Astrologers struggling with reclassification of Pluto


One of the consequences of the demotion of Pluto from planet to dwarf planet is being felt by astrologers, who now have to decide what role the body plays in the lives of mere humans.

I remember reading an article many years ago wherein the writer asked several astrologers what impact the discovery of a new planet would have on their craft and whether it would render earlier predictions incorrect.

Some argued that horoscopes developed before all nine planets (as there were then) were discovered were inaccurate. As astronomers discover more planets, the predictions of astrologers become more accurate. This position at least strikes me as defensible once you get over the proposition that a hunk of icy rock orbiting at the edge of the known solar system has any influence whatsoever on whether you feel cranky today.

The position I found more baffling was the one that claimed that those old horoscopes were still good, because only after they are discovered do planets begin to influence the lives of humans. Why would a hunk of rock behave differently depending on whether we know it exists or not?

Or maybe their point is that astrology is all about how humans perceive the planets and not the other way around.

Comments (44)
  1. Darryl says:

    I guess Pluto was just too Mickey Mouse to be a real planet…

  2. Oroscope says:

    > Or maybe their point is that astrology is all about how humans perceive the planets and not the other way around.

    The real point is that astrology influences the life only of people knowing and believing in it, like most self-satisfying profecies.

  3. Karellen says:

    “Why would a hunk of rock behave differently depending on whether we know it exists or not?”

    Noooo! Don’t ask that question – the astrologers will claim some it’s some kind of quantum effect, and that only once the object has been observed does it actually exist.

    The irrational types really have got disturbingly good at using scientific terms in an incorrect, but plausible-sounding and confusing (or is that confused?) way to try to hide the fact that they’re just making stuff up. They’ll pounce on an observer-related question like that in an instant.

    As i recall, the homeopathy lot have also been quite good at sprinkling the word “quantum” alongside “vital force”, “vibration”, “vital energy” and other meaningless or undefined terms in their explanation of how dilutions without a single molecule of solute have a “memory” and can still have an effect. Even though this effect cannot be measured in well conducted double-blind trials.

    No doubt astrologers could be just as superficially convincing if actually asked the question.

    [De-cursified and re-posted. -Raymond]
  4. Anthony Wieser says:

    > The position I found more baffling was the …only after they are discovered do planets begin to influence the lives of humans. Why would a hunk of rock behave differently depending on whether we know it exists or not?

    It’s not the hunk of rock that changes behaviour Raymond, it’s people.

    Three examples of other things that knowing of their existence changes our behaviour:

    1. Death
    2. Taxes

    3. Your blog.

    Keep up the good work.

  5. AndyJ says:

    It could be linked to quantum physics and so they only have an effect once they are observed!

  6. Karellen says:

    Argh! I knew someone was going to use the quantum-observer analogy! Stop it!

    (Curses at the curse-filter that sent ny psychic quantum-observer preemptive post to /dev/null)

  7. AndyJ says:

    hehe, well I couldn’t resist since it no one else had said it and it’s just so damn obvious.

  8. I was a professional astrologer for a couple years, supplementing my income during college.

    There’s a lot of garbage going around about why astrology "works", ranging from divine intervention to gravitation and passing through tinfoil hats somewhere along the line.

    The only thing that makes sense, however, is that things run in cycles. Similar things happen all the time. There is a periodicity to all sorts of human behavior.

    Some of that periodicity happens to match the orbits of planets. When a new planet is discovered, astrologers hunt around for some human behavioral cycle that matches the periodicity of the planet.

    It’s all a question of 20/20 hindsight. Whether Pluto is a planet doesn’t matter; it’s theorised that its periodicity matches certain human behavior patterns (largely unconfirmed, since it’s only been half a century, and it takes two or three before we get a good handle on a planet), and as long as that bears out, astrologers will still consider it a planet.

  9. smadin says:

    Tangentially to the post proper, but related to Karellen’s comment, Ars Technica had a good article on homeopathy today: http://arstechnica.com/articles/culture/the-pseudoscience-behind-homeopathy.ars

  10. Mikkin says:

    "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,

    But in ourselves, that we are underlings."

  11. Karellen says:

    Raymond : "[De-cursified and re-posted. -Raymond]"

    Wow! I totally wasn’t expecting that, and exasperation at the "curses filter" was not intended as a request or anything.

    I do appreciate it though.

    Caliban : "The only thing that makes sense, however, is that things run in cycles."

    You mean, apart from them being vague cold-readings that are forgotten when they don’t come true?

    Meh. Title should read "Astrologers struggling with science, logic, rational thought."

  12. Ben Cooke says:

    The effect that these large hunks of rock have on my life is that people around me think they affect their own lives, and I have to deal with whatever results from that.

    Fortunately, most people I surround myself with either shun astrology altogether or just think of it as an amusing distraction.

  13. Curt says:

    I have to wonder how astrology’s accuracy differed back when we thought the Sun and the other planets all revolved around our planet…

    /shiver

  14. mikeb says:

    I wonder if I can get an Astrology degree from Kennedy-Western (http://blogs.msdn.com/oldnewthing/archive/2004/11/17/258850.aspx)?

    Maybe then I’d be able to answer some of these questions.

  15. Lachlan says:

    Wow, who could be so stupid to believe that anything hundreds of thousands of miles from the Earth could affect us. Ha, I’m in the wrong magnitude! How absurd that anything tens of millions of miles away could have any influence.

    I don’t believe in astrology because there is no scientific evidence; as practiced for profit, it’s been disproven…but I don’t understand discarding any possibility because you dislike the people advocating it.

    We don’t fully understand the impact the sun and moon have upon us and they’re far easier to measure. I suspect humanity will eventually find that rocks of ice in space affect us far more than you or I could imagine today. Butterflies and hurricanes and such.

  16. Pluto: Schroedinger’s Dog?

  17. futile says:

    "Why would a hunk of rock behave differently depending on whether we know it exists or not?"

    Because the world ended at the year 2000, in steps perfectly timed to the local time zones. No one ever set foot on the moon, and our world is flat.

  18. Anony Moose says:

    Yes, rocks in space making astrology work are exactly like butterflys and hurricanes.

    Specifically, butterflys do not cause hurricanes, just as the location of th e planet formerly known as pluto is irrelevant to your chances of meeting a tall dark and handsome stranger, or the necessity of carefully considering financial matters. Your inability to comprehend the difference between "analogy not intended as an accurate depiction of reality" and "science" is interesting.

  19. someone says:

    well .. I heard some Indian astrologers saying that Pluto was never considered a planet since forever in their calculations.

  20. KB says:

    "Why would a hunk of rock behave differently depending on whether we know it exists or not?"

    Um… Raymond?

    Are you criticizing astrologers for being illogical?

    This is pretty silly.

    Related:

    Check Google Video for UK Channel 4’s 2-part series "Enemies of Reason" (~45 minutes each, commercial-free).

    It’s Dawkins exploring superstition and new age mysticism (part 1), and homeopathy (part 2).  If you’re at all bothered by the question of how apparently reasonable people can subscribe to such unreasonable viewpoints, then you’ll probably get a lot out of those shows.

  21. Astro Logger says:

    I don’t know how everybody can be so cynical. It’s *VERY* important!

    :smirk:

  22. steveg says:

    Ah… astrology… if Mythbusters won’t cover it, then it’s not real :-)

  23. I blogged about this idea back when it was reclassified, I’m really not surprised that people are starting to question it :)

    http://spyder.wordpress.com/2006/08/31/astrology-vs-science-on-pluto/

  24. Worf says:

    Well, it also doesn’t help planet eaters like Unicron (explanation – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unicron ) as this comic shows – http://www.lilformers.com/comic0009.php

    (Heh, a chance to make a Transformers reference in a technical blog!)

  25. Toukarin says:

    KB> I don’t think Raymond meant to criticize astrologers for being illogical. As Caliban Darklock mentioned above:

    "When a new planet is discovered, astrologers hunt around for some human behavioral cycle that matches the periodicity of the planet."

    Like Raymond, I seriously don’t believe in some rock in outer space playing a part in influencing my behaviour (much less explaining it). Astrologers just happen to believe in the opposite.

  26. Kuwanger says:

    Personally, I’m more worried when they discover Rupert.

  27. Anti USA says:

    You have to look at the cause, not the effect.

    This reclassification was NOT based on scientific reasons. It was based on political reasons. That’s why it feels unlogical and awkward from a technical standpoint.

  28. AndyB says:

    Is Astrology "so much mystical charlatanism"? I refuse to believe this until I am presented with accurate scientific evidence proving it! Until then, your claim is just so much unproven theorising on your part ;)

    Show me a scientist who refuses to believe in Astrology because it has no proven explanation how it could work, and I’ll ask him to explain how gravity works.

  29. arun.philip says:

    If no one looks at the moon, is it really there?

  30. KB says:

    Maybe Astrology works.  Maybe the Tooth Fairy exists.

    Those hypotheses just happen to have precisely the same amount of sound supporting evidence.

    Absolute positivism is boring, but if you move far away from it you quickly descend into a superstitious fantasy world, without any firm anchor between idea and reality.

  31. ace says:

    My other favourite site has a superb explanation why it was needed to declassify Pluto as the "planet"

    http://www.astrophysicsspectator.com/news/2006/News20060824.html

    and also a brilliant commentary:

    http://www.astrophysicsspectator.com/commentary/2006/Commentary20060906.html

  32. Karellen says:

    Heh. And for anyone who doesn’t understand AndyB or KB’s posts, you might like to check the following:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russell‘s_teapot

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Invisible_Pink_Unicorn

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Argument_from_ignorance

  33. richard says:

    Unless I have missed something, the general consensus seems to be that people have free will and are non-deterministic in their behaviour. However, if people do not have free will (only the illusion of free will) and are indeed deterministic, then astrology (and any other method of divination) is really nothing more than mapping from one domain to another (think of converting a graph into a tree).

    Even if the universe is non-deterministic because of non-deterministic quantum behaviour (such as matter spontaneously coming into being), the validity of astrology would depend on (1) the frequency and effect of such non-deterministic occurrences and (2) the quality of the mapping from planetary motion to personal behaviour.

    Of course, if free will is true, then astrology (and other forms of divination) would be false (unless you want to posit the possibility, like St Thomas Aquinas, that knowing someone is going to do something does not cause the person to do it).

  34. Karellen says:

    Lachian, what makes you think that people who consider astrology a bunch of superstitious irrational bunkum do so because they dislike astrologers?

    I think you have cause and effect backwards there.

    Maybe it is *because* astrology is merely so much mystical charlatanism completely lacking in evidence, that those who prefer reason to supernatural arm-waving tend to lack respect for those who don’t?

  35. Brother Laz says:

    I find it interesting that it is considered ‘common sense’ that astrology does not work, whereas theoretical physicists come up with superstrings and 26 dimensions and miniature black holes and very little of this has ever been proven.

    Take a look at the wikipedia page on ‘proton decay’. Many exciting diagrams, theories, but the article says that there is no actual proof for proton decay and in fact all experiments set up to detect proton decay according to the theories have failed to find any proof. Yet, some Grand Unified Theories apparently ‘require’ proton decay.

    So, are those GUTs anything more than unfounded superstitions wrapped in matrices and square roots? Aren’t theories that require assumptions that have been disproven consequently false?

    Yet for all this esoteric dreaming, we still don’t know what 90% of the universe is made of. Quite the triumph of science over superstition.

  36. richard says:

    Karellen: In a deterministic universe, the validity of astrology isn’t an issue, only the mapping is.

    Brother Laz: I often wonder if, in 500 years, quantum physics + cosmology will be regarded as a quaint notion along with astrology.

  37. Karellen says:

    Surely the validity of astrology would mostly depend on whether it produces accurate (i.e. valid) predictions!

    If astrology can’t be shown to produce accurate predictions, *which it never has*, then it’s just a load of sesquipedalian hot air.

    Whether we have free will or not, or how a mapping might be explained /if/ astrology were shown to work, has no bearing on astrology if it *doesn’t* actually work to begin with.

  38. Karellen says:

    Laz > OK, if you can come up with another mathematically sound theory, that accounts for all the measurements that have so far been taken *at least as well as the current one*, but doesn’t postulate proton decay, then I’m pretty sure the scientific community would be interested in hearing about it.

    Alternatively, given that the theory postulates that the half-life of protons will 10^37 years, but the most accurate experiments so far have merely confirmed that if it does happen it is not less than 10^35 years, then if you can design a reproducible experiment 100 times more sensitive that shows that the half-life is either greater than 10^37 years, or that protons do not decay, then I’m sure that the scientific community will have a /really/ close look at their theory and figure out where they’ve gone wrong.

    In the meantime, the theories they have provide predictions that can be tested. Further, no prediction that can be tested with current techniques has been shown to be false.

    Many scientific theories in the past have predicted things that have not been measurable at the time. Some of them, such as the shape of the cosmic microwave background spectrum, or quite a few predictions from general relativity, turned out to be true. Some of them, not so. In those cases, the theories are later revised to account for the new data, discarded altogether when another theory does better, or relegated to a "useful rule of thumb" under well defined circumstances (e.g. Newton’s laws of motion)

    So, to answer one of your questions, yes, theories based on assumptions that later turn out to be false *are* false. That’s the point. That’s how science *works*.

    As to the other, science is working on what the universe is made of. Give the scientists time, they’ll get there. The importance of science is not any individual result, it’s how they get there that’s important, and the scientific method has proven better at unravelling the secrets of the universe than any other.

    Alternatively, given that you seem to think that superstition is doing a better job of explaining what the universe is made of, what does *it* say about the 90% of the universe that science is currently unable to account for? What’s your take on what it’s made of? Care to make any predictions? If so, when science does come up with its answer (which I’m fairly sure will be both very different and a lot more detailed than anything superstition does) then we’ll compare what superstition and science say with what’s been observed and see who’s closest. How about it?

    richard > could you expand on why the validity of astrology isn’t an issue in a deterministic universe? I’m not sure I follow you.

    And I consider it reasonably likely that in 500 years time QM and a fair amount of current cosmology will be obsolete. Like Newtonian mechanics, we’ll probably make some measurements eventually that will invalidate part of it.

    But QM and current cosmology are still the best theories we have *right now* to explain all the observations we’ve made of the universe *right now*. Just because they may not turn out to be ultimately correct in cases we’ve not dreamed up yet does not mean that astrology or other mystical arm-waving that has already turned out to have no validity are better – they’re just a worse brand of wrong.

    I am somewhat amused by the following thought. In 500 years time the scientific community may well have moved on from QM to have replaced it with something better. However, I’m sure the kind of people who currently believe in astrology, or dowsing, or homeopathy, or young earth creationism, will embrace it and refuse to let it go because of its (then) long-standing and traditionalism, despite evidence to the contrary.

  39. richard says:

    Karellen: My assertion that astrology is true in a fully deterministic universe assumes that people have no free (nor do any other beings or entities). In this case, every action and event (actually, there are no actions, only events) are the result of the original space-time perturbation that led to the formation of the universe (big bang). Of course, if the universe originated as the result of the intersection of 2 or more multidimensional universes then all bets are off – since I haven’t thought that through.

    The flapping of a butterfly’s wings in Indonesia which resulted in the hurricane which caused me to stay indoors and read Dawkin’s Selfish Gene was in fact the consequence of earlier events, each of which lead to the formation of the planets, their relative positions, etc. Of course, this also applies to reading entrails or tea leaves, since their placement and organization is not random but rather a consequence eof all that went before it. So, whether we study the placement of the planets or the arrangement of tea leaves, since everything is a consequence of the original impetus of the universe, a mapping from one set of events must exist to another set of events.

    Love your closing paragraph.

    BryanK: so, does this mean that absence of proof of “ether” is not the proof of the absence of “ether” (or phlogiston, for that matter)?

  40. BryanK says:

    > Aren’t theories that require assumptions that have been disproven consequently false?

    Yes.

    However, as you said, "there is no actual proof for proton decay and in fact all experiments set up to detect proton decay according to the theories have failed to find any proof".  Absence of proof is not proof of absence: the "assumption" (as you call it) of proton decay is *not* disproven just because we haven’t seen it happen yet.

  41. Martin says:

    I don’t understand why Astrologers suddenly have a problem with Pluto just because Astronomers have decided it isn’t a planet anymore. They can’t be very serious Astrologers if they are put off by that. Either Pluto has an influence or it doesn’t. Back in the days when I was seriously interested in this stuff, I read a book where the Astrologer was waiting for the discovery of a tenth planet further out than Pluto, which she referred to as Pan-Horus (I think that was the name. I don’t have the book anymore). The implication was that there should actually be 12 planets in the solar system corresponding to the 12 zodiac signs. So it seemed to me that at least some Astrologers were reckoning with what should be and not necessarily only with what was already known. Interesting comments from everyone else though.

  42. Karellen says:

    richard > OK, it’s an interesting way of looking at things. In a deterministic universe, if you know the current state of the universe and all the laws that govern it, you should be able to work backwards and forwards from that point to describe any other point in space or time.

    There are a number of questions that arise from that, but I think one of the most pressing is "How much of the current state of the universe do we need to figure out the rest of time & space?"

    Clearly, knowing the position and momentum of every single particle in the universe would suffice, but we can’t know that.

    Also clearly, I think I can safely say that knowing the position and momentum (subject to Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle[0]) of only a single atom is *in*sufficient to do any meaningful extrapolation. Without knowing anything about its last collision (for which you need to know about another atom), there’s no way of telling where it came from further back than that.

    So, how much data is enough?

    Well, given that human behaviour and interaction is highly interconnected and chaotic (in the mathematical sense), I think it’s reasonable to assume that to get any meaningful predictions at all out of astrology/tea leaf reading/etc…, you’d need at least as much data as the Met office uses to crunch weather patterns, and at least as much computing power to do those calculations.

    Do any astrologers have that much data? No. They measure a few thousand variables at absolute most. Do they do much crunching on the data they have? Almost none at all.

    So, I think it’s safe to say that even in a completely deterministic universe, astrology *cannot* be correct, no matter what mapping it uses, because the amount of data it claims to need is not nearly enough to put into *any* mapping that is sufficiently complex to say anything about human interaction. By many, many, many orders of magnitude.

    Oh, and the Michelson-Morley experiment[1] is evidence of absence of the Aether. That was done 120 years ago. There have been other, more accurate experiments since.

    [0] Even if Heisenberg’s UP turns out to be wrong, we /currently/ have no way of making more precise measurements, so it can be taken as a reasonable limit for now.

    [1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michelson-Morley_experiment

  43. Igor says:

    What if you take a photo of a starry sky at the exact moment and place of someone’s birth and do an inverse FFT upon it? Will you get the photo of the newborn? :)

  44. AndyB says:

    Kerallen, you forgot to include Eric Roger’s demon theory (from Physics for the Inquiring Mind) in your list of links. Here’s a snippet:

    http://blog.case.edu/singham/2005/05/26/why_scientific_theories_are_more_than_explanations

    Still, the fact remains that astrology can be a good representation of cyclical behaviour in much the same way as economists have models that explain business cycles. They may not be perfectly accurate, but you wouldn’t expect them to be given the large and complex environment they work on. The fact that people make tons of money on sch things does suggest they aren’t just guesswork. Astrology, after removing its charlatans, entertainers and dark handsome strangers, can similarly represent various cyclical trends with the same level of accuracy.

    cheers.

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