Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Carl Sagan against astrology

In his 1995 book The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, celebrated astronomer Carl Sagan bemoans the shallowness of the media that presents pseudoscience, in which he includes astrology, as being credible.
"The dumbing down of American is most evident in the slow decay of substantive content in the enormously influential media, the 30 second sound bites (now down to 10 seconds or less), lowest common denominator programming, credulous presentations on pseudoscience and superstition, but especially a kind of celebration of ignorance."
To his credit, Carl Sagan refused to sign the infamous 1975 "Objections to Astrology" article endorsed by 186 scientists on the basis that the signers relied on their collective authoritarian tone instead of arguing whether astrological principles are faulty. Yet Sagan ignored his own criticism when he later condemned astrology in the Cosmos TV series and in The Demon-Haunted World. Sagan had a less than rudimentary understanding of astrological principles and practices and he never engaged in the only type of argument he declared was credible.

Hypocritically, Sagan attacked newspaper horoscopes (the 30-second sound bite he was critical of) and the most superficial aspects of astrology as if that were all that astrology offers. Sagan's public trivializing of astrology was in fact a striking example of his own considerable contribution to the "slow decay of substantive content in the enormously influential media". It was nothing less than his own appeal to credulity and celebration of ignorance.

In hindsight, it almost seems as if someone influential in Sagan's life correctly warned him not to sign the Objections article but was not around to stop him from making the same rational blunder at other times.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Astrology and modernity

In France, astrology has not had the same revival of traditional astrology as in many other parts of the community. Alain de Chivré, president of the Fédération d'Astrologues Francophones has argued against this trend toward traditionalism in order to distinguish astrology from fortune telling. Instead, he has suggested the alignment of astrology with the humanities and concepts of Modernity by advocating the following five requirements.

1) To avoid any association of astrology with tarot reading, clairvoyance, and mediumship.
2) To prohibit the astrological prediction of specific events, such as the outcomes of presidential elections or of football matches, and all predictions concerning individuals.
3) To apply astrology as a practice concerning nature and nurture rather than as a practice that applies techniques.
4) To exercise great caution in forecasting, limited to general forecasts only.
5) To refocus on the useful function of astrology, which is the development of human potential.
Full text:

One cannot blame de Chivré and the FDAF for trying to protect astrology from attacks. Astrologers have not fared well in the prediction of specific events and it should be recognized, as de Chivré suggests, that it is better to interpret probabilities and general tendencies instead. This is what most of mainstream science does today in a much more disciplined way. Psi is not part of the astrological corpus and formally making this distinction ends guilt by association.

However, I don’t completely agree with de Chivré’s avoidance of an emphasis on techniques. I see diversity of techniques as a strength rather than a weakness, provided there is an active discourse that places the development of human potential first, as de Chivré states. A process of critical discourse would separate the more promising concepts from the weaker concepts and this needs to be strengthened not only in France but throughout the astrological community.

In my view, a more serious mistake would be for astrology to embrace Modernity as de Chivré suggests. Modernity can be recognized in some of the worst global problems suffered today. Modernity in the name of progress or economic enterprise fosters widespread pressures on work dependent identities and the compulsive elimination of doubt. It has resulted in the avoidance of social diversity and the abhorrence of divergence. Astrologers need to divest from such social pressures even if it raises criticism from skeptics that astrologers do not agree on everything among themselves. Disagreement is an essential part of a healthy creative process.

The proper rejection of Modernity is not “Postmodernism.” Postmodernism turns out to have the same agenda as the old Modernity but repackaged and branded in terms of consumer identities. The proper response is rather the greatly maligned New Age. It is the New Age alone that combines an emerging sense of ecological awareness with the intelligent understanding of ancient knowledge and practices.