The revelation that the former First Lady Nancy Reagan consulted an astrologer in San Francisco to organize the president’s itinerary must have surprised or entertained many teachers and parents who do not pay much attention to this old superstition. Unfortunately, the belief in the power of astrology is much more general among students than many people realize.
A survey done by Gallup indicated that 55% of American teenagers believe that astrology works. Astrology sections appear in more than 1200 newspapers in the United States; in contrast, less than 10 newspapers have astronomy sections. And around the world, people base their personal, financial and even medical decisions on the advice of astrologers.
Many teachers feel that it is below our dignity to discuss topics like these in our science courses.
In addition, astrology is only one of several pseudo-scientific beliefs whose acceptance by the media and the public has contributed to a disturbing lack of skepticism among young people (and apparently among presidents) in the United States. Many teachers feel that it is below our dignity to discuss topics like these in our science courses. Unfortunately, if we fail to encourage our children to have positive doubts and critical thoughts, we will be raising a generation that is willing to believe almost any statement, however unlikely, printed in the newspapers or reported on television.
Therefore, this issue of the Universe in the Class is about the information on how to discredit astrology and how to use students’ interest in such “science fiction” to help them stimulate their critical thoughts and illustrate the use of the scientific method.
Some Questions about Astrology to ponder
* For those who read the astrology sections in newspapers or magazines, it is good to first ask how feasible it is that 1/12 of the world’s people (more than 400 million for each sign of the zodiac) have a similar day. This question makes us see why the predictions of the astrology sections are always so vague that they can be applied to situations in the lives of almost everyone.
* Why is the time of birth, instead of conception, the critical time to calculate a horoscope? To answer this, it is useful to know that when astrology was established thousands of years ago, the moment of birth was considered magical. But now we understand that birth is the culmination of almost nine months of a complex and intricately orchestrated development within the womb. Many aspects of the child’s personality develop long before birth.
The reason why astrologers still adopt the moment of birth has very little to do with astrological “theory.” Simply, almost everyone knows what the moment of their birth is; but it is difficult (and sometimes even embarrassing) to find out the moment of conception.
* “True” astrologers say that the influence of all the major stars in the solar system must be taken into account to predict a successful horoscope. They also insist that the reason we should believe in astrology is because it has given us predictions or profiles of precise personalities for many centuries.
But anyone who knows the history of astronomy can tell you that the most distant known planets (Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto) were not discovered until 1781, 1846 and 1930, respectively. So why not all horoscopes made before 1930 were incorrect, since at least one planet was missing in its inventory of important influences? Also, why didn’t the problems or inaccuracies of ancient horoscopes lead astrologers to “feel” the presence of these planets long before astronomers discovered them?
* All the long-range forces we know in the universe weaken with distance (gravity is an excellent example). However, for astrology there is no difference if Mars is on the same side of the Sun as we are (and therefore relatively close) or completely on the other side; Its astrological influence is the same. If some influence of the planets and stars really did not depend on how far the source of the influence is, this would result in a complete revolution in our understanding of nature. Any suggestions in this regard should be viewed with extreme skepticism.
Also, if astrological influences do not depend on distance, why don’t we have to consider the influences of other stars, and even galaxies, when making a horoscope? What inadequate horoscopes we are receiving if the influence of Sirius and the Andromeda galaxy is omitted! (Of course, as there are billions of stars in our galaxy and billions of other galaxies, no astrologer can hope to finish a horoscope that will take all these influences into account.)
* Even after thousands of years of study and perfecting their art, different astrology schools still vehemently disagree on how to predict a horoscope and, above all, on how to interpret it. Your horoscope can be made and interpreted by different astrologers on the same day and the predictions, interpretations or suggestions can be completely different. If astrology were a science, as astrologers say, we would expect that after so many years, similar experiments or calculations would give us the same results.
What is the mechanism?
But even if we put aside those negative thoughts about astrology, we still have to ask an important question. Why should the positions of celestial objects at the time of our birth affect our characters, our lives or our destinies? What force, influence or type of energy travels from planets and stars to all human beings and affects our development or destiny?
One can see how the perspective of the astrological world may have been attractive when astrology emerged thousands of years ago. In those days, humanity was terrified of the forces of nature that are often unpredictable and desperately sought regularities, signs, and portents of the heavens that could have helped guide their lives. Those were times of magic and superstition, when it was thought that the heavens were the domain of the gods or spirits, whose whims had to be understood by humans — or at least have some warning — if they were to survive.
But now, when our spacecraft have traveled to the planets and explored them in some detail, our perspective of the universe is very different. We know that planets are other worlds and stars are other suns — incredibly remote and piously indifferent physical bodies towards the daily lives of creatures on our little planet. No amount of scientific-sounding jargon or computerized astrologer calculations can disguise this central astrology problem — and we cannot find any evidence of a mechanism by which celestial objects can influence us in such a specific and personal way.
Let’s see an analogy. Imagine that someone proposes that the positions of all jumbo jet airplanes in the world at the time a baby is born will have a significant effect on that child’s personality or on his future life. In addition, for a sum of money, someone with a large computer offers to make an elaborate map showing the positions of the aircraft at the correct time and interpret this complex pattern to help you understand their influence on your life.
No matter how “scientific” or complex this map turns out, any reasonably skeptical person would probably ask this person quite a few questions about why the positions of all these planes should have some connection with personalities or with the events that determine lives. human. (Students might like to invent other similar “sciences” and make an elaborate set of rules for those “sciences.”)
In the real world, it is very simple to calculate planetary influences in a newborn. The only known force that acts at interplanetary distances significantly is gravity. So, we can compare the influence of a neighboring planet like Mars with other influences on the baby. It turns out that the obstetrician’s gravitational attraction is considerably greater than that of Mars. (And the hospital building has an even greater attraction than the doctor’s; unless the baby is located exactly in the geometric center of the hospital.) For classes that want to do these calculations, you can find the formulas and some examples in the Culver and Ianna’s book cited in The Materials Corner.
Putting Astrology to the Test
Some astrologers maintain that there might be an unknown force that represents astrological influence. Suppose we benefit you with our doubt and that there is something that connects us with the heavens, even if we don’t know what it is. If so, astrological predictions — like those of any other field of science — should be easily checked. Taking a simple example, if astrology predicts that Virgo and Aries are incompatible signs, seeing thousands of records of marriages and divorces, we should see more divorced Virgos-Aries couples and fewer of them married than we would expect at random.
Astrologers always say they are too busy to carry out the careful tests of their effectiveness, so in the last two decades, scientists and statisticians have generously made such checks for them. There have been dozens of carefully designed tests around the world, and astrology has failed them all. (See the Materials Corner for more information on these tests and the Activities Corner for some experiments you can do with your students.)
For example, psychologist Bernard Silverman of Michigan State University saw records of 2978 marriages and 478 divorces in 1967 and 1968 to see if “compatible” astrological signs were more likely to come together and stay together. He found that there was no correlation — compatible and incompatible signs got married and divorced just as often. In another test, staff members of the US Geological Survey office analyzed 240 earthquake predictions by 27 astrologers and found that they were less accurate than they would be by simply guessing. And so, it has happened with each of the tests.
In addition, astronomers Roger Culver and Philip Ianna followed the specific predictions of astrologers and well-known astrological organizations for a period of five years. Of the more than 3000 specific predictions in their sampling (including many about politics, movie stars and other famous people) only 10% passed the test.
Maybe we should let those signs of light in the sky arouse the interest of our students in the real universe beyond our planet
If reading the stars has led astrologers to make incorrect predictions nine times out of ten, they seem to be very unreliable as guides to the uncertainties of life or the affairs of our country. Maybe we should let those signs of light in the sky arouse the interest of our students in the real (and fascinating) universe beyond our planet, and not allow them to stick to an ancient fantasy bequeathed from the times when we gathered around from the campfire, fearful of the night.
One of the best ways to get students to think about how valid astrology is to have them prove the validity of astrological predictions. Here are some practical activities to start; You and your students could suggest other tests or projects (let us know if you invent some good ones).
For many of these tests, it is useful to collect a large sample of data for statistical purposes. In some schools, where one class does not have enough students or time to gather all the necessary data, other classes and family members can participate in the study.
1. Same Day, Different Horoscopes
If your town has a good newspaper stand and if it reaches the class budget, have students buy as many newspapers and magazines as possible that have astrology sections. Have your students compare the predictions and statements of different astrologers for the same sign. How many agree? How many contradict each other?
2. Scrambled Horoscopes
Cut the 12 horoscopes of a newspaper (preferably those that the students probably have not seen) and after making a master copy for yourself, cut the dates and zodiac signs of each paragraph. Stir them, assign a number to each one and the next day distribute the paragraphs without dates or signs to each of your students. Ask students about their birth dates and ask them to select the paragraph that best describes the day they spent yesterday.
After collecting all the papers, scramble and return them so that each student gets someone else’s paper. Then put on the board the dates that the astrologers specified for each paragraph and have the students count how many agreed and how many did not. How many successes do students predict that happen at random?
3. Professions and Astrology
Even the astrologers who disdain newspaper horoscopes (because they only take into account the position of the Sun and not that of other stars) often say that the position of the Sun is related to the choice of a person’s profession. Many astrology books specify which signs are the most likely to choose a particular profession. For example, those of Leo are more likely to enter politics and those of Virgo, in science. Once students see some astrology books and find such “hypotheses,” they can start testing them.
One test could be for students to send a survey to people in the profession they chose, asking them for their birthday. (Make sure students explain why they want this information; discuss how they should address these people and tell them to include an envelope with a postage stamp and return address.) Another way to gather data — at least from well-known people — is looking in directories of important people, such as Who is Who in American Politics, and correlating birthdays and professions. It is important to gather enough examples so that statistical deviations begin to get lost in the average of your sampling.
Large-scale tests such as these have revealed that there is no correlation between signs and professions; The members of a given profession are fairly well distributed among all the signs of the zodiac.