Astrology Old and New

Last week an astronomer claimed that the earth’s precession required a reevaluation of the zodiacal chart. His announcement created a firestorm, leading to stories of worry and even panic in all the major news outlets in America. It was initially shocking to see just how many people were discomfitted by this news, to see just how many people apparently believe that their zodiacal sign has some actual bearing on their lives. But then one realizes this should not be so surprising, since we are and remain a superstitious species.

One thing that disqualifies astrology from being a science is precisely its lack of causal regularity. There are no laws of astrological causation, no claims that if this happens, then that will always follow. No astrological claim has any predictive force; they are too vague and unspecific for actual evaluation. And they are unfalsifiable, meaning that it is impossible to tell—again usually because they are so vague—under what conditions they could be false.

So why do people continue to listen to astrologers? Why do they read their (vague, unspecific, unfalsifiable, and therefore unscientific) horoscopes? One would like to think it is for entertainment purposes only, the way one will watch and be entertained by a play, even though one knows the actors are only, well, acting. But the sensation caused by the news of changes in zodiac signs suggests that many people put far more stock in astrology than as mere entertainment. Humans are, after all, seekers after patterns: We see two or three data points, and we leap to fill in the causal gaps, creating a narrative that is comforting and reassuring for its completeness and its integration into what we already know or believe. And once we have discovered—that is to say, invented—a causal pattern, we are loath to give it up. All future data points, consistent or not with the received pattern, we accept, ignore, or twist, as the case may be, so that they seem to comport with our story.

It is not news that humans do this, even if it is dispiriting that, amidst all our education and enlightenment today, we still seem just as susceptible to astrological explanations as the ancient Greeks were.

Consider the recent case of the Arizona shooting. The blood had hardly been spilt before some were inventing their astrological explanation of the event. The stars were aligned just so (there was a “climate of hate“), the moon and the planets were in the proper position (Sarah Palin had done x, the Tea Party had done y), the proper incantations had been sung (the Constitution was read aloud), the proper dolls were pricked (ObamaCare was threatened), and thus the proper demons called forth (and there is more violence in the offing). Given all this, the shooter apparently had almost no choice to do what he did and thus can hardly be held responsible. The stars, the planets, the incanations, made it inevitable.

Of course, it is not impossible that the Arizona shooter did what he did because of Sarah Palin, “eliminationist rhetoric,” and so on. We do not know why he did what he did, so we cannot rule that out. On the other hand, because we do not know why he did what he did, we . . . do not know why he did what he did.

The fact that so many, despite this yawning gap in the causal account, claimed to know why he did it, suggests that astrological thinking remains with us. We do not know whether the shooter in this instance listened to Sarah Palin et al., we do not know whether he sympathized with the Tea Party, and we do not know whether he cared about ObamaCare; even if he did listen to Palin, was a Tea Party sympathizer, and cared about ObamaCare, none of that would yet prove that those were in his mind when he conceived of, planned, and then took his actions; and even if they were in his mind, that still would not yet mean that he was not himself responsible for his actions. An awful lot remains yet to be shown, then, before we could reasonably come to that conclusion.

One commentator pauses to consider the implications of the fact that the pervasive astrological explanation of the Arizona shooter’s action actually contains no causal account. But the pause is only initial, because he claims that “causal responsibility is not the core issue here. Rather, moral responsibility is” (emphasis in the original). His argument is that even if the “vitriol” in our public political discourse had no causal effect in this case, it does not mean we should not be held morally responsible when we say “grossly irresponsible, terribly immoral, unacceptably impermissible” things. Yes, indeed. But actual (not moral) causality is precisely what is at issue here, because people are laying blame for the event at the feet of people and events other than the shooter himself.

Yet another commentator argues that we should not have “physics envy” in our attempt to explain why the shooter did what he did. He responds to the objection that no “direct causation” has been shown between the metaphorically violent rhetoric and the actually violent action by calling this “an impossible standard of proof.” He has a point. Human beings are complex creatures, and it is very difficult—even, perhaps, impossible—to give the exact chain of causality that led to any given action of any given person.

But we must admit that we are a very, very long way away from such an account. All that has been offered so far is a just-so story about what kinds of things might have played a role, what kinds of words and rhetoric might have affected him, in what way such things might have affected him, and so on. But just-so stories are not scientific, because not causal, explanations. They are not even serious attempts at scientific explanations. They are just stories.

The event at issue here is a multiple murder—a gravely serious affair. If it has demonstrated just how apt we are to leap to unsubstantiated narratives fitting our prior expectations, it then also demonstrates how important it is to slow down and make sure we get things right. Let us find who the responsible parties actually are—not who they might be—and let us hold them accountable. We might not need an account of causation that would satisfy the physicist, but a murder conviction requires a higher standard of proof than stories.

Astrological accounts of human behavior, however appealing or entertaining they can be, do not contribute to our understanding of human behavior, but instead to our prejudices about it. We must not allow them to determine our judgments in this or any other important actual case.

2 thoughts on “Astrology Old and New

  1. Absolutely outstanding post! And the parallels between the two stories (while chronologically coincidental perhaps) are quite telling. It’s very hard to get people to really even have an inner dialog regarding something that’s so politically charged sometimes. It helps when there’s something tangential but analogous that makes it more clear – or at least I’ve often had better luck with that approach than the direct one.

    During my conversations with people about the Tucson incident (and on a one-off post on my blog) I bring up the irony that we’re debating the literal power of words over individuals in light of a mass-murder committed by a crazy kid who apparently believed (by many accounts) that various entities were literally trying to control peoples’ minds via language. Slightly crazy – on both accounts.

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