The Astrology Podcast
Transcript of Episode 33 titled:
With Chris Brennan, and guest Leisa Schaim
Episode originally released on June 7, 2015
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Transcribed by Andrea Johnson
Transcription released November 14, 2022
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CHRIS BRENNAN: Hi, my name is Chris Brennan, and you’re listening to The Astrology Podcast. You can find the show at TheAstrologyPodcast.com. For more information on subscribing to the show, please visit TheAstrologyPodcast.com/subscribe. Today is Saturday, June 6, 2015, and it’s approximately 4:57 PM in Denver, Colorado, and this is the 33rd episode of the show. In this episode, I’m gonna be talking with astrologer Leisa Schaim about the recent History Channel episode on astrology and some of the pros and cons of the coverage of astrology in that special. Leisa is the presiding officer of the Association for Astrological Networking, and you can find out more information about her work at LeisaSchaim.com. Leisa, welcome back to the show.
LEISA SCHAIM: Thanks for having me.
CB: All right, so this episode aired a few weeks ago. And to sort of set the context, I got an email basically right before I came in from somebody that follows the podcast, saying, “Hey, the History Channel’s running an episode on astrology. You should check it out.” And we got together really quick and watched it at the very last minute. And we went into it both, I think, with a lot of trepidation, but we were kind of pleasantly surprised by how it came out, right?
LS: Yeah. And a lot of that comes from the fact that, you know, there’s been so many ‘slam’ pieces in the past, so you sort of don’t expect astrology to be represented well. So when you’re coming from that standpoint, then when it’s actually more balanced than usual it’s a really nice surprise. And I should say in the start of this I am representing my own opinions in the show and not that of AFAN today, just as a disclaimer.
CB: Okay. Yeah, so you’re acting as an individual and not as the president of the Association for Astrological Networking or what have you.
CB: Okay, so yeah, it was an interesting thing because both of us went in assuming it was just gonna be like a hit piece, worst-case scenario, or that it was just not gonna portray astrologers very well. And one of the things it did is while it did give some of the common arguments against astrology or some of the common misconceptions against astrology as if they were valid arguments, it also gave some very good counter points from the perspective of astrologers. So for example, while it criticized Sun sign astrology, it also at the same time said that Sun sign astrology is not all there is to astrology, and that astrologers actually take into account more planets, or more celestial bodies than just the Sun. So there was this interesting sort of back-and-forth during the course of the episode.
LS: Right. And astrologers are rarely given that opportunity to actually answer those critiques even though we usually have answers for them. So that was really nice to see and have the public see.
CB: Yeah. So it was on the History Channel, and it was part of a series that’s called—what is it called? Ancient Mysteries is sort of the title of the series, I guess, and this was midway through their seventh season or something like that where they’ve gone through and looked at different ancient mysteries. And part of the context of the show is that you have to understand that 10 or 15 years ago, the History Channel—which used to just run World War II documentaries and stuff like that—switched to more of a sort of sensationalized format or focusing on doing more sensationalized pieces.
Like for example, I remember like 10 years ago, they did an episode on Nostradamus, and they interviewed the astrologer Robert Zoller about his 9/11 prediction; not necessarily because they were trying to, you know, give credence to astrology, per se, but because it was kind of like a weird, fringe field to talk about that they thought would generate ratings. And I think this episode has to be looked at in that context. Not that they’re actually trying to, you know, compare astrology and science and see if there’s any validity to astrology, but more that they’re trying to cover a weird, fringe field because that’s the type of show that they’re doing. And they think that it will, you know, draw ratings or draw more of an audience to talk about something like this, so they kind of sensationalize it a bit. Was that your, I don’t know, impression of the show as well?
LS: Oh, yeah, definitely. And, I mean, well, on the one hand, it’s kind of unfortunate that that’s what it takes in order to present the astrological side of things. On the other hand, it’s nice that for whatever reason that gives a platform to having the astrologers explain a little bit more about what we actually do, or at least respond to common critiques, and that that is actually before the public for whatever, you know, motivating reason.
CB: Yeah. And I think that’s one of the reasons why we went into the show with a lot of trepidation and just expecting it to be pretty bad and not being clear on just how bad it was gonna be. But when it actually turned out to be pretty good, or at least presented a somewhat more balanced view of astrology, I think we were both pleasantly surprised. Although in the coming week, I was actually subsequently surprised there were a number of astrologers that were kind of upset about the episode, and I talked to at least one astrologer who was kind of furious about the portrayal of astrology and didn’t think that they did it justice or that it was too slanted or something like that.
And that kind of caught me off-guard I guess partially because I read, you know, skeptic forums. I’ve attended a skeptic conference in order to familiarize myself and understand what the arguments against astrology are. I try to be very aware of not just, you know, what the arguments against astrology are, but also what the evidence for astrology is at this point and what we have that’s working in our favor and what we have that’s not looking so good. And that I think gives me a slightly better perspective on understanding where astrology is positioned in society at this point, which, at least in modern society, is not in a very good position because astrology does not have much or any scientific validation at this point; and therefore places astrologers in kind of a weaker position. And so, when I see things like this I’m not surprised to see astrology kind of getting dumped on by scientists partially simply because astrologers themselves, the astrological community itself, has not done a lot to go out and validate the subject in contemporary scientific terms.
And so, we shouldn’t be surprised in some ways when scientists are interviewed about it, they don’t have a lot of positive things to say about astrology. But for some reason there’s still astrologers I think who either don’t realize that or forget that or think that, you know, because they know what they’re doing, because they have personal, hands-on experience with astrology—and they use it everyday and they see that it works, and also see how it’s able to help clients in their lives or other people in their lives or what have you, and they know or they think that it’s valid—they sort of forget that there’s this whole world outside of the astrological community where astrology looks like this very weird thing that doesn’t seem like it would be very plausible from an outsider’s perspective. And it’s hard sometimes to remember that that’s actually what the world’s like and that the astrological community itself is this sort of weird group that has this interesting view on the universe that’s not necessarily shared by the world at large.
LS: Yeah, I think that’s true. And it can be easy to just sort of get so involved in what you’re doing if you know that it’s been working and it’s been, you know, helping your clients understand themselves and their world better; it’s easy to forget the outside view. And I think, also, in addition to that, that, you know, it’s important to remember—even if it’s not the only viewpoint that we’re coming from as astrologers—it’s important to remember that there’s this sort of ‘scientism’. You know, the scientific paradigm is one of the most prevailing cultural paradigms that people understand the world through right now, particularly in the western world. And so, even if it’s unfair, and we think that, you know, astrology does work, but it’s a very different understanding of how the world works than the scientific paradigm of, you know, statistical validation and physical causation and things like that, it’s important to remember what the consensus reality is as well when you’re trying to engage with the public and not just the astrological community.
CB: Right, because that’s exactly what science is. It’s a way of establishing what is real and what is a valid phenomenon in the universe vs. what is not, or what is just an appearance or an illusion or something like that; and it’s a means of sort of establishing that, or a protocol and a system for trying to establish what the truth is or establish what is valid. And to the extent that that’s the litmus test for determining what’s real vs. what’s not real in contemporary or in modern society—to the extent that astrology either has very little or has zero scientific validation at this point. You know, we have to understand that from a societal standpoint and from a scientific standpoint it doesn’t look like what we’re doing has any validity.
So there’s kind of a humbleness I think that sometimes needs to accompany that when we’re interfacing with the public or interfacing with scientists and sort of having that realization rather than just going into it arrogantly or aggressively and saying, you know, “I know what I’m doing is real. Just because you don’t know that astrology is valid doesn’t mean that that’s the truth (or something like that) or that you can say all these negative things about astrology,” or what have you; which is the response that sometimes I see astrologers having that makes me kind of nervous because I think that has the potential to make astrologers look worse or to look bad. Not only do we not have as much validation as we perhaps could or should have in the contemporary context, but if we also are arrogant or aggressive about it, there’s something about that that doesn’t come off very well or doesn’t look very good to me.
CB: All right, so this is gonna be like an hour-long show, and we wanted to give sort of a commentary on this episode and some of the points that were made during the course of that. But in order to do that, in order to do sort of a commentary, we have to give a synopsis of what was said and what the episode covered. So what we’re gonna do is run through a sort of long synopsis of the episode and the different points that were made during the course of it, and then make some sort of commentary along the way on some of the more important points.
So it’s pretty easy. You can rent the episode on YouTube for like $2, or on Amazon or a number of other places. So even if you don’t have cable or you don’t have the History Channel, it’s pretty easy to watch the episode. So I’d recommend watching it at some point either before or after you’ve listened to this commentary, although certainly a lot of commentary is gonna be more relevant after you’ve watched it. But we’re gonna try and give you enough of a synopsis that even if you haven’t seen the episode, you can sort of understand what was said and then listen to our observations about what was said. Okay, so what was the opening? Or how did they open it up?
LS: They opened it up by framing it as the question of whether astrology is a science or just superstition. And that was sort of the prevailing framework for the entire episode, sort of examining, you know, both sides of that.
CB: Yeah, that was one of the main statements that was made right at the beginning. And that seemed to, especially throughout the episode, be their primary concern—determining whether astrology was a science, and therefore valid, or whether astrology was not scientific, and therefore not valid. And even though this is on the History Channel and they opened the first 10 minutes or so with sort of a quasi-history—basically a not very good history—of astrology, the majority of the episode was more focused on the question of does astrology work, what are the possible mechanisms that could explain how it could work, if any mechanisms exist, and what scientists basically think about astrology and its validity, which really was the main focus of this episode.
So at the beginning they started out by going into the difference between astronomy and astrology, and this is kind of a major point that they emphasized I think partially because of the influence that some of the astronomers and skeptics exerted over the episode. For example, there were five different astronomers or physicists or scientists who were interviewed at different points during the course of the episode, but there were only two astrologers; and so one of the things that they focused on right from the start is the difference between astronomy and astrology. And this is not surprising because it’s kind of a point of contention, or it’s something that really annoys astronomers when the public confuses astronomy and astrology—and kind of understandably.
Like you understand why astronomers would have a chip on their shoulder about this because they’re doing something completely different from astrology. They view astrology as a superstition and they don’t like being confused by the public between the two, and having like, you know, some idiot call up an astronomer who’s like a PhD and runs an observatory or something like that, and say, “Tell me my horoscope for the day.” Of course they’re gonna be a little offended by that. So they open up right from the start by going into the difference and really explicitly outlining the difference between astronomy and astrology.
LS: Right. And they give a few different definitions of astrology throughout the program. And the first one, they said, “The celestial movements of the Sun, the Moon, and planets among the stars governing our personality and destiny.”
CB: Yeah, and at various points they give a number of definitions. I think they give four or five different definitions at different points throughout the episode. For some reason, they keep defining the subject I guess largely in the opener in order to establish what the episode is about for people that just changed the channel to that. But one of the things that’s interesting that we noted was just that each definition was different and had slightly different implications for how they were defining the subject. One of the primary things that was really important was that some of the definitions implied that astrology worked through a causal mechanism of the planets and other celestial bodies directly or indirectly influencing events on Earth. And other definitions were more open-ended, where they didn’t necessarily require any sort of causal mechanism, but instead, just framed it as the correlation between celestial movements and earthly events, which I think is a more appropriate definition because of the differences in the astrological community and the way that astrologers have traditionally conceptualized this subject and the fact that it’s been split.
Some people, especially during the Middle Ages and subsequent periods, conceptualized astrology as working through the planets emitting some sort of celestial influence which influences life on Earth vs. the older definition. The original definition in Mesopotamia, as well as what I think could be argued as the more prominent or prevailing contemporary definition of astrology, holds that astrology is the study of celestial phenomena and the movements of the planets and the stars and their correlation with events on Earth or with people’s lives; not in a causal sense, but through some sort of acausal mechanism where planets and signs can act as omens of events that happen on Earth—or signs or symbols of earthly events—without being the cause of those events themselves.
So that’s something I’ve talked about before in previous episodes, so I don’t need to go into it a lot here. But it’s important because for a large part of the rest of this episode, they took it for granted. And is typically the case, all of the astronomers took it for granted—and the scientists took it for granted—that astrologers assumed that astrology works through some sort of direct, causal mechanism. And even though some of their definitions might imply it, they never seem to discuss alternate definitions of astrology or alternate views of astrology, such as that it works through synchronicity or something of the sort.
LS: Right. I mean, that’s a major split between scientists and astrologers. For a lot of astrologers, anyway, it’s implicit that it’s okay if it works acausally or that things can work acausally, or there can be a mechanism that we’re not aware of or things like that, whereas for, you know, contemporary scientists, it’s all about the cause and effect and the mechanisms and the physicality. And so, I think a lot of times in these kinds of discussions it is good to draw out that explicit assumption because we’re just talking past each other with where we’re coming from.
CB: Right. Because if they’re making arguments about astrology that are based on the assumption that astrologers believe that the planets directly influence events on Earth, but the astrologers aren’t actually saying that, then the point of many of those arguments—they become pointless arguments for that reason; or at least misleading arguments, or arguments that are unnecessary. And that ended up being actually a large part of the later part of this episode, but we’ll come back to that in a bit. So let’s move on with the synopsis in order to keep this concise.
So again, they’re giving this somewhat brief, somewhat insufficient overview of the history of astrology for the first 10 or 15 minutes. And at one point they make kind of a historical mistake. It’s not a huge one, but it was kind of a blunder where they mistakenly attributed the development of the zodiac—not the zodiac itself, but the standardization of the zodiac to include 12 signs of exactly 30° each—they said it was developed by the Greeks in the 4th century. And that’s actually mistaken because the zodiac was standardized to 12 signs of 30° each by the Babylonians or the Mesopotamians in the 5th century BCE, and then later it started being used by Greek-speaking peoples in the subsequent centuries. But that was kind of a weird mistake for them to make given all of the astronomers and other specialists who were consulted for the episode.
So they go on and talk a little bit about the origins of the zodiac. One of the astronomers talks about the meaning that we get the term ‘zodiac’ from—which is the Greek term zoidion—and he talks about it being one half of the meaning of the term referring to a living thing or to an animal; but he kind of misses the second half of the meaning, which is that it also refers to an image or a painted image. So the term ‘zodiac’, or zoidion, originally referred to ‘a living image’ or an image of a living thing; that was the origin of the term ‘zodiac’ and what we use to describe those signs. Did you have any points about that? I think there was nothing much to say about that, right?
LS: No, not so much about that. And then after that they went into the use of astrology by powerful people, by kings and queens and leaders in general in the past, which the astronomers of course wrote off as superstition. And kind of cynically there’s a quote in there about how NASA didn’t exist back then, and so, you know, the astronomers had to make pocket money somehow; and so they did that by, you know, finding out what’s your sign for kings and queens.
CB: Yeah, they did this kind of weird or kind of annoying thing where they would go through and talk about, you know, famous or very powerful people in the past—or influential people in the past—who used astrology or who made astrology an important part of their lives or part of their profession, but then they would write it off as either this sort of shortcoming; that the person was very powerful or very smart, but they were superstitious, or they were just trying to make money or something like that. They actually did that with Kepler. ‘Cause at one point they talk about Johannes Kepler and his contributions to astronomy, but then they of course were forced to acknowledge that he was also a practicing astrologer. But they kind of wrote that off as he was just making pocket money off of superstitious patrons, which is sort of annoying from an astrologer’s perspective.
It’s like you can understand why an astronomer would do that because that is kind of embarrassing from the astronomer’s perspective—if they think astrology is a superstition, which they do—to have some of these really famous, influential, important astronomers, such as Kepler or Ptolemy or what have you, also be practicing astrologers. And so, one of the ways that they deal with that is just by, you know, implying that, surely, these guys, these famous astronomers knew astrology was false, so they were just making money or making ends meet by, you know, making money off of superstitious patrons or kings or what have you; and that seemed to be part of the implication there, which is a little bit annoying.
LS: Right. I mean, it’s a little bit concerning. ‘Cause of course then if you extend that to, you know, the current day—the implication wasn’t dwelled on or anything—but the implication there is that astrologers are just kind of ripping people off and preying on their gullibility.
CB: Right, which is the assumption that’s made; and it’s a false assumption, and it’s a common assumption that astronomers and especially skeptics make. And it’s problematic because some skeptics put it forward—especially the celebrity skeptics that are like magicians and stuff—because the magicians or stage performers make their money from misdirection. And so, when it comes to other fields—like astrology and stuff—that they’re skeptical about, they make this assumption that because it’s false the practitioners must also think or know it’s false, and therefore, they’re deliberately trying to rip people off; or they’re deliberately using misdirection or cold reading or something like that in order to make it appear as if it works. So they come up with an explanation for how astrology could still appear to work, even if it’s not valid, by saying that astrologers must be ripping people off by using misdirection.
And it’s sort of like this common assumption or argument that’s made. It’s not really made as an argument; it’s just given as a truism that this is how this works. But it’s kind of nefarious. ‘Nefarious’ maybe isn’t the right word. But it’s kind of bad what that ends up implying because then they end up going back into history and applying that to people in the past that are like these eminent scientists, like Kepler, and then kind of attributing this context—these negative, ethical or moral actions—to him by saying, “Yes, he was a great scientist, but he was using astrology on the side and ripping people off in order to make ends meet.” And that’s kind of a questionable statement to make or argument to make because it’s not necessarily true. I mean, they’re just making it as an assumption because they think astrology is false. I don’t know. There’s just problems with framing it in that way.
So after that point they go on and start talking about the invention of the telescope and that turning over the basis of astrology because astronomers realized that the stars were actually distant suns. There’s different points that could be made about that, but that would be better for an episode on its own about the downfall of astrology in the 16th and 17th and 18th centuries and some of the changes that occurred during the course of the Scientific Revolution. But one of the things that is important is that at this point they did sort of this demonstration where they showed conceptually how the constellations themselves—because they’re just different stars are spread out in different parts of space—how those stars really have no connection with each other except from our vantage point. But when you change your vantage point from somewhere not on Earth, the constellations or the stars and the patterns that they make with the constellations change completely. And this was supposed to be a demonstration both showing how the constellations themselves are completely arbitrary or made up, but also showing how it would only be relevant if you were looking at it from the perspective of Earth, or from a relative standpoint from the perspective of the observer on Earth; but otherwise there’s no relevance to it at all.
LS: Right. And this is a really funny point actually. Well, one, I want to say I really appreciate their visuals of the physical astronomy in the episode, even though sometimes it was from their perspective; they were trying to debunk something. But I actually thought it was useful showing the astronomy of it all. But what’s funny about this point that they made here is that they were trying to use that as a point to debunk by saying it only shows patterns from our vantage point; therefore it’s obviously not meaningful really, it just looks like it. But one of the important tenets of astrology is actually it matters very much exactly where you are at a certain time and what the skies look like from that vantage point. So that’s like an important astrological tenet, and it seems like it’s another one of those things where, you know, scientists or skeptics try to debunk astrology without actually learning important pieces of how it works or what it’s based on.
CB: Right. Yeah, and I found that really fascinating. Their argument is that because the patterns of the constellations are only actually patterns from the perspective of the observer on Earth, therefore this is not something that’s universally true, and therefore it’s invalid. But in fact what they did is they sort of illuminated one of the basic philosophical and conceptual premises of astrology, which is that the perspective of the observer is not just relevant but is actually crucial in interpreting the significance of the phenomenon, since astrology functions in a way that’s similar to divination in that it interprets appearances as having symbolic importance. It’s like if you go back and study different ancient forms of divination, you’ll see how oftentimes it’s the perspective of the observer that becomes relevant, and a phenomenon—like where it appears from the vantage point of the observer—actually has symbolic importance in terms of its interpretation.
And I realize that that’s a completely different way of viewing the universe and viewing the way that the world works and things like, but that’s actually part of the fundamental conceptual premise of astrology. And it’s funny to see that being used as an argument against astrology. It actually comes up later, again, when they get into Mercury retrograde, and they have, again, another very elaborate physical demonstration about how Mercury retrograde is just an apparent phenomenon; that it’s only true that the planets appear to move backwards from our perspective on Earth. But in fact both planets—both the Earth and Mercury—are still moving direct or still moving forward in their actual orbits around the Sun, so that retrograde periods are like an optical illusion that’s only true from a relative standpoint. And again, that ends up being a thing that points to one of the underlying foundational principles of astrology, which is that the relative perspective is actually crucial in interpreting the phenomenon and that there’s something significant about that as sort of an underlying principle.
Okay, so after that point they’ve sort of dismissed the constellations as being completely made up. They also point out that different cultures have different constellations and came up with different patterns in the sky, so that there’s nothing even necessarily universally valid about those constellation patterns. And part of the reason of course that they spend so much time on the constellations is because they’re trying to make this argument about astrology and about the zodiac and the signs of the zodiac not being valid due to issues related to the constellations and due to precession and everything else, which they go into later. Basically, the tropical zodiac is hardly acknowledged as relevant or something that’s being used deliberately; they sort of assume astrologers are using that almost accidentally.
And later in the episode they talk about eventually the downfall of astrology, or at least the separation of astrology and astronomy as separate disciplines by the 18th century. And then eventually they get into the revival of astrology in the 20th century and the advent of Sun sign horoscope columns in the 1930s, and this is when they segue into this whole section talking about different objections to Sun sign astrology.
LS: Right. And they have one of the scientists back on the screen saying of course that, you know, it’s absurd that 1/12 of the entire world’s population would be having the same kind of day, which is often stated, things like that; also, that the predictions are vague and general. And these are pretty common statements about Sun sign astrology or that people assume is representative of the whole of astrology. But it is kind of unique that they did let the astrologers respond to these critiques, and so that’s when in the episode they pull out the whole birth chart. They define what’s in the birth chart pretty well. They talk about major aspects. And they have one of the astrologers talking about how this is showing a person’s fate or destiny, which, you know, some astrologers of course would agree with and some, you know, would have some quibble with how much it’s destiny. But then they set up a test for the astrologers, and they give them an anonymous chart to interpret.
LS: And they showed it in Solar Fire, which is really nice, you know, for those of us who actually use the software.
CB: Yeah, so this is the point where they bring in the two astrologers that they’ve selected to represent the astrological community. And we sort of get into some problems at this point ‘cause on the one hand, it was kind of surprising and nice that they tempered or countered the criticisms of Sun sign astrology, which came first. They started talking about Sun signs. They present the two primary objections, which are kind of valid objections, that horoscope columns—if you were to take that principle to its fullest extent—imply that, you know, since there are only 12 signs, 12 possible positions, that 1/12 of the world’s populations is having the same kind of day. But then astrologers respond by pointing out that in actual advanced, full-blown astrology, you’re using more than just the Sun sign. You’re also taking into account all of the other planets in the solar system, and you’re taking into account other things that are contained in the birth chart; and that’s when they introduced these two astrologers.
On the one hand, it’s interesting and sort of positive that they’re actually bringing in astrologers in order to contrast what the actual practice of astrology is vs. just the misconceptions that some of the astronomers and skeptics have about astrology in just talking about Sun sign astrology or what have you. But on the other hand, the way that they framed it was kind of almost sketchy on the part of the producers of this episode because when they introduced the two astrologers, I think what they called them was “well-respected astrologers at this point.” One of the problems that I had right away with this is that while I think that both of the people that they got, both the astrologers did a reasonable job in sort of representing the astrological community to a certain extent, neither of them are well-known at all. And the way that they’re presented, as if they’re well-respected or well-known members of the community, is very misleading.
I would sort of expect a statement like that to be made about a leading astrologer in the astrological community, like Rob Hand who’s written several books and is very well-known. You know, he’s been the president of the National Council of Geocosmic Research, and he commonly speaks and has keynote lectures at astrological conferences. And he wrote one of the primary textbooks on astrology, Planets in Transit, that just about every astrologer has; I would expect, you know, “well-respected” as a statement to describe somebody to be reserved for somebody like that. But when they brought in these two astrologers—these are people that are otherwise relatively unknown. And neither of them has written, I don’t think, any books that are very well-known. I’m not sure if actually either of them has written an astrological book. I know one of them is at least working on it or has published an ebook; but the other one, in looking at her website, seemed to be not even necessarily a professional astrologer primarily, but instead seems to have written some books on yoga and runs a yoga studio and does astrology perhaps on the side.
So it was kind of weird the way that they selected these two people and how they put them forward. And ultimately, while they both did an okay job, there was just something that was a little weird about that from the perspective of whatever the producers were trying to accomplish by doing that and whatever their selection process was. Especially when you contrast that with the five different scientists and astronomers that they got—and physicists—who are like, you know, PhDs with pretty clear credentials in their respective fields. Yeah, there was just a bit of a disparity there, I felt like.
LS: Right. So, I mean, I think that we were both, you know, pleased that they did represent astrology well. But there is some issue with, you know, when you have people who are actually the leading scientists—and five of them of course instead of two astrologers. So you already have five, you know, leading people in their field; you really should have it, you know, comparably represented. And I have no idea of course how they went about that selection process; that they wouldn’t, I don’t know, go see who are the people who are the top of the field in astrology, if you’re really trying to get parity there and explanations.
CB: Yeah. I mean, ‘cause it’s not even like the astronomers necessarily were world-renowned astronomers; I mean, some of them are celebrity physicists or people like that.
CB: But even just like mid-level astrologers in order to match or have parity with these mid-level astronomers that they had featured would make much more sense. But instead it’s like one of them was a yoga teacher and the other one primarily seems to advertise intuitive readings, which is a little different than just a straight astrological reading in the sense that he’s sort of claiming to have intuitive powers and that’s part of what he’s drawing his astrology from. And so, I don’t know, there’s some questions. So they both did an okay job, but it would have been interesting to see somebody else that is more well-known for their work and has more experience defending astrology in that sort of arena—such as Rob Hand or some other famous astrologer—and what they would have done, or how they would have represented the field in that way.
So what they ended up doing is they got these two astrologers, and they said that they were gonna do a test of astrology. And who knows how they actually presented it to the astrologers, but the way they presented it to the public was they were gonna have these two astrologers read a historical chart of some public figure from the past and then see how their interpretations matched up against the reality of that person’s life. And right away, as soon as the chart popped up on the screen, I looked at it and of course knew that it was the chart of John F. Kennedy, which is one of the more—he’s not like top-level famous in terms of charts that are commonly used in the astrological community. The most famous chart for example I think that’s used all the time is Hitler’s chart; that commonly comes up as a chart example; or Albert Einstein’s chart. Kennedy is probably somewhere around a mid-level chart where it’s plausible that the astrologers wouldn’t necessarily have seen it, although it’s famous enough that it’s possible that they could have. So it’s kind of questionable in that way whether or not that was the best test of astrology to do in the first place.
But what was cool at this point is that both of the astrologers then end up kind of bringing up their astrology software programs and talking about the different components of a birth chart. And they talk about the planets and the aspects and the houses and things like that, and they’re actually using professional astrology programs. They’re using Solar Fire, and they have it blow up, so that you’re seeing a big picture of the birth chart. Which for me was a big deal because typically most presentations of astrology only talk about Sun sign astrology, and you only get this very limited view of it. But in this nationally-televised, History Channel episode, they were actually showing what a full astrological chart looked like. And to me even just sort of stopping it right there—if that’s as far as went—that’s kind of a victory in a sense because astrology’s at least being represented more fully than it usually is; when it’s usually just only presented in this very limited fashion with just Sun signs, which from the perspective of a professional astrologer is very inadequate to the full range of things that astrology actually encompasses or includes.
LS: Right. Inadequate and, you know, even inaccurate, I would go as far to say. And I felt the same way when they showed the full chart. I’m like, “Look. This is being publicized for everyone to see.” You know, people don’t even usually get to this point of even seeing that there is a full birth chart. And then they talked for a moment there about how you needed the exact date and time and location of the birth in order to cast the chart. And again, even there, I was like, “All right, that’s in there,” you know, because it never is. So that was exciting to me, you know, just those few minutes right there. They represented what astrologers are actually doing so much more than usual.
CB: Yeah, definitely. And both of them I’m sure gave full readings of this chart, and from that they just selected very small snippets of some parts of their interpretation. And one of the astrologers, Robert Ohotto, made some statements about the chart indicating somebody that would be a good orator and would have a desire to serve or something like that based on having some Gemini placements and based on having the Moon in Virgo in the 11th house, which were like plausible interpretations that I think were pretty straightforward for that chart. And that was kind of, you know, good or looked impressive with him not knowing that it was JFK’s chart. And then the woman who gave the second delineation, her name was—what was her name again? Alanna?
LS: Alanna Kaivalya.
CB: Yeah. So she then did a delineation. And again, it was just like a snippet of what was probably a full interview that she did with them, which was probably a full interpretation of this chart. And for hers, she said similar things about the chart being inclined towards somebody who was an orator probably due to the Gemini placements. But then she says this other thing about him having a Grand Trine in his chart that involves the Moon and Mars and the North Node, and she said that this indicated that the person would be destined to be in the public eye. And that seemed a little bit weird to me as a delineation or a little bit of a reach. There was probably some stuff that was edited out of the rest of whatever she said as part of that delineation, but it seemed a bit of a stretch—but who knows. So anyway, they both make statements, and at least the parts that they showed of them seemed to be similar in their delineations and seemed to match what we know about JFK to some extent. And so, they sort of conclude that section by saying the astrologers did a pretty good job, but then they transition into saying the astronomers point out that there’s no statistical studies validating astrology, and they say that astrology is just a lot of guesswork.
So then they transition out of that section and they start talking about how a bunch of different prominent leaders in history have used astrology, like Hitler and Winston Churchill and Ronald Reagan despite the lack of statistical evidence for its validity. And they have this longer section on Ronald Reagan where they talk about how his astrologer—who they don’t name, whose name was Joan Quigley—would schedule out and sort of block out different days that were positive or negative for doing certain things that he would base his schedule on at the White House. And they present this kind of negatively, not like, “Look at all these famous people that use astrology,” but more like, “This subject is false, but look how it’s influenced, and look at how all these powerful people have still used it to dictate their lives.” The implication was kind of like, “Isn’t that terrible? Because this is false.” So there was this weird kind of slant to it, but I was still not entirely hugely offended by it because they were still actually saying things that were true; that the President of the United States in the 1980s was using a professional astrologer in order to help him plan things.
You know, no matter how they spin that or cast it in sort of a negative light there’s something about that—that to me, at least, if I was not an astrologer and I was watching this program—that would still sort of perk up my ears and make me have an interest in researching the subject more. And I think that’s what’s important and that was what I found was positive about the episode for astrology. Even if astrology was cast in a negative light or sort of constantly given a negative spin, enough was presented of the more advanced forms of astrology that I felt like it would interest some people in looking into it more and not just taking it for granted when other people say, you know, there’s nothing to it, or it’s just superstition. But instead people that are more curious or want to learn things for themselves or make their own decisions about validating things and determining if things are valid or not valid rather than just taking it for granted based on what some expert says might be prompted to look more deeply into the subject at that point rather than just having a very surface-level understanding of it.
LS: Right. Yeah, and I think the same here, and I think again it’s about the bar. You know, usually there is just so little real information presented, and then it’s immediately deflected that this was just kind of some fresh air in terms of presenting much more of the real facts around astrology, even if they, you know, did constantly have scientists sort of countering that.
CB: Yeah, and this is the point where it has transitioned at this point into basically a lot of misstatements and the completely slanted things against astrology from this point forward. Because then they go into this section and they sort of signal their transition into this new segment by saying that the scientists responded to the growing popularity of astrology in the 1980s with the bombshell “Was everyone’s zodiac sign completely wrong?” And then that’s the usual transition into talking about the precession argument, which has become such a popular but also almost ridiculously-used weapon against astrology especially in the past few years. I mean, it has been for much longer than that, for the past few decades.
For example, in early 2011, we had the ‘zodiac’ controversy where for some reason some news stations picked up this little story that was written in a little newspaper somewhere in the Midwest about some astronomer saying that the zodiac signs had changed because of precession. And then suddenly it got picked up by Fox News or something and then suddenly all of the national media outlets were running with it because it was being framed as if this was a new discovery; that suddenly scientists or astronomers discovered that the zodiacal signs were one sign off due to precession; due to this newly-discovered phenomenon known as precession.
CB: And that’s almost kind of how they presented it here at this point, in this segment.
LS: Yeah, they did. And it’s really funny ‘cause it just keeps being recycled over and over, but, you know, there’s new people that hear it every time as though it’s this new discovery. Which is such a strange thing given that it’s been known about for, you know, a very long time.
CB: 2,000 years.
LS: Yeah, exactly. A very long time. And, you know, they started out inaccurately saying things like the ancient skywatchers “didn’t know about precession.”
CB: Even though it was discovered by Hipparchus in like the, what, 3rd or 4th century BC.
LS: Yeah, so I’m not sure how they get to keep repeating this, but all of the news stories that pop up every few years about this tend to present it in the exact same way every time; that astrologers don’t know about precession and therefore, you know, everything is wrong about it because it shifts all the signs. And then they went on to say, “This has surprising implications for astrology,” and just some, you know, loaded language around that misconception.
CB: Right. Partially you can blame this on the producers to a certain extent, but not that far. Because one of the things that really annoys me about what some contemporary astronomers and skeptics have been doing is they have a valid argument to some extent with precession. It’s not that it’s an invalid argument, but they’re using it in a completely disingenuous way to whatever extent that they either subtly or implicitly say that this is something new that was recently discovered—which has been a statement that’s been made—or to the extent that they say that this is something that astrologers don’t know about or aren’t taking into account. That’s also false because ever since the 2nd century CE, Ptolemy for example was one of the earliest astrologers that very clearly—and not accidentally—but deliberately used the tropical zodiac as his reference point for the zodiac.
And to the extent that other astrologers have followed Ptolemy in deliberately using the tropical zodiac as their primary reference point—despite knowing about precession and despite knowing about the difference—or having the ability to calculate the sidereal zodiac using the constellations as the reference, or to the extent that they make it seem as if the astrologers don’t know about that or are doing this accidentally or haphazardly, it’s very disingenuous and misleading and just inappropriate. Because ultimately it makes it look like they’re just doing whatever it takes—that the ends are justified by the means, or the means are justified by the ends—so that they’re gonna win the war against astrology whatever it takes; even if that means basically misleading people or, you know, throwing out a few misleading sentences or statements about the history of things or how things are, here or there. They’re sort of justified for some reason because they know that they’re right, or they know that astrology is false and therefore it doesn’t matter how they actually frame the arguments or frame the historical context.
And there’s something about that that really bothers me just from the perspective of not just an astrologer, but even as somebody that’s interested in skepticism or interested in astronomy. I’d rather see them making, you know, good, valid arguments that force astrologers to respond in appropriate ways, or to have to respond to something that’s like a valid criticism rather than forcing astrologers to instead respond to what are essentially just straw-man arguments; by creating an argument that’s completely false or a statement that’s completely false, so that what they have to respond to is the misleading accusation rather than a good criticism.
LS: Right. And this just gets recycled every few years. And that’s why I often feel like we’re just talking past each other, and I don’t know how many people are, you know, doing that deliberately vs. really don’t realize that astrologers know about this because most people who are trying to debunk astrology don’t go through the effort of learning about it to any high extent. They don’t, you know, learn how it works or the principles underlying it. And we could have much more interesting conversations actually about that I think and at a higher level, but, you know, that’s just not what ends up happening. So I don’t know how much of this is deliberate vs. not deliberate and they honestly think that we have no idea. But precession exists.
CB: Yeah, and maybe I should temper that and give them the benefit of the doubt that they don’t give us. You know, they do the same thing in reverse in assuming that we’re deliberately ripping people off or something like that, or deliberately using cold reading or something.
CB: And maybe, you know, that is what’s needed—sort of giving both sides the benefit of the doubt. Because perhaps it is that they genuinely don’t realize or don’t know unfortunately largely because they haven’t studied astrology or looked into it enough to realize that astrologers are deliberately using the tropical zodiac. And actually in their defense, it is probably true that the majority of consumers of things like Sun sign astrology do not realize that the tropical zodiac is not aligned with the constellations and the stars, but it’s aligned according to the equinoxes and the solstices. So it’s like from that vantage point, it’s a valid criticism or argument to say if you’re using this, you don’t realize that precession is a phenomenon and that the signs that you’re using are not aligned with the constellations.
LS: Right. Yeah, that’s true. Though there was an interesting statement in there. There must have been some discussion, you know, that didn’t get in the final cut about sidereal or Indian astrology or things that do use the sidereal zodiac because one of the scientists at one point said if your astrology doesn’t take precession into account, then your signs are gonna be off. He said something else a few minutes later on how do Western astrologers get around the dilemma of cause by precession. And that caused me to think that there was some conversation in there about the forms of astrology that maybe do use the sidereal zodiac, which is, you know, Indian astrology and some Western sidereal astrologers.
CB: Right. Almost as if they knew and they were, not tempering their statements, but they were adding—not a disclaimer; the term escapes me—a statement that is sort of covering…
LS: Right. Like a caveat, yeah.
CB: Right. Because they know that it’s Western astrologers that use the tropical zodiac and that some Eastern astrologers use the sidereal zodiac or what have you.
LS: Right. And so, if you knew astrology, your ears would sort of perk up for a moment there, like, “Oh, there was some more interesting conversation going on there.”
CB: Yeah. So at this point, after going through the whole precession issue and the issue with the sidereal zodiac and precession and everything else, they then introduce the counterpoint from the Western astrologers, which was like, “Hey, we use the tropical zodiac.” But they frame it in this really lame way by saying, “How do Western astrologers get around the dilemma caused by precession?” And this is an actual quote, they say, “The answer is that they ignore the actual position of the stars.” So it’s like they frame it in this really negative way instead of just saying, no, Western astrologers are deliberately using an alternate reference system for the ecliptic, which is based on the equinoxes and the solstices, and which other ancient cultures have used; for example, Stonehenge being focused or being built around those points as well, the equinoxes and the solstices. They frame it as if this is just like Western astrologers coming up with something new that’s an excuse or something like that rather than a valid way of going about doing whatever it is that they’re doing, that they’re doing deliberately based on some specific motivation or conceptual principle.
So at this point, the narrator—and it’s really funny—refers to tropical astrology as “a new form of astrology” despite the fact that it’s been used since at least the 2nd century CE, to the time of Ptolemy or earlier. They refer to it as “a new form of astrology” and they say that “It ignores the actual position of the constellations.” And then they go on to say that “critics say it undermines the whole basis of the system.” And then they quote one of the famous astronomers here, Fraknoi—I hope that’s how you pronounce his name—and he responds to the astrologers saying they use the tropical zodiac by saying, “I don’t see how that can work.” Then he goes on to say that “The characteristics of the astrologers assigned to some of the signs have to do with what the constellations looked like.”
And it’s like you can see how that’s partially a valid argument, but that’s also a partially misleading and inaccurate argument because it’s not true to say that all of the qualities of the signs of the zodiac are derived from the appearance of the constellations or the animals or other figures that the constellations and signs of the zodiac are supposed to be associated with; but in fact there’s other conceptual principles that the qualities of the signs of the zodiac are derived from. And one of them specifically gives as an example, and he says that “Pisces is associated with water because of the fishes.” And this is funny because that’s actually not true because I published a paper just a few years ago titled, “The Planetary Joys and the Origins of the Significations of the Houses and Triplicities,” that pointed out that the elemental associations of earth, air, fire, and water and how those came to be assigned to specific zodiacal signs had a really intricate and interesting conceptual motivation that came from the Aristotelian belief of certain elements rising to the top or falling to the bottom of the cosmos.
And there was kind of this interesting rationale for how the four elements came to be assigned to the signs of the zodiac, but it was not just because Pisces is the fishes that it’s a water sign. So for example, Scorpio, the scorpion is not a bug or an animal that lives in water, but it’s still a water sign. And for example, Aquarius, a counterpoint to that argument is that Aquarius is the water-bearer, right? But Aquarius is an air sign. So it’s not just that the elements are being derived from whatever the constellations are supposed to represent, but there’s actually alternate conceptual motivations or conceptual rationales for how the qualities of the zodiacal signs came to be established. And so, it’s like his objection that, you know, the tropical zodiac, that he can’t see how that would work because it’s not connected to the constellations really is not a great criticism once you actually look into it; so that’s not a very good argument.
And the other thing that it illustrates is just how so often many of these arguments from astronomers or from skeptics are based on assumptions. It’s based on their assumptions and oftentimes mistaken assumptions about how astrology works or what the conceptual or philosophical principles are underlying it. But then these misconceptions are then turned into arguments where he’s like, “This is why astrology can’t work because of this.” But then because it’s not actually an accurate representation of astrology, it’s not a very strong argument. There’s just something problematic about that from different perspectives. Okay, so let’s move on. After that point, we start getting into this switch.
So they’ve talked about the zodiac, and they’ve talked about precession and all the arguments against that and how that is supposed to invalidate astrology. They briefly let the astrologers respond about the tropical zodiac, but then they immediately reject it based on a false objection—partially a false objection. Then they switch to talking about the meanings of the planets in astrology, and they only do that very briefly because then they transition immediately into a segment about Mercury retrograde. And they talk about how astrologers talk about Mercury retrograde and how they say it’s a bad omen and how decisions shouldn’t be made during Mercury retrograde or what have you, but then they launch into this whole explanation and physical demonstration about how Mercury retrograde is just an apparent phenomenon and how Mercury only appears to move backwards from our perspective on Earth; but in fact, both the Earth and Mercury are still moving forward in their orbits. And therefore since it’s just an illusion or an apparent phenomenon, it’s not really valid, or there’s nothing that it actually does. But again, as we talked about earlier, the counter argument, if I was there and I was doing this interview, I would say at that point, no, the relative perspective of the observer is actually relevant in an astrological context. And that actually points to a property of astrology rather than something that’s an argument against it.
LS: Right. And I do wonder since of course this is an edited show, I wonder how much there was an opportunity to say some of those things and what was included and what wasn’t in the final cut.
CB: And it’s like one of them starts to try and say something about this. And this actually a criticism that could be made of astrologers; even astrologers do not do a very good job of articulating this concept very well at this point. It’s not very well-defined. Even though the idea of astrology working through synchronicity or through some sort of acausal principle and just the apparent correlation between celestial movement and earthly events as being the philosophical or conceptual premise underlying astrology, even though that’s widely understood amongst professional astrologers, professional astrologers haven’t done a very good job of articulating this general principle of the relative perspective of the observer being important.
I mean, you do see some works like Geoffrey Cornelius’ Moment of Astrology that came out in the early 1990s where he’s making that argument and explaining it very well. But that’s one of the reasons why that book was so important and was such a landmark book in the history of the 20th century philosophy of astrology. It’s because he was very clearly articulating that principle in a way that wasn’t very well-articulated by other astrologers or in their works, even though it was something that was sort of implicitly being used. So astronomers basically responded by saying this should have no effect on us whatsoever because it’s just an apparent phenomenon. And then at this point they transition into the last phase of this episode, which is just talking about the astrological mechanism and going over whether there’s any known force that could account for astrology.
LS: Right. So then they present four fundamental forces of nature and physics—which they list as gravity, electromagnetism, the strong nuclear force, and the weak nuclear force—and then they go through each one to see could that be a possible physical basis of astrology.
CB: Right. And the primary one of course—and the one they focus on the most—is gravity, and they talk about how gravity works and how it doesn’t really make sense as a mechanism for astrology. And the main issue that they emphasize is just that gravity drops off or isn’t as powerful when you’re talking about large distances. So even though planets are very massive, or they have a lot of mass, and therefore large gravitational effects, when it comes to the huge distances that we’re talking about in terms of where the planets are in the solar system vs. individuals living on Earth, they don’t have a huge gravitational effect because they’re so far away. And this leads to the common objection that is often used in skeptical arguments that the doctor in the delivery room has more of a gravitational effect on the baby than a distant planet does because the doctor is closer.
So that’s gravity and that’s one of the things they talk about. Then they go into electromagnetism and they talk about that very briefly, saying various things, but basically they just sort of write that off and explain how electromagnetism doesn’t really make sense as a causal principle. And then they talk about the strong and weak nuclear forces, which they point out are only influential over extremely tiny distances, so that there should be no effect whatsoever between planets and individuals. So ultimately they conclude this section basically by just saying that astrology doesn’t appear to be linked to any detectable force. And so, then they open up the question of could modern science have missed something and could there be some unknown physical mechanism or force that could explain how astrology could work.
LS: Right. And then the second astrologer, Kaivalya, comes in and says that “We can use this as a tool and share it with people, but we don’t necessarily know how it works; but it can still be a useful tool,” and she links it to consciousness. I think the implication is that, you know, science hasn’t explained everything yet that does still work in life.
CB: Yeah, and part of that was a valid statement on her part, at least to the extent that she was saying, you know, you can still use something as a tool without knowing the full workings of the mechanism underlying it, in the same way that you can use a microwave or something like that without really being fully acquainted with how microwaves actually work; you can still operate it as a user of that piece of technology accurately. And that’s a partially-valid statement to make, but of course from a scientific or from, you know, a skeptic’s perspective that’s also a bit of a cop-out to say, you know, we’re just using it, we don’t have to know how it works or what have you. Obviously, you want to at least have some theories or some broad explanations about how what you’re using works.
And I think a lot of astrologers do, although it’s also true that the majority of astrologers are practitioners or people that are using a piece of technology, even though they don’t necessarily know how it works. And therefore certain people, you know, are not gonna be the best people to ask how that piece of technology works; they may not have a good explanation. They just use it without necessarily having a great philosophical explanation of what its implications are for the cosmos, or an explanation to explain how it could work to a scientist.
LS: Yeah, and I think that’s true and it is important to have better responses ready in these kinds of conversations. But then at the same time, on the flipside of that I feel like it sort of demonstrates a larger issue of, you know, has physical science explained everything that does exist or work in the universe. Can saying “I don’t know how this works, but it seems to still work” be a point of positive humility instead of, you know, saying that nothing exists that we haven’t explained the mechanism of? You know?
CB: Right. And that totally makes sense. But then the counterpoint to that—which they do then go into—again, the astronomer, Fraknoi, comes back saying that since no scientific tests have demonstrated that astrology works or demonstrated that there’s any sort of validity to astrology from a statistical standpoint, and on top of that, since it doesn’t obey any known force, for astrology to be true there would have to be, from his perspective, some physical mechanism that would work independent of distance. So it would have to be instantaneous, which wouldn’t obey one of the basic laws of physics in terms of things moving faster than the speed of light. He basically says that the simplest explanation is just that there is no such force and that astrology doesn’t work.
So they go into this whole section—and this is kind of an absurd section—because they go into this section where they say that astrology hasn’t kept up with the times because it doesn’t take into account recent astronomical discoveries. So they start talking about the black hole that’s at the Galactic Center, which they say that astrologers don’t take into account, even though there are astrologers out there, like for example, Philip Sedgwick, who does work with—I think he calls it ‘deep sky astrology’ or something like that that’s taking into account objects that can’t be seen except with a telescope or something like that. So there are astrologers out there using things like that. There’s been astrologers since the 1970s and ‘80s using things like asteroids. There’s already astrologers falling all over themselves in order to come up with significations and study new minor planets, such as the planet Eris or Sedna.
Then they bring up this other point in order to bolster that argument further by saying that there’s planets in other solar systems like Earth. And then one of the astronomers says, “But none of these things are included in astrology at all.” But that’s an absurd statement because astrologers ever since the Mesopotamian period have taken into account the fixed stars. And Ptolemy has, you know, a catalog of fixed stars and what their astrological meaning is; and there would be no noticeable difference between a planet orbiting a specific fixed star in another solar system and the location in the zodiac of that fixed star. So it’s in fact false or weirdly misleading to make a statement that astrologers don’t use planets in other solar systems, and I don’t even know why that statement was thrown in there. I know that it was part of probably a broader statement where she was talking about other astronomical factors that astrologers supposedly don’t use; but it was actually mistaken to make that sort of allegation.
LS: Right. Well, and interestingly, just to say more broadly that astrologers don’t keep up with the recent scientific discoveries—then the outer planets never would have been added in, which most modern astrologers use and things like that.
CB: Yeah. So obviously it’s mistaken to say that astrologers have not kept up with the times. They go on to sort of present some astrological counterpoints, but it’s kind of brief and weak. They go on to say that astrologers do recognize these discoveries, but they think that planets in the solar system are more relevant; which is actually true that astrologers tend to focus on the bodies that are in our solar system rather than bodies that are outside of our solar system. And both of the astrologers then say something very brief about stuff in our solar system being more important. So after that they begin the next section with the next statement—or they give a preview of the next section by giving this really over-the-top statement that says, “What happens when scientists take the biggest claim in all of astrology and put it to the test?” And this segues into one of the final segments in the episode, which is basically scientific tests of astrology and the results of those.
And the astronomer Fraknoi says that when scientists have asked astrologers for proof, they’ve responded by saying they’re just too busy helping people and basically not offering much help in terms of doing scientific testing. And for the most part that’s actually probably true partially because most astrologers are not scientists and not trained in the ways that would be necessary in order to know what they need to do in order to put together, you know, a decent scientific test of astrology; or for that matter, most astrologers in the 20th century were oftentimes not even people that did it full-time. The majority of the people in the astrological community are often people that have other side jobs, and astrology is just something they’re enthusiastic about or something that they’re passionate about, but it’s often not their primary vocation. Oftentimes you don’t necessarily see a lot of people that are coming from having a PhD in physics or something like that and then transitioning into a career as an astrologer because astrology is generally not viewed as a reputable, you know, career field. And as a result of that we don’t have a lot of leading scientists in the astrological community that are trying to do tests of it. So to that extent that’s accurate that, you know, astrologers have probably not been all over the place trying to propose tests of astrology.
So while it’s true that from the perspective of the astrological community, astrologers have not been very good about designing tests in order to validate this subject that they’re so, you know, fascinated by or enthusiastic about—and therefore not also educating themselves in science and in some of the things that are necessary in order to validate astrology scientifically—by the same token most skeptics or most scientists, or astronomers like Fraknoi, don’t really take a lot of time to study astrology before dismissing it; and one of the things that have come up with many of these arguments against it is that they’re often kind of misinformed arguments. So it kind of cuts both ways in terms of astrologers not doing a lot of science education in order to put themselves in a better position to talk about astrology from a scientific standpoint, but also skeptics not educating themselves in order to talk about astrology in terms of what astrologers actually do vs. just what they assume that astrologers do.
LS: Right. And, I mean, both of those are true to a large extent, although not completely. But then you could do a whole show of course on the issue of, you know, scientific testing of astrology period and whether it is amenable, or whether it’s something that does work, but is not particularly amenable to scientific testing like a lot of astrologers would argue, or if it’s something along the lines of case studies. Like acupuncture and stuff like that where every single case is so unique and has so many variables that you can’t really design a fair, scientific test; and so they’re just not speaking the same language, but it still works.
CB: Right. And this has been a big debate in the astrological community over the past 20 years or so—20, almost 30 years—about, you know, can astrology be validated scientifically, if it can, then how, and designing the test that would be appropriate for it and would be broad enough to actually encompass the practice of astrology vs. running a test on Sun signs or some like isolated piece of astrology that isn’t representative of what astrologers do, but it’s like trying to isolate one sliver of it and whether that’s possible. Or is there something sort of inherent in astrology that is problematic that could not be tested through the means of statistics or what have you, due to issues with repeating the tests or whether it’s replicable?
LS: Right. And certainly that is a much longer and ongoing discussion. But it is really important when we’re talking about the tests, like in the show. They aren’t designed by people who know astrology, so that’s really important.
CB: Sure. And Fraknoi goes on a bit of a tirade about this—about how, you know, astrologers aren’t stepping up to do the tests to test and validate astrology and see if it works, and so skeptics or scientists have had to step up and do it on their own. But even that is actually kind of ironic or there’s something funny about that because the largest scale statistical studies that have ever been done on astrology were done by Michel Gauquelin during the course of the second-half of the 20th century, and that was what led to the ‘Mars effect’ and everything else; and he is often classified or characterized as an astrologer. And he had an early interest in astrology, which is what led him to eventually pursue trying to validate it scientifically. So I have to walk back earlier statements because even to a certain extent it’s not true to say that astrologers have not been engaged at all in trying to validate astrology scientifically. It’s just not the primary preoccupation of I would say the majority of astrologers who are practitioners or are oftentimes just enthusiasts that just want to, you know, study their own chart or want to interpret the charts of their friends and family; and that’s much different and very far removed from this broader thing of demonstrating astrology and validating it in a scientific context.
So yeah, we’re going into all of this, and at one point this big thing that they built up about the biggest claim in all of astrology and putting it to the test, it turns out that they’re just talking about synastry, but they’re not even talking about full synastry. They’re talking about whether it’s true that people are more or less compatible with each other in relationships based on their Sun sign. And that evidently is what the producers of the show think is the biggest claim in all of astrology that was gonna be put to the test. And then they launch into this study—or Fraknoi launches into this study that was done, the Michigan study, that was done on marriage and divorce records to see if so-called compatible zodiacal signs stayed married longer than divorced signs. And evidently it only used Sun sign astrology, and he said that the results were completely random statistically; so the results did not come back in favor of there being any sort of astrological phenomenon.
But again, with this study, we’ve gone back to let’s test “astrology.” But what they’re really testing is just Sun sign astrology, which by their own admission is a relatively recent phenomenon that only started in the 1930s in newspaper columns partially in order to sell newspapers. So it’s while I don’t want to bash or downplay Sun sign astrology and try to pretend that it’s not astrology or that’s not part of what astrologers do—because it is, and I think sometimes astrologers fall into the trap of trying to distance themselves too much from Sun sign astrology—it is, you know, accurate to say that Sun sign astrology is only a very small piece of astrology. And to go so far as to make claims about how that’s the biggest claim in astrology—that people have compatible Sun signs—is really stretching it extremely far.
LS: Right. That was a really strange and sort of sensational introduction to the last part of the show. And I’m not really sure where they got that, or if they really think that’s true, or if it was just like a good way to keep people listening.
CB: And, I mean, this is getting towards the end of the episode, so maybe they were just scrambling for something to say or to put in this section for filler, and that was one of the things that came out of the interview with him that they thought would be easy to present in an understandable fashion. And then at some point, around like 37 minutes in, they briefly show this older female astrologer who’s looking at charts and looking at an ephemeris, but this is the only time that she appears in the episode. So it almost looks like they must have interviewed another astrologer, but decided not to use any of it. And I don’t really recognize her, so I have no idea who she is.
So they go from this—talking about the Michigan study that compared Sun signs for compatibility and the permanence of one’s marriage—briefly discussing the ‘Mars effect’ and the work of Michel Gauquelin and the connection between astrology and profession. What’s funny though is right at the beginning, they framed it wrong by saying that it tested occupations to see if it lined up with a particular sign of the zodiac; so they said that these studies that Gauquelin did were testing people’s zodiacal signs to see if it lined up with their profession. But that’s actually not correct at all because what it matched was planetary placements at the moment of a person’s birth and their subsequent profession; so that was kind of weird the way that they framed it.
Later they start talking about the actual ‘Mars effect’, which is one of the professional correlations that Gauquelin found, that Mars—when it’s in certain parts of a chart of a person’s birth that roughly correlate with just past the four angular degrees, like the Ascendant and the Midheaven, and just past those degrees—that when Mars is placed there there’s a higher instance of eminent athletes born at that time, or that a higher number of eminent athletes have Mars in those sectors. So later they correctly framed it when they started getting into it as matching the placement of Mars with eminent athletes. But then one of the other astronomers, Filippenko, says that the study was later repeated with a more carefully selected sample and then the correlations disappeared.
And this is where you get the famous conflict about the ‘Mars effect’, and it’s like this really long story that we’ll probably get at some point later this year as an episode on its own. But the ‘Mars effect’ was something that Gauquelin found after looking through hundreds of thousands of birth charts that he collected, timed birth charts. He found this correlation between Mars being in certain parts of the chart coinciding not just with athletes, but they had to be eminent athletes; so people that were very high up or prominent in their chosen athletic field. And originally there was a scientific group that tried to replicate it and then was successful, and they successfully replicated the ‘Mars effect’. And it caused this big controversy because it looked like this was proving astrology and it had just been replicated by a reputable scientific organization.
So then eventually at one point one of the skeptic groups that had recently formed got involved and they tried to do their own replication of the study, and much to their dismay they also replicated it as well. And this created a huge amount of controversy, but it didn’t really create a huge amount of controversy until later. ‘Cause what happened is one of the people that was involved in the skeptical organization later wrote an exposé about it claiming that when the skeptic group replicated the study, they kept it under wraps for a while because they didn’t want anyone to know that it seemed to be demonstrating that astrology was true. So they knew that to be not the case, ‘cause they knew astrology was false supposedly, so they wanted to buy some time to figure out why it was replicating it and figure out what they had done wrong.
So eventually it turned into this whole debacle and then eventually the groups did the study again in a way that did not replicate the ‘Mars effect’ and that became the final result. So that’s what he means when he just jumps forward and says once they had done it more carefully, it showed that there was no ‘Mars effect’. And that’s basically the scientific consensus at this point that the study was done, the redid it later with better controls and were not able to replicate Gauquelin’s earlier results. And some people still debate back and forth about whether that’s valid or whether there’s ways that the ‘Mars effect’ is still valid or not. I don’t really care and I don’t really hold an opinion because I don’t think it’s that important either way to the extent that it’s just one study of astrology; it’s one of the more large-scale ones and it’s one of the more controversial ones. But I don’t necessarily personally at least need to hang my view of astrology or what have you on whether the ‘Mars effect’ has been validated or replicated. Yeah, so that’s a large part of the discussion that takes place here. Fraknoi basically concludes this section by saying that the idea that Mars is connected to anything is basically nonsense.
LS: Right. And so, they moved on from this section of a couple of studies ending with a statement that says, “Astrology cannot pass the test of science based on these couple of studies, but that doesn’t seem to sway the true believers.” And then they start talking further about a National Science Foundation survey that said almost half of Americans think that astrology is scientific, which is a little bit iffy because there’s different surveys, and there’s some that have put it more around 25% that say that they believe in astrology; but it depends a lot of course on the wording of the surveys and things like that. But their larger point is that a large part of the public still believes that astrology works, even though it hasn’t been validated in scientific statistical terms.
And one of the scientists, Clifford Johnson, goes on to say that “Astrology is a narrative,” he sort of frames it that way. “As long as the narrative is not being used to deceive people, it’s okay.” So he was trying to, you know, put a more peaceable common-ground there, I guess. “Well, we disagree about whether it works, but as long as it’s not being deceptive, then it’s a fine way to find meaning in your life,” or something. But the problem of course is then a lot of astronomers would probably say that it is being used to deceive people if it’s not something that is inherently true about their lives; so it’s not really a great middle-ground.
CB: Right. So this whole section is just weird ‘cause they’re closing it down on this note of not only is there no known mechanism that could account for astrology, but there’s no scientific test that validates it. And yet, despite that, still, at least according to them, they say 50% of people believe it’s scientific. And that was really problematic because I’ve seen other surveys from a few years ago saying that only 25% “believe in astrology,” whatever that means. So the actual number of people that think that astrology is a valid phenomenon I suspect is probably something lower, closer to around 25%. But who knows what the 50% who answered that question, saying that astrology is scientific, what they actually meant by that or thought that they meant by that. Since there’s so many people that confuse astronomy and astrology that 50% number could be inflated…
CB: …as a result of people misunderstanding what the actual question was. And they’re like, “Of course astronomy is scientific,” except they say “astrology” and they mean “astronomy.”
CB: Yeah, so Clifford Johnson is trying to end on a positive note and say it’s an okay narrative as long as people aren’t being deceived. But of course scientists—because they think astrology is false, most applications of it—they would consider it to be deceptive, so this doesn’t really work. And they kind of end it with one of the astronomers, Fraknoi, saying, “Astronomers admit humans do have a deep connection with the universe, but in the way astrologers think,” or that’s what the narrator says. And they have Fraknoi end by saying he hopes that people start looking more at the modern mysteries of the universe rather than at ancient gods. And he talks about the common physical and biological connections that human beings have with the universe as a result of, you know, all matter being derived from exploding stars long ago and things like that.
So that’s pretty much the synopsis of the entire episode, and it ends on this kind of unsatisfying note; which I can understand why a lot of astrologers would get to this point and just be really annoyed. It ends with there’s no valid astrological phenomenon. There are no scientific tests that demonstrate it’s true. I wasn’t as bothered by that the first time that I watched it though because, like I said earlier, they still made some important counterpoints against some of the common skeptical arguments against astrology, which largely focus on Sun sign astrology, by pointing out what more advanced forms of astrology actually look like and actually looking at a birth chart. So from that perspective, it was positive.
I was also not that turned off or surprised by it because I’m already familiar with, you know, what some of challenges are that astrologers have in the modern period and some of the things that we need to be aware of that we have working against us, in terms of where astrology is situated in contemporary society and some of the ways in which we still have work to do in terms of better defining our subject, in terms of validating the practice of astrology, and in terms of, you know, how to talk with and interface with the public about it, and what the public perceptions are, or what the perceptions of even other skeptics or astronomers are of astrology. And while some of that falls on them in terms of not having very good familiarity with the subject and therefore making mistakes or poor assumptions about it and poor arguments, some of that also falls on us. We also have a lot of work to do to better present our subject and to get our own stuff together, so that we can present it in a more conceptually consistent and persuasive fashion, I think.
LS: Right. I would agree with all of those statements, and, you know, overall with the show. I felt similarly that there’s just been hardly any platforms before that have shown this much real astrology and full birth charts. So I was pleased enough with it and also not surprised by the scientists’ statements. Because it was being in this sort of neutral forum on the History Channel, it sort of forced it to be a little bit more—I don’t want to say neutral—but a little more balanced than it often is in any sort of astrological discussion in the public, so I actually appreciated that forum being put out there.
CB: Right. Like if this was like, you know, Bill Nye, the ‘Science Guy’ or like some scientific or skeptical thing, it just would have been entirely like, “This is what astrology is,” and a sort of false portrayal of it, “And this is the argument against that,” which would be, you know, attacking the straw-man that we’ve just set up about it, for the most part, if this was more of a scientific thing. But because it was a sensationalist History Channel ‘looking at fringe theories’ thing, they actually balanced it out much more than you would otherwise normally get—almost surprisingly—on a more scientific portrayal of astrology.
LS: Right. Which is kind of funny and ironic that that, you now, allowed that to happen. But I’ll take it, you know. Yeah, I mean, that was my overall feeling that it provided some positive moments compared to usual, even if there were also all of the critiques like there normally would be. I think also people just can’t be—astrologers can’t be too dismayed and have to keep in mind that, you know, the scientific paradigm is very, very prevalent, and it is largely how we understand our world and contemporary society. And so, unless people are being nasty I guess about it, or, you know, putting forth only critiques that don’t even have to do with how astrology works at all and then not allowing a response, I mean, that makes me upset.
But I don’t get inherently upset when scientists are like, “It has these physical mechanisms that need to work, and they don’t work, and so astrology doesn’t work.” You know, they’re just viewing it through the lens that they understand the world through. And I personally think that, you know, that’s limiting, but I don’t think it’s inherently offensive. And I do remember, you know, before I learned astrology myself, my opinion was sort of like, “Well, I would want to test it for myself, but it probably can’t work.” And so, I kind of understand that if it doesn’t fit in the prevalent paradigm of how the universe works, then you have to see it in action for yourself, you know, or else you do think it’s kind of impossible and absurd.
CB: Yeah, and as astrologers, you basically have two options when your run into that, and this is the work that we have in front of us basically in the 21st century. If you object to that, either demonstrate astrology working in a scientific context, or alternately, explain what your model is and what the paradigm is if astrology does not work in that context. And that’s the route that some astrologers, such as Geoffrey Cornelius with The Moment of Astrology, have been attempting to go in explaining astrology more in the context of divination vs. other astrologers that have been trying to explain astrology and demonstrate it as working within the context of a scientific paradigm through statistics or through controlled scientific studies. Those are basically the two options—either demonstrate it within a scientific context if you want to validate astrology in the modern world or you need to come up with and explain what the alternate paradigm is that would allow astrology to work—so that you actually have something to say in response to, you know, skeptics or people that just want you to explain how this could possibly work in the universe and be a real thing rather than just referring to some vague notion of ‘as above, so below’ or something like that.
LS: Right. And, I mean, I do have sympathy, you know, that there are many practitioners who do find it enough for themselves that it works and that they just want to use it for clients and to help them. But yes, for the larger community, as a whole, I think that it’s important to at least have some people who are working on either or both of those things.
CB: Yeah, and it’s like not every astrologer has to deal with these issues. I mean, that’s not everybody’s bag and that’s fine. Just for the love of God, if you’re contacted by a show or a news program or something like that that wants to talk to somebody who can talk about what the philosophical and theoretical principles of astrology are, do not go on the show if you are not an expert or skilled at talking about those areas; because you will not only make a fool of yourself, but you’ll also kind of make a fool of the rest of us ‘cause you’ll be representing everyone. So that is important just because sometimes that happens as well. I remember during the 2011 zodiac controversy, it was like news outlets were just contacting astrologers everywhere just sort of randomly, and astrologers of course would take up the challenge to defend astrology or to represent astrology; but it’s like these were issues that everybody had been thinking about just because that’s not everybody’s focus. But then all of a sudden everyone was talking about it, and every astrologer wanted to put their two cents in, even if it wasn’t something that they had a lot of familiarity with on like how to discuss, you know, whether or not gravity is a viable mechanism for astrology, or whether electromagnetism is or what have you.
LS: Right. Yeah.
CB: All right, well, I think that kind of brings us to the end of this episode. I’m not sure if I had anything else to say. We gave a synopsis; we sort of did our commentary and our review. So in the end, I think both of us kind of agreed—or at least our opinion on this doesn’t have to be your opinion or everyone’s opinion. But we thought it was a net-positive ultimately for astrology, even if it did repeat some of the same arguments. And even if it did, you know, convey some additional falsehoods about astrology, there was also a lot more truth about astrology that was presented; and what what I mean that is just presenting a more accurate picture or depiction of what astrologers actually think to balance out certain points. And at least in that sense I felt like it was a net-positive and that astrologers don’t need to freak out and, you know, go on the offensive in terms of trying to defend ourselves against this; but instead just let it be and let it go. You know, in certain ways astrology’s always gonna have a negative portrayal from certain quarters or from certain people. But as long as we can still present certain points in order to more accurately depict what we’re doing as astrologers, then that’s good. And hopefully we will eventually, through things like this, attract the type of people that we need in the astrological community who can wrestle with some of these important philosophical and conceptual issues in order to better define astrology in the 21st century.
LS: Yeah, I’m really excited that there was actually astrology in the media that we could celebrate in any part. And it may be a low bar again, but it was so good to see full charts and to see some of it explained and how the charts worked and what they were dependent on. And I think that in and of itself, like you said earlier, some people will watch that and go, “Oh, I didn’t know that that’s how it worked,” and I don’t think that the rest of the show or, you know, some of the scientific arguments will necessarily completely detract from that. So I was really excited to see that out there, and I hope we can have more of the same in the future.
CB: Definitely. And the last thing is just some people I think are gonna be frustrated by this possibly because they aren’t as familiar with it. And this is something that I’m slightly worried about in terms of some of the services out there, like Astrology News Services, for example, which is out there to put out press releases about astrology that are positive in order to try and counterbalance some of the propaganda that’s commonly being put out against astrology; they’re sort of counterbalancing it with positive stories about astrology. But I think one of the potential drawbacks with things like that is that in the process sometimes they can put too much of a positive spin on, you know, how things are going for astrology in terms of science; almost giving astrologers the false sense that astrology is right on the verge of being validated scientifically, and at least at this point in time that really does not quite seem o be the case.
And it doesn’t mean that’s gonna be the case permanently, but it means if things like this bother you, then you need to take a more active role in either researching the issue and finding ways to validate astrology scientifically on your own, or by cooperating with other people that have the kind of skills necessary in order to design valid scientific tests, if that’s something that you really want to do. Because it’s not gonna happen and this is not gonna change just by people complaining about it or, you know, saying that, “Astrology works for me,” or something like that. We have to take a more active role if we want to attempt to validate astrology in some form or another. So if this special has bothered you, or if at least the portrayal or scientific coverage of astrology bothered you, then fix that by getting involved and reading up on the scientific literature on astrology and try to find ways in which we can improve upon some of the things that were done in the past. ‘Cause, honestly, a lot of the tests that were done in the past, especially in the 1980s and stuff, were done very poorly and very haphazardly.
And that’s one of the biggest reasons why I’m not really bothered by the fact that there’s so little scientific evidence in favor of astrology, if any, at this point. And I think it’s because a lot of the tests that have been done up to this point were done kind of haphazardly or kind of poorly and not necessarily by leading astrologers who were spending decades working on the conceptual and philosophical premise underlying astrology. But instead sometimes these tests are just like there’s a cattle call for anybody who’s calling themselves an astrologer, and then these people go in and demonstrate or do what they do and either it comes out positive or comes out negative, and, you know, that’s the end of it; sort of like in this episode where we have no idea how the two astrologers that they ended up featuring ended up on this episode. But despite that and despite how random it almost seemed, they ended up representing the entire astrological community just because they ended up on this show, and scientific tests of astrology so far have been kind of like that.
So that’s something as well that we can perhaps work on in the astrological community. And I guess that’s part of the movement over the past couple of decades towards certification and towards having better educational standards in the astrological community—like through Kepler College or other schools or other organizations like the NCGR or ISAR—but we still have a lot of work to do. So if you’re annoyed by this episode, then take it as an opportunity to do something about it and to improve the state of astrology, both internally in the astrological community, as well as externally in terms of the broader world and the broader perceptions of astrology in the world at large. All right, well, I think that brings us to the end of the episode. Do you have any closing thoughts or words?
LS: No. I mean, I think that was a great wrap-up and call to action. And, I mean, you certainly could do a whole show on the issue or the history of scientific testing of astrology, and, you know, testing design and things like that; I mean, I think that’s one more thing that I would just add into everything you just said. You know, if you know astrology and you know some about the scientific method, it doesn’t all have to be the way it’s been done before in terms of choosing one attribute and doing it. Statistically there are other fields that have multivariable things going on like astrology does. There are other ways to start testing it that can be validating, even if it’s not a large scale statistical thing. So I think that’s important to keep in mind too, in terms of not just viewing it as a completely black-and-white issue.
CB: Yeah, definitely. And definitely I hope for future episodes—especially this summer as I ramp up and try to do one episode a week of The Astrology Podcast—that I can do one that’ll cover some of the previous scientific tests of astrology in more detail. We sort of ran through this very quickly, and I’m sure gave a very inadequate and maybe even slightly inaccurate overview of things like the ‘Mars effect’ controversy; and I’ll try to go into that in more detail in the future. We were trying to get this episode out kind of quickly today. And especially the first hour, we were sort of rushing through in order to meet a deadline ‘cause you had a meeting. But next time we’ll come back to some of these specific topics, and we’ll do them a little bit more carefully or more deliberately.
CB: All right, well, that’s it for this episode. Thanks for listening, and we’ll see you next time.