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The Dayside : Engaging astrologers

By: Charles Day
22 May 2014

Physics Today's Science and the Media columnist, Steve Corneliussen, is an enthusiastic proponent of the engagement model of science communication. According to the model, scientists should listen respectfully to the public's possibly mistaken ideas and seek to reach a common understanding, however modest.

The opposite approach, known as the deficit model, seeks to dispel the public's misgivings and replace them with established scientific knowledge.

Whereas the deficit model might work for correcting folk wisdom—such as the idea that merely being cold will cause you to become infected with rhinovirus—it often fails when unscientific beliefs are held with conviction. Having one's knowledge deficit forcibly filled can feel like an ad hominem attack.

I keep the engagement model in mind whenever I encounter climate change skeptics. Knowing that I have little chance of altering—or even challenging—their beliefs, I set myself the more modest goal of persuading them that climate change is happening. Even if we can't agree on the cause, we can agree that mitigating climate change is costly and hard.

As for antievolutionists, my goal is also modest: to make a distinction between the origin of species, which evolution was devised to explain, and the origin of life, which happened before evolution began to operate. The absence of a successful explanation for how life began, I tell skeptics, is not a failure of evolutionary theory; it is a challenge to science.

Marcantonio Raimondi's 16th-century engraving shows two women of different star signs: Libra (left) and Scorpio (right). CREDIT: Saint Louis Art Museum

Marcantonio Raimondi's 16th-century engraving shows two women of different star signs: Libra (left) and Scorpio (right). CREDIT: Saint Louis Art Museum

But as a former astronomer, I struggle to apply the engagement model when it comes to astrology. Climate change skeptics can argue that computer models, given the climate's multiscale complexity, have shortcomings. Evolution skeptics can point to gaps in the fossil record. What is plausible about astrology?

Astrology supposes that one's character is predetermined by the positions of the Sun, the Moon, and the planets with respect to Earth at the hour of one's birth. Geocentrism is excusable for a theory based on the influence of heavenly bodies on Earth's inhabitants. The importance of time of birth, however, is bizarre.

An astrologer might concede that the influence of the planets changes slowly along with their positions. Birth, he or she might say, is when those influences culminate. But why should they abruptly switch off after birth?

And what to make of premature births? Winston Churchill was born on 30 November 1874, when the Sun was in the constellation Sagittarius. According to, Churchill and his fellow Sagittarians are

truth-seekers, and the best way for them to do this is to hit the road, talk to others and get some answers. Knowledge is key to these folks, since it fuels their broad-minded approach to life. The Sagittarian-born are keenly interested in philosophy and religion, and they find that these disciplines aid their internal quest.

But Churchill was born two months premature. If his birth had occurred a month later, he would have been a Capricorn, whom characterizes as

more than happy to put in a full day at the office, realizing that it will likely take a lot of those days to get to the top. That's no problem, since Capricorns are both ambitious and determined: they will get there. Life is one big project for these folks, and they adapt to this by adopting a businesslike approach to most everything they do.

And if Churchill had been born after a full, 40-week gestation, he would have been an Aquarius.

These folks are humanitarian, philanthropic and keenly interested in making the world a better place. Along those lines, they'd like to make the world work better, which is why they focus much of their energy on our social institutions and how they work (or don't work).

But despite my disdain for astrology, I do not denounce its adherents whenever I encounter them. Having met a few, I think their belief springs from a desire to have some kind of shortcut to getting to know people. Labeling a new acquaintance as a Leo (who are "impossible to miss, since they love being center-stage") is easier and faster than taking the time to assess his or her individual character. I suspect the need for quick categorization also lies behind the popularity of the Myers–Briggs Type Indicator among human resources professionals and management gurus.

Astrology is mostly consumed in the form of light-hearted horoscopes. US Vogue's astrologer made this recent prediction for Libras: "You blaze with enthusiasm regarding your relationships. You are on fire with hopeful optimism and expansive vision." Does astrology matter? Not really—except perhaps in how scientists treat people who believe in it.

Europeans are less skeptical of climate change than Americans are, but they are more skeptical of genetically modified organisms. Trans-Atlantic cultural differences aside, I suspect the differing skepticisms arose from how scientists on the two continents engaged—or didn't engage—the public.

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