© 1988, Astronomical Society of the Pacific, 390 Ashton Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94112
Furthermore, astrology is only one of a number of pseudo-scientific beliefs whose uncritical acceptance by the media and the public has contributed to a disturbing lack of skepticism among youngsters (and, apparently, presidents) in the U.S. Many teachers feel that it is beneath our dignity to address topics like this in our courses or periods on science. Unfortunately, by failing to encourage healthy doubt and critical thinking in our children, we may be raising a generation that is willing to believe just about any far-fetched claim printed in the newspapers or reported on television.
We therefore devote this issue of The Universe in the Classroom to information about debunking astrology and using student interest in such "fiction sciences'' to help encourage critical thinking and illustrate the use of the scientific method.
The reason the astrologers still adhere to the moment of birth has little to do with astrological "theory''. The simple fact is, almost everyone knows his or her moment of birth — but it is difficult (and perhaps embarrassing) to find out one's moment of conception.
But anyone who knows the history of astronomy can tell you that the most distant known planets — Uranus, Neptune and Pluto — were not discovered until 1781, 1846, and 1930, respectively. So why weren't all the horoscopes done before 1930 incorrect, since the astrologers before that time were missing at least one planet from their inventory of important influences? Moreover, why did the problems or inaccuracies in early horoscopes not lead astrologers to "sense'' the presence of these planets long before astronomers discovered them?
Furthermore, if the astrological influences do not depend on distance, why don't we have to consider the influences of other stars and even galaxies in doing a horoscope? What inadequate horoscopes we are getting if the influence of Sirius and the Andromeda Galaxy are omitted! (Of course, since there are billions of stars in our Galaxy and billions of other galaxies, no astrologer could ever hope to finish a horoscope that took all their influences into consideration.)
One can see how the astrological world view might have been appealing thousands of years ago when astrology first arose. In those days, humanity was terrified of the often unpredictable forces of nature and searched desperately for regularities, signs, and portents from the heavens that would help them guide their lives. Those were days of magic and superstition, when the skies were thought to be the domain of gods or spirits, whose whims humans had to understand — or at least have some warning of — if they were to survive.
But today, when our spacecraft have traveled to the planets and have explored them in some detail, our view of the universe is very different. We know that the planets are other worlds and the stars other Suns — physical bodies that are incredibly remote and mercifully unconcerned with the daily lives of creatures on our small planet. No amount of scientific-sounding jargon or computerized calculations by astrologers can disguise this central problem with astrology — we can find no evidence of a mechanism by which celestial objects can influence us in so specific and personal a way.
In the real world, it is quite simple to calculate the planetary influences on a new-born baby. The only known force that is acting over interplanetary distances in any significant way is gravity. So we might compare the pull of a neighbor planet like Mars with other influences on the baby. It turns out that the gravitational pull of the obstetrician is significantly greater than that of Mars. (And the hospital building — unless the baby happens to be in the exact geometric center of it — has an even greater pull than the doctor!) For those classes that would like to work out such calculations for themselves, formulas and examples can be found in the book by Culver & Ianna cited in the Resource Corner.
Astrologers always claim to be just a little too busy to carry out such careful tests of their efficacy, so in the last two decades scientists and statisticians have generously done such testing for them. There have been dozens of well-designed tests all around the world, and astrology has failed all of them. (See the Resource Corner for more on these tests and the Activities Corner for some experiments you can do with your students.)
For example, psychologist Bernard Silverman of Michigan State University looked at 2,978 marriages and 478 divorces for 1967 and 1968 to see if "compatible'' astrological signs were more likely to get and stay together. He found that there was no correlation — compatible and incompatible signs got married and divorced equally often. In another test, staff members at the U.S. Geological Survey analyzed 240 earthquake predictions by 27 astrologers and found that they were less accurate than one could be by simply guessing! And so each of the tests has gone.
In addition, astronomers Roger Culver and Philip Ianna (reference) tracked the specific published predictions of well-known astrologers and astrological organizations for a period of five years. Out of over 3000 specific predictions (including many about politics, film stars, and other famous people) in their sample, only about 10% came to pass.
If reading the stars has led astrologers to incorrect predictions nine times out of ten, they hardly seem like reliable guides to the uncertainties of life or the affairs of our country. Perhaps we should let those beckoning lights in the sky awaken our students' interest in the real (and fascinating) universe beyond our planet, and not permit them to be tied to an ancient fantasy left over from a time when we huddled by the firelight, afraid of the night.
For many of these tests, it is useful to gather a large sample of data for statistical purposes. In some schools, where one class does not have enough students or time to gather all the necessary data, other classes and family members have sometimes been drawn into the study.
One test would be for the class to send a survey to people in the profession they selected, asking for their birth dates. (You should be sure the students explain why they want the information, discuss the approach, and enclose a stamped self-addressed envelope.) Another way to gather data — at least for people who are well-known — is to look in leadership directories, such as Who's Who in American Politics and correlate birthdays and professions. It's important to gather enough examples so that statistical quirks begin to average out in your sample.
Large-scale tests like these have revealed no correlation between signs and professions — the members of a given profession are pretty evenly spread among all the signs of the zodiac.
(Thanks to Diane Almgren, Broomfield, CO; Daniel Helm, Phoenix, AZ; and Dennis Schatz of the Pacific Science Center in Seattle, WA for suggestions.)
fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves...''
Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, Act 1, Scene 2.
Resource CornerTo read more about astrology, we suggest:
Astrology: True or False by Roger Culver and Philip Ianna (1988, Prometheus Books, 700 E. Amherst St., Buffalo, NY 14215) — The best book on this subject.
"A Double-Blind Test of Astrology'' by Shawn Carlson in Nature, vol. 318, p.419 (5 Dec 1985) — A report on a sophisticated test of astrologers in a scientific journal.
Science and the Paranormal ed. George Abell & Barry Singer (1981, Scribners) — A general introduction to debunking a number of "fiction sciences''
Science Confronts the Paranormal and Paranormal Borderlands of Science (Prometheus Books), two excellent collections of articles from The Skeptical Inquirer magazine, provide superb ammunition to use against many pseudoscientific claims, including UFO's as extraterrestrial spacecraft and ancient astronauts coming here to help us start civilization (because our ancestors were too dumb to do it themselves!)
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