Astrology has a long and interesting history. To say that it began with the ancient Greeks would be traditional, but also inaccurate, seeing that they learnt it from venerable civilizations who were ancient even back then. This fact alone adds to the length and interest, and a far more research-intensive blog post would go into the intricate developments that took place over the last half a dozen millennia. Alas, this is a post about the intricate present state of astrology, and different approaches towards it.
Astrology has a long and interesting present. Not only is it informed by its history, but also by the very modern trends and forces that so ruthlessly inform everything around us. Newspapers make sure to include horoscopes in tiny secluded corners, knowing its inclusion will cause readers to stick around. Publishers make sure to keep at least one astrologer around to write books on the subject, whose sales numbers are as predictable as you would expect. In every profitable nook and cranny of contemporary life, astrology finds a niche. It would be downright strange if it did not, given capitalism.
Those wanting to take a scientific approach to this phenomenon have to come to terms with what it is. That is what scientists do – they come to terms. They also define and analyze. Which is a statement so close to a tautology that you would think it’d go without saying. However, over the course of the next three paragraphs, I am going to show you that it does not. Buckle up.
When the words ‘science’ and ‘astrology’ are used in proximity to each other, it is usually in the context of sceptics wanting to debunk the latter in favor of the former. A common theme is to bring up the predictive powers of astrology, or rather the lack of it. The movements of the celestial bodies do not, it is said, affect the outcomes of happenings relevant in the lives of individual people, and can thus not be used to predict anything at all. There is no causation to be found, and those correlations that can be found are in fact the kind of statistical random noise expected given a sufficiently large data sample. Thus, it does not matter how rigorously an astrological method (there is more than one) is applied; given the lack of causal mechanism, any prediction made is by definition unscientific. Thus having proved the unscientific nature of astrology, sceptics consider themselves finished and the topic exhausted. Nothing more to see here, move along.
This is a rather narrow view of scientific inquiry, though. Merely showing that a method is scientific or not does not exhaust the scientific method. Indeed, we already alluded to another use of this method in the very first sentence of this post: the long and interesting history. Scholars and historians can apply rigorous methodology in their efforts to establish a timeline, and in establishing a systematic understanding of the contemporary uses of astrology during different historical periods. To be sure, one of the key facts of history is that we can not go back into it and perform experiments. It is, however, possible to science the living daylight out of the remains and fragments that have survived to this day. There is a history of astrology, and we can study it scientifically.
Moreover, there is a present of astrology. Social scientists can look at how it is used in contemporary everyday settings, and how it offers different affordances when applied in various ways. Someone saying that someone else is such a Sagittarius is not an ontological claim that because this person was born at a particular time, they are predestined to have certain personality traits. Rather, this statement efficiently mobilizes an implicit understanding of a particular kind of person, which allows the conversation to move forward with a shared mutual understanding of who’s who. Similarly, describing oneself as a Scorpio is not a resignation of agency in the face of the compelling deterministic power of the cosmos. Rather, it is a modest acceptance that the speaker is a particular kind of person, and thus when faced with a particular situation it had predictable outcomes – which again is an efficient communicative strategy to engender sympathy or formulate alternate courses of action for future situations of a similar nature. Social scientists, when allowed to listen in on these conversations, can apply the rigors of their trade to understand these social dynamics. The presence of astrology does not define the totality of the situation, but rather constitutes an important analytical aspect that can be leveraged to generate useful information and insight.
When I said that scientists come to term, and that this does not go without saying in the context of astrology, this is what I meant. When sceptics dismiss astrology as nonsense out of hand, they do not apply the scientific method they hold in such high esteem. Rather, they make a quick reference to a particular piece of dogma, and then move on without second thought. Which, to be sure, is an efficient way to mobilize a shared understanding of a situation so as to move a conversation along, but it is neither scientific nor methodological.
Sometimes, you have to choose whether you are scientific or sceptical. And that, dear reader, is a very anomalous state of things indeed.