Apr 12, 2013 - Science v. Astrology; Knowledge v. Superstition? -Denny Gayton
Scientists confront astrology
As I said earlier, the examples used show that the difference between modern science and ‘medieval’ science is at most a matter of degree and that the same phenomena occur in both. The similarity increases when we consider how scientific institutions try to impose their will on the rest of society.
To drive the point home I will briefly discuss the ‘Statement of 186 Leading Scientists’ against astrology which appeared in the September/October issue 1975 of the Humanist. This statement consists of four parts. First, there is the actual statement which takes about one page. Next come 186 signatures by astronomers, physicists, mathematicians, philosophers and individuals with unspecified professions, eighteen Nobel prize winners among them. Then we have two articles explaining the case against astrology in some detail. (Then I will comment on what the academics have said – but my comments will be restricted to information already known by 1975…information known to the scientists whose arguments against astrology I will comment upon.)
Now what surprises the reader whose image of science has been formed by the customary eulogies which emphasize rationality, objectivity, impartiality and so on is the religious tone of the document, the illiteracy of the ‘arguments’ and the authoritarian manner in which the arguments are being presented. The learned gentlemen have strong convictions, they use their authority to spread these convictions (why 186 signatures if one has arguments?), they know a few phrases which sound like arguments, but they certainly do not know what they are talking about. [This is quite literally true. When a representative of the BBC wanted to interview some of the Nobel prize winners they declined with the remark that they had never studied astrology and had no idea of its details…which did not prevent them from cursing it in public. As usual the greatest assurance goes hand in hand with the greatest ignorance.]
Now, take the first sentence of the ‘statement’. It reads: ‘Scientists in a variety of fields have become concerned about the increased acceptance of astrology in many parts of the world.’
In 1484 the Roman Catholic Church published the Malleus Maleficarum, the outstanding textbook on witchcraft. The Malleus is a very interesting book. It has four parts: phenomena, aetiology, legal aspects, theological aspects of witchcraft. The description of phenomena is sufficiently detailed to enable us to identify the mental disturbances that accompanied some cases. The aetiology is pluralistic, there is not just the official explanation, there are other explanations as well, purely materialistic explanations included. Of course, in the end only one of the offered explanations is accepted, but the alternatives are discussed and so one can judge the arguments that lead to their elimination. This feature makes the Malleus superior to almost every physics, biology, chemistry textbook of today. Even the theology is pluralistic, heretical views are not passed over in silence, nor are they ridiculed; they are described, examined, and removed by argument. The authors know the subject, they know their opponents, they give a correct account of the positions of their opponents, they argue against these positions and they use the best knowledge available at the time in their arguments.
The book has an introduction, a Bull by Pope Innocent VIII, issued in 1484. The Bull reads: ‘It has indeed come to our ears, not without afflicting us with bitter sorrow, that in…’ – and now comes a long list of countries and counties – ‘many persons of both sexes, unmindful of their own salvation have strayed from the catholic faith and have abandoned themselves to devils…’ and so on. The words are almost the same as the words in the beginning of the ‘statement’, and so are the sentiments expressed. Both the Pope and the ‘186 Leading Scientists’ deplore the increasing popularity of what they think are disreputable views. But what a difference in literacy and scholarhip!
Comparing the Malleus with accounts of contemporary knowledge the reader can easily verify that the pope and his learned authors knew what they were talking about. This cannot be said of our scientists. They neither know the subject they attack, astrology, nor those parts of their own science that undermine their attack. And so it is also with tribal explanations that have been casually dismissed, uninvestigated.
Professor Bok, in the first article that is attached to the statement writes as follows: ‘All I can do is state clearly and unequivocally that modern concepts of astronomy and space physics give no support – better said, negative support – to the tenets of astrology’ i.e. to the assumption that celestial events such as the positions of the planets, of the moon, of the sun influence human affairs. …Now, ‘modern concepts of astronomy and space physics’, include large planetary plasmas and a solar atmosphere that extends far beyond the earth into space. The plasmas interact with the sun and with each other. The interaction leads to a dependence of solar activity on the relative positions of the planets. Watching the planets one can predict certain features of solar activity with great precision. Solar activity influences the quality of short wave radio signals hence fluctuations in this quality can be predicted from the position of the planets as well. (See J.H. Nelson, RCA Review, Vol 12 (1951), pp. 26; Electrical Engineering, Vol 71 (1952), pp. 421. Many of the scientific studies that are relevant for our case are described and indexed in Lyall Watson, Supernature, London 1973. Most of these studies have been neglected – without criticism – by orthodox scientific opinion.)
Solar activity has a profound influence on life. This was known for a long time. What was not known was how delicate this influence really is. Variations in the electric potential of trees depended not only on the gross activity of the sun but on individual flares and therefore again on the positions of the planets (found in H.S. Burr. Reference in Watson, open citation). Piccardi, in a series of investigations that covered more than thirty years found variations in the rate of standardized chemical reactions that could not be explained by laboratory or meteorological conditions. He and other workers in the field are inclined to believe ‘that the phenomena observed are primarily related to changes of the structure of water used in the experiments’ (see S.W. Tromp. ‘Possible effects of extra-terrestrial stimuli on colloidal systems and living organisms’, Proc. 5th Intern. Biometerolog. Congress, Nordwijk 1972). The chemical bond in water is about one tenth of the strength of average chemical bonds so that water is ‘sensitive to extremely delicate influences and is capable of adapting itself to the most varying circumstances to a degree attained by no other liquid’ (G. Piccardi, The chemical basis of medical climatology, Springfield, Illinois 1962). It is quite possible that solar flares have to be included among these ‘varying circumstances’ (G.R.M. Verfaillie, Intern. Journ. Biometerol., Vol. 13 (1969), pp. 113) which again lead to a dependence on planetary positions. Considering the role which water and organic colloids play in life we may conjecture that ‘it is by means of water and the aqueous system that the external forces are able to react on living organisms’ (Piccardi).
Just how sensitive organisms are has been shown in a series of papers by F.R. Brown. Oysters open and close their shells in accordance with the tides. They continue their activity when brought inland, in a dark container. Eventually they adapt their rhythm to the new location which means that they sense the very weak tides in an inland laboratory tank (Am. Journ. Physiol., Vol 178 (1954), pp. 510). Brown also studied the metabolism of tubers and found a lunar period though the potatoes were kept at constant temperature, pressure, humidity, illumination: man’s ability to keep conditions constant is smaller than the ability of a potato to pick up lunar rhythms (Biol. Bull., Vol 112 (1957), p. 285 – the effect could also be due to synchronicity, see Carl Gustav Jung) and Professor Bok’s assertion that ‘the walls of the delivery room shield us effectively from many known radiations’ turns out to be just another case of a firm conviction based on ignorance.
The ‘Statement’ makes much of the fact that ‘astrology was part and parcel of (the) magical world view’ and the second article that is attached to it offers a ‘final disproof’ by showing that ‘astrology arose from magic’. Where did the learned gentlemen get this information? As far as one can see there is a not a single anthropologist among them and I am rather doubtful whether anyone is familiar with the more recent results of this discipline. What they do know are some older views from what one might call the ‘Ptolemaic’ period of anthropology when post-17th century western man was supposed to be the sole possessor of sound knowledge, when field studies, archaeology and a more detailed examination of ‘myth’ had not yet led to the discovery of the surprising knowledge possessed by ancient man as well as by modern ‘primitives’ and when it was assumed that history consisted in a simple progression from more primitive to less primitive views. We see: the judgment of the ‘186 Leading Scientists’ rests on an antediluvian anthropology, on ignorance of more recent results in their own fields (astronomy, biology, and the connection between the two) as well as on a failure to perceive the implications of results they do know. It shows the extent to which scientists are prepared to assert their authority even in areas in which they have no knowledge whatsoever.
There are many minor mistakes. ‘Astrology’, it is said ‘was dealt a serious death blow’ when Copernicus replaced the Ptolemaic system. Note the wonderful language: does the learned writer believe in the existence of ‘death blows’ that are not ‘serious’? And considering the content we can only say that the very opposite was true. Kepler, one of the foremost Copernicans used the new discoveries to improve astrology, he found new evidence for it, and he defended it against opponents (see Nobert Herz’s Keplers Astrologie, Vienna 1895). There is a criticism of the dictum that the stars incline, but do not compel. The criticism overlooks that formulations of modern hereditary theory (for example) works with inclinations throughout. Some specific assertions that are part of astrology are criticized by quoting evidence that contradicts them; but every moderately interesting theory is always in conflict with numerous experimental results. Here astrology is similar to highly respected scientific research programs. There is a longish quotation from a statement by psychologists. It says: ‘Psychologists find no evidence that astrology is of any value whatsoever as an indicator of past, present, of future trends of one’s personal life…’. Considering that astronomers and biologists have not found evidence that is already published, and by researchers in their own fields, this can hardly count as an argument. ‘By offering the public the horoscope as a substitute for honest and sustained thinking, astrologers have been guilty of playing upon the human tendency to take easy rather than difficult paths’ – but what about psychoanalysis, what about the reliance upon psychological tests which long ago have become a substitute for ‘honest and sustained thinking’ in the evaluation of people of all ages? (The objection from free will is not new; it was raised by the church fathers. So was the twin objection.) Remembering the magical origin of astrology one need only remark that science once was very closely connected with magic and must be rejected if astrology must be rejected on these grounds.
The remarks should not be interpreted as an attempt to defend astrology as it is practiced now by the great majority of astrologists. Modern astrology is in many respects similar to early medieval astronomy: it inherited interesting and profound ideas, but it distorted them, and replaced them by caricatures more adapted to the limited understanding of its practitioners. The caricatures are not used for research; there is no attempt to proceed into new domains and to enlarge our knowledge of extra-terrestrial influences; they simply serve as a reservoir of naive rules and phrases suited to impress the ignorant. Yet this is not the objection that is raised by our scientists. They do not criticize the air of stagnation that has been permitted to obscure the basic assumptions of astrology, they criticize these basic assumptions themselves and in the process turn their own subjects into caricatures. It is interesting to see how closely both parties approach each other in ignorance, conceit and the wish for easy power over minds.