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December 19, 2005 8:28 PM   Subscribe

Is there any basis to astrology?

I know I've seen some brief explanations for the art of astrology, such as the developmental period of a baby/child being affected by the season they were born in contributing to their nature.

I also know that most horoscopes and such are both general enough to apply to anyone as well as being positive enough to make most folks *want* to believe them (see: fortune cookies).

However, I feel that the profiles of each sign have more often than not been fairly accurate in my past relationships, and that things such as sign compatability "reports" could ergo hold a grain of truth.

Does anyone have either "scientific" backing for these issues or personal experiences that would be interesting to tell more about? I realize the latter will probably devolve into a raft of "I agree" vs. "I don't agree" antecdotes.

Yes, I did search for previous questions on this, no dice.
posted by kcm to Religion & Philosophy (48 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Are you asking if there's any empirical evidence or any basis relating to the scientific method? Then no, no there isn't.
posted by geoff. at 8:32 PM on December 19, 2005

No, there is no scientific basis to astrology.
posted by bshort at 8:33 PM on December 19, 2005

Response by poster: I'm asking, partly, if any serious study has been done as to either the validation of the methods or of the basis of the theories used. That is, one may propose that the ideas arose from a set of beliefs that may or may not have been entirely made up or perhaps based on some ancient-times empirical evidence (flawed or not). Studies, papers, or anything - affirmative or negative.
posted by kcm at 8:36 PM on December 19, 2005

kcm: People who have been told they are supposed to behave a certain way are more likely to behave that way, probably, seems the most plausible explanation to me.

Sorry I don't have any science for you. I'll make it up by telling you that the white crystals in aged cheese are usually either calcium Lactase (which falls out of solution during the ripening process when the active bacteria metabolize the lactic acid into a less soluble form) or the amino acid tyrosine.
posted by aubilenon at 8:43 PM on December 19, 2005

Best answer:
posted by chexov at 8:44 PM on December 19, 2005

Response by poster: aubilenon: "the white crystals in aged cheese are usually either calcium Lactase"

so, don't drink tea with your ice cream. The More You Know™. Did I mention I am a closet fan of useful AxMe derails?
posted by kcm at 8:50 PM on December 19, 2005

? How can one associate personality traits with the position of bits of rock millions of miles away? Much astrology even uses star charts that are thousands of years out of date. If I read that mars effect article correct it says sports legends are more likely to be born in one half of the year then another?
If you look enough you will find statistical anomalies everywhere. To try and ascribe meaning to them beyond that they exist requires more evidence then simply pointing to them as proof after the fact.

The article also notes that he could find no other proof that astrology is effective. Astrology is, in my opinion, the flakiest hokum out there.
posted by edgeways at 8:57 PM on December 19, 2005

The ancient evidence you refer to was flawed (e.g., many varieties of astrology presume a geocentric universe), and modern empirical research has not shown that astrology is any more accurate a predictive tool than pure chance.
posted by box at 9:06 PM on December 19, 2005

By the way, the 'sign' your born under isn't actually the sign in the sky at your birth, the zodiac has shifted due to planetary wobble over the millennia.

As far as the wikipedia link goes, well, that's wikipedia for you. Anyone can put up anything they want, so various subcultures all get their own crap, including pseudoscientific diciplins.
posted by delmoi at 9:14 PM on December 19, 2005

Best answer: Here's the scientific case against it. All mathematically worked out. No, it's all bunk. If you believe it, you might want to stay away from your car, your apartment building, etc. ;)
posted by madman at 9:14 PM on December 19, 2005

However, I feel that the profiles of each sign have more often than not been fairly accurate in my past relationships, and that things such as sign compatability "reports" could ergo hold a grain of truth.

I used to date someone who was very much into astrology. She did charts for people as a living. Very well respected and sought out in her "field". (It was a *very* short relationship.) Personally, I hate astrology and think most astrologists are idiots. Our first date she asked my birthdate with such enthusiasm, I knew she was an astrologist. I told her November 22 was my birthday (Sagitarius). Over the course of the (very few) dates I had with this whackjob, I would behave in such and such a way and she would proclaim: "Ah ha! Just like a Sagitarius!" This happened a lot and I got sick of it real fast.

When I had had enough of her nonsense, I confessed I was actually a Taurus, born May 5th. She didn't believe me. "You can't be a Taurus!" I showed her my ID.

I ran into her about a year later and she said she had been thinking a lot about me and had concluded that I could, in fact, have been born when I said I was (which I was). That, thinking back, she could see how many of the things I did were very "Tauran". In other words, even when she was wrong she was right. (Very well respected in her field, you see.)

Sorry, but Astrology is nonsense. People who believe in it are gullible and naive. It's a placebo. An opiate. In short, it's bullshit.
posted by dobbs at 9:15 PM on December 19, 2005

Oh, and feel free to try swapping birthdates with another sign on your (least) favorite astrologist. They make really angry scrunchy faces when they find out the truth. The, "I've been living a lie!" type of face.
posted by dobbs at 9:16 PM on December 19, 2005

The famous skeptic James Randi did this experiment with a college class. He gave everyone a personality profile, prepared specifically for each of them by an astrologer. After reading it, he asked how many people thought they were accurately represented. An overwhelming amount of the class raised their hand. He then had each student pass their horoscope to the person in front of them, at which point it became clear that everyone had the exact same horoscope.
posted by O9scar at 9:21 PM on December 19, 2005

such as the developmental period of a baby/child being affected by the season they were born in contributing to their nature.

Well it's about 34 degrees (celsius) outside where I am, so I can see how this would make sense for someone on the cusp of Capricorn.

Excepting how it's probably NOT 34 degrees where you are.
posted by wilful at 9:26 PM on December 19, 2005

Best answer: Astrology can act as a useful shorthand for describing certain personalities. Among people who have really studied the astrological theories, most don't believe that the planets are destiny. Horoscopes, in my view, are completely bogus. Trying to predict the future is bogus. However, using the language of astrology to talk about personality can be a psychological exercise that leads to deeper understanding of yourself and others. As long as you don't think that your sign is your destiny, I think talking about astrology can be quite interesting. And when you discover that another person is the same sign as you, or a compatible sign with yours, sometimes it's a quick connection that leads to a relationship. On the other hand, people who believe that people born in certain periods are always incompatible with them are limiting themselves artificially.

When you look at moon sign, rising, and all the planets, most people's birth charts have "influences" from almost all the signs. So in effect, we all contain ALL of the signs. We're all human, and this system of belief evolved to explain human behavior. (And also to try to predict the future, but as I said, I think that part is totally bogus) Just as mythology can be useful and interesting, so can astrology.

By the way, Jeanne Avery has an interesting take on astrology that incorporates concepts from Carl Jung and others. The linked book was the one that finally pushed me past magical thinking and into deeper insights on how astrology can be used.
posted by acridrabbit at 9:27 PM on December 19, 2005

Here's the scientific case against it. All mathematically worked out.

To be fair, that analysis assumes a specific cause (gravity) and then goes on to debunk that. You can always get around that by positing its just some fifth undiscovered force. Debunking astrology scientifically is a waste of time since its impossible to disprove it really but luckily science doesnt work by assuming everything is true then going on to see what can be disproved - it works the other way around.

Astrology does work and it works because people want it to work. dobbs example is instructive. Theres enough subjectivity that it can be made to fit. Forget astrology for the moment and think of say my investment banker friend who thinks everyone is an asshole and human kindness is a myth. You cant win an argument against him because all altruism can be twisted into selfishness. Astrology is a formalized world-view. And like any of the world-views carried around by us, they are indeed true.
posted by vacapinta at 9:27 PM on December 19, 2005

Along the lines of what Dobbs said...

from The Vice Guide To Everything

What? You actually believe in that horseshit? Have you ever tested it out? Tell someone you're a sign that you aren't and see if they go, "Hmm, that's strange. You seem a lot more like a Scorpio" or whatever you really are. Astrology is a stupid person's desperate attempt to impose order on a world they feel is totally beyond their control. It is a science for people too lazy and uneducated to understand real science. If someone says, "What sign are you?" you should hear "Get the fuck out of here. I'm crazy."

Oh, and that thing where you go "I'm sorry, but I'm psychic" is for babies. You are not psychic. You are a person who remembers strange things more than you remember boring things. That's called "selective memory" or "trying to appear special."

posted by Ian A.T. at 9:28 PM on December 19, 2005

I think astrology is a hoax, but I think people are mistaking the "mechanism". If free will doesn't exist, then the essence of astrology could be true (maybe even otherwise, but I don't see how). The idea being that the stars don't "cause" events to happen, but in the fixed "cosmic harmony" they are like shadows. IOW, correlating "stars" as external proxy indicators.
posted by Gyan at 9:33 PM on December 19, 2005

Addendum: so astrology is a search for a narrative that seeks to marry objective, predictable events with subjective personal destiny.
posted by Gyan at 9:35 PM on December 19, 2005

Not to defend astrology, but it doesn't seem unreasonable to suspect that the month or season someone is born might affect their personality/development. For instance, most people go into school in the U.S. when they're around 5 years old. If you just miss the cutoff (e.g., you're born in December and enter school almost a full year after you turn 5), you might have an advantage over your cohort in terms of cognitive development and whatnot. Not that people born in December are innately more intelligent. . . they're just further along when everyone gets hit with standardized testing...
posted by logicpunk at 9:41 PM on December 19, 2005

Best answer: See Forer effect.
posted by b. at 9:42 PM on December 19, 2005

I'm asking, partly, if any serious study has been done as to either the validation of the methods or of the basis of the theories used.

Well, I don't know of any serious studies, but I conducted one when I was in junior high. I didn't want to do a real science project, so, instead, I got some cheesy books on astrology and came up with a set of personality traits that were, supposedly, attributed to people born under the respective sign. Then, I came up with some questions - three or four per sign - that sought to determine whether the respondent had that particular trait. (I know, I know... the method was ludicrous; but what did I care? I was going to be a writer, not a physicist. And anyway, the grade wouldn't be on my high school transcript). I came up with three or four questions for each sign. (Mostly of the "are you shy?" or "do you have a lot of friends" variety; sort of a pre-internet click-here-to-Tak-tHis-quzi-itz-cool-LOL sort of deal.) Then I got, I think, four classmates per sign to answer the questions. So forty eight subjects, each answering four questions means there were a total of 192 responses. And as I recall, when all was said and done, roughly half those responses corresponded to the astrological profile.
posted by Clay201 at 9:44 PM on December 19, 2005

As far as I am aware you are not the star sign you think you are, which is to say, the constellation that corresponds to your zodiac was not behind the sun at the time of your birth. You'll have to look up the effects of precession on our earth-bound perception of the universe for a detailed explanation though, as I am unable to provide one. Try wikipedia or something.

It is foolish to consider astrology or the zodiac when contemplating interpersonal relationships. What is confusing about the way you posed your question is that you seem to answer/contradict yourself..... "general enough to apply to anyone" "could .... hold a grain of truth"

I agree with edgeways that astrology is some pretty flaky hokum, but at least I can't remember the last time a horoscope condemned me to eternal damnation.

on preview... looks like you hit a nerve there, kcm. what Dobbs said.
posted by Tixylix at 9:48 PM on December 19, 2005

Response by poster: I'm as much of an engineer and scientist as anyone, and don't put any stock in this stuff. Just, once in awhile, glimpses of some possible truths leads me to think about WHY things such as astrology exist. Not so much in the crutch-as-in-religion sense, but how the writings were written as they were so to speak.

My analytical training does teach me to consider all viewpoints in order to strengthen any position that you have taken, so, I posed the question. :)
posted by kcm at 9:51 PM on December 19, 2005

The Skeptic's Dictionary entry on wishful thinking also has links to other interesting things. Helps explain why people want something like astrology to work.

To be fair, that analysis assumes a specific cause (gravity) and then goes on to debunk that. You can always get around that by positing its just some fifth undiscovered force.

Ah, but most astrologers specifically cite gravitational influences as a foundation of astrology. I can't begin to tell you how many times I've heard the "if gravity can affect the oceans, it's reasonable to believe that it would affect us, since we're mostly water" line from people.
posted by madman at 10:04 PM on December 19, 2005

madman, there's the basic principle, and there's the mechanism. It's not angels pushing the stars in a certain path, but gravity a.ka. the mass-induced curvature of spacetime. It's practically impossible to disprove the principle behind astrology: "The universe work in an Ordered way (including human life)". The mechanism: "this is the Order ..." Any number of those creatures can be shot down.
posted by Gyan at 10:21 PM on December 19, 2005

I've wondered if there might be a scientific basis to astrology. i tend to get blue in the winter due to lack of UV/Vitamin D/seritonin level, etc. What if this has an effect on the fetus? It might have a different effect depending on which stage of development a fetus is at in the winter? Just a thought.
posted by ParisParamus at 10:41 PM on December 19, 2005

Not to defend astrology, but it doesn't seem unreasonable to suspect that the month or season someone is born might affect their personality/development.

Recently I read (sorry, no link) that among 60-year-olds, being born in the fall added a few months to your life expectancy over being born in the spring. Hypothesis: mothers giving birth in the fall have better fruits and vegetables to eat during fetal development than those giving birth in the spring.

Not to defend astrology, which is bullshit.
posted by Aknaton at 10:53 PM on December 19, 2005

Those readings you get in the newspaper for each sign aren't actually horoscopes. Actual horoscopes take into account the astrological conditions around your birth and is a lot more mathematical than it may seem.

There's also Vedic astrology, based in India, that takes into account the actual constellation/sign that was present during your birth (so for instance, in Western astrology I am a Libra; in Vedic astrology I am a Virgo). Not to mention other astrological systems (Chinese, Japanese, etc) with different systems of calculation and divination.

Are they real? Who knows for certain. Reality is what you make of it. They can be a useful pointer to how the current energy is like, but whether you want to follow it or not is up to you. You still have free will.
posted by divabat at 11:10 PM on December 19, 2005

Indeed there are rules of physics, but reality is also a lot about how you perceive the world around you. How you think the world is. It's not just about calculations.

Why can't anyone detect these mysteries energies?

Some can. But it seems the problem here is how you define "energy" - scientifically? Same thing as the Chinese "qi"/"chi"? A vibe, a hunch, a feeling? Which model will you apply? And how will you intepret it?

If you can't prove something for certain than you can know for certain its fake.

Intuition is hard to prove, but that doesn't mean it's fake. I can't prove to you what I'm thinking right now, does that mean it's fake?

A lot of this is really just things hard to define. It's more intuitive.

(argh, none of that made any sense, did it. sorry...)
posted by divabat at 11:57 PM on December 19, 2005

Reality is not completely "what you make of it". How we interpret certain aspect of everyday life is "what we make it". But there are some pretty inflexible aspects to reality. The best way to illustrate this that I have come up with is the running-into-the-door-in-the-middle-of-the-night. Your reality did not include that door until it intruded upon you. As the door is a non-sentiant actor there is no conflict of realities, only the shared inflexible reality.
As to issues such as what time of year your where born/conceived/carried to term affecting your personality. i can see this as being valid in the sense that environmental stimuli is different each time of year, but that is a far cry from saying the "stars" have influenced you. If astrology was accurate then someone born in Northern Canada and in Texas on the same day should have similar personalities. There are a million other stimuli to take into account. Ocams razor works well in this case. AStrology as a framework for talking about psychology, sorry *shudder*. I work in a field related to psychology, just because someone feels a given system says something about people doesn't make it valid psychology. The field already suffers enough from armatures who think it is easy, or professionals who remain stuck on a particular mode. I am all for diversity in treatment methods, but they should be valid treatment methods
posted by edgeways at 12:03 AM on December 20, 2005

I think intuition and astrology are two seperate things.
posted by edgeways at 12:05 AM on December 20, 2005

posted by mr_roboto at 12:17 AM on December 20, 2005

Best answer: This paper (pdf link) on astrology got a lot of media attention as a definitive debunking of astrology, even though it was meant to examine if astrologers got their results using psychic abilities. Unfortunately, no astrologers ever managed to show any results better than chance despite overwhelmingly beneficial conditions.

We had quoted various astrologers on how a successful birth chart reading requires some kind of psychic ability, where the chart acts like a crystal ball. If this were found to be true it might require a reassessment of present theories of consciousness. But our large-scale test of 2,101 persons born on average less than five minutes apart found no hint of the similarities in personality or behavior predicted by astrology. So if astrologers (as opposed to astrology) can predict personality or behavior better than chance, as they claim to do, it might be evidence for psi.

But our meta-analysis of more than forty controlled studies found no evidence that astrologers perform even marginally better than chance. They did not even usefully agree on what the birth chart indicates. More to the point, astrologers who claimed to use psychic ability performed no better than those who did not. We cautiously concluded, "the possibility that astrology might be relevant to consciousness and psi is not denied, but such influences, if they exist in astrology, would seem to be very weak or very rare."


Dr. Raj Baldev "who is considered an authority on the subject of Astronomy, Astrology, CosmoMathematics and Metaphysics" said we had made "an abominable mistake that can never be pardoned." He explained that ancient Hindu astrology "is a complete science" where even one million billionth of a second "makes a lot of difference." So it is ridiculous to believe that people born a few minutes apart should be similar. (Measuring birth times to a million billionth of a second implies that the position of shadows cast on ancient sundials was routinely read to better than a hundred millionth of the diameter of an atom. Even at night. Should we believe it?)

posted by martinrebas at 1:23 AM on December 20, 2005

It's practically impossible to disprove the principle behind astrology: "The universe work in an Ordered way (including human life)". The mechanism: "this is the Order ..." Any number of those creatures can be shot down.

Dude, I'm not questioning that Jupiter or Mars follows a certain orbit. That much is physics. ;)
(I'm less certain about human life being "ordered", unless you tell me what exactly you mean by that.)

I was talking of the mechanism: that their orbit and position actually influences us by way of a gravitational force (supposedly because of the water content in our body.)

I noticed someone saying something about mathematical calculations. That doesn't mean squat, of course. Just because you do a mathematical calculation on something doesn't mean your theory is gold. I could add the digits of your birthday to the GDP of your country, add up the numbers there, and draw up a chart of how that correlates to your personality. All mathematical, but still bunk. ;)
posted by madman at 2:29 AM on December 20, 2005

Best answer: Here's a 1mb rm file that O9scar refers to.

Thanks O9scar! I saw this video 10 years ago and had no idea that it was James Randi, so couldn't track it down until now
posted by quiet at 3:06 AM on December 20, 2005

The commonly heard agnostic argument that 'one can not know' or 'it can not be proved either way' is just an ambiguous meaningless statement said when one throws up their arms and can't think of anything else to say. It's more complicated than that, and one *can* know. In this case, we *do* know astrology is a pseudoscience perpetuated by a community of people in one, big seizure of rationalisation.

Damn you, Neptune!
posted by Lockeownzj00 at 5:03 AM on December 20, 2005

Due to the inverse square law, items that are close have far more gravitation influence than items that are far.

While the doctor who delivered you isn't as massive as Mars, the sun or a star in another galaxy, those items are far away...and their gravitational pull is miniscule.

How miniscule? The doctor that delivered you, has a greater gravitational pull than all of those objects in the sky, very far away

Simplfied explanation of the inverse square law:
something that is 5 miles away has a 1/5^2 effect on you (1/25). Something 10,000 miles away has 1/10000^2 (1/100,000,000). The sun, for example is 93 millions miles away (redo all of it in inches, as the doctor was, say, 20 inches away during key parts of your birth). You can see the influence becomes staggeringly small.

So, really, you should prepare your astrological chart, based on the doctor who delivered you...or accept that it's bunk.
posted by filmgeek at 5:05 AM on December 20, 2005

No, it's absolute twaddle based on ancient misunderstandings about the nature of the solar system and the galaxy. The debunking link provided should do the trick, but if not there are countless others out there.

And if anyone ever tries to tell you that the gravitational effects of the planets are involved in affecting our nature at the time of birth tell them to go read a basic physics book on gravity, and to get a clue.
posted by Decani at 5:11 AM on December 20, 2005

Best answer: I just recently came across a mention of Percy Seymour's "The Scientific Proof of Astrology", here's an article from the Guardian about his books, which also mentions "the most robust scientific investigation into astrology ever undertaken" that found no evidence of the validity of its claims. Obviously. You can't really expect scientific validation of something that's not a science, can you?

I just think one needs to make a big distinction between taking astrology as harmless fun or superficially inspirational pop-psychology advice (like Rob Brezny's horoscopes), and taking it seriously and spending money on it, cos that's a whole different kettle of fish. Especially when you get into the whole area that extends from astrology into even shadier stuff like hand or tarot reading and 'divination' and so on.
posted by funambulist at 6:33 AM on December 20, 2005

(I just realised that the study mentioned in the article is the one martinrebas already linked to!)
posted by funambulist at 6:37 AM on December 20, 2005

Astrology is bunk, but back hundreds/thousands of years ago, the thought that the movements of planets and stars (these were earth-centered worldviews mind you) influenced people and events and fortunes made the study of the movements of heavenly objects very important. This importance meant significant resources were allocated to their study, which ended up creating advances in mathematics and science (the real kind of science).

So basically, some good things did come out of the study of astrology. This is all based on my admittedly imperfect memory of James Burke's Connections.
posted by beth at 7:02 AM on December 20, 2005

Best answer: Humans are pattern-seeking creatures. See also confirmation bias.
posted by matildaben at 8:38 AM on December 20, 2005

if gravity can affect the oceans, it's reasonable to believe that it would affect us

People are effected by gravity? Crap!

*falls off a cliff, cartoon-style*
posted by dagnyscott at 8:43 AM on December 20, 2005

madman : "I'm less certain about human life being 'ordered', unless you tell me what exactly you mean by that."

Our lives follow a (complex) pattern and aren't random.

madman : "I was talking of the mechanism: that their orbit and position actually influences us by way of a gravitational force (supposedly because of the water content in our body."

That's a naive rationalization, and like I said, can be & is easily shot down.
posted by Gyan at 8:57 AM on December 20, 2005

"According to the official modern constellation boundaries that all astronomers use, the sun passes through 13 constellations, not 12. The "thirteenth constellation" of the zodiac is Ophiuchus the Serpent Bearer, and the sun is in front of its stars during the first half of December. About one person in twenty is an "Ophiuchus," but few of them know it."

But 13 is unlucky, so you don't hear much about it.

posted by Four Flavors at 9:36 AM on December 20, 2005

Astrology is crap, but at what point in the year we are born can effect us. For example, pro hockey players are far, far more likely to be born towards the beginning of the calendar year than the end of the year. This is, of course, about the calendar and how society uses the calendar, not about any difference in the type of babies born at different points in the year.
posted by spira at 11:11 AM on December 20, 2005

Hold on. Since when did gravity have anything to do with astrology?

Astrology - as is other divination arts - are about reading and intepreting signs; for instance, when Such and Such a conjunction appears in the sky, This and That will happen. And often there is some sort of folkloric or mythological reason behind why those signs mean what they mean. (For instance, Venus the planet being named after the Goddess of Love - its position in your chart therefore determining what your attitude is to love)

In Indian and Chinese cultures, they have this down to an almost exact science - even now, people will go visit astrologers to get advice on proper dates for events (weddings, births, etc). (As said earlier, their system of astrology is very different from the Western style)

Also, with many divination arts, it's not so much about "predicting the future" as it is "reading the current situation". Like someone said upthread, it may be pop-psychology, but it also gives an insight into what is going on and what may happen if current conditions continue.

There is a lot more to astrology and divination than just lucky numbers or words in newspapers. Those are actually really poor representations of them.
posted by divabat at 7:29 PM on December 20, 2005

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