True lies: Is astrology a science?

By H Y Sharada Prasad

There would be quite a few people in the country who would welcome the decision of the University Grants Commission to introduce BSc and MSc courses in astrology in a number of universities. It is unthinkable that the idea would have been taken up if there had not been a powerful patron in the set-up now ruling the land. On the other hand, there would be many who would be outraged by the very thought of giving astrology the status of a science in our day and age. Some amongst them might not have minded it if the subject was taught in a special institution outside the university system. In between the fervent supporters and the sceptics would be the bulk of the people who would not be ready to dismiss astrology as downright hocus-pocus. How can they when they religiously look up the “What the stars foretell” columns in newspapers and magazines and consult astrologers when arranging marriages in their families? It is a rare Indian who does not possess a horoscope. Even such a confirmed agnostic as Jawaharlal Nehru had counselled his daughter, when she gave birth to her first child, to be sure to get a reliable janmapatri drawn up.

The traditional mind has always believed that human beings are mere playthings in the hands of the unknown. To them astrology provides a glimmer of what the future holds. The placid are not too worried what the future has in store for them but the more adventurous cannot afford to be so unconcerned. The investor who risks his capital, the politician who fights an election, the general who leads army to battle, all want to know whether they are going to succeed or fail.

So would the lover who is waiting for a final word from the beloved and the candidate who is awaiting the result of a competitive examination. All of them turn to the astrologer to part the veil for them. They do not ask whether astrology is a science; they are content to accept it as a mystery.

They are impressed by the fact that the astrologer can reel off so much about them by a mere look at their horoscope. How does he do it? That is what enables the astrologer to say that what he practises is not mumbo-jumbo but a science.

Science in our times is a synonym for truth. It establishes its credentials through laying itself open to challenge. “Disprove me if you can; if you cannot, then accept me,” — that is what science says. But it is not as though all scientists base their beliefs on reason and incontrovertible proof. Many are ready to make compromises and live in half-way houses. I remember an incident involving a distinguished physicist from Bangalore in the Thirties.

He was held in high regard and was eminent enough to have acted as the director of the Indian Institute of Science on a couple of occasions. He was also a very orthodox gentleman. While he went to his work clad in three-piece woollen or silk suits and a lace turban, once home, he wore a dhoti and caste marks and a gold-embroidered shawl.

That is the garb in which he turned up at religious discourses. He was an ardent participant in doctrinal debates. Once he was asked how he could explain the anomaly that despite being a scientist he offered tarpan at the time of solar and lunar eclipses to prevent the sun and the moon from being swallowed up by Ketu and Rahu. He replied that in his place of work he believed in Newton but in his personal life and at home he followed our ancient sages. It only goes to show that not all scientists are scientific all the time.

I recall another worthy, also from the south. He too was a great believer in the sanctity of the horoscope. When his son’s wife was with child, the gentleman went into a huddle with a famous astrologer and arrived at the most favourable moment for the grandchild’s birth and so arranged with the hospital that the baby was delivered at the precise minute employing the Caesarean method.

Quite an ingenious way of combining old knowledge and new obstetric skills. But it failed to work, for I am sorry to report that the child who had been programmed to live long and achieve uninterrupted happiness died an early and tragic death.

For every such instance of predictive failure, the champions of astrology would be able to reel off a dozen cases where the stars had been correctly read and the future brilliantly foretold. But there are many genuine believers who find it difficult to accept the notion that a person’s entire future is mapped out at birth and that his life inexorably follows what has been ordained by the stars.

Is there no scope then for divine mercy, and no role for human will? Are prayer and personal effort wholly pointless? If fate is unalterable, what would be the point of following the numerous propitiatory rites and daans that the priests prescribe?

The spread of electricity, it has been said, dealt the death-knell to ghosts. Similarly the old astrology, which was based on an earth-centred planetary system, began to fall apart with the discoveries of Copernicus and Kepler that the earth and the planets rotated around the sun. In the magisterial words of the 1975 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica: “Newtonian physics” eradicated a belief in astrology among the educated.

The practice of the now pseudoscience continued among non-intellectuals in the West, gradually losing contact with its rich tradition and becoming more and more fraudulent, though in countries such as India, where only a small intellectual elite has been trained in Western physics, it manages to retain here and there its position among the sciences. Regardless of its validity, some Indian universities offer advanced courses in astrology.

The reference to Western physics is somewhat intriguing, just as the notion that what is pseudoscience in the West is regarded as science in India is invidious. But more surprising is the assertion that even in 1975 some Indian universities had been conducting advanced courses in astrology. Does it mean that Murli Manohar Joshi is to be denied credit for being innovative?

The chairman of the UGC has not taken the public into confidence about the consultations, if any, that the Commission had held with the academic community before announcing the decision to introduce BSc and MSc courses in astrology. Has the scientific community conceded that astrology is a science? Practising astrologers will probably welcome the decision, for it will mean secure jobs for many of them at the now attractive UGC scales.

But I have a feeling that many astrologers would want the profession to retain some of its mystery which it will lose if it begins to be taught in colleges. Another danger in the move is overproduction. After all how many degree-holding astrologers would our society need, when we have so many amateur astrologers, palmists and assorted soothsayers, especially among our civil servants?

A society which uses the processes and products of modern technology more widely is not necessarily more rational than an “underdeveloped” community. Americans are about as superstitious as their benighted Indian brethren.

You have only to go to any American hotel and look for the thirteenth floor. American journals are as full of astrological columns as ours here. You get to hear many stories about how President Reagan would not make any move without consulting his astrologer.

It is said that when the American Association for the Advancement of Science suggested that every astrological feature in the Press or on television should carry the caution that it should not be taken as infallible, similar to the one that is required to be carried with cigarette advertisements, the Reagan Administration turned down the proposal.

Vedic astrology in Indian universities?

``Star-gazing and astrology, forecasting lucky or unlucky events by signs, prognosticating good or evil, all these are things forbidden.'' - Gautama the Buddha

``You will find that astrology and all these mystical things are generally signs of a weak mind; therefore as soon as they are becoming prominent in our minds, we should see a physician, take good food and rest.'' - Swami Vivekananda

WHILE DELIVERING the Albert Einstein Memorial Lecture in New Delhi recently, eminent British physicist, Prof. Stephen Hawking, surprised everyone when he took some time out from `black holes' and `superstrings' to debunk astrology. ``The reason most scientists don't believe in astrology is that it is not consistent with our theories which have been tested by experiment,'' he said.

We are not sure if Prof. Hawking had an inkling of the disconcerting news that the University Grants Commission (UGC) had decided to start departments of Vedic astrology (Jyotir Vigyan) in Indian universities from the forthcoming academic year. In any case, he deserves to be commended for his effort. The attitude of top scientists and intellectuals towards astrology is often one of detached disgust and they refuse to do battle with the quaint notions of a bygone age. This is a mistake because lay people, including educated people, who read and listen to pro-astrology propaganda day in and day out and seldom get to `hear the other side,' are likely to believe that maybe there is something to astrology. To paraphrase Edmund Burke: ``It is necessary only for knowledgeable men to do nothing for nonsense to triumph.''

At a time when India should be giving a special thrust to study and research in information technology, biotechnology and other frontier areas, the UGC has taken a giant leap backwards by advocating the `fiction science' of astrology. This, in a country where one of the fundamental duties of citizens as per the Constitution is `to develop scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of reform'. It is just a question of time before other fringe beliefs and superstitions - palmistry, dowsing, witchcraft, ghostbusting, channelling, psychic phenomena, to name only a few - launch a campaign to get themselves taught as `science' in our schools and colleges and, in due course, crowd out genuine science!

Scientific arguments

So what is wrong with astrology? Why does the scientific mainstream treat it with derision? I would like to reproduce the scientific arguments against astrology for the benefit of the wise men of the UGC.

Lack of consensus: Astrology, with its apparatus of fascinating symbols, mysterious charts and abstruse calculations, is based on the principle that a person's character and destiny can be understood from the positions of the Sun, the Moon and the planets at the moment of birth, using a chart called the `horoscope'. Horoscopes have been developed not only for individuals, but also for nations, companies, political parties, sports teams and even domestic pets! There are a number of schools of astrology, most of them disagreeing on some of the fundamental tenets of their craft, and all of them supported only by anecdotal evidence of the most unreliable kind. Even after thousands of years of gathering data and refining their study, astrologers are nowhere near arriving at a consensus. Just read the astrology columns of ten different newspapers and magazines or have your horoscope prepared by ten different astrologers and you will most likely get ten different interpretations!

Geocentric model: It is shocking to say the least, but astrologers haven't caught on to the fact that the Earth is not at the centre of the universe! They still ply their trade based on the pre- Copernican, geocentric model of the universe! As Prof. Hawking stressed in his lecture: ``When it was discovered that the Earth was not the centre of the universe, astrology became impossible.''

Missing planets: When astrology was first invented, only 5 planets were known besides the Earth - Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn - and these were visible to the naked eye. Uranus, Neptune and Pluto were discovered with the aid of telescopes in 1781, 1846 and 1930 respectively. Surely all the horoscopes done before 1930 should have been incorrect since the astrologers before that time were missing out on the influence of at least one planet in their calculations. Even today, only some of the astrologers use the three outer planets, others don't. Why didn't the inaccuracies in early horoscopes lead astrologers to deduce the presence of Uranus, Neptune and Pluto long before astronomers discovered them? According to `noted' astrologer, Linda Goodman, a planet doesn't have any influence until it is discovered!

We know that there are thousands of asteroids, hundreds of comets and dozens of satellites in our solar system, but astrologers do not factor these into their calculations! Recently astronomers have discovered more than 50 extra-solar planets. We also know that there are billions of stars in our Milky Way galaxy and there are billions of other galaxies, besides strange objects such as pulsars, quasars and black holes. No astrologer could ever hope to finish a horoscope that took the influences of all these celestial bodies into consideration!

Imaginary planets: Our homegrown Vedic astrology has the distinction of incorporating two imaginary planets Rahu and Ketu into the astrological charts. Initially, Rahu and Ketu were supposed to be two heavenly serpents that tried to swallow the Sun and the Moon on certain dates causing the eclipses. Later, astrologers `refined' the concept by stating that Rahu and Ketu were `dark planets' invisible to us but influencing our actions and our destiny! Can a system based on such wrong assumptions be accurate? Yet thousands of people regulate their activities - travel, marriage, religious functions among others - according to Rahu Kala and Gulika Kala. Need for precession: Astronomers have long known of a phenomenon called `precession of equinoxes,' by which the axis of the Earth rotates on itself, taking about 25,000 years to complete one rotation. The assignment of certain dates to certain signs of the zodiac (e.g. Aries from March 21 to April 19) was made about 2000 years ago and remains unchanged ever since. During these 2000 years, the axis of the Earth has rotated by about 30 degrees. This means that the correspondences between the 12 signs of the zodiac and their assigned dates are not correct any longer: there is a difference of almost one complete zodiac sign. So if you were born between March 21 and April 19, you are not really an Aries, but a Pisces. Even today, only a few astrologers take `precession' into account; most of them continue to cast horoscopes and make predictions for the wrong signs! Moment of conception or moment of birth? Biology teaches us that a person's personality traits and physical characteristics are determined by one's genetic endowment inherited from both parents at the moment of conception - not the moment of birth - and that these can be modified by environmental influences which take place after birth. This has a solid foundation both in theory and experiment. But if astrologers are to be believed, personality traits and physical characteristics are correlated with one's horoscope, which uses only the moment of birth as datum. Isn't it time we discarded the astrological horoscope and switched over to making a `genetic horoscope' of a child at the time of its birth and started matching the genetic horoscopes of the bride and bridegroom before marriage?

The issue of `moment of birth' poses several problems. How does one precisely determine the time of birth, when birth is not an instantaneous process? What did astrologers do before the invention of clocks and other accurate time measuring devices? Which time should astrologers use - the local time or the Standard time? Shouldn't astrologers make allowances for light- time relativity - as astronomers do - while locating the celestial bodies? We know that light travels at a finite velocity of about 3 lakh kilometres per second. The position of the Sun as we see it is actually its position about eight minutes ago since light takes that much time to travel from the Sun to the Earth. Similarly, there is a time difference of six minutes between the real and apparent positions of Venus. This principle is applicable in varying degrees to the other planets and all the stars of the zodiacal constellations, making the astrological charts out of date by anything from a few minutes to millions of years! Testing predictions

Even if we give astrologers the benefit of doubt and accept that astrological influences fall outside the domain of our current understanding of the universe, we are entitled to ask the purely empirical question: ``Does astrology work?'' The answer is ``No''. Many carefully conducted statistical tests of astrological predictions have shown that there are no astrological influences on personality traits and physical characteristics, and that astrologers really can't predict anything at better than chance rates! Let us consider a few well- known studies:

- Astrologers commonly claim that a couple's `compatibility' is determined largely by their Sun signs. Bernard Silverman looked at the records of 2,978 married couples and 478 divorced couples. If Sun signs have influence on marriage or divorce, then pairs with incompatible Sun signs should be overrepresented among divorced couples and underrepresented among married couples. But the study showed that this was not the case.

- John McGervey examined the birthdays of 16,634 scientists in American Men of Science and 6,475 entries in Who's Who in American Politics and found no basis for the assertion that occupations tend to predominate under certain Sun signs. That is, members of these two occupations were no more or less likely to be born under one Sun sign than another.

- Roger Culver and Philip Ianna have done detailed statistical studies of 60 occupations, 35 physical characteristics, 42 medical disorders and 26 personality traits and found that they are not influenced by Sun signs. The same researchers tracked the published predictions of well-known astrologers and astrological magazines for five years and found that out of 3,011 specific predictions, only 338 came to pass - a success rate of only 11 per cent.

Astrologers' way out of the collapsing superstructure of their `science' is the age-old refrain: ``the stars only impel, they do not compel.'' In other words, cosmic influences can be overridden by one's free will. If astrology were really a science, any physical law developed from empirical results should hold up at all times, and not just when astrologers deem it convenient!

The psychological basis

In spite of all its logical, theoretical and empirical shortcomings, how does astrology continue to fascinate the general public, many of whom scrupulously regulate their daily activities based on astrological forecasts? Francesco Guicciardini (1483-1540), a papal advisor, observed very correctly: ``How happy are the astrologers if they tell one truth to a hundred lies, while other people lose all credibility if they tell one lie to a hundred truths.'' The psychological underpinnings of astrology are not difficult to seek. In these uncertain times, most of us long for the comfort of having guidance in making decisions. The astrologer is always at our service with his advice - for a fee, of course. It gives a heady feeling to be told that our personal character and destiny are tied up with the stars! It is also convenient to blame our failures on cosmic events that are beyond our control! As William Shakespeare states in King Lear in his inimitable style: ``This is the excellent foppery of the world, that when we are sick in fortune - often the surfeits of our own behaviour - we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon and stars; as if we were villains on necessity; fools by heavenly compulsion; knaves, thieves and traitors by spherical predominance; drunkards, liars and adulterers by an enforced obedience of planetary influence; and all that we are evil in by a divine thrusting on - an admirable evasion of whoremaster man to lay his goatish disposition on the charge of a star!''

Need for concerted action

In 1975, 186 leading scientists of the world including 19 Nobel Prize winners (S. Chandrashekar, Sir Francis Crick, Sir Peter Medawar, Paul Samuelson, Linus Pauling among others) published an open letter in The Humanist magazine outlining their objections to astrology. They stated: ``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 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.''

I would suggest that Indian scientists and intellectuals must make a similar public statement explaining why astrology is bunk and highlight the dangers inherent in the UGC conferring an aura of respectability upon it by making it an academic discipline. The legal option must also be explored. The UGC which is funded by taxpayers' money and lacks sufficient funds even to provide for regular academic disciplines, cannot disregard international and national mainstream scientific opinion and squander public money by financing the study of a pseudoscience.


Referred by:Benjamin Paul
Published on: April 10, 2001
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