As I return from a long blogging break, I thought I’d briefly turn away from creationism and instead discuss astrology. I was inspired by Phil Plait’s exasperated response to a recent Time essay:
I can’t believe that right now, more than 10 percent of the way into the 21st century, I have to write these words, but here we are: Astrology doesn’t work. It really is that simple. I need not go into detail here; I’ve already said what I have to say showing exactly why astrology is wrong; astrologers fail to show there’s any evidence that astrology works even when the tests were devised by astrologers themselves! Astrology has no predictive power, no physical cause to believe it has predictive power, and is entirely explained by psychological effects like confirmation bias and the Forer effect. [Emphasis in original – PK]
Plait is hung up on the fact that astrology has no predictive power and is unscientific. But this fixation blinds him to the possibility that astrology can be useful even if it isn’t scientifically true. To explain, I’ll have to get a bit personal.
Hindus believe in astrology. Really, they do. It’s such a commonplace fact that there’s even a Wikipedia page titled ‘Hindu Astrology.’ Religious Hindus so strongly believe in it that they won’t buy a house or a car before consulting an astrologer. I know about Hindus and astrology not from the Internet, but because most people in my family are religious Hindus. And yes, many of them believe in astrology.
And yet, despite this alleged handicap, my grandmother was second in her state in a national physics exam. I count three college instructors, a database programmer, a PhD in meteorology, an MBA from Wharton, and an MD among my aunts and uncles. My father ran a very successful family practice clinic for decades. My mother is board certified in both child and adult psychiatry.
Long-time readers probably already see some parallels to my previous writing. Let me flesh them out. There are three main lessons here. First, even Plait has no choice but to acknowledge that astrology does no “direct damage.” He’s left suggesting an indirect harm: astrology “erodes our ability to separate what’s real and what isn’t.” But–ironic in an essay that stresses astrology’s empirical shortcomings–he provides no evidence for that claim. Like the Time essay he criticizes, Plait shows “no hint of skepticism, no actual investigating.” As I’ve said before, that claim must be proven with data. Plait provides none whatsoever.
Second, we see yet again that skills may be more important than scientific thinking. In the abstract Plait could argue that people who believe in astrology can’t think critically. But in practice, that belief does not prevent them from learning how to solve differential equations, evaluate a balance sheet, index a database table, or conduct a differential diagnosis. It turns out that believing astrology or creationism doesn’t prevent you from acquiring the skills needed to be a productive member of society.
Finally, Plait neglects the benefits that some people might derive from believing in astrology. His angry assertion that ‘astrology doesn’t work’ is profoundly imprecise. Works for what? Astrology may not predict planetary motion. But it’s a supreme fallacy to think those are the questions people care about. People can find astrology meaningful and important for other reasons.
Like millions of first generation immigrants, my family’s first few years in America weren’t always easy. Hinduism and everything it entails provided my family with comfort and strength. Without it my mom probably would not have passed those medical exams and I probably would not be writing these sentences. Hindu astrology may not work to explain eclipses or launch a space shuttle. But it did help my mom pass her boards. It works just fine–for her.
But here is a question: is it Vedic astrology that they use?
If so, have to wonder about its more sinister effects. From what I remember, Vedic astrology overall can be very, VERY pessimistic.
If you can spare the time, I’d be really interested in reading your opinion on its possible demoralising effects on people. Because if they really do believe in it, then it must be demoralising more often than it is not.
Hey. Sorry…missed this comment and didn’t reply. I’m not sure precisely what kind of Hindu astrology my family used. It was more we went to a Hindu priest from time to time who did the analogue or reading our signs.
Thanks for the comment and apologies again.