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Ancient astrology won’t make your horoscope more accurate

It’s 2018 and Quartz wants us to entertain the notion that astrology might be real, we’re just doing it wrong. Writer Ida C. Benedetto claims that the ancient practice of astrology was based on rigorous data providing insight on real-world events, but modern psychology turned it into a reductive, woo-woo construct that focuses on our personalities and internal life. If we turn back to ancient wisdom, she argues, there are still “lost insights” to be found.

Though the article is full of fascinating history, “modern psychology” did not ruin astrology by making it mushy, and the ancient knowledge is still not useful for predictive purposes. As an example of psychology’s negative influence, Benedetto blames esotericist Alan Leo for popularizing “sun signs,” which were not part of the ancient practice. (Please note here that Benedetto herself says Leo is an esotericist. An esotericist is a mystic, not a psychologist. How she got to psychology from here is… a little bewildering.)

She also blames Carl Jung, who is a psychologist. His crime was believing that astrology is all in the mind and doesn’t reveal a causal relationship between the stars and events on Earth. This interpretation does differ from the original purpose of astrology, in that it more closely approaches being correct. The usefulness of astrology is more likely to be as a psychological phenomenon, rather than as empirical facts.

It is primarily marketers and mystics that have repackaged astrology, not “modern psychology.” Similarly, plenty of companies sell DNA wellness programs that wildly overgeneralize the results of very real genetic science. It’s not “modern science” ruining the name of genomics research. It’s people trying to make a buck.

Genomics research, of course, is real. Good science uses data to run experiments that can be replicated, and uses statistical methods to establish causality instead of mere correlation. In contrast, there’s little evidence that there’s anything real about the predictive power of ancient data (based on recently translated texts) that Benedetto suggests as an alternative to sun signs. This supposedly superior ancient astrology is based on “careful records of astronomical phenomenon” and “centuries of observations.” Perhaps Hellenistic astrology, she writes, can tell us the causal relationship between the planets and “worldly matters like money, love, and career.”

Rigorous astronomical records are impressive, in their own way. They are useful for telling us what the sky was like long ago, and they can lead to interesting insights. For example, astronomers used ancient eclipse data to study the Earth’s rotation, but it is impossible to “describe a causal relationship” using observational data. You can only describe a correlational relationship using observational data. Scientists have long used correlational data as a starting point to bring us insights and predictions. (For instance, the Moon and the tides are connected.) But astrology isn’t about predicting seasons; it’s about predicting money, love, and career. The supposed “causal relationship” has never been validated, no matter what set of observations you use.

This type of appeal to ancient wisdom is extremely common in New Age beliefs, yoga, and alternative medicine. All of them are based on the ludicrous fallacy that something is more likely to be true because someone in the past believed it. People in the past discovered the fundamentals of math, yes, but they also believed that drilling a hole in your head would cure epilepsy. It is reasonable that people hundreds of years ago believed in things we deem fanciful today, considering they lacked centuries of scientific progress and technology. It’s not reasonable that today, when centuries of progress contradict those ancient beliefs, we still regard them as scientifically credible.

Benedetto is correct that astrology is having a boom right now, and the Times is on it. Modern astrology has its place; it’s amusing, at times artful, and well-written and thought-provoking. Frankly, I prefer the modern incarnation of astrology — the one that focuses on psychology — to the ancient version, for the same reason I enjoy tarot. Neither is validated by science, and so neither can be considered “real.” Although they can’t provide real answers, both can guide the mind and provide suggestions of what to think about a service that doesn’t need to be “real.” Sometimes, it’s okay to be fake.


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