Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Irrational Fears of Astrology in Universities

Some students at universities have an irrational fear of astrology and there can be many reasons for this, but as with anything irrational, the reasons are often unknown to the thinking mind. The unknowns are felt as apprehensions and unease. The intellect, which is at its most robust when operating in an educational institution, diligently rationalizes and packages the unease. The feelings of apprehension and fear do not go away, but are cloaked by the obscurity of mysterious labels such as “pseudoscience,” “superstition,” "magic," and "the dim past." By means of these rational conventions, the intellect associates the uneaseful feelings with mistakes and failings, which it does not tolerate. The rational mind then, of its own accord, allows the unconscious mind to project the uncomfortable feelings to some unfamiliar place or unfamiliar people, to in a sense be rid of them and remain forever ignorant.

I can share a few examples from my own experience of how this psychological mechanism can operate. Maybe some of you have experienced something similar yourself.

I once sat as a guest in a philosophy lecture on science and pseudoscience, where the topic was astrology. While describing the popularity and appeal of astrology to his students, the professor suddenly remembered that he had forgotten to mention the term exam. Abruptly, he interrupted his lecture, described instructions and warnings for the upcoming exam, and then resumed his lecture on why astrology is irrational.

Now, as I'm quite sure you all know, students fear exams. It is a natural dread among students and can be an ideal instrument with which to inflict a degree of pain. One does not need to be an expert on classical conditioning to understand that the professor's interruption associated astrology with anxiety and dread. Many of the students likely left that lecture with a new fear of astrology. And they would not be likely to know, if they were to reflect upon it, where that fear actually came from. They will likely pass that fear on to others, just as it was passed on to them, and they will not even know that they are doing so while they are doing it.

On another occasion I was in a planetarium show with a class of students. The lights went low and the theater seats rumbled as they elevated and reclined to a horizontal position. For several minutes our eyes gazed at the domed ceiling in the semi-darkness waiting for the show to begin. Once everyone was settled, however, one of the planetarium directors stepped onto the theater floor and began to passionately denounce astrology. He challenged anyone there who believed in astrology to reveal themselves and debate the issues.

Stretched out and cradled in those quadraphonic seats, reminiscent of dentists' chairs in space, one could scarcely lift ones head, let alone heave ones body into a position to see who was talking. No one was going to argue in those circumstances, as of course the producer knew. It was safer just to lie low and cozy, out of the line of expected fire. The theater was the perfect setting for a psychological reinforcement of learned helplessness and the producer used it as an effective deterrent against dissent.

To continue with another example, I was at one time enrolled in a course given by a very popular psychology professor with a class of thousands. Strangely, one day a personal letter arrived from the professor, posted from another country. When I read the letter, a briefly scribbled note, I was surprised to see that it was a warning against astrology. It said that an interest in astrology would ruin my academic advancement and my hoped-for career. That was the full extent of the note. No reasons or explanations were offered, just the professor’s own word. Students have every reason to take this sort of warning very seriously.

A further incident was even more disturbing. I had been invited as a guest to join a small philosophy class one evening in which astrology would be discussed. It was at a university that had a couple of highly vocal anti-astrology professors. As I listened to the lecture, however, I found this particular professor was quite fair to astrology. He used astrology as an example to develop a thread of ideas on how personal beliefs are formed. After his speech, he then asked the class to divide into three or four groups for discussion among themselves.

An astrologer companion who had accompanied me joined one of the groups and began to teach what astrology is really about. I watched the faces of the students. Some students showed interest, some showed puzzlement, and some reflected signs of growing irritation and hostility. I quickly intervened and turned the discussion to how confirmation bias and the Barnum (Forer) effect can operate in astrological consultations to affect personal beliefs. These were things that I expected the students would need to know.

Shortly, the professor reassembled the class. He announced that the astrology content of the class was finished and proceeded to draw an unusual figure on the board. The figure consisted of a circle with lines drawn from points on the perimeter to other points on the perimeter. This he called the "web of beliefs." It was a concept he had developed to describe the necessity of beliefs in daily life. I was very interested by this, because seemingly without knowing it, he had drawn a natal chart, and he even thought, as I did, that the lines within the circle represent beliefs.

I wondered if the professor knew what the points on the circumference were, that they were urges, represented in astrology by the planets, and that it is the interactive aspects of urges that give rise to beliefs. I wanted to ask him about it after the class. But when the class ended, many of the students gathered around him with their questions. I waited for about 20 minutes as the professor answered questions, but none of the students were leaving and as I didn't have any more time to wait, I finally left myself without speaking with him.

The next week, I learned that the university had removed the professor from the course, apparently because his tolerance of astrology. The fact that he was well liked by his students didn't seem to matter. The student who I knew in the class, who had been instrumental in setting up my invitation, was deeply affected by the professor's departure, for which he felt partly responsible.

In these examples, fear of astrology seems to be a self-perpetuating irrationality that feeds on itself. Students may not even know why they fear astrology. It is just something they learn through their feelings at a tender age. The people they learn it from had learned it themselves in a similar way at a tender age and had passed the fear on to them.

These are reasons why I wrote "The students' critical thinking guide to science and astrology.” In that essay, I tried to reach the audience of students while speaking in the kind voice of a caring teacher. I mention the rational fallacies that are often used against astrology and the need for discourse based on thoughtful evaluation. Astrology is by far the biggest and most enduring study ever undertaken of the mind grappling with environmental realities. It has a vast literature and a fascinating history of applied intellect. It has survived and evolved over millennia with each step of civilization around the world and has an active adaptation to modern life. Astrology is simply too interesting and important to be rejected and vilified out of fear and ignorance.

As a final footnote, while my essay for students was being peer-reviewed for publication, a reviewer wrote back to me that his daughter was in fact enrolled at that time in a course on critical thinking in which astrology was attacked. Even though this reviewer, who was anonymous to me, was undoubtedly a leading astrological thinker, his daughter had felt threatened and avoided any association with astrology. For university students, the stakes are high and fear is a strong motivator.