Astrology: the anchor of real science

15 Jan

Astrology, like all pseudosciences, has been the bane of civilisation for centuries. While the case is often made that without astrology we would not have astronomy, this is overstating the case more than somewhat. It’s rather like saying “if it wasn’t for a child building a sandcastle on the beach, we wouldn’t have the Great Pyramid”.

In the case of  the “ology/onomy” divide, it was only when we stopped talking to the stars and began wanting to learn about their nature and their movements that we as a race took a huge leap forward from the world of superstition.

Now we seem to be sliding back, at an accelerating rate. Minneapolis astronomy professor Parke Kunkle has announced the stunning new discovery of precession. This is something so radical that it literally rocks the world. In fact, its repercussions are so revolutionary that they appear to have travelled back in time in order for ancient Greek astronomer Hipparchus to know about it in at least 120 BC.

Professor Kunkle has also rediscovered the constellation of Ophiucus, the ‘mysterious’ thirteenth sign of the Zodiac. This is something that pops up every few years, each time emerging as a “new” discovery threatening to overturn astrology.

Let’s get a few things straight. Ophiucus is hardly a new discovery, as I said it gets discovered almost on a regular basis. And it’s far from being a brand new constellation: a forgotten one, maybe (except to astronomers).

Predictably, we now have (apparently) mass panic of people who have never heard of Google, terrified as to what this all means to their star-signs. And for once, the stellar snake oil merchants are correct when they say there’s nothing to worry about.

What’s most amusing to me is that astrologers didn’t see this coming (or if they did, they kept quiet about it).

The question has to be addressed though: why are horoscopes unaffected by these changes? If you were trying to find your way around London using a map of New York, discarding it in favour of a London one is definitely going to make a difference. If you are a chemist trying to get two substances to react, making sure to select the correct bottle from the shelf certainly makes a difference.  However, just as with typical-fundy Blair rationalising his ‘wobble’, the -ologers reveal the non-scientific nature of their racket: it’s all been worked out and set in stone; any contradictory evidence will be buried or spirited away.

Real science works by falsification; that’s how (and why) experiments work. It’s like testing cars by smashing them into brick walls until there’s nothing left but interestingly shaped paperweights. It also leads to technology that works. Pseudoscience… doesn’t.

(In a shameless attempt at self-promotion, I present astronomer and rising TV star Phil Plait’s views on this teacup storm.)

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