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Wednesday, August 01, 2018

Is Astrology Science Or Superstition?

Excerpted from ‘TWISTING FACTS TO SUIT THEORIES’ AND OTHER SELECTIONS FROM VOXINDICA. (2016). Authors Press New Delhi. pp. 434-439

On the eve of the May 2014 general elections, several Telugu news channels conducted what they call ‘panel discussions’ on astrology. It would be a mistake to expect ‘panel discussions’ on television to be objective in which the two sides of the issues under discussion are debated and rational conclusions arrived at. There is nothing rational or scientific about the debates. The subjects are selected based on their topicality to arouse viewer interest and are subject to two limitations: the channel’s political worldview and the political correctness of the subject. Commercial interests of course, determine a channel’s political worldview. As for political correctness, it depends on whether there would be a backlash. Even the most intrepid champions of freedom of speech tread cautiously in the face of a suspected backlash. If they are sure there would be no backlash, they would go overboard flogging the issue. There is no need to state the converse.

In the discussions on astrology, a couple of ‘not very articulate’ astrologers were pitted against rabble rousing rationalists and asked to predict the outcome of the elections. Despite protestations that Jyothisha predictions should not be made without sufficient data they were made to predict electoral outcomes, only to be jeered at. The anchors saw to it that the odd articulate astrologer did not get enough air time. He was simply shouted down in cacophony.

The overt objection of the rationalists to astrology is that it is unscientific. If the objections were really ‘scientific’, they should have objected to such disciplines as craniometry (measurement of the head), phrenology (measurement of the skull) and nasal indices as predictors of race not to speak of the wholly unscientific Aryan Invasion Theory (AIT)—which was based not on historical or archaeological evidence but on comparative philology!

Their unstated, underlying objection could be that it is a Hindu discipline! The rationalists, with their pathological rather than logical hatred for everything Hindu forget that the original Jyothisha Vedänga concerned itself with astronomy, not astrology. The primary objective of this Vedic addendum (of the Rig and Yajur Vedas) was in the preparation of almanacs. The Indian almanac writers known as Siddhantis have been producing accurate almanacs for hundreds of years. The predictive discipline of astrology was a latter-day offshoot, just as psephology was an offshoot of political science which itself can hardly be described as science. The question that the faux rationalists should seriously introspect is, ‘Why do they unquestioningly believe in psephology while they equally irrationally disbelieve in astrology?’

What logical arguments do the rationalists offer in support of their contention that astrology is unscientific? Do they offer cogent reasoning and verifiable proofs? No, just an arrogant and unsubstantiated assertion that it is ‘impossible’! In the history of science, there are many examples which disprove the theory of ‘impossibility’ when subsequent discoveries upturned confident assertions. For example, in 1800, the English scientist, John Dalton proposed that the atom was the smallest particle of elements and was indestructible.

Eysenck and Nias list several ‘impossibility’ theories which fell flat when subsequent discoveries disproved them.[1] In 1933 Albert Einstein and Ernest Rutherford two of the world’s greatest physicists declared that the splitting of an atom could have no practical uses. Just twelve years later America dropped its bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Many countries in the world today harness the energy released by the splitting of an atom for peaceful uses.

Galileo, Kepler and Copernicus, all dismissed the theory that oceanic tides were caused by the moon as ‘astrological nonsense’. Johannes Muller, a very reputed nineteenth century physiologist and the author of an authoritative monograph on the subject, declared that measuring the speed of a nervous impulse would never be possible. Only three years later Helmholtz had measured it quite accurately.

What is science and what are the criteria that should be satisfied for a discipline to be declared scientific? Eysenck and Nias suggest three methodologies. Sir Francis Bacon’s induction method involves collection of facts and a theory hypothesized based on them. The Vienna School of Logical positivism suggests that a theory is proposed which is then verified or disproved by research. Then there is Sir Karl Popper’s argument that no theory can be finally verified as, even after a theory is verified umpteen times, one more experiment might still disprove it. The catch in this proposition is that Popper believes that ‘a theory is scientific if it is open, not to being proved true (which it never can) but to being proved wrong’. The authors argue that none of these methodologies were ever applied to astrology before disqualifying it as science.

A generally accepted criterion for a scientific theory is that its results should be replicable, i.e. it should yield predictable results and that the same results should be obtained in repeated experiments. Let us consider the example of modern medicine to validate this theory. Medical magazines regularly publish clinical trial reports of medical, surgical, radiological or other procedures used in the treatment of diseases. The reports very rarely report 100% cure rates with several trials reporting as low as 60-70% success rates. This means the results of curative procedures used in modern medicine are not always replicable. In spite of this anomaly, none disputes that modern medicine is a scientific discipline. ‘Statistical significance’ (rather than absolute conformity) is an accepted criterion for validation of results in ‘double blind cross over’ clinical trials used to study the efficacy of medicines. A majority of rationalists appear to be unaware of such nuances in scientific criteria.

While Eysenck and Nias do not explicitly say that astrology is a scientific discipline, they do not dismiss it as superstition either. They argue that more data is needed to come to a definite conclusion and more research. They cite the work of Michel and Francoise Gauquelin to support their view. Eysenck and Nias describe the Gauquelins as ‘a rare combination, possessing both a detailed knowledge of astrology and a genuine scientific outlook based on a formal academic training.’ The Gauquelins were not astrologers but professional psychologists steeped in the ways of research. Their work in cosmobiology found a positive correlation between certain personality traits (which determine professional success) and planetary positions at the time of birth. Here is a brief account of the work of the Gauquelins that may be instructive:

The Gauquelins began their work by analyzing 576 members of the French Academy of Medicine, ‘who had achieved academic distinction by virtue of their research’. They found that the doctors were all born when Mars or Saturn had just risen or just passed midheaven. In order to validate the theory, the Gauquelins tried to replicate their experiment with another group of 508 doctors with similar antecedents. The replication conformed to the original observation.

Encouraged and intrigued by the results they extended the research to include other professionals in Belgium, Germany, Holland and Italy and reviewed 25,000 birth dates. When they contrasted 5,100 successful artists with 3,647 successful scientists they found quite interestingly that while the scientists were born when Saturn has just risen or was past midheaven, the artists tended to avoid being born under the planet.

Similarly when they reviewed the birth charts of 3,438 military leaders, in 680 cases (against 590 sufficient for statistical significance) they found that Mars considered the symbol of the god of war had risen or was past midheaven.

In order to confirm the results the researchers studied control groups selected from the general population and concluded that the planetary positions as mentioned occurred only for the births of the famous and distinguished. The results seem to indicate that these planets are ‘related to destiny, success and good fortune’.

A corollary to the observations already made was the predictability of certain character traits found in business leaders and successful sportspersons. It was found that those with birth times associated with Mars were seen to have greater determination and iron will. A study that reviewed the birth charts of 2,089 sportspersons, 1,409 actors and 3,647 scientists could predict personality factors like ‘extravert’, ‘introvert’, ‘unstable’ and ‘tough-minded’.

The researchers made quite a few other interesting observations in their studies. It is not possible to include them all here for want of space. However one point deserves mention. Invariably the results the researches obtained conformed to naturally occurring births and not artificially induced ones. This means that human hand cannot design destiny. It has to be ordained by the Gods!

Eysenck and Nias conclude that “the time has come to state quite unequivocally that a new science is in process of being born.”

It may be apt to remember what Bertrand Russel said on ‘the value of scepticism’: “When the experts are agreed, the opposite opinion cannot be held to be certain.”



[1] Eysenck, H. J., and Nias, D.K.B. (1984). Astrology Science or Superstition? Penguin Books. New York.


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