On astrology

Jennifer Raff —  May 25, 2013 — 2 Comments
From my visit to the Very Large Array at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (http://www.vla.nrao.edu/) last year. One of the most amazing places I've ever been.

From my visit to the Very Large Array at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (http://www.vla.nrao.edu/) last year. One of the most amazing places I’ve ever been.

I was reading an insipid article this morning, and became curious as to how many people actually find astrology meaningful. The easiest metric at 7 am on a Saturday morning is (naturally) Twitter, so I checked out the account of an astrology author, Terry Nazon: 73,266 followers.
Ms. Nazon seems to be trying to emphasize the importance of astrology in our culture through the most recent tweet of hers:

“There are about 10,000 professional astrologers in America & only 3,000 professional astronomers”

I don’t know if that’s true or not (Ms. Nazon didn’t cite her source, so I’m skeptical), but her popularity and that of astrology in general is something that ought to make me depressed. But it doesn’t at all, and I’ll explain why at the end of the post.

Are you the sort of person who checks his/her horoscope all the time? Do you believe the stars influence your life? Or do you think it’s pretty silly, but occasionally on the mark, and what’s the harm in reading it for fun anyway?

If so, I invite you to watch Carl Sagan talk about this here:

Astrology devolved into a strange discipline: a mixture of careful observations, mathematics and record keeping with fuzzy thinking and pious fraud. Nevertheless, astrology survived and flourished. Why? Because it seems to lend a cosmic significance to the routine of our daily lives. It pretends to satisfy our longing to feel personally connected with the Universe. Astrology suggests a dangerous fatalism. If our lives are controlled by a set of traffic signals in the sky, why try to change anything?

As Sagan points out, astrology has already been tested rigorously many times. If astrology actually works in a meaningful way, why do people born at the same time (even twins!) have such different life outcomes? The truth is, it’s simply a series of vague statements that people imagine are tailored specifically to them.

I recently saw someone online use an analogy (for love) that I think applies to this very well. There are stories (I hope urban legends) of people filling hummingbird feeders with artificial sweeteners. The birds crave the sweetness and keep drinking from the feeder, but they are provided with no calories and eventually starve to death. I think that astrology is similar to the artificial sweetener. It fools you into thinking that you’re receiving meaning and validation from an external source, but you’re not deriving any true nourishment from it.

If you are relying on astrology to give your life meaning, you are rejecting the understanding of the cosmos that has been developed in the centuries since. Let me gently suggest that there are better, more honest ways of finding connections with a remarkable universe. We have unprecedented access to the world’s greatest astronomers through Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, and blogging, and they are eager to share their knowledge with you.
For example, here and here

I invite you to open your mind a bit, see what they have to say, and you might find that your daily horoscope seems pretty goofy in comparison to how we are actually connected with the Universe.

I mentioned at the beginning of this post that I wasn’t depressed by how many followers Ms. Nazon has on Twitter. Why is that? Because in comparison to her paltry 73,000 followers, Chris Hadfield (@Cmdr_Hadfield), the Canadian astronaut/astronomer/science educator who has just recently returned to Earth from a long expedition to the International Space Station has almost a million followers. Nearly one million people are learning from his remarkable photos and experiences. If we’re pretending that Twitter popularity is a reasonable metric of influence, I think that there’s reason to be optimistic that science wins over superstition.

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Jennifer Raff

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Scientist, fighter, reader. In pursuit of the extraordinary.

2 responses to On astrology

  1. 
    charlamarshmallow May 28, 2013 at 10:18 pm

    When I read this, I thought of the parallels that can be drawn between astrology and fad diets. External validation, guidance, input, direction… I’d love to hear your thoughts on the Paleo diet. (Easy target, I know.)

  2. 

    I’m not a nutritionist, so I can’t comment on the health merits of this or any other diet. Anecdotally (for whatever that’s worth), I know many people who get a lot of benefit out of it….but I know just as many incredibly healthy and fit vegans/vegetarians (and one could argue that being meatless is a far better choice on moral grounds). I do take issue with the ‘paleofantasy’ aspect, since it’s founded on some pretty ridiculous notions of how ancient peoples lived. This is a very decent look at the issue: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=why-paleo-diet-half-baked-how-hunter-gatherer-really-eat

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