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Star Wars
Astrologers react to inconvenient truths

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.

JCS cover Abstract -- Many astrologers attribute a successful birth chart reading to
what they call intuition or psychic ability, where the birth chart acts like a
crystal ball. As in shamanism, they relate consciousness to a transcendent
reality that, if true, might require a re-assessment of present biological
theories of consciousness. In Western countries roughly 1 person in 10,000
is practising or seriously studying astrology, so their total number is
substantial. Many tests of astrologers have been made since the 1950s but
only recently has a coherent review been possible. A large-scale test of
persons born less than five minutes apart found no hint of the similarities
predicted by astrology. Meta-analysis of more than forty controlled studies
suggests that astrologers are unable to perform significantly better than
chance even on the more basic tasks such as predicting extraversion. More
specifically, astrologers who claim to use psychic ability perform no better
than those who do not. 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. 85 references.

What we found
Our article began by quoting astrologers who claim that reading birth charts needs some kind of psychic ability, where the chart acts like a crystal ball. If this were true it might upset present theories of consciousness, so we felt it deserved investigation. We then looked at the evidence. There have been many scientific tests of astrology, none of them with results positive enough to be of the slightest practical use. Astrologers do not even usefully agree on what a given birth chart indicates. The graphs below summarise the findings.

Astrologers accuracy and agreement

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".

Media interest
This cautious non-link between astrology and psi would normally have passed unnoticed. But it was picked up by the Sunday Telegraph in London "Astrologers fail to predict proof they are wrong" (17 August 2003), and was then echoed around the world. "Is astrology bunk?" asked the Daily Mail (London 18 August). "Research paper rubbishes astrology" said the Hindustan Times (India 17 August). "Who will put their faith in the stars?" asked the Sunday Herald Sun (Melbourne 14 September). Newspapers from Brazil to Finland jumped on the bandwagon.

Outrage in the East
Astrologers were predictably outraged by our now inflated non-link, especially Indian astrologers. In emails one said "it is only a study by some crazy white b's. They do not have any brains". Another said "Most probably these two guys are unemployed". Another said "if you really want to test astrology ... the only place where the research can be justified is here in India". Where presumably men are Men and astrologers are Astrologers.

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
Western astrologers gave opinions without having read the article. In a Melbourne radio interview, Brian Clarke from the Australian Federation of Astrologers explained how there was more to astrology than sun signs (our article was not about sun signs). In The Guardian London, 19 August 2003, astrologer Neil Spencer noted how astrology can "send arch-rationalists into fits of self-righteous indignation" (like his?), how the article lacks details (not true), how it ignores the positive results of Vernon Clark and Michel Gauquelin (we gave them special attention), and how the "Magi Society [an international society of astrologers based in New York] ... still has to receive a riposte to its statistical challenges" (one had appeared six years ago in Skeptical Inquirer March/April 1997). He ends with "Astrology is not a science but a symbolic, allusive language" (boo to Dr Baldev), as if this excused its failure to deliver on testable claims. To which the philosophy website www.butterfliesandwheels.com replied "Oh that old ploy".

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
The first report was by "world renowned astrologer Jonathan Cainer". Cainer has his own astrology phone-lines, and according to the Sunday Times London his estimated income of £2.2 million a year puts him among the top 150 UK earners. Cainer says he was suspicious the moment he saw our names (refutation by name-calling?), claiming that Dean deliberately misunderstands what astrologers do. But Dean is a former astrologer and understands very well what astrologers do.

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
Other astrology websites uncritically recycled the above reports almost verbatim. For example www.astrology.co.uk said we were "manipulating results ... using self-fulfilling personality tests ... selecting data to fit results", and dropped new clangers such as "who says astrologers are psychic?" (answer: the astrologers and surveys we quote). Another website said "Dean and Kelly are known to be opponents of astrology", as if seeking evidence was an act of heresy. In The Mountain Astrologer (Dee/Jan 2003/2004 issue), a magazine highly regarded by astrologers, the American astrologer Gloria Star said without reading the article "the research itself appears to be significantly flawed".

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.

Our conclusion
Astrologers do not like inconvenient truths. What their top guns present as counter evidence is merely name-calling, getting it wrong, and never citing compelling evidence to support their claims. Whatever we may think of astrology, it deserves better than this.

Further Reading
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.

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