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Jan 23 2011

Precession’d!

I can’t believe I missed these lulz as they were happening. Well, I can, as I was way too busy having an absolute blast hanging out with some of the most brilliant people I’ve ever met over the past week and a half, between Science Online and the drastically insufficient time Jodi and I spent with Ben and Stephanie Zvan. Anyway, I’m sure you won’t mind if I dogpile on this topic just a smidge later than everyone else has. And hell, I needed SOMETHING to write on the plane ride home — this is as good a topic to snicker derisively on the sidelines about as any, no?

The Bad Astronomer Phil Plait's favorite astrology image. One of my favorite images too, now that I have my hat in the astrology fight.

Recently, astrologers had their noses tweaked when a news reporter explained the precession of the equinoxes, and for some wholly unfathomable reason that phenomenon gained media traction enough to dominate quite a few news cycles. This isn’t exactly news, though — it’s a phenomenon known to astronomers for centuries now. As our corner of the cosmic ballet cycles on, our solar system is slowly shifting through our galaxy in such a way that the zodiacal signs assigned to people for being born between certain dates are no longer the same signs that one might see if they were to view the actual sunrise on a given day. The signs are, and have always been, merely a metric of what constellation the sun happened to “pass through” on that particular date. Generally, the only valuable data you can get from knowing someone’s sign, is what time of year they were born — and in days of yore, this might have been exceptionally useful, for instance knowing that certain times of year different levels of food availability or different climate difficulties, and thus certain “signs” were statistically more likely to survive through infancy. However, what times of year the sign is supposed to correspond with, change on a fairly regular schedule — about every thousand years, the equinoxes will have precessed one full sign.

The upshot of the now widely-known nature of that fact is that astrologers of all stripes are fielding questions from the public where said public has learned enough about reality to know to question some of the astrologers’ basic assumptions. What makes me laugh about all this is not that a skeptical position about horary (star sign) astrology is finally being adopted by people in general — though that is indeed something worth smiling about at least, in and of itself. No, rather, it’s that the response by astrologers to the “news” that they have been ignoring a basic fact about astrology for a very long time has been so knee-slappingly fractious. And if there’s one thing I love in this world, it’s when some dogmatic and officious faction of claimants to special knowledge about this universe, unevidenced though their claims might be, starts fighting amongst themselves over whose particular sect is the closest approximation to truth. When dealing with claims that involve evidence, such fights can usually be resolved fairly easily. One merely has to develop studies that test claims and see whose theory comes out the winner. When dogmas are on the line, it’s Thunderdome — two claimants enter, one claimant leaves — and, barring Mel Gibson involvement of course, those kinds of battle royales are always entertaining.

A number of astrologers have made the special pleading case that they’ve known about the precession of the equinoxes for a very long time, and have been taking this into account in forecasting people’s lives. This is of course easily dismissed as post-hoc rationalization, when one merely remembers that astrologers have claimed very long lineages for the thought process behind discovering the effect of belonging to a particular sign.How many claims to ancient wisdom have you suffered when someone, say, attempts to root their claims in Babylonian or Hellenic astrology?Or, alternately, they are now forecasting for any particular sign differently today than they did just a few short weeks ago. This is a tacit admission that they were wrong those few weeks ago, but don’t expect any of them to admit it.

And most amusingly of all, as a side-effect of the precession of the equinoxes, there’s a whole new sign for people born when the sun is in a previously unhoroscoped constellation: Ophiucus (warning: Huffington Post link, click with care). There’s hardly any real historical “body of knowledge” for astrologers to draw on in this case, so one might expect that they’re essentially starting with this sign from scratch, though one does not hear of astrologers’ newest study to determine the best way to forecast for these people. At least one news source reports uncritically that your personality traits as an Ophiucan “are in line with, well, your existing personality traits.” Seriously.

The usual suspects — those astrologers who believe their special way of building charts and interpreting star signs is paradoxically more subtle and more accurate than horary astrologers’ — will of course claim their special knowledge, while offering no evidence for their claims but for the statistically insignificant hits they managed to make using their method, coming nowhere near agreement with one another and simultaneously patting one another on the back for every rebuttal against skeptics like me, even if the comment undercuts their own dogmas. This will come as a surprise to none of you. And it entirely fits within the expected operating parameters of their dogmatic belief in their special flavour of fortune-telling.

Meanwhile, we’ll keep doing real science and discovering some incredible stuff about our universe; astrologers will go on with apologetics for either their flavour of, or all flavours of, astrology; astrology apologists will go on claiming persecution by skeptics; horary astrologers will go on churning out borderline Barnum statements to make a ton of money off newspapers… basically, nothing’s going to change.

Nothing except my mood. I love the smell of schadenfreude in the evening.

1 comment

  1. 1
    Rich Wilson

    Nothing ‘new’ about even Ophiucus of course. I recall hearing that there were originally 13 constellations during a show at the H R MacMillan Planetarium (now Space Center) in Vancouver in the late 70s.

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