When the planets align

There are hundreds of thousands of people in the Sacramento area, and we see thousands of people every day we venture out. So it may only be a mathematical consequence, a convergence of various chances that results in the inevitability that we may run into someone that we know, however unexpected it may be. Nevertheless, our human minds seem to ignore mathematical realities when the unlikeliest of people turn up. At Trader Joe’s, I ran into Michael Mercury.

Who? Well, for those who have read my old Aggie columns, you may remember him as the astrologer who gave me the first taste of radio. It all started when the Aggie started cutting the Science & Technology page for budget reasons. The SciTech desk had a rough start, and didn’t appear in the paper a few times. Because mine was the column on the SciTech page, that meant that it was to be cut as well.

The editor-in-chief, Fitz Vo, agreed that it wasn’t fair to cut my column every time, so my column ran once without the page. But I started looking around the paper thinking, what’s so important that the SciTech page has to get cut every time there’s not enough money? Then I see the astrology column written by Michael Mercury. Granted, my initial motivations were selfish in nature, but then I became interested, should newspapers run horoscopes?

People read the horoscope, mainly for laughs and to see how inaccurate it can be sometimes, but there are still a lot of people who adhere to it, thinking that their decisions are best made on the positions of the planets. I started thinking, on what basis do the various claims made by astrology have any grounding in reality?

I called up Michael Mercury to ask him some questions about astrology, whether he knew of any scientific studies that suported it. I had assumed that he was another student, but I found instead that he had seen quite a few more moons than I had. After hearing quite a bit of history behind astrology, including the fact that the Catholic Church still devotes attention to astrology, (I thought it was a new-agey thing) we got down to the real dirt. He said he wasn’t very interested in studies that have been done on it.

So I started looking them up. I found stuff done by various universities, and also some stuff conducted by the military. Yes, there is nothing the military won’t try to get an edge on the enemy. They were interested in associating birthdates with leaders. No dice. Every single careful study done on astrology has resulted in one combination of the following: No correlations between the movements of planets and human events, no associations between personality types and birthdates, and the inability of astrologers to associate birthdates with people, real or imaginary, including general personality types (artificial) that astrology attaches to the twelve signs.

In other words, no evidence. No accuracy, precision, consistency nor repeatability. But a lot of claims, declarations, predictions, and ad hoc hypotheses (excuses made up on the fly) as to why they didn’t pan out. And like a broken clock, plenty of confirmation bias whenever something happens to be right.

I wanted to write something about astrology. My editor suggested writing about it under the general topic of what is science? This is the first column that came out of it:

An analytical point of view

February 19, 2003 – I have focused my attentions each week on various topics in science and debunking pseudoscience, but without really addressing what separates the two. Astrology is thought by some to be a science, while the scientists disagree. Why? The answer is rooted in what makes a science.

Science and mythology have their roots in basic human curiosity. A question such as “Why does the sun rise every day?” would be trivial today, but thousands of years ago we could only guess with stories and myths. Until the Copernican Revolution, the Aristotelian view that the Earth was the center of the universe was the popular viewpoint.

It was at this time that science diverged from mythology when Galileo argued that observation was the key to understanding the universe. He made use of the telescope, a new tool (which he did not invent) that allowed him to see what no one was able to observe before. Authoritarianism dissolved to make way for observation as the basis for knowledge. The sun doesn’t rise — the Earth rotates.

“Science” means knowledge. If we know something, it is a scientific fact, and in order to know something there must be evidence. If you claim that W causes X, the burden of proof — of evidence — is on you. Statistics can be of some aid to discovering associations, but they do not prove that W causes X, and they are often misused to prove false claims.

Science is a methodology. Observe, hypothesize, test, retest, and modify the hypothesis. It can be carried out in a laboratory under controlled conditions, or out in the field recording the current state of a system. But in any case, science is the study of the natural world, the refining of our understanding of natural laws.

There are some misconceptions about what science is. I often hear half-baked challenges like “science cannot define life.” Well, it is the domain of philosophy to define terms such as life, not science. Science can demonstrate whether or not something is alive once life itself has been defined.

Science is not based on authority, but on peer review, where anybody can evaluate the evidence for or against a claim. A self-proclaimed “New Galileo” will tout their degree as a basis for the veracity of their claims, but even the most accomplished of scientists may believe something that is false. Galileo could not accept that the moon caused the tides, and Einstein did not accept quantum mechanics.

I called and interviewed The California Aggie’s horoscope writer, Michael Mercury, to get his opinions on the matter of astrology. Although we disagree on its accuracy, we both agree that it is not a science. But he said that thousands of years of “mere trial, error, and observation” produced astrology, which sounds very much like the scientific method. Though he said it was not, in other statements he showed that he considered it to be the equivalent of a science.

At the least, statistical studies of astrology are inconclusive, and at the most, disprove some aspect of it. Mercury said that the institution of medicine refuses to acknowledge astrology in their “sacred science.” This attack on the methodology of science is what usually happens when science disproves something.

What astrologers are most at a loss in explaining is how the positions of celestial bodies actually affect us. Gravity and magnetism were postulated, but those influences from objects on the Earth have greater effects. Mercury did not want to propose how the planets affect us, nor did he think it mattered, which reflects a fundamental difference between the motivation of a scientist and an astrologer.

Whether or not some claims made by astrologers are true, the methodology is the wrong kind for fostering knowledge. Predictions are based on myths and they are written up in “Barnum statements,” which can apply to almost everyone.

But the myths were based somehow on observations, albeit primitive ones. The moon at night was thought to directly cause crops to die, when it was the clear night itself that caused frost damage. The time in which you are born might affect your life, but as far as Jupiter, Pluto and the newly discovered Kuiper Belt object, Quaoar, are concerned, there’s no connection.

Whenever the facts change, scientists have to change their views, and they are almost never certain of anything but the most well-supported theories. The North Pole, in a 26,000-year cycle, changes the direction it points relative to the stars, due to orbital precession. Since astrology was started, the positions of the zodiac signs along our equator have changed, but astrology has not changed to reflect that. Until there is in inherent desire to find out the truth through an analytical point of view, astrology will be just another pseudoscience.

The reactions to this column were varied. Some liked it, some hated it (and tried to convince me that astrology was scientific), and some thought it was a total waste of ink and paper. I thought it was fun.
Because of my curiosity, this astrologer who went by the pseudonym Michael Mercury invited me onto his radio show on KDVS, called The Center of the Universe. To this day, I’m not sure why exactly he invited me on, but I came prepared.

I still remember how he introduced me. Karl’s just sauntered in here in a speedo…”
I had an audio copy of my appearance on mp3, and I regret deleting it, but I can give you the highlights. First off, I gave him my birthdate, and he gave me a chart reading, which is something that he did for callers on every one of his weekly shows. According to his website, he’s clocked over 6,000 live readings!

The reading, however, was little more than someone who’s sat and talked to me for half an hour could surmise. Not everything is explained in your philosophy, he said, You’re going to be a great teacher, you’ll write books on philosophy. At first I thought, “how interesting – it’s as if he knows me.” But then I realized that junior high school teachers for whose students I have blown things up during chemistry club magic shows have told me the same things. Angry chemistry dispensary guys (ok just one) have gone far more in depth about how ignorant I am, especially when I am right. The point is, other people can see things about you that are not as evident to yourself at the time.

I wish I had given Michael the wrong birthdate, in hindsight I realized that I could have said, “Amazing! You’re right on, but that’s not my birthdate!”

I brought up the issue of orbital precession, vague barnum statements, the lack of data on astrology save that which undermines it, and the lack of a causal mechanism that could explain any possible connection. All were dismissed. As he put it, I don’t have to prove anything to you. I thought, yeah you do, you’re the one that is asserting the undemonstrated connection between the planets and people. I also said sarcastically, “the placebo effect is a wonderful thing…” At one point he was in my face simultaneously talking about and demonstrating his passion for astrology, and I laughed, saying “Yeah, heh, I feel the passion.”
This is where I thought it was strange that he had invited me on his show. He said that I was coming there dictating to him that astrology was bunk. No, the evidence, the universe itself dictates it. I’m the messenger in this case. (By the way, in astrology, Mercury is the messenger. Why? Because of the mythologies…) And I wonder if he expected to change my mind, because there was one thing he kept saying that echoed in my head, and led to the followup column:

The mind must be open

March 05, 2003 – Last week, I had the privilege to discuss science and astrology with Michael Mercury on his radio show. He said that the reason I didn’t believe in astrology was because my mind was closed. I contested that characterization, but he repeated that multiple times, even in the closing statements of the show, when it was out of place for me to respond again.

Have you ever heard of “N-rays”? This mysterious form of radiation was “discovered” in 1903, eight years after X-rays. Researchers at France’s University of Nancy described the ability of these N-rays to brighten an electric spark, and subsequently there were nine times as many papers about N-rays than X-rays.

Dr. Blondlot, who ran the N-ray research, said the following to describe them. “They don’t follow the ordinary laws of science that you ordinarily think of. You have to consider these things all by themselves.”

N-rays could be stored in a brick, refracted by an aluminum prism, pass through (some) sheet metal, and blocked by water and rock salt. But when other labs tried to study them, they failed to detect them. The French researchers then claimed that the ability to detect these elusive rays was due to acquired abilities, sensitive states of mind, and even Latin ethnicity.

R. W. Wood, a physics professor at Johns Hopkins University, paid a visit to the French lab to do a few blind tests on the researchers. He secretly removed the aluminum prism mid-demonstration, which didn’t change a thing. They also could not tell when his hand was in the way or not, which, according to their research, would block N-rays. The studies of N-rays were irreproducible, and they failed blind tests.

Everybody, especially scientists, should have an open mind. Since we humans do not know the full extent of how the universe operates, it would be pointless not to. That is unless we are not interested in the truth. N-rays proved to be a strange concept, but scientists still rushed to confirm their existence. But if I were to ask you today if you believed that N-rays existed, and you answered no, would you be at all closed-minded?

People should feel free to express radical ideas, those that oppose general consensus, but they should not expect acceptance. My colleague Patrick Bocash wrote in December about how political groups will call those who don’t accept their ideas bigoted, prejudiced and closed-minded fanatics. Coincidentally, he made fun of the Flat Earth Society the day after I did (refer to my Dec. 4 column on the subject), so I responded to his column.

In our discussion, I remarked how when I see someone thoroughly convinced of something, I consider that there may be something factual behind it. That sometimes makes me waste brain computing time refuting nonsense, but Pat assured me that that is probably the best way to go. I come out of investigating hokey ideas with a better understanding of the subject.

My mind is still open to astrology, but there are factual hurdles that need to be breached, namely good scientific research. One of Michael’s callers correctly stated that there may be some scientific explanation which would satisfy me. In addition, one reader who responded to my column on astrology, who believes that it is a science, said that he could see my mind was open.

Having an open mind goes both ways. We must be open to new (and very old) ideas that do not currently fit in our paradigms, but at the same time those who believe in them must be open to them being false. Dr. Blondlot defended N-rays to his death, despite the fact that they never existed.

Before the radio show, I asked Michael Mercury what evidence, should it exist, would cause him to reject astrology as being true. He replied that “there can’t be any demonstrable fact [or] facts for me to have me reject this language.” On the show, he also stated, “I don’t need to have it proven scientifically. In fact, I would prefer that it isn’t scientifically proven.”

It could be fact, or it could be N-rays, but an active desire not to have astrology [dis]proven, to preserve the mystery and a particular doctrine, is not characteristic of an open mind. Michael repeated that I was closed-minded and prejudiced throughout the show and after it in an e-mail. Instead, it seems evident that his mind is not open to astrology being false. His preference that it should remain unproven is actively choosing ignorance. Welcome to the Flat Earth Society.

Many newspapers have disclaimers below the horoscope. Contrary to what it said this week, Mercury is actually in the constellation Aquarius, not Pisces. Mars is fresh out of Ophiuchus, an unaccounted-for constellation, and is now in Sagittarius, not Capricorn. This week you will feel energized to be open to new ideas.

Bam, zing, pow. This column was reproduced in several places on the net, which made me feel great. Being open minded does not mean that you must accept everyone’s ideas, or that you must believe in anything without evidence. It means that you would believe in it if there was sufficient evidence for it.

I learned a lot of weird things about astrology in the process, and it gave me a few good ideas about how to approach pseudoscientific claims.

He ran into me one day in the Aggie office, and he apologized if he attacked me personally. I thought, well, calling one closed-minded repeatedly can seem awfully personal. But Michael’s a nice guy, generally, I was just pushing his buttons by criticizing one of his passions on his show. It was then that he suggested that I get a radio show of my own.

Later the following summer, I came across the final nail in the coffin of astrology, the most careful study conducted on astrology to date. They tracked bunches of people in England, born within seconds of each other, even, and found nothing. No signs of any effects of the planets on their personalities, occupations, or anything. I sent the link to Michael, and he dismissed the study because of something it lacked, a methodological problem of some sort. Turns out, they covered that, so he didn’t read it.
So there I was on Tuesday, walking around from the produce section and I saw a familiar face behind the sample counter. My lucky stars, it’s Mr. “Mercury.” After loading up on a case of Two Buck Chuck (Charles Shaw wine, $2 a bottle, which I am drinking right now) and 100% cranberry juice, I stopped by to say hi.

I asked him if he was still doing his radio show, he said no, although he’s trying to see if he could make a deal with Air America. That would be a big gig for him. So far he didn’t recognize me, so I introduced myself. He jumped back and put his hands on his head as if to protect his parietal lobes, and exclaimed: You’ve grown up! He was busy, but we managed to have a brief and friendly conversation, and I told him that I had my own show. I gave him the URL of my website, so perhaps he might come across this post and read it.

The whole column-radio column thing was three years ago, spanning this time. The day I ran into him didn’t correspond to the day of any significant exchange between us back then, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t go home and look at an astrological chart just to be sure that Mars didn’t trace across Capricorn on both occasions or something.

Astrology, so what?

Three years later, my position on astrology is little different. As I thought then, today I find astrology to be little more than a complicated roll of the dice, totally disconnected from human affairs. But that may be something to credit it with. People make tons of decisions, and sometimes we are faced with dilemmas for which we can think of no answer. All paths may lead the same direction, like an old political cartoon I remember depicting the NAFTA and anti-NAFTA fork in the road. Or perhaps one path may be far greater than another.

The stars say yes!So we humans are tempted in those difficult times to resort to outside sources, be they friends, family, psychics, or astrologers. The first two may know you better, but they have biases that the latter two may not have. Sometimes you need a decision based upon an unbiased source. Something just a little more human than this:

Psychics, mediums, astrologers, these can all be intuitive people who may train their insight to be able to help people make decisions. But they attribute it to various supernatural things. There’s more to humanity than meets the eye, but I would be far more satisfied if they recognized that their insight is due to their own humanity, and not the stars, crystal balls, etc. That’s a good starting point, and in the future, advice could get more technical, akin to the Mentats Thufir is so smart!in Dune. Maybe one day people could go beyond their intuition and inform it with statistical calculations, I mean on the spot, besides the manner in which science does that already.

But there is one glaring problem I find with astrology – predictability. Many financial institutions and powerful people are so superstitious about losing their money that they make market decisions based upon astrology. Basically, they don’t know enough about the market so they are going to trust astrology, where most honest astrologers say that they don’t understand it themselves?

I was contacted once by an astrologer who gives advice to companies for closing business deals, based on the horoscope. After several emails, he said that astrology was all just entertainment to him. No, to him it is a business, and I will be blunt – of charlatantry. It’s a totally different game from just dispensing advice. And he never heard of orbital precession.

There’s the potential for much harm to be done by this. First, people will erroniously trust astrology over more logical things to base their decisions off of, but if you know how the other person is going to behave in the market, you can take advantage of them. Think of it like looking at a football team’s playbook. Now, because people are connecting their decisions to the motions of the planets, you can predict their actions based upon your knowledge of those planets.

The only reason why human events are in any way connected to astrological charts is because we connect ourselves to them on purpose.

But I’ll tell you this, nobody is more connected to and influenced by the motions of planets than scientists, particularly astronomers and physicists. When Mars aligns with Earth, thousands of nerds roll out their telescopes to get a clear look at the red planet named after a deity that concerned itself with military dominance. If you don’t know any scope-toting nerds, get to know one. And you’ll get to know things you never knew about the heavens.

In all, learning and writing about astrology was a fun and interesting experience, of investigation, testing hypotheses, and of course writing. You may think that Mars or Saturn dominates your life, but I learned that science dominates mine.

Published by

Karl Haro von Mogel

Karl Haro von Mogel serves as BFI’s Director of Science and Media and as Co-Executive Editor of the Biofortified Blog. He has a PhD in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics from UW-Madison with a minor in Life Sciences Communication. He is currently a Postdoctoral Scholar researching citrus genetics at UC Riverside.

One thought on “When the planets align”

Comments are closed.