2. Overview

2.1. The beliefs of astrology

Defining exactly what astrology is isn’t actually that simple, as there are many different kinds. For example, there are versions of it practiced in India and China, which use completely different systems of “star signs” from those used in the western world. ( That fact in itself is enough to indicate that the whole thing is a man-made fabrication! ) Even within each of these broad categories, there are numerous factions, which disagree on their beliefs; some say only the month of your birth matters, while others say the exact date and time are important; some say the place of your birth is also important, while others say it isn’t, and so on. But the most basic assumptions are always the same – that the positions of the Sun, Moon and planets in the sky at the time of a person’s birth somehow influence his or her personality, and that the changing positions of those objects throughout a person’s life somehow influence his or her “destiny” – the course of a person’s life being assumed to be somehow “predetermined”. “Somehow” is the operative word here, as most astrologers make no attempt to explain how it’s supposed to work!
Throughout this essay, I’ll stick to the kind of astrology with which we are unfortunately familiar in the western world, based on the “signs of the Zodiac”. I’ll explain what these “signs” actually mean in Section 5, but very simply, they are twelve equal 30-degree divisions of the Ecliptic, the Sun’s apparent annual path around the sky with respect to background stars. The date of a person’s birth determines their “star sign”, which is simply whichever “sign” the Sun is in on that date.
The simplest form of western astrology – the ludicrously over-simplified form peddled in the “horoscope” columns of newspapers – assumes that a person’s “star sign” is all that matters. Various aspects of your personality are supposedly determined by your “sign” alone, as are aspects of your life on any given day.
This is effectively saying that the entire human population can be divided into twelve groups, and that every person within each of those groups has more or less the same personality! And on any given day, every person in each group will have the same kind of good or bad luck, or will have to deal with the same issues. For example, on a given day, every person in the world whose “sign” is, say, Taurus, will be “lucky in love”, or will have to “worry about money matters”. I hardly need comment on the sheer absurdity of this idea!
The more “serious” practitioners of astrology – probably meaning those who have missed out on getting a lucrative contract to write a column for a newspaper! – claim that there is far more to it. They claim that the exact date and time of a person’s birth is important, rather than just their “sign”, and – according to some – also the place. These people perform personal “readings” for people – for a fee, naturally - much as so-called “clairvoyants” do, and use charts, called horoscopes, which “map” the positions of celestial bodies to imaginary “areas of influence”, or some such nonsense. ( This is the correct meaning of “horoscope”, rather than the “If you’re a Taurus, this will happen to you today” drivel printed in newspapers. Not that it makes any more sense! )
Astrologers also claim that people of various “star signs” are “compatible” with each other, while others are not. Some people take this seriously, and actually decide whom they want to date, and eventually whom to marry, on the basis of their “star sign”. Even more ridiculously, and outrageously, it isn’t unheard of for employers to choose whom to give jobs to, on the same basis!
( Surely such practices should be condemned as another form of bigotry or discrimination! How is refusing to employ someone, on the basis of their “star sign”, any different from doing so on the basis of their religion, or the colour of their skin? )
Needless to say, most of these people never even attempt to explain how or why the positions of celestial bodies are supposed to influence people’s lives! That’s because they don’t have a clue themselves! A few of them have come up with very silly ideas about how they imagine it to work, involving “gravitational attraction of the planets on the fluids in the body”, etc. – but such arguments are just pathetic, and fall apart under the simplest logical analysis, as I’ll show in Section 6.
It all originates from a time when people didn’t have any of the benefits of modern knowledge – when the Earth was thought to be the centre of the Universe, created by God or gods solely for the benefit of Man, and when anything in nature which wasn’t understood was explained by beliefs in magic, or the intervention of the gods. In such a world view, the idea that the heavens influenced the lives of humans may well have made sense; in the modern world, when we understand perfectly well what the Sun, Moon and planets are, it makes none whatsoever. It’s simply meaningless, long- outdated mumbo-jumbo.

2.2. Astrology in the modern world

Despite the fact that it clearly defies all logic, reason and common sense, the proportion of people who profess to “believe in” astrology, in the modern world, is quite astonishing. In the 1980s, a survey showed that 55% of American teenagers did so! I don’t know what the figures are in my own country, but I suspect that it’s something similarly appalling.
I’m deliberately using the word “believe” in this context, in the same way in which it’s used in connection with religion. That’s because astrology is a “belief system”, just as religions are! There is no evidence whatsoever that it works, and overwhelming amounts of evidence which proves that it doesn’t. It defies all logic, and contradicts all the known laws of physics. So just like religion, those who “believe” in it are basing their belief on nothing more than a kind of “faith”.
Throughout the western world, almost every daily newspaper has a “horoscope” column. The fact that these are very often placed on the same page as the comic strips suggests that they are not exactly intended to be taken seriously – but if that’s the case, then why bother to print them at all? The obvious answer is simply that they know that there are enough people stupid enough to read them.
Some of the authors of these columns have so become so well-known as to be regarded as “celebrities”, and some even regularly appear on TV programmes. Years ago, when the UK’s National Lottery was first established, the weekly televised draw ( on the BBC, once regarded as the world’s most respected broadcaster ) used to be preceded by a “performance” of a well-known astrologer, making utterly meaningless “predictions” as to what kind of person might win that week’s jackpot. This woman, with the absurd stage name of “Mystic Meg”, was widely regarded as a 24-carat nutcase, even by the standards of astrologers!
The most annoying thing about all this is that most newspapers rarely, if ever, report on anything to do with science. Very few of them have any kind of regular science column; most rarely bother to mention even the most important scientific discoveries – and when they do, they usually get it wrong! – yet they devote space on a daily basis to an irrational superstition. Even the BBC has been known to devote significant airtime to astrology, and not only the aforementioned lottery “predictions”.
Equally baffling is the way that many people claim not to believe in astrology, but still talk about it anyway! While a substantial proportion of the population regularly read “their stars” in the papers, many will say, if asked, that they don’t actually believe any of it, but just read it “for fun”. Well, if you don’t believe it, what’s the point of reading it at all?
I find it extremely irritating when people ask me, however innocently, “What’s your star sign?” I always refuse to answer that question, and say that the question itself is meaningless. After all, the concept of a “star sign” is utterly meaningless, outside the context of astrology. Once, when someone asked me that question and got that response, she then said, “I know it’s rubbish, but...” Well, if you know it’s rubbish, why bother asking?
Conversely, for every person who specifically claims to “believe in” astrology, there are others who will say something along the lines of, “It has been around for thousands of years, so there must be something in it!” This is an especially stupid argument; why does it follow that just because something is very old, it must be right? On the contrary, it’s rubbish, precisely because it’s very old! The entire concept of astrology is based on a view of the world which was the norm thousands of years ago – the belief that the Earth was the centre of everything, and that the Sun, Moon and stars were “lights in the sky”, put there by the gods ( or in many cultures, that they were the gods ), which revolved around it – but which we now know is completely wrong.
Presumably, a substantial proportion of those who subscribe to that view also believe in one religion or another. By the exact same “reasoning” – and I use the word very lightly – you could argue that the Hindu belief system must be the “correct” one, simply because it’s thousands of years older than Christianity or Islam. But try that argument on a Christian or a Muslim, and see what response you get...

2.3. Astrology and astronomy

This is the only context, in which I’ll ever use those two words in the same sentence!
While the subject of astrology is probably pretty annoying to most people with any degree of scientific literacy, it’s especially so to astronomers! It’s a constant irritation to every astronomer – I’m an amateur one myself – that a substantial proportion of otherwise intelligent people don’t even know the difference between astronomy and astrology! Inevitably, friends and work colleagues of astronomers often pretend to confuse the two, just to take the Mickey; most of us can tolerate that, when we know that it’s meant in jest. But an appalling proportion, even of educated people, genuinely don’t know the difference, or don’t even know that there is a difference! They somehow assume that, just because the two words are similar, the two things must be related – which of course they are not.
So let’s get this clear, just in case any reader isn’t sure – and apologies to most of you for insulting your intelligence! Astronomy is a scientific discipline – the study of planets, stars and other bodies in space. It’s the oldest of the sciences, and often justifiably described as the grandest. Like all sciences, it’s based on observation, evidence and the application of logic and the scientific method. Today, the kind of astronomy practiced by academic researchers is really astrophysics – the study of the physical properties of astronomical bodies, and of the Universe as a whole. ( This is the subject of my degree, but unfortunately not my profession. )
Astrology, as we have seen, is nothing more than a superstition, derived from a long-obsolete world view, and based on no evidence or logic whatsoever. Some of its proponents claim it to be a “science”, simply because it depends on something which is measurable, i.e. the positions of the planets; some even claim that it must be a science, because they can use computers to draw their meaningless charts! It’s no such thing; it depends on a kind of “faith”, and has far more in common with religion. ( I’m not saying it’s related to religion; many people are devout followers of a religion, but dismiss astrology as nonsense. )
Many a time, when I have told new acquaintances that I’m an astronomer, they have responded, in all seriousness, with “Can you draw star charts?”, or “Can you do horoscopes?” There have been occasions when Cleveland and Darlington Astronomical Society ( CaDAS ), of which I’m a very long serving member, set up display stands in a local shopping centre, to publicise our activities and try to attract members; every time, we could guarantee that at least a few people would ask us, “Can you tell my fortune?” or “Can you cast my horoscope?”
Of course, it doesn’t help matters, when the media keep making the same mistake! In my original home county of Cleveland, whenever the local newspaper mentions anything to do with the aforementioned astronomical society, they nearly always get it wrong, and refer to us as astrologers. Years ago, CaDAS hosted a series of astronomy conventions, organised by myself, which had big name speakers, and were attended by amateur astronomers from across the North of England. On the first occasion, I asked the local paper to publicise it; their piece began, “Astrologers from across the North of England will gather in Cleveland...” I had pretty harsh words to say to them! ( They subsequently printed a correction, but not until after the event was over, which wasn’t much use. )
About 20 years ago, a public observatory was built in Cleveland, as a joint project between CaDAS and the local council. We invited an eminent professor from the nearby University of Durham, who at the time held the honorary title of Astronomer Royal, to perform the opening ceremony. When the same local paper reported on this event, they referred to us as “Cleveland and Darlington Astrological Society”, and to the guest of honour as “the Astrologer Royal”! The following day, their phones never stopped ringing...
Around the same time, I was horrified to find that the local branch of W. H. Smith, the UK’s biggest chain of bookshops, had books on astronomy and astrology randomly mixed on the same shelf! This was under the section heading of “Mythology and Fortune Telling”, which was of course dead right for astrology. Assuming that this was the mistake of some idiot within the shop, I asked to see the manager. Incredibly, I was actually told that all shops of the chain had been told to do exactly that, by their head office!!! An angry letter to their head office followed; thankfully, they subsequently rectified it.
This piece of stupidity was, of course, far worse than merely annoying. Imagine the harm which could have been done, if well-meaning but ignorant parents, whose children had expressed an interest in astronomy, had naively bought them books on astrology instead...
( At least in those days, W. H. Smith did actually sell a few books on astronomy, and on other “popular science” subjects. Today, their shops no longer have a “Science” section at all – a very sad reflection on the decline of my country’s education standards. )
Of course, there was a time – a period of many centuries – when astronomy and astrology were considered to be closely related, even by the intelligent. The science of positional astronomy – observing the motions of celestial bodies, and learning to predict them – was first developed for the purpose of making astrological predictions. Impressive observatories – of the pre-telescopic kind, such as Jantar Mantar in India – were built for the same purpose. But all that changed in the Seventeenth Century, when science showed that the Earth is not the centre of the Universe, and the first telescopes showed that the Moon and planets are worlds, instead of just “lights in the sky”. There has been no connection between the two subjects for well over three centuries – at least, not to anyone capable of rational thought.

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