Objections to Astrology
A Statement by 186 Leading Scientists
(The following statement first appeared in The Humanist of September/October 1975.)
Scientists in a variety of fields have become concerned about the increased acceptance of astrology in many parts of the world. We, the undersigned - astronomers, astrophysicists, and scientists in other fields - wish to caution the public against the unquestioning acceptance of the predictions and advice given privately and publicly by astrologers. Those who wish to believe in astrology should realize that there is no scientific foundation for its tenets.
In ancient times people believed in the predictions and advice of astrologers because astrology was part and parcel of their magical world view. They looked upon celestial objects as abodes or omens of the gods and, thus, intimately connected with events here on earth; they had no concept of the vast distances from the earth to the planets and stars. Now that these distances can and have been calculated, we can see how infinitesimally small are the gravitational and other effects produced by the distant planets and the far more distant stars. It is simply a mistake to imagine that the forces exerted by stars and planets at the moment of birth can in any way shape our futures. Neither is it true that the position of distant heavenly bodies make certain days or periods more favorable to particular kinds of action, or that the sign under which one was born determines one's compatibility or incompatibility with other people.
Why do people believe in astrology? In these uncertain times many long for the comfort of having guidance in making decisions. They would like to believe in a destiny predetermined by astral forces beyond their control. However, we must all face the world, and we must realize that our futures lie in ourselves, and not in the stars.
One would imagine, in this day of widespread enlightenment and education, that it would be unnecessary to debunk beliefs based on magic and superstition. Yet, acceptance of astrology pervades modern society. We are especially disturbed by the continued uncritical dissemination of astrological charts, forecasts, and horoscopes by the media and by otherwise reputable newspapers, magazines, and book publishers. This can only contribute to the growth of irrationalism and obscurantism. We believe that the time has come to challenge directly, and forcefully, the pretentious claims of astrological charlatans.
It should be apparent that those individuals who continue to have faith in astrology do so in spite of the fact that there is no verified scientific basis for their beliefs, and indeed that there is strong evidence to the contrary.
(Affiliations, as of 1975, given for identification only.)
Bart J. Bok, emeritus
Professor of Astronomy
University of Arizona
Lawrence E. Jerome
Santa Clara, California
Professor of Philosophy
SUNY at Buffalo
Signed by 183 others, including 18 Nobel Prizewinners
|Response from Astronomer, Carl Sagan (1934-1996), who was invited to sign the statement:
"In the middle 1970s an astronomer I admire put together a modest manifesto called 'Objections to Astrology' and asked me to endorse it. I struggled with his wording, and in the end found myself unable to sign, not because I thought astrology has any validity whatever, but because I felt (and still feel) that the tone of the statement was authoritarian. It criticized astrology for having origins shrouded in superstition. But this is true as well for religion, chemistry, medicine and astronomy, to mention only four. The issue is not what faltering and rudimentary knowledge astrology came from, but what is its present validity. Then there was speculation on the psychological motivations of those who believe in astrology. These motivations - for example, the feeling of powerlessness in a complex, troublesome and unpredictable world - might explain why astrology is not generally given the sceptical scrutiny it deserves, but is quite peripheral to whether it works.
The statement stressed that we can think of no mechanism by which astrology could work. This is certainly a relevant point but by itself it's unconvincing. No mechanism was known for continental drift (now subsumed in plate tectonics) when it was proposed by Alfred Wegener in the first quarter of the twentieth century to explain a range of puzzling data in geology and palaeontology. (Ore-bearing veins of rocks and fossils seemed to run continuously from eastern South America to West Africa; were the two continents once touching and the Atlantic Ocean new to our planet?) The notion was roundly dismissed by all the great geophysicists, who were certain that continents were fixed, not floating on anything, and therefore unable to 'drift'. Instead, the key twentieth-century idea in geophysics turns out to be plate tectonics; we now understand that continental plates do indeed float and 'drift' (or better, are carried by a kind of conveyor belt driven by the great heat engine of the Earth's interior), and all those great geophysicists were simply wrong. Objections to pseudoscience on the grounds of unavailable mechanism can be mistaken - although if the contentions violate well-established laws of physics, such objections of course carry great weight."
~ Carl Sagan, "Objections to Astrology" (letter to the editor), The Humanist, vol.36, no 1 (January/February 1976) p.2 reprinted in The Demon-Haunted World pp.302-303 (1995)
Response from Paul Feyerabend (1924 - 1994), Professor of Philosophy at University of California, Berkeley
"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.1
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 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 the 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 gthe 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 scholarship!
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 the scientists. They neither know the subject they attack, astrology, nor those parts of their own science that they undermine their attack. ...
We see: the judgement of the '186 leading scientists' rests on the antedeluvian anthropology, on ignorance of more recent results in their own fields (astronomy, biology, and the connection between the two) as well as failure to percieve the implications of the result 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."
1. 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.
From Philosophy of Science and the Occult (1982) edited by Patrick Grim, Suny Press. pp.19-23 The Strange Case of Astrology quoted from Science in a Free Society (1978) Paul Feyerabend, published by NLB, London