Astrologer attacks researchers
Abstract -- In 2001 the British astrologer and teacher Dennis Elwell wrote four long articles attacking this website's researchers, their views, their results, and especially what they say in the Phillipson interview available on this website. Elwell wants to restore the importance of astrology. He claims that the researchers are hostile to astrology, and that his attack was so decisive that no response was possible. Article by article, the researchers summarise Elwell's attacks and their response. They argue that Elwell's approach to astrology cannot be taken seriously because he fails to apply safeguards to rule out artifacts, alternate explanations, and self-deception. Elwell denies this. He argues that his own personal judgement is sufficient, and if thousands of scholarly studies suggest he might be fooling himself then they are simply wrong. He claims the researchers have no idea how to properly test astrology. But when they ask him how it should be done, he generally evades the issue, so the debate is spectacularly unproductive. Nevertheless it does provide a typical example of what researchers have to endure, for Elwell is not the first astrologer unable to specify improvements to research when challenged. Includes an option to visit the original interchanges on another website (total 90,000 words, reading time 5 hours).
The British astrologer Dennis Elwell disagrees strongly with the views of researchers given in the interview in Garry Phillipson's Astrology in the Year Zero pages 124-166, and in the expanded interview on this website. Formerly a newspaper journalist, Elwell has been involved with astrology for more than fifty years. Since 1983 he has been a full-time astrologer and teacher, and his concern has been to restore the importance of astrology. Elwell produced four long articles critiquing the researchers, their views, and their results, as follows:
1. The Researchers Researched: A Reply to the Cynics (April 2001)
The researchers (Dean, Kelly, Mather, Smit) responded by inserting comments point by point into his articles. Each interchange averages 10,000 words of article and 13,000 words of inserted comments. The result is a long, tedious, but typical example of how astrologers respond to informed criticism -- by unsupported assertions, smokescreens, evasion, and name calling, but rarely by being helpful.
Click here to see Elwell's articles with the researchers' inserted comments.
Clicking will take you from the astrology-and-science website to Garry Phillipson's website where the articles are stored. To read the articles and comments will take about five hours. The following summary, prepared by the researchers, takes 15 minutes and you stay on the astrology-and-science website.
Our statements were not made lightly. Every social and natural science stresses the need for safeguards to rule out the reasoning errors and other artifacts that arise when relying on experience. Human reasoning processes alone are the subject of thousands of studies and dozens of scholarly books. But when safeguards are applied to tests of astrology the results show no hint of effects that are useful and replicable. It seems that astrology runs on artifacts, the same artifacts that have led people to believe in countless experience-based but false or problematic ideas such as phrenology, psychoanalysis, bloodletting, numerology, and biorythyms.
Nevertheless Elwell says our picture of an artifact-based astrology is wrong. So we now expect him to cite well-conducted studies where artifacts can be ruled out. If a meta-analysis of the studies shows that astrology delivers useful effects, ie to the extent claimed in astrology books, our picture would have to be abandoned. Although our own meta-analyses of such studies have been negative, maybe Elwell can do better.
But Elwell merely refers again and again to his experience, and to after-the-event analyses, as if the problems associated with experience-based astrology and after-the-event astrology did not exist. He also attempts to refute isolated studies, usually naively, as if his own poorly-designed studies were somehow unproblematic and the collective weight of evidence was of no consequence.
How not to conduct a debate
In what follows we look briefly at Elwell's articles, at why the absence of safeguards makes his case implausible, and at his response to the issues we have raised. We repeatedly challenge him to specify tests that would disconfirm his ideas, but he repeatedly fails to do so. He behaves like a fundamentalist whose dogmatic views make debate impossible. For convenience his four articles are referred to as Elwell-1, -2, -3, -4.
Summary of Elwell-1
The Researchers Researched: A Reply to the Cynics
Note how the source of the disagreement between ourselves and Elwell could hardly be clearer. Unlike ourselves, he rejects the need for safeguards, so he has no grounds for ruling out artifacts, alternate explanations, and self-deception. At which point Elwell's case for astrology becomes implausible and cannot be taken seriously.
The rest of Elwell's article is equally disappointing. He presents no new arguments for astrology, only unsupported assertions. He tells us we are doing it wrong but not how to do it right. He tells us astrology should be tested on its own terms but not what those terms are. Negative studies are dismissed as sloppy but much sloppier studies (if positive) are automatically accepted. Depending on the situation, astrology is either astonishingly obvious or very difficult to prove. He does nothing to show that his way of measuring astrology's success are valid, and never considers alternate explanations for that apparent success.
Summary of Elwell-2
Scholars versus Scribblers
Summary of Elwell-3
Concerning ubiquity, evidence, and hard hats
As an exercise, Elwell notes how well President Kennedy's Sun in 8th house fits his life and assassination. But he fails to note how the fit is negated by Kennedy's Venus and Jupiter in the same house.
In another exercise, Elwell looks at the charts of helmet collectors Kelly and Tagliavini, finds repeated significators for German iron helmets, and argues that such hits are irrefutable evidence for astrology. But his repeated significators are not actual repeated factors but different factors whose symbolism can be made to fit. Also, although Elwell is a non-collector of helmets, we find that his chart contains even larger numbers of helmet-collecting significators. This suggests that his significators (and by extension his astrology) are urgently in need of re-evaluation.
Note Elwell's approach -- look at charts after the event, find factors that fit symbolically, and conclude that astrology is proven. But there is a wide choice of events, each event has a wide choice of charts, and each chart has a wide choice of factors. So the number of possible comparisons is effectively without limit. Given such an enormous choice, we should expect to find amazing after-the-event fits purely by chance, and their absence would be more surprising than their presence.
Note the problem -- a hit means little unless Elwell applies safeguards to show that it cannot be explained by after-the-event selection. Worse, if a hit does not occur, Elwell argues that the test is inappropriate, or that the cosmos does not necessarily use our concepts, which points are conveniently forgotten should a hit actually occur. Either way, his strategy is to praise positive studies no matter how flawed and reject negative studies no matter how well conducted. No wonder Elwell sees astrology everywhere. He fatally ignores the relevant literature such as Diaconis & Mosteller, Methods for studying coincidence, Journal of the American Statistical Association 1989, 84, 853-861.
So Elwell-3 changes nothing. Neither does Elwell-4, see next section.
In an earlier now-deleted version of Elwell-3 entitled "Validation: The Essential Issues", Elwell made a couple of extra points that deserve comment. (1) The cosmos is "constantly downloading information" which astrology tries to decipher "not always with conspicuous success". Because the cosmos is never twice the same, the result is a series of one-offs, which makes testing difficult. But how can he know this if testing is so difficult? Elwell does not tell us. (2) "Astrology sits uncomfortably in the current scientific paradigm", so we should be asking what it would mean for science if astrology were actually true. But as far as we know, astrology involves nothing not explainable by non-astrological factors, see later, so contrary to what Elwell says it actually sits very comfortably in the "current scientific paradigm". So Elwell's question is premature. It would be like asking what it would mean for science if the earth were flat.
Summary of Elwell-4
Memo to the Careful Ones
Elwell-4 proceeds by criticising existing research, not by suggesting better ways of research, which here is the only thing that matters. Any competent researcher could do this in a few hundred words. But Elwell's total of 41,000 words have left us none the wiser. Eloquence, maybe, substance, no, lies, yes. For example it is simply not true that we urge "abstracting single factors from the totality", and we have pointed this out every time he argues this way, which is all the time. Clearly Elwell is neither listening nor does he want to listen.
Elwell-4 adopts much the same approach to validation as Elwell-3 -- look at charts after the event, find factors that fit, and conclude that astrology is proven. No matter that we have repeatedly stressed how after-the-event astrology is too self-selective and too problematic to mean anything, and how it needs safeguards if these problems are to be avoided. Elwell's response to problematic examples is to ignore the problems and to carry on providing problematic examples. The parallel with dogmatic fundamentalism could not be clearer.
Elwell-4 does introduce the useful idea of using Venn circles to show how chart significators may or may not overlap. One circle contains all the factors that could indicate X, a second circle contains the factors in a given chart, any overlap shows the factors indicating X. But Elwell fails to note how the number of factors in the first circle, compared to all possible chart factors, has to be comparable with the incidence of X in the population. For his example (X = helmet collecting) his chosen significators are around 10,000 times more numerous than they ought to be, so they are hugely implausible.
In the same vein, Elwell says he expects to find a significator of X in the chart of an X person, but the same significator in another chart does not necessarily mean the person is X, because "in other people the same planetary combination can signify a range of other things". This is not the traditional view, which sees X as always meaning the same thing but being affected by the rest of the chart. Note the problem -- if X does not necessarily mean what it is supposed to mean, we can never find out what it is supposed to mean (which would of no use anyway), nor could we ever test it. All we have are tokens of meaning that we can use any way we like to make convenient "interpretations" after the event to suit our purpose. At which point the whole idea of astrology becomes problematic from beginning to end.
It gets even worse: Suppose we have that circle containing all the factors that could indicate X. Overlapping it we have several charts. Which ones are actually X? Elwell says we cannot tell just from the overlap. So how CAN we tell? Answer: by asking. If any of the circles are X, astrology is proven. If they are not, astrology is still proven. To Elwell this is astrology. To us it is out-of-control silliness.
This leaves Elwell's response to the issues we have raised. He says most of the issues "have at least been touched on", which implies (wrongly) that the touching-on was helpful, and "I may be able to fill in any gaps in what follows here", which gaps he then proceeds to ignore.
Elwell's response to important issues
(1) How can astrology be both obvious and difficult to prove?
The nearest we get is in Elwell-2: "Either the astrological is everywhere, or it is nowhere. The question has been asked, if it is everywhere, why is it so difficult to test? It depends what tests you think are appropriate." He implies that experience is an appropriate test, which leaves us none the wiser -- all believers cite experience to support their beliefs, hence the need for research to decide between conflicting beliefs. The nearest we get to an answer is "Unlike new vaccines, astrology can be exhaustively investigated in straightforward ways", which seems at variance with the above "virtually impossible."
Elwell-3 adds that "everywhereness does not guarantee ease of access." For example oxygen is everywhere, but this was unknown until the 18th century. Elwell is here redefining everywhere to mean "everywhere but not visible" (so direct testing will be a problem) whereas the everywhere that applies to his astrology means "everywhere because we can see it at work" (so direct testing should be easy). In other words this is obfuscation, characteristic of the pseudoscientific approach, rather than the open debate of the truth-seeker.
(2) What tests should we be applying?
In Elwell-2 the nearest we get is: "This research needs to be done on a case study basis, because situations never repeat themselves exactly." But Elwell's notion of a case study excludes the kinds of safeguards seen as essential in any social science case study.
Elwell-2 then says you look at the situation, you look at the chart, you notice a match, and voila, astrology is proven. But it is easy to find a match between almost any chart and any situation. In effect this is the wrong chart issue, which astrologers in Year Zero pages 118-119 see as very worrying, ie if wrong charts work as well as authentic charts then what price astrology?
So a match proves little, and we already showed above how this argument is implausible. It is like saying "this person has arms and legs, therefore astrology is proven." What matters is not the existence of a match but whether the match is usefully better for authentic charts than for control charts. Since Elwell rejects the use of controls (which are essential for assessing results), he has no way of finding out. The problem of course is that half a century of testing has consistently failed to find a useful difference.
Elwell-2 does say that "the fit is generally so knife-edge tight that chance becomes the least likely explanation." But a tight fit does not necessarily mean anything. The astrologer Alexander Marr routinely achieved a very tight fit (average orb only 2.5 minutes), nevertheless it was close to that expected by chance, see Recent Advances pages 174-176. The moral is clear: Unless we make calculations we are in no position to draw conclusions about probabilities.
Elwell-3 adds nothing useful, see (6) below.
Elwell-4 proceeds as if none of the above points had been made. For example he says "the number and complexity of the factors involved makes probability calculations absurd", which completely ignores the last point above. We want details of the tests we should be applying, not vague speculations, but this is all that Elwell provides. He suggests testing mundane claims (how? he does not say), and ideas that astrologers have found to work (like what? he does not say). Similarly Elwell agrees that matching tests "could be instructive", provided the approach gave a positive result (an approach like what? he does not say). Notice how negative results are not instructive!
(3) Sun signs
Elwell-2 says the Aries dynamic differs from Aries traits such as assertive, which could arise in other ways such as Moon in Aries or a prominent Mars. Similarly you can meet Sun in Aries people "who would not be described as assertive ... yet all the time they are ineluctably carving out a path for themselves." That is, they cannot escape their path-carving urges. In short, Sun in Aries is path-carving. Forget traits, think of dynamics, and all will be well.
But we must all path-carve in some fashion in order to survive, so the only way to tell a genuine Aries from pretenders is if they have Sun in Aries. Which is like saying Aries people have arms and legs, therefore astrology works. Elwell makes this muddle even worse by accepting that tropical Taurus (inertia) is the same as sidereal Aries (push), so their instinctive urge is simultaneously stop and go. Elwell does not explain how this is possible, nor how he can know all of the above if signs are too complex to test, which is where we came in.
There are two further problems with Elwell-2: (1) Gauquelin pointed out that a profession "expresses the pressing need to fulfil oneself in a particular way of life or activity", which seems very close to Elwell's idea of a dynamic. If sun signs represent dynamics, then Gauquelin's tests of eminent professionals should show sun sign effects. But they do not. (2) If the twelve sign-dynamics were real attributes of people, they would shine through in factor analyses of human behaviour. Large numbers of such analyses have been reported, but there is no hint of any twelve-fold pattern.
Elwell-3 alternates between condemning sun sign studies and advocating them, leaving us none the wiser. Elwell-4 adds "the qualities denoted by the Sun will be evident only to the degree that we attain some position in which we can shine", which seems to say they will be evident only to the degree that they are evident. It is hard to disagree.
(4) Issues ignored by Elwell
(a) Elwell-1 questions the authenticity of our yardsticks. So what are the authentic yardsticks that Elwell uses? How does he know they are authentic? Elwell does not tell us.
(b) He accepts that only the whole chart will do, but he also accepts that something less than the whole chart will do. So at what point will decreasing wholeness not do? Elwell does not tell us. The nearest we get is "In fact you can do astrology without a zodiac."
(c) Elwell refers to connectedness. But how do notions of connectedness lead to claims that Scorpios are secretive, that Saturn signifies bones, that the birth moment is the significant one, and so on? After all, quantum theorists talk of connectedness but not of secretive Scorpios. So why those claims and not some other claims? Elwell does not tell us.
(d) Elwell notes that our reality is not all it seems. But if our reality is not all it seems, how is this evidence for astrology? Elwell does not tell us. Perhaps what-he-believes-is-evidence-for-astrology is not what it seems. Next is one of Elwell's own issues:
(5) Why the impasse?
Elwell-2 adds "In the end people will believe what they want to believe, and the reason may lie less in the facts than in their own personality." So much for his claim that astrology is based on observation. In any case this does not apply in science, where challenges to tradition and dogma are the norm.
Elwell-3 says we "opt for a route that imposes criteria which are arguably at variance with the subject matter." But our tests included routes suggested by astrologers, so the supposed variance is minimal.
Elwell-4 repeats Elwell-1, saying our "thought process ... is to exclude" while his "includes more and more". But we do not exclude. We have strongly promoted studies that ask astrologers to look at the whole chart, and we continue to welcome fresh ideas and approaches from anyone interested in impartial enquiry.
Elwell's argument boils down to science vs astrology, where the supposed reductionism of science is made to seem incompatible with the supposed holism of astrology, thus elevating astrology beyond criticism. No matter that the argument is irrelevant to such basic issues as whether authentic charts work better than controls, or whether astrologers actually agree on what a chart means. In short, the argument is pure smokescreen. Elwell is only one of many astrologers seemingly unable to see past their own smoke. As Year Zero says on page 181, "criticisms of science (no matter how valid they may be) do nothing to prove astrology."
The real explanation for the impasse is Elwell's unwillingness to use safeguards, his evasion of crucial issues, his automatic acceptance of positive studies no matter how flawed, his automatic rejection of negative studies no matter how well conducted, his ignorance of science, his unsupported assertions, and his unrelenting unhelpfulness. He thinks that seeing a match between chart and person or event proves astrology, as if artifacts did not exist, and if you object he responds with name calling and abuse.
Does this reflect a genuine interest by Elwell in bridging a gap? We think not. We came to these exchanges in good faith but were not met in kind. Indeed, his articles are an insult to serious research and to the idea of constructive debate. No wonder there is an impasse.
(6) Towards overcoming Elwell's impasse
(a) Details of one or more tests capable of confirming astrology.
What could be simpler? So we had high hopes, but in fact Elwell-3 provides very little. On (a) the nearest we get is a suggestion that we look at Sun signs, which is precisely the sort of isolated-factor test that he previously condemned us for making; and a vague suggestion that we test astrology by looking at charts after the event to see how well they fit, as usual without controls, as if the fatal problems with this approach did not exist. On (b-e) Elwell is effectively silent.
Elwell-4 cites our asking for details of tests that would confirm or disconfirm astrology, which leads us to expect an answer, but he then sidetracks to anywhere but an actual answer. As already noted, Elwell repeatedly promotes the "test of experience", where the finding of a match between situation and chart proves astrology. He is claiming that the match cannot be explained by non-astrological factors. As he is the claimant, he (not us) has to show that his claim is valid by controlling non-astrological factors. But he does not do this.
As we have repeatedly stressed, and Elwell has repeatedly ignored, what matters is whether an authentic chart fits the situation better than a control chart. But as we say on page 142 of Year Zero, "Half a century of research into astrology, using techniques incomparably more powerful than those available to the Babylonians and Greeks, has failed to reveal effects (or at least effects commensurate with astrological claims) beyond those due to ordinary causes such as errors in reasoning." That is, astrology fails to work once safeguards are applied to rule out non-astrological factors (we give examples of this in our detailed response to Elwell-4). Elwell disagrees, but since his astrology is beset by non-astrological factors every inch of the way, and since he rejects the use of safeguards, his arguments cannot be taken seriously. This was the case at the end of Elwell-1 and it is still the case. His four articles and 41,000 words have counted for nothing.
An independent test of Elwell's ideas is summarised later in the website article Artifacts with a capital A. It makes the same mistakes as Elwell does, but more clearly, so they are more easily seen.