces­sion of this sim­ple-mind­ed one? For if some­one had not pre­vi­ous­ly been so gullible as to hope to pre­dict the future from the heav­ens, then you would nev­er have become so wise as to under­stand that astron­o­my (after all, it is unknown) must be stud­ied for its own sake. If only wis­dom had not led us to phi­los­o­phy, we would nev­er have arrived at it. In every admi­ra­tion and in every pas­sion, while they are une­d­u­cat­ed, there is too much van­i­ty; how­ev­er, this van­i­ty at the cross­roads lead­ing to phi­los­o­phy directs those it meets to a beau­ti­ful place. But let’s leave this aside for now, putting it in its prop­er place, and move on to Fabricius’s obser­va­tions them­selves, which I gleaned from his German book, pub­lished in Hamburg, and from the let­ters sent to me. These are his words…” 

From these reser­va­tions of Kepler it becomes clear that already more than four cen­turies ago the very prac­tice of astrol­o­gy was per­ceived by many edu­cat­ed peo­ple as a dis­cred­it­ing fact that under­mined con­fi­dence in the qual­i­fi­ca­tions of the researcher. And this also sounds like an attempt at self-jus­ti­fi­ca­tion by Kepler, who, despite all the under­stand­ing of the stu­pid­i­ty of astro­log­i­cal fore­casts, made them because it allowed him to earn mon­ey to prac­tice his favorite astronomy.

6.

With care­ful sci­en­tif­ic test­ing, it turns out that the reli­a­bil­i­ty of astro­log­i­cal fore­casts and char­ac­ter­is­tics does not exceed ran­dom guess­ing. But it is still impos­si­ble to con­vince the con­vinced with such research.

In sci­ence there is no court that makes final ver­dicts. Therefore, any results can be chal­lenged ad infini­tum if desired. Of course, their sci­en­tif­ic rep­u­ta­tion suf­fers from this, but astrologers have none, and they have noth­ing to lose (except their beliefs and/​or busi­ness). So it would be naive to hope that sci­en­tif­ic works will con­vince those who are inter­est­ed in main­tain­ing their beliefs.

In some cas­es, even the oppo­site effect is pos­si­ble. Still, a labor-inten­sive check of obvi­ous non­sense - not a very attrac­tive job for seri­ous sci­en­tists. At the same time, it seems easy for begin­ners or those who want to pub­lish quick­ly. As a result, in this top­ic there is a fair­ly high chance of encoun­ter­ing weak works. When prepar­ing the mem­o­ran­dum, we had to weed out a num­ber of such arti­cles, although they seemed to con­firm the the­sis about the fail­ure of astrology.

It is even worse when, due to an insuf­fi­cient­ly thor­ough approach, the authors mis­tak­en­ly obtain a result that tes­ti­fies in favor of astrol­o­gy. Astrologers imme­di­ate­ly raise it to the top, as hap­pened with the study men­tioned in the mem­o­ran­dum by Michel Gauquelin, who alleged­ly dis­cov­ered the influ­ence of Mars on ath­letes. Subsequent crit­i­cism with analy­sis of errors no longer attracts as much atten­tion as the orig­i­nal pub­li­ca­tion. In addi­tion, in response to this crit­i­cism, astrologers release their own crit­i­cism, which out­ward­ly also looks like a sci­en­tif­ic arti­cle. All this has been drag­ging on for years, and those who are not in the know get the impres­sion that there is a mean­ing­ful sci­en­tif­ic dis­cus­sion on the issue of the effec­tive­ness of astro­log­i­cal methods. 

This shows that the prob­lem of con­fronting pseu­do­science can­not be viewed as a dis­pute about sci­en­tif­ic cor­rect­ness. Such dis­putes are pos­si­ble between sci­en­tists who val­ue their rep­u­ta­tion, share the norms of sci­en­tif­ic ethics and are inter­est­ed in obtain­ing knowl­edge, and not in defend­ing their opin­ion at any cost. When faced with strong objec­tions, they admit their mis­takes and begin to look for new ways. Polemics with pseu­do­science are of a com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent kind. It lies in the socio-psy­cho­log­i­cal sphere, is con­duct­ed in pub­lic and is moti­vat­ed (at least on the one hand) by extra-sci­en­tif­ic inter­ests. Therefore, sci­en­tif­ic argu­men­ta­tion by itself often does not achieve the goal here, and it is nec­es­sary to turn to the meth­ods of pub­lic polemics.

7.

The issuance of mem­o­ran­da by the Commission was con­ceived pre­cise­ly as a method of pub­lic debate, but while main­tain­ing the aca­d­e­m­ic qual­i­ty of exe­cu­tion. But this turned out to be much more labor-inten­sive than orig­i­nal­ly expected.

Memoranda as a for­mat for the Commission’s pub­li­ca­tions were pro­posed at the end of 2015. Then they were seen as short state­ments of 1-2 pages, which were pre­pared by a cou­ple of peo­ple: a spe­cial­ist author and an edi­tor-jour­nal­ist. It was expect­ed that the mem­o­ran­dum could be pre­pared in a few days. 

However, this is the first such doc­u­ment - about the pseu­do­science of der­mato­glyph­ic per­son­al­i­ty test­ing - grew to 14 pages with 6 appen­dices on anoth­er 30 pages. Its prepa­ra­tion last­ed almost six months, and two dozen peo­ple took part in it. 

This time the work was car­ried out inter­mit­tent­ly and last­ed almost two years. But it was worth it: with­in two days after the pub­li­ca­tion of the mem­o­ran­dum, about 90 dif­fer­ent media out­lets report­ed about it. I would like to hope that the mem­o­ran­dum “On the pseu­do­science of astrol­o­gy” will become a con­tri­bu­tion to the latent­ly grow­ing demand in Russia for ade­qua­cy, which has been sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly under­mined in recent years decades. 

Text: Alexander Sergeev

  22.12.2023

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