Environmental Ethics
and Public Policy
Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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"The Other Profession




"More than one-third of American adults believe astrology has some scientific merit. Nearly one in seven regularly reads horoscope columns." (Los Angeles TIMES, May 10, 1992).


Except possibly for the persisting public preference for "creationism" over evolution, nothing more clearly indicates the dismal failure of science education in the United States than the public acceptance of Astrology.

Never mind, that this ancient superstition is devoid of any theoretical structure and routinely fails all controlled attempts at validation. To wit:

  • It is never explained just what independently identifiable universal forces, laws or principles should link the positions of the stars and planets at the time and date of one's birth, with one's subsequent personality or the events in one's life -- much less, how this linkage takes place. As one skeptic has pointed out, the tidal force of Jupiter is less than that of a truck driving past the hospital delivery room. So why should Jupiter's position at birth be of any significance whatever?

  • Astrologers triumphantly report their "hits"  (first formulated in vague and ambiguous language), but never their "misses." For an annual New Year's amusement, try saving the "psychics' predictions for the next year," as published in the supermarket tabloids, then read them a year later. The best years yield about a two-percent success-rate. (I entertained my classes with this stunt throughout most of my teaching career).

  • Numerous experiments inviting astrologers to correctly associate birth dates and times with individuals have failed to come up with "matches" far removed from statistical random chance. (I have conducted many such experiments in my own classes, with the same results).

  • Astrology developed in ancient civilizations (Egypt and Babylon) amidst astronomical beliefs (e.g., geocentrism) which are universally rejected today. Yet astrology, with all its foundational cosmology stripped away, is still believed.

  • (And this is my personal favorite): Even if, however incredibly, there were something to astrology at the time it was formulated some four-thousand years ago, it would be invalid today, since, due to the precession ("wobbling") of the Earth's axis, the apparent positions of the zodiacal constellations are quite different than they were when astrological principles were first proclaimed.


And that is just the beginning. A large book could be written, collecting such objections and reporting the abundant empirical refutation of this ancient superstition. In fact, many have. (To find some of these, check out the website of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal: www.csicop.org).

And yet, a third of our compatriots "believe that astrology has some scientific merit."

Well, so what?!

For starters, a public capable of believing astrology (and disbelieving evolution) is capable of believing anything. If you doubt this, just consider the state of our our political discourse. And if you think that public credulity is harmless, tell that to the McMartin family in Long Beach and to other victims of the thankfully subsiding witch-hunt for "child-abusers" accused by "victims" of "repressed memories." It is a chilling thought that one day we might be judged by a jury of such "peers."

Perhaps the most disagreeable aspect of the popular belief in astrology and other public superstitions (e.g. the Bermuda Triangle, Water Dowsing, Atlantis, Noah's Ark, Alien Abductions, Rosswell, etc. ad nauseum) is that this kookery is promoted on the public airwaves by individuals who should (and in all probability do) know better. What they surely know is how to count "market share," and that is all that matters. The ensuing corruption of the public intellect is an "externality" of no interest to them.

Cases in point: "The History Channel," "The Discovery Channel" and "A&E." These cable channels, which claim to be "educational outlets" have instead become marketplaces of the occult -- television equivalents of The National Enquirer. We normally stay clear of this nonsense, unless drawn now and then by a morbid curiosity about just what is being fed the public these days. Usually, what we find is much worse than we feared. In one series, "In Search Of," we are greeted by the smooth Vulcan voice of Leonard Nimoy. ("Gee, Maude, there must be something to it: that's Mr. Spock and he's the Science Officer of the Enterprise!).  In a recently viewed half-hour episode on astrology, we heard perhaps two minutes of debunking by a professor of astronomy.  The rest consisted of a promotion of the superstition, featuring extended interviews with the likes of Sidney Omarr.

But don't look for "equal time" on commercial TV from the scientists or the skeptics, except on an occasional episode of PBS's excellent "Nova" series. Yet there are learned and eloquent individuals in abundance, ready to present the case for reason and "intellectual sales-resistance" -- individuals such as James Randi and Steven Jay Gould, and organizations such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP).

Unfortunately, so long as the public, encouraged by the media, prefers astonishment to enlightenment, and entertainment to education, there is little prospect for improvement. "The Mushroom Rule" prevails: "Keep 'em in the dark, and feed 'em bullshit."

That splendid Scottish skeptic, David Hume, said it best:

The passion of surprise and wonder, arising from miracles, being an agreeable emotion, gives a sensible tendency towards the belief of those events from which it is derived. And this goes so far, that even those who cannot enjoy this pleasure immediately, nor can believe those miraculous events, of which they are informed, yet love to partake of the satisfaction at secondhand or by rebound, and place a pride and a delight in exciting the admiration of others.

"On Miracles," Section X of the Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding


Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org).  Dr. Partridge can be contacted at: gadfly@igc.org .