In an online forum, I had a debate with someone who believes ‘Astrology is a Science.’ Whether it predicts something accurately or not is another matter and I’ll post on the statistical interpretation of Astrological predictions in some other post, other time.
Why is Astrology not a science?
To answer this question, we need to know what science is. Who better than Jon von Neumann can answer this question:
“The sciences do not try to explain, they hardly even try to interpret, they mainly make models. By a model is meant a mathematical construct which, with the addition of certain verbal interpretations, describes observed phenomena. The justification of such a mathematical construct is solely and precisely that it is expected to work.”
In other words, real science, as opposed to the pseudoscience of Astrology, is the following: Person X gives a theory; it is tested rigorously against the observational evidence and it is accepted unless it explains all the observed phenomena. Or, some mathematical theory or model is proposed to explain the existing observation. The science always tries to be consistent in theory, practice and observation, and it constantly keeps modifying its models according to the newly found evidence — evidence that is available to anyone who seeks to inquire. Astrology does nothing of that sort! Why? Let me ask you a question in hope of answering “why”: An astrologer tells a statement ‘P’ to someone, say X. He tells a statement Q to Y. There is no way to verify, objectively, if P and Q were correct, or if Q is told to X, it’d hold correct. While, for a scientific inquiry, if Prof. Z tells you that an electron has the charge of , you can verify it in a suitable laboratory setup.
The scientific model that von Neumann mentions deals with the problems whose parameters (at least) are tractable. In Astrology, or Tarot, I can’t see the model, the analysis and the rigor of sciences. Even the parameters that are taken into account –e.g., motion of distant stars and planets– sound absurd! Quoting “Objections to Astrology — A Statement by 186 Leading Scientists” :
“In ancient times people believed in the predictions and advice of astrologers because astrology was part and parcel of their magical world view. They looked upon celestial objects as abodes or omens of the gods and, thus, intimately connected with events here on earth; they had no concept of the vast distances from the earth to the planets and stars. Now that these distances can and have been calculated, we can see how infinitesimally small are the gravitational and other effects produced by the distant planets and the far more distant stars. It is simply a mistake to imagine that the forces exerted by stars and planets at the moment of birth can in any way shape our futures. Neither is it true that the position of distant heavenly bodies make certain days or periods more favorable to particular kinds of action, or that the sign under which one was born determines one’s compatibility or incompatibility with other people.”
Of course, science does not explain everything, neither does it try to, not as yet at least. I was given an interesting argument in favor of astrology, and against science, viz, in some medical situations the person debating the issue found out that the patient was told that (s)he would eventually be dead, but some astrologer predicted that (s)he won’t, and (s)he survived. However plausible the argument seems, we have a strong case against it: were the predictions correct in all the cases you observed? If they were wrong in some cases, did astrologers do anything to patch their “theories”, like science does? The medical science may not be able to predict or cure everything, but it is constantly evolving, and it never claim that it can predict or cure everything! But then, can astrological predictions provide a cure? They provide hope, but what if those are false hopes?
Why do people believe in astrology?
Coming to the psychology part of it: The best astrology can do is to hide all the gory details and tell people all “politically” correct things (diplomatically) and hope that they fit someone, or that people (mostly believers) interpret the cryptic language their own way to fit their lives.
“In these uncertain times many long for the comfort of having guidance in making decisions. They would like to believe in a destiny predetermined by astral forces beyond their control. However, we must all face the world, and we must realize that our futures lie in ourselves, and not in the stars.” — from .
And then there is the age-old example with an inherent pun: If some astrologer predicts that I’ll do all good today, I’ll most certainly punch his nose and plead guilty in the court of law. My interpretation of this, if I were a believer, would be that I did good for the society by teaching the liar a lesson! If I were to guess how your day would go today, mine is just as good as any astrologer, or anyone else’s guess. Seriously!
The most important things missing in such predictions are social dynamics and the interaction of the concerned person to its peers and colleagues. It might be an interesting statistical (empirical) problem to find out “to what degree astrological predictions are correct.” 😉