Ivan W. Kelly
An expanded version of an article in Skeptical Inquirer 23(6), 37-43, Nov/Dec 1999
Abstract -- The US astrologer Valerie Vaughan is a prominent debunker of articles critical of astrology. Her usual ploy is to ignore the many informed critiques, dismiss the rest as uninformed, ignore negative evidence, and promote the rest as huge support for the grandiose claims of astrology. In other words she manages to behave exactly like the worst of the critics she condemns. When these deficiencies were pointed out in a response to an earlier Vaughan article, her reply (which is the article reviewed here) again failed to address informed critiques, again ignored negative findings, and again overstated the support from supposedly positive findings. Her article is better referenced than is usual among astrologers (Vaughan has a Masters degree in Information Science), but otherwise it adds nothing to the debate. 25 references.
My analysis (Kelly 1999) of astrologer Valerie Vaughan's (1998) debunking of skeptics led to a wordy, rambling rebuttal in Vaughan (2000). The central issues regarding the status and evidence for astrology were not confronted, whereas most of her response sidetracked to the meaning of "astrologer", criticism of CSICOP, lack of funding for astrologers, qualifications to research astrology, name calling Note 1, and misinterpreting statements and projecting them onto critics as "logical fallacies" Note 2.
Memo to reader: Notes need not be referred to as they occur. They can be read more conveniently, and without loss of relevance, as a whole at your leisure once the main text has been read.
Vaughan's earlier debunking article (Vaughan 1998) in The Mountain Astrologer criticized debunkers for being uninformed about astrology. In response, I pointed out that her article did not address informed critiques (Kelly 1999). In Rebunking the debunkers (2000) she again did not address this issue. There exist many informed critiques of astrological tenets such as Dean and Mather (1977), Eysenck and Nias (1982), the critiques of Michael Gauquelin, along with a large number of articles in Correlation. These informed critiques are nowhere examined by her, and are generally ignored by the astrological community.
Positive and negative research into astrology
Second, Vaughan's proposed "astrologically informed studies" do not provide the support she misleadingly tries to convey to her astrological readers. Many of Gauquelin's findings were negative concerning the claims of classical astrology (regarding zodiac signs, planetary aspects, and the whole horoscope), and his (very weak) positive findings on planetary configurations at the birth of eminent professionals were inconsistent with the grandiose claims found in astrology books (see Kelly 1997:1039-40). As the astrologer Lois Rodden (undated) points out:
It must be stated that even if one accepts the Gauquelin plus zone results, they fly in the face of traditional astrological understanding of the weakness of cadent houses and have no practical value for consulting astrologers.
Percy Seymour is interested primarily in the Gauquelin research and attempts to explain it with speculative sunspot related magnetic disturbances. One might well ask, if solar disturbances of the geomagnetic field are of astrological relevance then why is it that sunspot numbers, known for centuries, have not long ago been integrated into birth charts? It is also of relevance that Seymour does not put the emphasis on date of birth that astrologers do.
John Addey contended that astrologers writing in magazines like The Mountain Astrologer are doing it wrong. Addey hoped to unify astrology on the basis of his theory of planetary harmonics. Traditional astrology regards planets as related to each other in a horoscope when they are at particular angles to each other (such as 0, 60, 90 and so on). Addey believed that astrologers should, instead, view planets as having cyclic effects around a circle. Here both positive and negative halves of each circle would contribute to a continuous degree of relationships. Consequently, Addey found fault with most of tradition unless it was reinterpreted in terms of harmonic wave functions. Finally, Patrick Curry is a historian and not a researcher, and neither is West a researcher. Neither Curry or West have published research studies examining astrological claims. West wrote a survey of evidence for astrology with the same blind eye to negative results shown by Vaughan (see Case For Astrology on this website under Book Reviews).
The nature of astrology
In the same article, Vaughan (2000) then seems to give science a limited contribution to astrology: "When the scientific approach is used with astrology, there must be a clear understanding of the limits of scientific analysis." These limits seem to be conveniently forgotten when Vaughan finds any indication of scientific evidence for astrology, so in Vaughan (1996) we are told West's book The Case for Astrology provides us with "experiments that have proven the validity of astrology" and "perhaps the best known proof of astrology lies in the voluminous files of Michael Gauquelin" (italics mine). These are strong claims indeed! No caveats or reservations regarding the scientific method are expressed here. Note 4
Further, Vaughan (1995, 1996) considers all sorts of empirical correlations as evidence for astrology. To muddy the waters even further we are told, "And when we are dealing with matters concerned with meaning (such as astrology), other non-scientific tools may be enlisted for more appropriate analysis "(Vaughan, 2000) So, is the "proof" obtained by Michael Gauquelin now inappropriate, or only marginally relevant? And what are these non-scientific tools, and how do they help resolve conflicts between astrologers, or contribute toward separating valid from invalid tenets in astrology? And where are the studies using these tools? We are not told. No wonder funding of research into astrology is a problem.
Lunar studies and astrology
This is said to be astrologically revealing. But what does this after-the-fact search tell us? We were not warned publicly by astrologers to be careful on these days. Vaughan engages in no exploration of past associations of similar conjunctions with terrestrial disturbances to give credibility to the post hoc analysis. No suggestions are made that other studies on crisis calls be examined, covering the same time period as the Bickis et al study, to confirm the importance of these post-selected days. We are not even told what should have been astrologically expected on these days. Does the astrological symbolism suggest an increase in crisis calls in British Columbia? An increase in calls everywhere?
In the Bickis et al. study, over the first two years (of a three year study) the 10th and 25th days of the lunar cycle were found to have more crisis calls than other days of the lunar synodic cycle. These days 10 and 25 did not show up in the third year of the analysis. However, Vaughan (2000) says that astrologers have warned us about these days of the lunar cycle: we are told that astrologer Jeff Mayo warned about the 3rd, 18th, 10th and 25th days of the lunar cycle, astrologer Erlewine talks about the 10th and 25th days Note 5, and the poet Hesiod warns about the 25th day. Apart from internal differences among these sources, for example they differ in subsets of what days are noteworthy, it is not clear that the meaning assigned to these days is the same within the three sources.
For example, Erlewine mentions that the Eastern astrological traditions relate the 10th and 25th days of the lunar cycle to masculine and feminine energies respectively. What follows from this? It doesn't follow that both energies will be expressed in the same (negative) way or in terms of elevated crises. Further, if these two days are of such importance, then one would expect the same days to be prominent in other studies. Vaughan makes no attempt to find out. The reader can examine over 25 studies conducted on crisis calls, and the 10th and 25th days do not stand out in other studies, again suggesting nothing particularly significant about these days.
It seems that for Vaughan, one part of a study is noteworthy if there is a whiff of potential support for astrology, ignoring both the other failed replication part of the same study, and failures to replicate with other studies. Furthermore, the "support" conflicts with what she and other astrologers say elsewhere, since the two lunar days are isolated "lunar day" factors! Astrologers [see Vaughan (1998)] are continually telling people (especially skeptics) that testing isolated factors is inappropriate since this ignores the complexity of astrology Note 6. It seems that for many astrologers, whether isolated factors can be tested or not depends on the results: if the findings are positive, testing isolated factors is appropriate; if the results are negative, the argument regarding the complexity of astrology is brought up to explain them away Note 7.
Vaughan's discussion of research on the moon's anomalistic (apogee-perigee) cycle is also noteworthy for what it leaves out or muddies over. Many astrologers have alluded to the moon's tidal or gravitational pull on the earth as relevant to astrology. The classic line by many astrologers (check out astrologers' web sites and popular writings) has been "If the moon can do that to the tides, imagine what it can do to you!" Note 8.
Furthermore, many popular "moon madness" theories attribute more undesirable behavior to stronger lunar pull (which occurs at perigee), see for example, Katzeff, (1988) Moon Madness and Lieber, (1978) The Lunar Effect. One might well ask, are lunar studies of folklore relevant to astrology? Our own research assumed not, and most investigators of lunar relationships with human behaviour do not make a connection between the two, but Vaughan equivocates here.
In Vaughan (2000) she criticizes those who equate lunar studies of folklore with astrology, and asks of the Bickis et al crisis call study "What does this study have to do with astrology?" Indeed, astrology was not even mentioned in the article. Elsewhere, Vaughan tells us otherwise. In Vaughan (1996) we are informed that extraterrestrial-celestial correlations provide evidence for astrology, and Katzeff's (1988) Moon Madness is mentioned as providing such evidence Note 9. But, in Vaughan (2000), the same type of studies cited in Katzeff are considered tests of "folklore beliefs", and viewed analogous to the sin of considering newspaper horoscopes as serious astrology. (For more on Vaughan's confusions between science and astrology see Kelly & Dean, 2000).
Self-attribution and explanation
Since the attribution effect was subsequently replicated in a number of studies, it became a factor that was important to take into consideration in astrological studies where prior knowledge of astrology could confound the findings. Therefore, studies not controlling for this factor could have results that were ambiguous. Self-attribution cannot be considered a speculative flaw (as Vaughan claims), in studies that do not control for prior knowledge because it has already been shown by Eysenck and others to be a serious competing explanation in such studies. The importance of considering self-attribution was also emphasized by Gauquelin (1983:134-136), who told readers, "If astrology is potentially a science, then it demands extra caution in field research. One must never lose sight of the possibility of alternative explanations, as the scientific jargon has it, and this involves finding out whether positive results can be accounted for logically and simply, quite apart from any astrological law."
The self-attribution hypothesis would not be a competing hypothesis where prior knowledge of astrological tenets was unlikely, as for example, with studies of asteroid or orb symbolism, or on topics associated with signs that study participants would be unlikely to know (and this could be independently checked). Vaughan, on the other hand, criticizes the notion of self-attribution by saying that it could contaminate all studies and surveys. Indeed, it may be one factor among many, that influence people's beliefs. Some other factors may be age, gender, religion, educational level, socio-economic status, ethnic background, and so on. Social psychology and sociology are interested in exactly these kinds of influences.
When people are tested for their beliefs in studies unrelated to astrology, Vaughan asks if people suddenly drop beliefs related to astrology. Of course not, any more than they drop their religious beliefs in studies unrelated to religious topics. The questions about self-attribution Vaughan raises have been known and discussed by social scientists for over a century. Vaughan seems to be under the mistaken impression that sun sign self-attribution is a very powerful effect that can really subvert all studies. Its relevance is important when sources of belief are considered, and especially when astrology itself is the topic of investigation, just as in studies examining what people know about learning disabilities one should examine prior sources of knowledge such as media exposure on the topic.
Vaughan (2000), still on the topic of self-attribution, says "how will we be able to tell whether someone is truly an extravert or just another person who thinks he's one because he knows his Sun-sign?" Well, it must be repeated again that self-attribution is not the only factor, nor even a strong contributing factor, to people's beliefs about themselves. Whether one considers oneself an extravert will be influenced by many sources of information, such as: first hand experience in the company of others (do we enjoy the company of others and spend a lot of time interacting with them), verbal feedback from others ("You are very outgoing"), by comparisons of our behaviour to that of others, and so on. Our view may also be influenced by our knowledge of the characteristics associated with our sun sign, or by readings in numerology, palm reading, or psychology (prior knowledge can be checked here as well).
Unfortunately, this reasoning of Vaughan's can boomerang back on astrologers in a more virulent way. Vaughan suggests the explanation of self-attribution is an all-round excuse trotted out by skeptics whenever positive findings emerge. This is really ironic. We know of situations where self-attribution does not apply, and we can determine the strength of any attribution effect relative to other contributions to behaviour.
Now let us ask similar questions of astrology: What are the limitations of astrological explanations? How strong are astrological contributions to temperament and behaviour? Are there situations where astrology does not apply to humans? Do astrological factors interact with psychological, sociological, and heredity factors? Or perhaps both psychological and heredity phenomena are considered manifestations of an all encompassing, underlying, mysterious astrological or symbolic reality? (And if the latter, how could we show this, and could we ever find out otherwise?)
On the perspective which seems to be prevalent among writers in astrology magazines like The Mountain Astrologer, the astrological worldview is all encompassing and related to everything that happens. In The Mountain Astrologer (described on the web site as "widely acknowledged as the best English-language astrology magazine in the world today"), astrologers relate every mishap, calamity, and happy event, in both their own lives and those of others, to planetary configurations. From this metaphysical perspective, whatever happens is almost by definition, consistent with the astrological symbolism. While such self-sealed systems and their resultant stagnation may be popular in many segments of the astrological community, debate and change characterize disciplines elsewhere.
Who should research and write on astrology?
As for the credentials required of those writing about (rather than researching) astrology, Vaughan is less clear, but she asks for "evidence of debunkers actually studying astrology...just as biologists study biology...". She suggests at the end of her article that "passing a certification test in astrology" would be sufficient evidence. Unfortunately this creates problems for the astrological community. Have all the writers in The Mountain Astrologer passed certification exams? Are many not self-educated? Cannot debunkers similarly be self-educated in astrology?
She mentions the "astrologically informed studies of Percy Seymour, Patrick Curry, and John Anthony West." Have these "astrologically informed" individuals passed certification tests? In Vaughan (1996) readers are recommended books that provide support for astrology and "should be important additions to the astrologer's library". The authors of these books include Paul Katzeff, Hans Eysenck, and Edward Dewey, none of whom passed astrological certification exams, nor likely studied astrology in any depth, nor were practicing astrologers. Eysenck (the psychologist who emphasized the importance of controlling for self-attribution in astrological research) writes in Astrology: Science or Superstition? (one of the books Vaughan suggests to readers):
We [Eysenck and Nias] do not claim to be experts in astrology, and we could not interpret a birth chart with any degree of confidence; but that is not important. Training in psychology and statistics enables us to evaluate evidence for the kinds of statements made by astrologers.
Should Vaughan now remove this book from her suggested reading list? It most certainly seems that, for Vaughan, the honorific title "astrologically informed" is applied utilizing criteria that have no discernable consistency.
As already mentioned, these notes need not be referred to as they occur. Instead they can be read more conveniently, and without loss of relevance, as a whole.
Note 1. Critics of her articles are pathologized by Vaughan (2000) as "troubled voices", and those "who didn't like their rigid ways of thinking disturbed." Even astrologers associated with The Mountain Astrologer who express views at variance with her own are maligned. The astrologer Brad Kochunas (1999) describes several of my articles as "marvelous" and thought provoking. Vaughan (2000) is outraged, and says, "Mr Kochunas evidently lacks the will or the insight to see through the flimsy arguments of debunkers." Geoffrey Dean, an ex-astrologer and skeptic, is similarly marginalized as a "turncoat" and a "shadow."
She ends her article with "Mr Kelly apparently knows so little about astrology that it is difficult to conduct a real dialogue." Other astrologers see it differently. Nick Campion, a historian and past president of the British Astrological Association, and author of many books on astrology, writing in the March 1998 Astrological Newsletter Transit, says, "Unlike many skeptics, Ivan Kelly is well-informed." Further, over the last decade all three editors of the astrological research journal Correlation have asked me to be on their editorial board. Would the top journal researching astrological claims, owned by astrologers, ask uninformed people to be on its review board?
Note 2. Vaughan (1998) complained that astrologers receive no funding for research, unlike those in other disciplines. My response (Kelly 1999) was that astrologers need to incorporate research courses into their training institutions, since "astrologers generally have no training in how to conduct or evaluate research and therefore could not do it even if they had funding." Vaughan (2000) rephrases my statement as "Since astrologers have no research training, they will therefore never be able to perform research even if they had funding." (my italics). Note how dropping the word "generally" and adding her own "never", changes the original sense of the statement. By adding further assumptions of her own, she manages to pull off some remarkable inferences from her revision of my statement.
Another example: Vaughan (1998) accuses skeptics of scientism. I respond (Kelly 1999) by pointing out that labeling people does not mean that one can a priori dismiss their arguments without examination: "Even if scientism were typical of debunkers, they could still be right about astrology. After all, human history is full of rakes, bounders, racists and sexists, all arguably as disreputable as disciples of scientism, who have nevertheless sometimes been right about some things." One might think of sexists like Schopenhauer, and racists like David Hume. Or those like Descartes who thought animals were non-sentient machines. However, by ignoring the word "disreputable" in my quote, and deliberately misrepresenting it, Vaughan (2000)infers the following howler: "he has evidently suggested some approval of racists and sexists, as well as their affinity with debunkers like himself." Such inferences belong in a Monty Python argument skit or a Seinfeld episode
Note 3. Vaughan, at times, seems to view astrology as an alternative worldview to science. She often uses the term "paradigm". But can astrology be considered a paradigm? There is a paradigm when practitioners in an area reach agreement over fundamental matters, including agreement on theory, instrumentation, and appropriate methodology for solving problems and investigating the world (Kuhn 1970, 1977). Where is such a consensus within the astrological community?
Paradigms can, moreover, unlike astrology, eventually be undermined from within by the accumulation of unsolved anomalies, and from without by replacement by more successful paradigms. Certainly Kuhn did not consider astrology an alternative paradigm. In the case of astrology we seem to have schools of astrology, each consisting of their own set of non-negotiable dogmas. Entering the new millennium, astrology is a caldron of conflicting voices with little agreement on anything, the nature of astrology itself is in dispute, and its relationship to science is unclear (see Kelly 1997; Cornelius, Hyde, & Webster 1995, pp. 140-145). At best, after several millennia, astrology can now be considered to be in a pre-paradigmatic state.
Note 4. In addition to the purported empirical support, Vaughan (1996) states that there is also theoretical scientific support for astrology: "Some of the greatest scientific minds have shown that time-travel and other conditions necessary for UFO's and intuitive arts like Astrology are theoretically possible. Yet scientists continue to deny that astrology has any validity." Vaughan's jump from "theoretically possible" to "has validity" is a non sequitur. Further, if time-travel is a necessary condition for the plausibility of astrology, then problems in the notion of time-travel also reduce the plausibility of astrology [See Grey (1999) for a discussion of some of the conceptual and metaphysical difficulties with the idea of time- travel].
Note 5. An examination of the data provided by Erlewine (no date) cited by Vaughan indicates that both have misrepresented the findings. Vaughan (2000) writes, "This particular lunar cycle [synodic cycle] has also been discussed in a recent article by astrologer Michael Erlewine, who points out its relationship to cycles of geomagnetic disturbances. He notes scientific studies showing that the 10th and 25th days are important days in the cycle of Polar Cap Absorption, and how this correlates with the significance attributed to these same days by ancient Eastern astrological traditions."
Erlewine (undated) says, " The Kp-geomagnetic index varies with the lunar phases. When the moon is less than 3 = degrees from the plane of the eclipse, geomagnetic activity reaches a mimimum during the 2nd lunar quarter and a maximum during 3rd lunar quarter....There is also a minimum in the Kp-geomagnetic index during 2nd quarters when PCA and Forbush decreases re at a maximum. It has been suggested that at 2nd quarter the moon may least disturb the geomagnetic field, which is, at that time, most active. There is a sharp rise in the Kp index just prior to full moon and continuing into third quarter."
However, an examination of the Bell and Defouw (1966) article referred to by Vaughan and Erlewine show that it is not so straightforward. The plot in Figure 1 of their article indicates the position of maximum magnetic influence clearly shifts with lunar declination. To complicate things further, the lunar declination varies each month from just over 5 Deg N to 5 Deg S, with a period of approximately 27 days. In addition, the Kp scale is defined within general geophysics on a kind of logarithmic scale. As a consequence of this logarithmic definition, the "sharp rise in the Kp index" is extremely small compared to the magnetic disturbances during the solar induced auroras; not to mention the magnetic influences (geomagnetical and technological) depending on how and where you live.
If effects related to Kp and geomagneticisme should have any astrological relation, astrologers should discuss not only the geographical latitude and longitude itself, but also allude to the magnetic latitude and longitude when constructing a horoscope (the present magnetic north is actually placed in Northern Canada, and as a consequence, people in the Northern USA have a relatively higher chance of observing auroras than people living at the same geographical latitude in Europe). How many astrologers do this?
[If crisis calls and astrology are related to geomagnetic activity, as suggested by Vaughan and Erlewine, why did astrologers not give us advance warning before 13 March 1989, when a most powerful solar eruption, followed by Polar Cap Absorption, high Kp values, and widely visible auroras, caused power failures/blackouts in parts of Canada and Sweden? Unfortunately this event happened on day 6 in the lunar cycle -- a day not mentioned in the extensive list of Vaughan's astrological bad luck warning days. One of the greatest PCA events recorded also happened on 13 March 1989, parallel to a magnificient aurora display that was observed as far south as the Caribic].
Finally, modern research indicates the PCA events mentioned by Vaughan and Erlewine are not related to lunar factors, but instead related to phenomena (eg active sunspots) on the sun (see Ranta, et al. 1993). PCA is absorption of radiosignals according to modern research (Ranta, et al. op cit), during periods of high solar energy (eruptions). The Solar Proton Events, may ionize our upper atmosphere, thus imply the absorption of HF and VHF signals in the upper atmosphere: "Solar energetic particles events produce a particular type of disturbance called Polar Cap Absorption (PCA) that lasts up to days. The deep ionization produced by the solar protons also alters the path taken by the waves reflecting from the ionosphere" (see http://www.nas.edu/ssb/spwpt5nw.html).
Note 6. Within classical astrology, lunar influence depends on which house the moon is passing. These houses are related to the daily motion of the earth. For example, Abraham Avenarius says, "The moon in the 8th house will give misfortune -- that is to say, heavy headaches -- mostly with a tragic end" (cited in Moberg 1969:3). But concerning the astrological houses, the moon will pass ALL houses during 24 hours. [For birth charts, astrological theory says that if someone is born with the Moon in 8, then the psychological and practical consequences going with this position apply all the native's life. But Vaughan is alluding to lunar days in regard to astrology here.]
Another factor of astrological significance may be the passage of the moon within the zodiac signs. As Moberg (1969, p.38) says "moon within Gemini implies a deformed, disfigured, ill dressed person", however, typically this takes more than two days. A few classical works on astrology emphasize a bad influence when the moon is "burned", that is, too close to the sun., a new moon: "Moon burned ....means the native will get a short life..." (Moberg 1969:31). Strictly speaking, the total duration of burned out ranges from -6 Deg to -16' -- and again -- from +16' to +6 Deg. However, these intervals affect all together slightly less than half of the last day, and less that half of the first day within the lunar month. So in general, the notion of lunar day should not be of much interest to astrologers.
Note 7. For example, in Vaughan (1998) both debunkers and scientists who investigate the claims of astrology (and have the audacity to obtain negative results) are flayed for oversimplifying astrology, that is, by testing only isolated factors in their studies. On the other hand, when Gauquelin tested isolated factors such as the diurnal position of Mars at the birth of eminent athletes, or Smithers looked at sun sign in relation to occupation in the 1984 Manchester Guardian, Vaughan ignored this "flaw" and claimed the studies supplied support to astrology! It is the result that counts for Vaughan.
Note 8. Apparently such astrologers don't know that the strength of tides is directly related to the size of the bodies they work on. So their line should be: If the moon does only that to a relatively static ocean, imagine how small its effect will be on a person that is five million times smaller and is usually in motion.
Note 9. Vaughan equivocates between different definitions of astrology. At times astrology is viewed as anything involving celestial-terrestrial correlations, at other times, astrology involves an entire worldview tied to symbolic associations and mythology. For example, the durability of astrology is used by Vaughan (1996) as an argument in its favour as follows: "the 'principles' of medical science are changing all the time, whereas the astrological premise (that celestial-terrestrial correlations exist) is much more stable and has withstood thousands of years of change in the practice or interpretation.".
Notice the easy slip between astrology defined in the wide unspecified empirical sense (astrology = celestial-terrestrial correlations) to the impression that somehow this supports astrology in the larger Grand narrative sense (involving claims like "Hard Saturn-Neptune contacts in a natal chart indicate a predisposition toward depression"). Note also the implicit assumption in the durability argument that astrological knowledge has been cumulative over the centuries with additional information (e.g on newly discovered planets, etc) conserving basic ancient insights and elaborating on them. Interestingly, the whole notion of paradigm that Vaughan uses quite frequently, is at variance with notions of cumulative knowledge over time (Kuhn 1970). Further, where are the arguments or studies that demonstrate that modern astrology is more successful than ancient astrology?
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