By Geoffrey Dean and Ivan W Kelly
This article is an abridged update of the original, which appeared in the Skeptic 24(1), 9-11, Autumn 2004. Dr Dean is a technical editor in Perth, a WA skeptic and a CSICOP Fellow. Dr Kelly is Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Saskatchewan and chairman of CSICOP's astrology subcommittee. Both have been investigating astrology since the 1970s.
The June/July 2003 issue of the prestigious Journal of Consciousness Studies was devoted to an assessment of parapsychology, the study of psychic phenomena or simply "psi". It contained twelve long articles and was praised for its balanced approach. One of them was a 24-page article by us entitled "Is Astrology Relevant to Consciousness and Psi?", which led to the biggest media frenzy on astrology for 2003.
Three things make the frenzy interesting. First, its focus is not your everyday sun sign astrology but the serious astrology of consulting rooms. Second, it was based on extensive tests often carried out by astrologers themselves, invariably with results that turned out to be inconvenient truths. Third, the frenzy brought out some of astrology's top guns, so you can see how they react to inconvenient truths. Now read our abstract, and be ready to compare your impressions with how the astrologers reacted.
What we found
Left Astrology books claim that the match between birth chart and owners is close to 100%, which if true would be amazing. But 54 studies on a total of 742 astrologers and 1407 birth charts found the average actual match was not significantly different from that expected by chance. Right 28 studies on a total of 559 astrologers and 762 birth charts found their average agreement was slightly more than expected by chance but nowhere near the 90% regarded as the minimum acceptable for tests in psychology. The chance results shown above were obtained by re-running all the astrologer judgements several thousand times by computer but making the judgements by tossing a coin. For more details see the article Meta-analyses at www.astrology-and-science.com.
More to the point, astrologers who claimed to use psychic ability performed no better than those who did not. So we cautiously concluded "the possibility that astrology might be relevant to consciousness and psi is not denied, but such influences, if they exist in astrology, would seem to be very weak or very rare".
Outrage in the East
Perhaps the most notable response from India appeared in India Express 25 August 2003. It was an article "Astrology is Science, not Rubbish" by Dr Raj Baldev, whose website www.occultastrology.com offers "The perfect gift. Occult Horoscope by post. Only $6.95". Dr Baldev claimed we had made "an abominable mistake that can never be pardoned". He explained that ancient Hindu astrology "is a complete science" where even one million billionth of a second "makes a lot of difference". So it is ridiculous to believe that people born a few minutes apart should be similar. But measuring birth times to a million billionth of a second implies that the position of shadows cast on ancient sundials was routinely read to better than a hundred millionth of the diameter of an atom. Even at night. Should we believe it?
Outrage in the West
Britain's Astrological Association has 1500 members worldwide. Its website www.astrologicalassociation.com accused us of having a "tortured imagination" and "defensively closed mindsets" that "deny astrology an even-handed debate". It then gave "a balanced response" via two reports that together "comprehensively dismiss these outrageous and disingenuous claims". This is where the top guns come in.
Enter astrology's top guns
Cainer then drops a series of clangers -- personality tests are "dangerously unreliable" (not these ones), "most scientists hate astrology" (most have better things to do), a particular test was "an experiment rigged to make astrology look silly" (in fact it was the AA who proposed the experiment in the first place). Cainer ends with "And some scientists claim to have a truly open mind". Like his open-minded behaviour towards negative findings?
The second report was by "leading author and academic Dr Frank McGillion", consultant to an astrological research group at Southampton University. McGillion begins by saying the article is too long, then it is too short. He quibbles about definitions without providing his own definitions. He dwells on side issues without explaining their relevance. He dislikes "the citation of names of non-scientists in formal scientific papers" (so how to give astrologers' views without citing astrologers?). Conspicuously absent is a description of what we did, what we found, and what it might mean for astrology. Nevertheless he allows that "there is much here that astrologers can learn from". Does this mean Cainer was wrong to call it a load of rubbish?
Getting it wrong
Some serious media outlets were little better. For example the NZ Listener (4 October 2003) saw astrologers and skeptics as being permanently locked in "trench wars", serious studies as attacks on astrology, and serious researchers as debunkers. So "you either believe or you don't". Yes, why have tests when you can have shouting matches? In the end it delivered only titillation for the hard of thinking. It seems that media interest in astrology generally destroys any hope of informed debate.
You can read our original article at www.imprint.co.uk/pdf/Dean.pdf. The first half looks at the views of astrologers on consciousness and psi. The second half looks at the relevant evidence.
For informed critical articles on astrology visit www.astrology-and-science.com. In particular the article Star Wars gives our point-by-point responses to Cainer and McGillion, and reveals very well the deficiencies of astrology's top guns.