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Does Astrology Need to Be True?

Thirty years ago, although dozens of tests had been mostly negative, astrologers said critics had ignored serious astrology. Now there are hundreds of tests, some of them even heroic. Has anything changed?

A Thirty-Year Update

The original article in Skeptical Inquirer Winter 1986–87 had a relaxed cover picture by artist Ron Chironna and this introduction by Editor Kendrick Frazier: “We begin publication in this issue of Geoffrey Dean’s two-part ‘Does Astrology Need to Be True?’ a comprehensive investigation of the claims of serious astrology as defined by ‘serious’ astrologers. Although we are striving for shorter articles, so that we can cover a wider range of interests, we publish this lengthy inquiry because of its special significance. As one of our reviewers of Dean’s manuscript wrote, ‘It is without doubt the best article on astrology I have ever seen.’”

Other than its length, the original article had three claims on your rapt attention. It was the result of much recycling among colleagues and noted skeptics, including Susan Blackmore, Ray Hyman, Ivan Kelly, Andrew Neher, and Marcello Truzzi, whose critical comments kept it on the rails. It ignored the nonsense of sun sign astrology and focused on the real thing as used in consulting rooms, on why people believe in it (because it seems to work), and on the results of tests (astrology stops working when cognitive artifacts such as confirmation bias are controlled). And finally it asked, not is astrology true, but does it need to be true? A change that in one hit ended a centuries-old shouting match over claims of truth. The answer was no.

The real thing was not hard to find. In Western countries, it was the subject of roughly 100 periodicals and 1,000 books in print and was practiced or studied by roughly one person in 10,000. (The proportion today has been affected by astrology on the Internet but is probably not much different.) My conclusion in the original article was:

In the last ten years various studies have addressed astrology (the real thing, not popular nonsense) on the astrologer’s terms. The results of these studies are in agreement, and their implications are clear: Astrology does not need to be true in order to work, and contrary to the claims of astrologers authentic birth charts are not essential. What matters is that astrology is believed to be true, and that authentic birth charts are believed to be essential.

Business as Usual

Astrologers replied in their usual way to criticism, dismissing it as biased and ignorant. Their repeated claim— that their daily experience confirms their fundamental premise as above so below—is still heard from the rooftops. They still misinterpret cognitive artifacts in a chart reading as evidence of links with the heavens. And they still explain away all failures by the same old excuses, such as stars incline and do not compel; another factor is interfering (there is always another factor), and astrologers are not infallible. Astrology is thus made nonfalsifiable, whereupon belief and paying clients follow automatically. It then gets worse.

Unwelcome evidence is dismissed because, they say, research is biased; astrology is too nuanced to be testable by science, and (the ultimate clincher) research funding is nonexistent. Yet astrologers insist that looking at birth charts will convince us that astrology works. Just try it and our eyes will be opened at last! But they cannot have it both ways. Astrology cannot simultaneously be difficult to test and yet easy to prove. Their response to this contradiction is usually a scornful silence.

Nevertheless, the past thirty years have seen big advances in research design, the availability of data, and the use of computers to break the calculation barrier. At one time, astrologers using logarithms could take many hours to calculate a comprehensive birth chart; a home computer can do the same for dozens of charts while you cough.

The result has been hundreds of controlled tests of astrology by both believers and critics. Most studies are little-known; so for forty years, my colleagues and I have been visiting astrology collections and searching academic databases for every useful study ever made. We have published the results in Tests of Astrology: A Critical Review of Hundreds of Studies (Dean et al. 2016).

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About Skeptical Inquirer

Does Astrology Need to Be True? A Thirty-Year Update Does E = mc2 Imply Mysticism? Does the Universe Revolve around Me? A Skeptical Response to Science Denial Skeptical Inquirer’s 2016 Reader Survey Results
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