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Self-Defence / Case for Astrology
Two militant books self-destruct

Geoffrey Dean

An expanded version of a book review in Skeptical Inquirer 1993, 18, 42-49, and (in a Dutch translation by Wim van Dam) Astrologie in Onderzoek 1993, 8(1), 48-53. In a postscript to the Dutch version, van Dam notes his wholehearted agreement with most of the review, except on four points in the second half, to which Dean then responds. These exchanges are included below, in smaller type, as they arise.

Astrology's Complete Book of Self-Defence. By Robert Parry. Quantum (an imprint of Foulsham), Slough UK 1990. 224 pages. Paper, £7.95.

The Case for Astrology. By John Anthony West. Viking Penguin, 1991. 527 pages. Cloth, 20.00 $US22.95 $Can29.95; paper (1992), £8.99 $Can15.99.

Abstract -- In these two books a pro-astrology author strikes back at non-believers. The blurb on Parry's book promises "a carefully argued defence against all possible attack" based on "great depth of research". The blurb on West's hardcover book says "Sceptics will never lightly dismiss astrology again", while on the paperback version Colin Wilson calls it "The most serious and important study of astrology ever written". The implication is that convincing new evidence in support of astrology will be revealed. What actually happens is the selective reporting of dated studies with a relentless blind eye for crucial issues. Parry identifies 12 main attacks on astrology (eg sun sign astrology is nonmsense, tropical signs ignore precession), of which 7 are also identified by West, who adds 5 more (eg the sun cannot affect our consciousness, astrology cannot predict mass deaths). Both authors attempt to refute these attacks with varying degrees of success. But the real problems arise when the authors cite evidence to allow astrology to fight back. Parry's evidence is seriously out of date (much had been overturned even when it was written), and West deliberately suppresses negative evidence because the details "do not really concern us". As a result both books perpetuate confusion and error, and neither book contributes towards a balanced assessment of astrology. 13 references.

In these two books a pro-astrology author strikes back at non-believers. The blurb on Robert Parry's book, Astrology's Complete Book of Self-Defence, promises "a carefully argued defence against all possible attack" based on "great depth of research". The dustjacket on John Anthony West's hardcover The Case for Astrology says "Sceptics will never lightly dismiss astrology again", while on the paperback version Colin Wilson calls it "The most serious and important study of astrology ever written". The implication is that convincing new evidence in support of astrology will be revealed. What actually happens is the selective reporting of dated studies with a relentless blind eye for crucial issues.

Astrology's Complete Book of Self-Defence (Parry)

In the first book, Parry aims to provide believers with a defence against attack by critics. The first of three parts (42 pages) looks briefly at astrology's popularity, techniques, history, and types of astrologer (pop, hobbyist, semi-pro, pro). Part 2 (97 pages) is the defence proper.

Four types of enemy
Parry first identifies four types of enemy (narrow, emotional, logical, aggressive), which correspond to the four elements Earth, Water, Air, Fire. If they turn out to be bullies you should block their arguments with respectively reason ("at least we can agree to disagree"), feelings ("this is unnecessarily distressing for me"), wit ("if I need a comedian I'll give you a call"), and boredom ("is there anything behind your charisma?"). If this fails you should respectively run, exit hurt, exit with repartee, and laugh it off. Informed impartial skeptics seem not to exist in Parry's experience, which if he follows his own advice is understandable.

The 12 main attacks
Then comes what Parry identifies as the 12 main attacks on astrology. These attacks, with Parry's defence in parentheses and my occasional comment in italics, are as follows:

Sun sign astrology is nonsense (agreed, it is not real astrology but journalism). Free will makes astrology nonfalsifiable (free will is part of astrological philosophy) evades the issue. Astrology is heathen superstition (many astrologers are practising Christians). Astrology is old-fashioned and irrelevant (it is widespread and popular). Few accurate world predictions are made (many are successful) meaningless because no allowance for chance hits. People born at the same moment in time do not lead similar lives (some do) ditto. Tropical signs ignore precession (precession is not important) Eastern astrologers might disagree. Should be moment of conception (but the birth moment works) contradicted by controlled studies, see later. Earth-centred views are out of date (they are merely a convenience). Astrologers ignore new planets (they do not). Gauquelin says induction ruins astrology (most astrologers disagree). Planets cannot affect us (extraterrestrial influences exist) see later.

Advice to astrologers
Part 3 (41 pages) offers advice to astrologers for assuring astrology's future. They should avoid weirdness, extremism, testimonies, ego-tripping, and reductionist statistics. And they should always be lawful, informed and humble. This admirable message is then negated by Parry's closing advice, namely they should never doubt the worth of astrology, and walk in pride. The book ends with references, glossary, addresses, reading list, and index.

Empirical evidence
What of the empirical evidence for astrological claims? Parry first cites indirect evidence such as the Piccardi effect and alleged lunar effects on oysters. (But lunar effect on oysters may be illusory, see Quincey 1993 and Enright 1993; both strongly dispute the alleged effect.) Parry argues that such extraterrestrial influences prove that astrology is credible, which is like arguing that money exists therefore everyone is rich. As pointed out by Kelly et al (1989) in their response to pro-astrology arguments, it is a huge jump from such influences to the claims of astrologers. If there really was a connection then we would expect planets to have added to our understanding of living organisms in the same way that say genes have. But they have not.

Parry then cites direct evidence, mainly Nelson (forecasting shortwave radio propagation), Gauquelin (planetary links with occupation and heredity), and matching tests of astrologers (eg pick the murderer's birthchart). This evidence is seriously out of date, and Parry seems unaware that much of it has been overturned by recent studies. Furthermore Gauquelin's negative results (no support for signs, aspects and transits) are ignored, and the support from his positive results is overstated -- astrology does not predict that only half the planets work for eminent people and none for ordinary people, it predicts weakness not strength for the favoured positions, and the effect sizes are trivial. In short, Parry's evidence for astrology is no evidence at all.

Fatal problems
Worse still, having promised "a carefully argued defence against all possible attack", Parry's book ignores two problems that effectively pull the plug on any defence. The first is that astrological claims (albeit not the Gauquelin effect) are readily explained by the perceptual, inferential and small-sample biasses to which people in general, and astrologers in particular, are abundantly prone, see Dean et al (1992). For example, knowing that Scorpios are supposed to be secretive, our observations will invariably confirm it, simply because everyone is secretive at times and we are disinclined to test non-Scorpios. The second is that, even if the first be disregarded, the effect sizes and reliabilities of astrologers' judgements are still trivial, see Dean (1987). So even if we grant that astrology is not an illusion, it still behaves like one. Direct comparisons of effect size show that orthodox techniques of predicting personality, IQ, and work performance are far superior to astrology, see Dean (1992).

To put it another way, as pointed out for parapsychology by Glymour (1987), no sensible person will opt for a paranormal explanation of tiny effect sizes. Tiny changes in experimental outcomes can be due to a huge number of ordinary causes, most of them impractical to control even if known. So a sensible person will say that, as long as the effect is tiny, it is more probably due to some combination of ordinary causes. For astrology to be plausible what is needed is not tiny effect sizes but Big Stuff that nobody can ignore, like guessing sun signs with perfect accuracy all the time.

Van Dam feels my point about Big Stuff is mistaken, because even very good physicians do not demonstrate "perfect accuracy all the time", so why require it of astrology? Look at it this way. No doubt physicians have a poor record in some areas like diagnosing rare diseases. But in other areas like diagnosing a broken leg or low blood sugar they do demonstrate good accuracy. And it is the latter cases, not the former, that compels recognition and respect by skeptics. I am suggesting that the same should apply to astrology. Nevertheless, perhaps my point would be more acceptable if Big Stuff was exemplified as "like guessing sun signs with near-perfect accuracy".

Astrology means different things
There is a further problem with Parry's book. An adequate defence of astrology must first recognise that astrology can be broadly viewed either as art, religion, or science. Consequently it means different things to different people. As art, the symbolism of astrology can greatly enrich poetry, paintings, and plays. As religion it can meet the spiritual needs of believers. As science it can be viewed in two ways, (1) as a source of presumed benefit, eg by providing a focus for conversation or by meeting our need to conform and yet feel unique, and (2) as a source of presumed knowledge, eg "Moon-Saturn indicates early problems in childhood with your mother". The point is, only the last qualifies for the kind of defence involved here. Let me explain.

If I am freaked out by this painting of Taurus at bay, or by Shakespeare's use of astrological symbolism, or by zodiacal iconography inside a church, or if I am spiritually uplifted by the writings of Dane Rudhyar, or if I gain insight into my behaviour by studying horoscopes, or if I find an especial closeness to ladies with Ophiucus rising, or if I find it more rewarding to circulate at cocktail parties saying what's your sign? rather than hi, then these things would be generally uncontroversial and hardly deserving of a defence, if only because they involve my personal values. An attack on scientific grounds, say by quoting controlled studies, would be useless because to me it would not address anything that matters. But quite the reverse applies if I claim that astrology is a source of knowledge, and that the sky when you were born will indicate your destiny, because scientifically there seems to be no way it could work to the required extent. (Of course we cannot deny thr possibility of a finite effect, just as we cannot deny the possibility that surfing in Hawaii affects the waves in Australia, but my claim here is for an effect that is usefully large.) Such a claim requires a rigorous defence.

To be sure, my values are not immune from criticism, any more than art is immune from literary and artistic criticism, but the criticism is of a different kind from that appropriate to astrology as knowledge -- the first involves values, the second validity. It is one thing to prefer apples to oranges, and quite another to say they fall upwards. In Parry's book these distinctions are not made. Which did not stop a reviewer in the UK Astrological Journal (1991:208) calling it "a real godsend".

The Case for Astrology (West)

The same defects apply to the second book, The Case for Astrology by John Anthony West, which is a rewrite of the original 1970 edition co-authored with the late Jan Toonder. The original edition is historically important because, back in 1970, based on the then-emerging research, skeptics could reasonably believe that some parts of astrology might have substance. In the new edition West claims that the case has strengthened, albeit with a new twist -- this time he is arguing the case for astrology, not the case for astrologers, on the grounds that astrologers rarely perform better than chance whereas the evidence for astrological effects (extraterrestrial influences, Gauquelin effects) is substantial. More on this later.

Ancient origins of astrology
The first of six parts (128 pages) looks at the origins of astrology and is largely irrelevant. Most of it is a repeat from the original 1970 edition, but a section on ancient astrology is new. Here West cites the Egyptologist Charles Muses, who suggests that astrology existed before ancient Egypt (and thus long before its accepted origin in Babylon), where it was used not for prediction but to time important ceremonies. In other words the original function of astrology was to assist working with the gods, and "astrologically determined periods were opportunities to tune in to personally resonant moments" p.66. A modern counterpart might be an astrologer who declares "today there is a lot of Mars about."

This view of astrology's ancient origins is provocatively in tune with modern resonance theories such as those of Dr Percy Seymour. However, it rests crucially on Muses's interpretation of a bas relief from the Second Shrine of Tutankhamen, shown in West's Figure 8 (a standing figure in profile), which seems to show rays of energy from the stars influencing the mind of man. West comments "Taken by itself, this little relief is enough to prove astrology existed in Egypt" p.57. However, when the original relief in the Cairo Museum was inspected on my behalf by Roz Park, an astrologer and student Egyptologist, she found that a crucial element had been omitted from Figure 8, namely the face (which appears clean-shaven) should have had a curved beard. A curved beard indicates that the person is dead. So a more reasonable interpretation is not the arrival of energy but the departure of the soul to the imperishable stars. In which case the relief proves nothing about the existence of astrology in ancient Egypt.

Popular objections and rebuttals
Part 2 (86 pages) replies to popular objections and includes long rebuttals of Culver & Ianna's Gemini Syndrome and Bok & Jerome's Objections to Astrology. Here crooked thinking has a field day. West notes how C&I stress that "no bit of established knowledge ... has come about in any other way but through the scientific method", and counters that truly important knowledge (the difference between cats and dogs, the dangers of hot stoves) comes not from science but from experience. Furthermore there are many kinds of truth (of art, of philosophy, of love) that cannot be reduced to the scientific approach. But this misses the point. Human judgement skills are perfectly adequate for recognising hot stoves. But once the task becomes complex, as in judging the validity of astrology readings, we take on board so many biasses that our conclusions can be totally wrong (Dean 1987, Dean et al 1992). No amount of artistic truth would help here, because only the scientific approach is concerned with avoiding such biasses.

West then takes C&I's statement that science "is fair and objective, even if scientists are not" p.160, and says it "may well be among the silliest statements ever made by human beings. It is like saying justice is impartial, even though judges are corrupt" p.161. It is also like saying astrology works even if astrologers perform no better than chance, which is West's rationale for his entire book. So by his own argument his book could not be sillier. Why did he bother?

Van Dam objects that I make a false analogy between science being "objective" and astrology "working". However, C&I's statement continues with "it [science] transcends bias and personal opinion ... and produces evidence for anyone to see and judge" (West p.160). So the statements being compared in my analogy are as follows:

- Evidence for science is substantial and does not depend on the quality of scientists (C&I's statement).
- Evidence for astrology is substantial and does not depend on the quality of astrologers (West's rationale).

I hope readers will consider this to be a fair analogy. In passing, van Dam feels I should have given an opinion on C&I's statement. My opinion is that their statement seems uncontroversial.

Double standards
Similar shootings-in-the-foot follow. "When astrology is at issue, ... or any other subject that challenges the spiritually flat inner world of the rationalist, the scientific method is drafted into service as a means of preserving dogma, not as a means for discovering truth" p.161. Apart from being wrong, this point is conveniently forgotten when the scientific method is later recruited in support of the Gauquelin results, these being "the single body of evidence that stands as scientific confirmation of astrology's most basic premise" p.313. Again, when scientists investigate astrology, the results are worthless because "Only those data are carefully examined which enforce the preconceived position" p.161. No matter that this is precisely West's own approach. More on this later.

Having concluded that "The Gemini Syndrome is not science", West then argues that, because people are moved by astrology in much the same way as they are moved by a Mozart flute solo whose significance is beyond scientific measurement (not true, see Valentine 1962), the whole application of science to astrology is invalid. No matter that this instantly disallows his later reliance on the Gauquelin results as proof of astrology -- the point is that it absolves West from examining C&I's results in detail, and from the nitty gritty of deciding whether a person fits his own chart better than a control. If astrologers, like composers, made no claim of a link between their work and external reality, then West's argument would be valid. But they do, and it isn't. The rebuttal of Bok & Jerome is in a similar inept vein.

12 popular objections
West then answers 12 popular objections to astrology, of which 7 are also in Parry's book (the final 7 listed by me earlier). The other 5, with West's answers in parentheses and my occasional comment in italics, are as follows:

The sun is merely an incandescence with no direct effect on our consciousness (maybe, but it is more scientific to assume that consciousness is universal and is thus possessed by the sun) begs the question. Fraternal and identical twins should be alike but they are not (a legitimate problem, but then science itself is not without anomalies, also it applies only to the interpretation and becomes serious only if interpretation is a science, which it is not) evades the issue. Astrology cannot predict mass deaths (does not deny that an individual astrologer can) like who?. Births at high latitudes have distorted houses (houses are not essential). Tests of horoscope factors are negative (does not deny that better tests may be positive) like what?

Speculation in lieu of evidence is not the only problem in this section. The text is frequently unbelievable, for example "science cannot prove a difference between Spaniards and Swedes" p.215 (try giving them a test in Swedish). And having assured us that "there is no major objection to the astrological premise or practice that goes unanswered or unaddressed" p.11, West ignores the same crucial issues and distinctions that were ignored by Parry. The result is the same needless confusion that can only perpetuate the shouting match between astrologers and critics. Surely the case for astrology deserves better than this?

Evidence for astrology
Part 3 (168 pages) looks at the evidence for astrology. Just over half is devoted to the Gauquelin work, including an account of the CSICOP involvement (with embarrassing examples of scientists refusing to recognise unwelcome results), of early work by Suitbert Ertel, and of the harmonic studies by the late John Addey. Unfortunately there are more anti-science polemics that are just so daft that one wonders how they got past Penguin's editors, for example on p.271 scientists "are not interested in the truth at all ... They are interested in being right. Their egos are entirely bound up in their rightness and can brook no opposition ... Thus science is probably the only major profession in the twentieth century that is hypocritical at its core".

West then looks briefly at a handful of other positive studies such as sun-sign guessing and matching tests (but not at the subsequent studies which negated their results), at extraterrestrial influences such as sun spots and the Piccardi effect, and at physical explanations, notably that of the astronomer Percy Seymour. Of interest here is a reprint of Nigel Henbest's critique from New Scientist (12 May 1988) and Dr Seymour's lengthy reply. Briefly, Seymour suggests that the planets exert a tidal force on the magnetosphere, which modulates geomagnetic activity, which induces currents in the neural network by resonance. Henbest points out that, due to planet retrogradation, the diurnal planetary frequencies overlap, so they cannot be distinguished by resonance. Seymour's answer is that the phases will differ, so once the fetus locks on to the right planet it will stay locked on. West fails to ask how it locks on to the right planet in the first place. There is also the problem that diurnal planetary frequencies (around 10-5 Hz) are some six octaves below the known lower limit for a reasonable biological response.

West concludes that the two basic astrological premises are established beyond doubt. These are (1) celestial events correlate with terrestrial events, which is uncontroversial but not its implication -- what has say moonlit baerbecues or people waking at sunrise to do with astrology? If astrology is reasonably defined as anything requiring a birth chart, the answer is nothing at all. And (2) planetary positions at birth correlate with human personality. This is based on the Gauquelin results, which West describes as "unsinkable" p.191. But such a conclusion is premature because in Skeptical Inquirer Ertel (1992) has shown at least some of them to be sinkable. It is also dead wrong for 99.994 per cent of the population, namely those who are not eminent. Moreover the correlation with personality (but not with occupation), and by extension the results of Addey, now appears to be a methodological artifact. So, contrary to West's claim, the basic astrological premise is not even established, let alone beyond doubt.

Van Dam says that the validity of the Gauquelin results "should be admitted even by Dean". But the review was appearing in a journal where such matters had been thoroughly aired a year earlier by Ertel (1992), so other than my reference to this, a longer admission seemed hardly necessary. Furthermore, if I had claimed that the Gauquelin effect was scientifically proven, readers might rightly object that by scientific standards the number of people who have studied the Gauquelin effect is very small. So artifacts might still be discovered. In other words, as with the sun-sign attribution effect, I could reasonably claim that the effect is proven, but I could not reasonably claim that the cause is astrological, at least not in the sense meant by astrologers. [That was in 1993. Later work has reinforced this point, see this website under Gauquelin.]

Validity of astrological practice
On the validity of astrological practice, West concludes that the evidence is uncertain but favourable on balance. And to make sure we agree he deliberately suppresses the negative evidence: "Since the aim of this book is to present the positive evidence, intimate details of the bulk of the negative evidence do not really concern us" p.234. Thus most of the recent tests cited by me in Dean (1987) are not mentioned. West argues that the negative evidence does not deny that positive evidence may yet be found, so "these negative results are effectively irrelevant to our case" p.353. But nowhere does he spell out the areas wherein such uncompromising verisimilitude might be found. Given that a recent meeting of UK research astrologers could think of no new areas to test, concluding that "if anything major was possible then it would have been suggested already" (Anon 1992), West's argument is anything but convincing.

West's approach is thus like that of a Flat Earther who says never mind the negative evidence for a flat earth, just look at the positive evidence. Which of course is a recipe for disaster. Reasonable judgements can be made only by considering all the evidence, not just the bits that happen to fit a particular case. Else we are in danger of pulling tomato out of the pizza and declaring it to be tomato pie. When selection bias is removed, the evidence for the validity of astrological practice becomes distinctly unfavourable, see the review by Kelly et al (1990). For the record, West was sent a copy of this review by Kelly, but no reference to it appears in West's book.

Parts 4 through 6 (98 pages) are largely irrelevant, being a diatribe again skepticism, the press, and rationalism, with comments on counselling, interpretation, and free will. The book ends with a useful 10-page summary, an appendix listing the 186 scientists who signed the 1975 statement against astrology, a bibliography of more than 120 books (but no articles), a subject index, and a name index.

A big book with big faults
Altogether this is a big book (527 pages) with big faults. Negative evidence is dismissed as irrelevant, crucial issues are ignored, and the text is frequently unbelievable. As shown by my quotes, West's style is one of sustained ridicule, as if violent language can somehow bludgeon a way through. When this polemic tone was criticised by the pro-astrology reviewer Derek Parker (1991), West (1991) replied "my aim is not to convert skeptics ... [but] to present that large, literate audience of closet believers with irrefutable evidence that says there's something to astrology after all, and to provide astrologers with ammunition to devastate their critics. To that end it is essential to discredit the opposition by exposing its 'objectivity' for the sham it is. I like to think my combination of scholarship and ridicule an appropriate tack". Not everyone will agree. To me at least, West's book exhibits all the faults he condemns in others. At which point I should warn that West identifies me as "a bitter opponent of astrology" p.349, so watch out for my sham objectivity.

Van Dam notes that I reproach West for his ironic style, but feels that my own style is even more than ironic -- it is sometimes bluntly scornful. But my complaint about West's style was not its irony but its use of ridicule and violent language in lieu of scholarship. Just as readers of a book review are entitled to hear what the book contains, and only then the reviewer's opinions, so the readers of a book like West's are entitled to hear the evidence, and only then the author's opinions.

Conclusion

In summary, both books perpetuate a needless confusion. To be sure, anything as popular as astrology deserves serious consideration. But anyone familiar with the results of controlled tests, and with the pitfalls of human judgement, must inevitably be suspicious of astrologers' claims. Unfortunately astrologers have mistaken this sensible indifference for dogmatic hostility. In both books there was an opportunity to explore this confusion and set the record straight. But it was missed, and neither book contributes towards a balanced assessment of astrology -- in fact quite the reverse. If nothing else, you could always give copies to astrologers to set them up for later slaughter.

References

Anon (1992). Towards improving astrology: Ideas from an AIR think tank. Astrological Journal 34(3),136-138.

Dean G (1987). Does astrology need to be true? Skeptical Inquirer 11, 166-184 and 257-273. 120 references. Reprinted with an update and a further 16 references in K Frazier (Ed). The Hundredth Monkey and Other Paradigms of the Paranormal. Buffalo: Prometheus Books. The answer to the title question is no.

Dean GA (1992). The Bottom Line: Effect Size. In BL and DF Beyerstein (Eds). The Write Stuff: Evaluations of Graphology. Buffalo: Prometheus Books. Many comparisons including astrology. 250 references.

Dean GA, Kelly IW, Saklofske DH, and Furnham A (1992). Graphology and Human Judgement. In BL and DF Beyerstein (Eds). The Write Stuff: Evaluations of Graphology. Buffalo: Prometheus Books. The arguments apply also to astrology. 175 references.

Enright JT (1993). Oyster rhythms long buried (letter). Skeptical Inquirer 17, 448. Cites his thorough re-analysis of Brown's oyster data in Journal of Theoretical Biology 1965, 8, 426-428.

Ertel S (1992). Update on the Mars Effect. Skeptical Inquirer 16, 150-160. 42 references.

Glymour C (1987). ESP and the Big Stuff. Behavioural and Brain Sciences 10, 590.

Kelly IW, Culver R, and Loptson P (1989). Astrology and Science: An Examination of the Evidence. In SK Biswas, DCV Malik and CV Vishveshwara (Eds). Cosmic Perspectives. New York: Cambridge University Press. Their responses to pro-astrology arguments are summarised in Dean (1987). 48 references.

Kelly IW, Dean GA, and Saklofske DH (1990). Astrology: A Critical Review. In P Grim (Ed). Philosophy of Science and the Occult. Albany: SUNY Press. No overlap with Dean (1987). 78 references. Now superceded by Dean G, Mather A & Kelly IW (1996). Astrology. In Stein G (ed). Encyclopedia of the Paranormal. Prometheus Books, Amherst NY, pages 47-99 with 15 general references. A comprehensive scientific survey.

Parker D (1991). Book review. Astrological Journal 33, 264-265.

Quincey P (1993). The strange case of the New Haven oysters. Skeptical Inquirer 17, 188-193.

Valentine CW (1962). The Experimental Psychology of Beauty. London: Methuen. Still the best survey of experimental tests of reactions to pictures, music and poems.

West JA (1991). Letter. Astrological Journal 33, 381-382.

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