Saturday, July 30, 2011

Astrology and the social sciences: looking inside the black box of astrology theory

Astrology texts provide details of astrological practice and interpretation, but astrology theory has not been well described. One approach to theory is to consider astrology as a study of natural symmetries rather than a study of causal interactions. Simplified versions of astrological frames of reference bear a suggestive resemblance to various patterns of personality and behavior that are identified within the social sciences, particularly those that deal with shared values, skills, and beliefs. Astrological operations within these frames of reference similarly suggest identifiable patterns of love, development, and a mechanism of psychological projection. A research program of further study should confirm and account for these similarities through a cross-disciplinary analysis and correlation of empirical findings. Read the Full Article >>

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Comment on Nevard's Philosophy, Science and the Philosophy of Science

Comment posted Feb. 17, 2011, 12:46 AM

I don’t think your example of how astrologers would test science by interpreting a horoscope of some scientific event is accurate. Astrologers are modern thinkers and admire science as much as anyone else. A failed test of astrology is not evidence that astrology is outside of scientific discourse, but is simply a failure of science to design a proper (and fair) experiment that will capture the results.

It is not unusual for science to fail and it is surprising to think otherwise. Most major discoveries happen by accident. Astrology may well be outside the “standards of science” but this where any scientific discovery comes from, and again this is not at all unusual.

Some scientific tests of astrology do actually succeed and researchers are finding ways to rate or rank the data to hone in on the astrological effects. I won’t list them, though there are good examples, but there is one in particular you should look at, the controversial Shawn Carlson double-blind experiment, published in 1985 in Nature, which has actually been reversed in favor of astrology.

For many years, this study was held up as the definitive test against astrology. However, a detailed assessment of this study published in 2009 by Professor Suitbert Ertel is forcing scientists to rethink their claims against astrology. The flaws in the Carlson study are very tricky to find, making one wonder if they are not intentional, but they are so serious that they distort the actual findings, which are that the data supports the claims of the astrologers. Once the flaws are pointed out, this is easy for anyone to see.

I invite you and your readers to read my article on the Carlson study and Ertel’s assessment:
Support for astrology from the Carlson double-blind study

And the original 1985 Carlson article itself:
A double-bind test of astrology
There is perhaps a philosophical problem for scientists who had believed Carlson’s claims, and believed others tests such as the McGrew and McFall test, which was so extremely difficult, and misrepresented as “simple,” that astrologers should never have participated in it. Scientists who conduct a test of astrology cannot allow a finding that supports astrology or their careers as scientists would be over. Astrology research is a very uncomfortable place to be. They may need some sort of philosophical solution that can rescue them if they need it.

I added on Feb. 17, 2011 8:24 PM

Your example of astrology, based on Brian Cox’s lecture, is a very good one. Science does not need philosophy as long as it can dismiss astrology as a superstition and then not examine what superstition is. This is where the philosophy is supposed to come in.

From Popper to Kuhn to Feyerabend, astrology has benefitted from philosophical discourse, because it is a challenge to describe it without resorting to ridicule and straw man arguments as Cox has done. Isn’t this the test of philosophy, to engage in discourse without the rational fallacies? Isn’t that why you chose Cox?

It is a very shallow view that modern science from astronomy and Darwin evolution would need to be thrown out if astrology works. There are tests that show that astrology does work and both scientists and philosophers have work to do. But even if the tests didn’t work, isn’t your statement an assumption?

Astronomy is the foundation of astrology. Without it, astrology would not exist. Social evolution is the main discourse in astrology today. If you throw out astronomy and evolutionary concepts, you would be throwing out modern astrology. If you scientifically change them, you would also change modern astrology.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Response to The Kindly Ones' "Astrology and its problems: Popper, Kuhn and Feyerabend"

February 15, 2011 at 15:07 (link)   

In your conclusion, you said:

“In summary, the philosophical problem for astrology is thus not that it can always explain failures (Popper) or that it does not attempt to solve problems (Kuhn) but instead that it has stagnated (Feyerabend) – assuming that this progression in criticisms is fair, of course.”

How fair are these criticisms? Does not science too always find a way to explain its failures, sometimes by alternative theories? If you read the articles Deborah has suggested, you will see that the more sensitive methods where data is ranked or rated do result in findings that support astrological claims. These methods have been applied to the Gauquelin data by Professor Suitbert Ertel. This shows not only that scientists are willing to solve astrological problems, but have explained the reasons and methods that separate its failures from its successes.

Deborah makes a critical point about why astrological research has stagnated. This is not a scientific issue so much as a social phenomenon. There is an opposition to astrology that is so overwhelming that it is a very uncomfortable area in which to do research.

I invite you to read my soon-to-be-published peer-reviewed article “The Good Science of Astrology: Separating Effects from Artifacts.”


Added: February 15, 2011 at 15:47


In case you are not familiar with them, let me just add two relevant articles:

Gauquelin’s last published article, “Is There Really a Mars Effect?” in which he describes how Ertel solved the problem he was having with the “Mars effect.”

Ertel’s published article on this was: “Raising the Hurdle for the Athletes’ Mars Effect: Association Co-varies with Eminence

Added February 15, 2011 at 19:17

Sorry Paul, but my comments did not do justice to your analysis of the criticisms as a progression from Popper to Kuhn to Feyerabend. It is difficult to argue against a certain stagnation in astrological research in that it has not captivated the imaginations of people who could develop it. I can think of a couple of contributors to stagnation.

Hellenist astrologers did not make a clean break from the constellations when they adopted the tropical zodiac. They continued to use the names of the constellations for the signs (tropes), which are more weird, arcane, freakish, mysterious, strange, supernatural, and outright creepy than they need to be. No doubt, this has contributed to millenia of confusion and hostility towards astrology. The Chinese adopted a more modern interpretation of values with their zodiac, although it is not attached to the tropical reference frame.

Astrologers also missed out in early modern science, when material things were said to have “properties” and this concept did not spread to astrology. Astrology continued to develop its system of “rulerships” where there is no reason why these studied characteristics could not be described as “astrological properties.” This also contributed to stagnation and a resentment against a sort of planetary subjugation that astrology seemed to suggest.

Modern astrologers are modern thinkers; they see through these problems and are not bothered by them. Perhaps if they were a little more reflective they would be willing to make some changes.

February 16, 2011 at 14:41 (by me)

Your description of Feyerabend’s position (from your personal email) is:

“Any system of investigation which explains away failures instead of seeking to replace itself via the pursuit of ways to solve the problems it encounters is a system which assuredly mires itself in stagnation.”

In other words, if astrologers, instead of explaining away failures, would try to solve the problems by proliferating theories, then they would not be mired in stagnation.

By “explaining away failures” we would have to mean the criticism against numerous scientific tests of astrology as “unfair” such as Rawlins has done with regard to the Gauquelin “Mars effect” studies, as Deborah has pointed out, or such as Ertel has done with regard to other “Mars effect” studies, or as Eysenck has done with regard to the Shawn Carlson double-blind study.

Rawlins, although he recognized the unfairness and explained away the results, did not try to provide alternative theories. Eysenck tried to apply his own theories of personality to astrology, which I don’t believe was successful. Ertel, however decided to use a very sensitive method of ranking and rating, and produced positive results for astrology using the gathered Mars effect data. No new theories were required.

Clearly it is possible to find flaws in scientific tests of astrology and argue the tests are “unfair,” and this cannot be judged as “explaining away failures.” Unfairness is the leading criticism of the scientific tests that fail. In some cases astrologers just don’t know what to think, in which case they do not try to explain the failures. It is an assumption that they do.

Astrologers do proliferate theories, but they are exactly what you might think. If new asteroids or planetoids are discovered, astrologers will proliferate theories and the theories are developed among the community. Theories are proliferated for the astrology of historical events. The work of Richard Tarnus comes to mind. If astrology is stagnant, then why is it attractive to so many enthusiastic people? I don’t think “stagnant” describes it.

February 18, 2011 at 02:22 by me.

Those critiques only apply to the “scientific tests of astrology”; consequently, those critiques in and of themselves produce no improvement in the astrological approach employed by astrologers.
The improvement is in the scientific methods used to test astrology. This is an improvement in science today and it is an assumption that these improvements would never lead to improvements in astrology. Otherwise, why would the astrologers themselves participate in the studies and wish to help design the tests? Again, I don’t think this is stagnation, especially if they are involved in the design of experiments.
Ertel, however decided to use a very sensitive method of ranking and rating, and produced positive results for astrology using the gathered the Mars effect data. No new theories were required.
Sorry if this was not clear. Ertel did not need new astrological theories to scientifically demonstrate a correlation between the rankings of sports champions and Mars placement. This one instance does not lead to the conclusion that astrology never needs new theories. New theories are developed in astrology, but in this instance were not needed.
If the addition of newly discovered astronomical objects has improved astrological practice, and if astrologers (for whatever reason) want to be thought of as part of the scientific research community, then maybe astrological theories can be put forth that both improve astrological practice and anticipate/predict astronomical (or physics) discoveries yet to come.
Yes, this comes close to what some astrologers want to do, except such research would not anticipate astronomical discoveries (how could it, and why should it?) as much as shed light on what astrology may be able to further discover, which is more in the nature of psychological and social understanding.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Comments on Steven Forrest's "Why Astrology's Image Needs a Makeover" Editorial


Thank you so much Steven for bringing up this sensitive topic. I am very grateful to have this new ANS web service available as a public platform for news and opinion on astrology, and for the opportunity to see my own work posted. Yet it may be only the beginning of a makeover that astrology has long needed and deserved. As fulfilling as astrology is in many respects, there are aspects of astrology that the public is not comfortable with and this in turn makes us feel uncomfortable with our association to astrology.

As I read through the first few articles on this website, two articles strike me as most significant. One is that old story that we are all so weary of, which is the claim, by skeptics, that the zodiac signs have changed and we are not in the signs we thought we were in. Indeed this is a straw man argument and signs should not be confused with the constellations that have the same names. But the public (and the skeptics of course) never seem to learn no matter how often and how well it is explained. The other significant development is the growing popularity of Western astrology in China. I have seen the unbridled excitement and enthusiasm over this myself, which at times threatens to run roughshod over the whole practice.

I’m completely with you pondering a makeover of astrology’s image. And we all know it just ain’t gonna happen by printing ourselves new business cards, LOL.

You know what, I admire the Chinese zodiac. It’s better than the one we’re stuck with. They’ve got some fine animals in theirs, except some of them suffer from the humiliation of human domestication (e.g. pig and chicken–the wondrous bamboo pheasant in its native habitat) or our conflicts with them (rat for example). And the dragon in the West is much different than the Chinese dragon, which is fun loving and social.

The signs are values and animals exemplify different values depending on how they have adapted. For example, elephants have strong family values, while wolves and dogs value their competition within the pack. Geese and swans value fidelity, and so on. These animal signs are strongly intuitive and user friendly.

What do we have in the West? Well, we have the twins, crab, scales, goatfish, waterbearer, and so on. Tradition and the vast literature regarding the signs is one thing, but if we weren’t so accustomed to them, we’d have to admit that the Western signs seem pretty weird, arcane, freakish, mysterious, strange, superstitious, and outright creepy. They make a lot of people feel uncomfortable and I don’t think uncomfortable is good for astrology. Maybe this is where the image of astrology needs a make over.

It represents a serious change, but It has happened throughout history. Cultures see something they like in each other and in this case it has the added bonus of terminating forever some of the stupid shenanigans and public confusion between signs and constellations perpetrated by astrology’s detractors. Adopting the Chinese zodiac, perhaps with a few modest variations to give the animals their dignity, could do wonders.

Aries becomes dog (wolf), Taurus becomes pig (bear), Gemini becomes rat (or squirrel or bat), Cancer becomes buffalo (or bison), Leo becomes tiger (or cougar), Virgo becomes rabbit, Libra becomes dragon (or swan or goose), Scorpio becomes snake (or rattler), Sagittarius becomes horse (or mustang), Capricorn becomes sheep (or bighorn), Aquarius becomes monkey (or crow?), and Pisces becomes chicken (or elk?). The suggested changes in parentheses are North American totems, but local animals would suffice wherever in the world you go. If you play around with the glyphs with a little imagination, a transformation will happen right before your eyes.

Yes, that’s what I’d call a true image makeover!

Conversation on the McGrew-McFall "Validity of Astrology" Test

Feb 12, 2011 at 1:32 PM
 Dear .....,

An astrology skeptic has brought an article to my concern. This article, "A Scientific Inquiry Into the Validity of Astrology," published in JSE in 1990, acknowledges some of the initial criticism of the Carlson study and presents a supposedly better test design. 

In this study, six astrologers used a 61-item questionnaire developed specifically for the test by a larger team of astrologers. From this test and the 1996 Rob Nanninga test, both of which failed for the astrologers, it seems that astrologers are not so good at developing questionnaires.

The six astrologers were asked to match 23 charts with 23 volunteer test cases. For each chart, the astrologers were allowed to match a first, second, and so on choice of test case, although not all astrologers exercised this option. They were also asked to give a 0-100% confidence rating to their choices.

This gives the impression that the choices were ranked and rated, though I'm not sure this is the best way to do it. In my mind, accurately matching 23 charts to 23 cases seems like a nearly impossible task, even though the authors consider the mathematical probability.

One claim in particular stands out for me (p. 81):

"One final point should be mentioned. The experimental task probably was considerably easier and, presumably, easier to perform accurately, than the task that astrologers attempt in their counseling practices. That is, without a priori information, because each individual is unique, in practice an astrologer must use the birth information to "select' the one correct interpretation that uniquely matches that individual from nearly countless possibilities, not just from 23 possibilities. Thus, our task can be seen as a simplification of the task that astrologers routinely undertake as a part of their daily professional practice. The conclusion one can draw from this inference is unequivocal. If our task provides a simplification of standard astrological practice, and if the astrologers cannot perform a simplified task accurately, then it is not likely that they will be able to perform a more complicated task accurately."

I am skeptical of the "unequivocal" truth of this statement. Am I incorrect to think that it is a simpler task for an astrologer to interpret one chart to match one person than it is to interpret 23 charts and match them to all the possible choices among 23 cases? While it is true that there are "only" 23 cases, there are also 23 charts!



Feb 12, 2011 at 3:52 PM
Dear Ken,

"That is, without a priori information, because each individual is unique, in practice an astrologer must use the birth information to "select' the one correct interpretation that uniquely matches that individual from nearly countless possibilities, not just from 23 possibilities. Thus, our task can be seen as a simplification of the task that astrologers routinely undertake as a part of their daily professional practice. The conclusion one can draw from this inference is..."

I fully agree with you. The astrologers experimental task was not a simplification of their ordinary business. On the contrary, it was much more difficult. 

Even Carlson’s task was simpler for astrologers than that of McGrew-McFall. The reason the two authors provide for their judgment is not at all convincing.


Response to Rebekah Higgitt's "'Astrology is Rubbish,' but..." Blog

February 13, 2011 at 12:34 am (link)

Hello Rebekah,

While it is good to see an effort made to put the astronomical arguments against astrology put to rest, because they have no basis, there are still many people who wish to claim that astrology is rubbish on other grounds. You yourself still want to make this assertion, but how closely have you examined those supposed other grounds? There is a body of evidence that research of astrology, when it is conducted fairly and uses methods to carefully weigh the data by rank or ratings, has shown scientific evidence in support of astrology.

Those experiments that did not use rankings or ratings, do not find evidence of astrology, but those that did use these methods (and there are a number of them) have found scientific support.

An outstanding example of this is one that you alluded to earlier, the controversial Shawn Carlson double-blind experiment, published in 1985 in Nature, which has actually been reversed in favor of astrology.

For many years, this study was held up as the definitive test against astrology. However, a detailed assessment of this study published in 2009 by Professor Suitbert Ertel is forcing scientists to rethink their claims against astrology. The flaws in the Carlson study are very tricky to find, making one wonder if they are not intentional. These flaws are so serious that they distort the actual findings, which support the claims of the astrologers. Once the flaws are pointed out, this is easy for anyone to see.

I invite you and your readers to read my article on the Carlson study and Ertel's assessment:

And the original 1985 Carlson article itself:

Responses to Martin Robbins' "Astrologers Angered by Stars" Blog

26 January 2011 11:52PM (link)

Reading through these comments I see a lot of misconceptions about astrology. First of all, you need to look past the rubbish.

Just to be clear, astrology is relativistic; it places the individual (not Earth) at the center of the universe, and the individual does not need to be on the Earth. Many of the commentator need to get their minds out of the "flat earth" types of criticism.

As to Forer effects and similar arguments. These are based on informal classroom demonstrations. The reason why there has never been a rigorous Forer effect test of astrology is because the samples are always cherry picked to support the hypothesis. These tests do demonstrate subjective validation, but it is an assumption that they say anything about astrology.

Evidence in support of astrology is hard to find. There is no funding, no acceptance in science journals, and a lot of resistance by people with closed minds. But published studies do exist. Here are some peer-reviewed studies to consider:

  • Ertel, Suitbert (1988). "Raising the Hurdle for the Athletes' Mars Effect: Association Co-varies with Eminence" Journal of Scientific Exploration, (2): 4. This study has been replicated numerous times, even with data collected by skeptical groups, and is unrefuted for over 20 years.
  • Hill, Judith (1996). “Redheads and Mars: A Scientific Testimony,” The Mountain Astrologer, (May): 29-40. This study (originally done in 1988) has been replicated numerous times with data from various countries, has passed time switching tests, and has remained unrefuted for over 20 years.
  • Yuan, Kathy; Zheng, Lu; Zhu, Qiaoqiao. "Are Investors Moon struck? — Lunar Phases and Stock Returns" Journal of Empirical Finance. 2006, 13(1), p.1-23. This study, which was much larger than previous similar studies and included data from 48 countries, was controlled for such factors as stock market volatility and calendar-related anomalies. It found signficant results that support astrological claims.
  • Clark, Vernon (1961). "Experimental astrology," In Search, (Winter/Spring): 102-1 12. This landmark double-blind study found significant results for astrology and has led to other double-blind studies that support astrology.
  • Marbell, Neil (1981). “Profile Self-selection: A Test of Astrological Effect on Human Personality,” Synapse Foundation Research Report, privately distributed. This brilliant double-blind test by the late Neil Marbell, which involved the participation of respected scientists and well-known skeptics, found highly significant results for astrology. It led to the Carlson study.
  • Carlson, Shawn (1985). "A double-blind test of astrology," Nature, (318): 419-425. This well-known study, one of the most cited papers on astrology research, claimed to find results inconsistent with astrology, but contains many serious flaws that obscure the actual results (see next item).
  • Ertel, Suitbert (2009). “Appraisal of Shawn Carlson’s Renowned Astrology Tests,” Journal of Scientific Exploration, (23): 2. This examination of the Carlson study by professor Ertel, shows that when the methods that Carlson initially states in the paper (but does not follow) are applied, the data from the study shows significant support consistent with the claims of the astrologer participants.
 30 January 2011 4:52AM (last word, almost) (link)

The thing is astrologers rarely get angry; they are generally good natured, inclined to be supportive, but their critics are always self-righteously angry and very emotionally tied to their beliefs. We're used to that. So maybe that's what makes this news to The Guardian. Astrologers, who have no funding for their research, this time got a weensy bit angry about what was claimed to be "balanced." That seems newsworthy.
The problem is that where we have such strong emotional attachments to our beliefs, and a huge avoidance issue, it often turns out that there is actually something valuable in the thing we are trying so hard to avoid. We try with all our might not to listen and not to understand astrology. We want to believe that science is all done, that we completely understand science, and we are clinging to the unsullied magnificence of science for dear life.

But we are scared out of their wits that science might not be all done, that there might possibly be some undiscovered science in astrology. We rationalize, by making up a steady torrent of reasons why we should not touch the dreaded unknown, the rubbish we know as astrology. Science should never sniff, probe, or measure anything that is rubbish. Let's all agree, for the sake of science, to keep astrology in the dim past, where it belongs, where science should never go.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The good science of astrology: Separating effects from artifacts

Assumptions of causal mechanism, influence, and credulity are examined with regard to the astrological premise. The Hermetic maxim, which is widely accepted in astrology, suggests that symmetrical processes mathematically associate microcosmic and macrocosmic features and take precedence over causal mechanisms. The astrological literature suggests that influences should be interpreted as interactions within these cosmological symmetries between individuals rather than between planets and individuals. The literature further suggests that effects should be evaluated by inclination or “eminence,” which means that correlations should be ranked or rated by magnitude to objectively separate effects from artifacts. This method has proved to be successful in astrological research and should be universally adopted. In this light, classroom Forer-type tests, which are presumed to support credulity arguments against astrology, are scrutinized. It is questioned how these tests, which are typically composed of selectively assembled non-astrological artifacts found in horoscope columns, or for that matter, any of the leading empirical studies that have claimed to repudiate astrology, can rationally stand up against more objective studies that have tested for eminence effects. Read the Full Article >>