Tempest in τ, ζ, σ, φ, λ, ε, δ, η and γ2 Sagittarii

Dara O’Briain and Brian Cox aggravated a great many astrologers when they announced on a UK television program that “astrology is rubbish” and “astrology is nonsense”. The Astrological Association of Great Britain was so incensed that they created a petition demanding that the BBC commit to “making a fair and balanced representation of astrology in the future” — which left me amusedly discombobulated that there is a formal Astrological Association of Great Britain, and that they don’t realize that tossing their whole goofy discipline in the rubbish heap is a fair and balanced representation.

Now we get a whole new level of foolishness, though: Martin Robbins has posted a criticism of the skeptics from a serious historian who doesn’t get it. She demands that we take astrology more seriously and respectfully, and explains that many astrologers are intelligent people who study astronomy (you know, the real science), and are fully aware of concepts like precession and the actual physical arrangements of the stars in the sky, and have quite sophisticated explanations to account for superficial discrepancies like the absence of Ophiuchus from the official list of zodiacal constellations, and that they are right to be annoyed when they are portrayed as unaware of obvious physical phenomena.

This is all true, but stupid.

I’ve had long conversations with Very Serious Astrologers; early in my skeptical career, I spent a fair amount of time engaging them, and I’m familiar with the diverse ways in which their brains work. They were generally engrossed with the behavior of those lights in the sky; if you wanted to know what constellation you could spot on the horizon in the western sky in August, you could ask an astronomer and get a good answer, or you could ask a dedicated astrologer and they’d tell you the same thing, and they were certainly far more reliable sources for that sort of information than I am. I’ve played with some of their software, and it is intricate and elaborate and uses genuine astronomical data that they gather from astronomical databases.

But so what? It’s still all rubbish. There’s more to science than mastering mechanics, there’s this little thing called “understanding” that is absolutely essential. A great piano tuner is not necessarily a good musician, and memorizing the periodic table of the elements does not turn you into a chemist. Imagine a conversation with your mother: “I’m sure your father can fix the electronic ignition system in your Honda, dear…why, he managed to drive from Owatonna to the Mall of America last week, and he only got lost once!” One thing does not have anything to do with the other. Knowing a bunch of solid facts about stars does not justify explanations about magical influences that are antagonistic to known processes and which are built, not on the trustworthy foundation of that data, but on unfounded beliefs in magical influences from distant objects.

This is especially true when that specialized scientific knowledge is used as part of the pseudo-scientific patter marshalled to justify their supernatural explanations. Science is window dressing to modern astrologers; they don’t get to fulminate indignantly by pointing at the astronomy element they’ve incorporated into their delusions when someone points out that their conclusions are all wrong and completely unwarranted. Those don’t matter. Their rationalizations are like ‘sophisticated theology’ — vapor and noise that they make flashier by throwing in a few modern scientific terms.

Rebekah Higgitt wants to claim that astrologers are justified “if they are presented as idiots who don’t understand precession and do nothing but write newspaper horoscopes that cover around a twelfth of the population in one go.” OK. Then we should present them as idiots who don’t have a mechanism for their claimed influences, ignore all the logical arguments and empirical evidence that shows astrology doesn’t work, and abuse astronomy to put up a phony façade of scienciness.

They’re still idiots.