The Snake and the DeGrasse

Posted by Amy Elliott


Neil DeGrasse Tyson has landed another critical blow to the credibility of astrology…or has he? When that serpentine constellation known as Ophiuchus is mentioned, you may be sure the Planet Waves crew is raising a skeptical eyebrow, to say the least.

I guess religion has stopped being an effective opiate, now that the BBC and various celebrity scientists are telling us we’re stupid — or worse, frauds — for subscribing to any form of spiritual belief. They express (ostensible) shock at the very existence of astrologers. How dare we show ourselves in public?!

We, the deceivers, we, the gullible, we, the supporters of a primitive mythology that should long have been dead and buried! Can’t we see there is real work to do? Can’t we just stop pretending we can help and empower people, and fall in with the pro-Prozac crowd? Why can’t we just admit that astrology, this bewilderingly long-enduring millennia-old art, is so much bunkum?


Rho Ophiuchi Cloud Complex (detail). Image by Naskies

It should be laughable that Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s solemn repetition of the old Ophiuchus hoax, or Richard Dawkins’ earnest plea for all soothsayers to be imprisoned for fraud, are even taken half so seriously.

Their modus operandi is the constant rehash of ignorant, blatant lies in the hope no-one will be able to distinguish them from facts. This is very far from the scientific method they proclaim as the new and only God, and much more like the cardinal sins of which they accuse us.

While there is no doubt that these gentlemen are clever — brilliant, even — they are pronouncing our doom from a considerable distance, reaching a long way from their specialisms. They, and other celebrated scientists, have joined forces to Put us Down, as the venerable Mr. Dickens might have it, for good.

Yet there is something indescribably sad, and also sinister, about these obviously intelligent men displaying a perplexing willful ignorance. It has echoes of days gone by, when anyone bright enough to ask particular questions might be viewed with suspicion, and then perhaps labelled “heretic” or “witch” before being deprived of freedom, sanity, and/or life.

It’s painful to hear and see them point shaking fingers, fuming at our apparent ignorance while declaring so-called “facts” that are blatant lies. It’s wearying to hear that 13th sign rubbish yet a-bloody-gain. It must be somewhat similar, at least, to being a physicist hearing New-Agey folk discussing “quantum consciousness”.

I know New-Agers can get annoying. But here’s the thing: where does all this anger against astrology come from? Surely they’re not still suffering the Enlightenment-era divorce angst? I guess it must be irritating them to some extent: they want to move on, we want them back, and they just can’t help falling back into our old routines now and then, when they name a minor planet.

I guess the connection between us is still rather stronger than they’d like to think. Like Oscar Wilde’s fisherman, they just want to cut away their soul and be done, and the consequences be damned: yet secretly that part of themselves that is still curious and a little uncertain — longing for mystery and meaning and beauty — is clinging on determinedly. For with all their righteous preaching about objectivity, our friends the science guys are still human, and fallible, and feeling.

And when they’re ready to realize that, we’ll welcome them home with love and understanding.

13 thoughts on “The Snake and the DeGrasse

  1. Geoff Marsh

    I thought your last sentence was remarkably loving and forgiving, Amy, all things considered. If, for whatever reason, we were to fall or be pushed back into their camp we would be greeted with a pooh, a snort and a told you so.

    I haven’t owned a television set since 1989 and, although I now follow the BBC’s schedules online and watch programmes of interest on catch-up, I was not aware of this current controversy. Was it on tv or radio? As a public service broadcaster paid for by its viewers, there are regional panels in the UK whose duty it is to comment on output and bring matters of concern to the attention of executives and programme planners. I’d be happy to do that in this case.

    The BBC is under a lot of right-wing pressure at the moment and there is, of course, a lot of money at stake. Its royal charter, which among other things fixes the annual licence fee viewers pay, is up for review and the Corporation seems certain to emerge as a slimmer and less all-encompassing broadcaster than in the past. The main beneficiaries of this will be the commercial networks and in particular the extensive Murdoch-owned Sky satellite channels.

    I can understand religions dismissing astrology, they want control of your life, soul and social well-being for the benefit of their own coffers, thank you very much. But scientists? They’re not being very scientific if they refuse to study the craft. I expect Sigmund Freud was subjected to similar ridicule when he first attempted an explanation of neurosis based on sexuality. Of course you can buy pills for all that these days. Kerching.

    It seems to me that those astrologers who would seek to include Ophiuchus as a 13th sign of the zodiac would be happier using a Moon-based system. For my part, I feel the four cardinal points of the year – the two solstices and the two equinoxes – provide a neat division of the year and give a better understanding of the changes caused by Earth’s annual cycle around the Sun.

      1. Geoff Marsh

        Thanks, Amy, I really like Skyscript. It always makes me wish I’d studied horary astrology.

        Grrrr to Prof Brian Cox. I like what he’s done to promote science to youngsters through his tv space programmes, but as an open-minded human being, forget it… I would like to do him the courtesy of suggesting that he is, in fact, simply protecting his career but as a real scientist he has diminished himself in my eyes.

        He is following, to a certain extent, in the footsteps of Sir Patrick Moore, sadly now dead but long-time presenter of The Sky at Night, the BBC’s flagship astronomy programme. On air, Sir Patrick was totally poo-poo about astrology but, on one occasion when I went to the planetarium at Chichester which he had helped found, I was asked by the ticket-selling receptionist what had brought me there. “Astrology,” I replied, in my most confrontational voice.

        “Oh yes,” replied the concierge, looking slightly sheepisht. “Sir Patrick actually had a deep respect for the early astrologers who added so much to our understanding of the heavens.” A little later, as I was sauntering around the astronomical photographs in the foyer, a sweet little old lady asked me if I believed in reincarnation. “I could do,” I said, still somewhat unsettled by the concept of Sir Patrick wishing astrologers well. She found my remark amusing, then asked: “Would you read my chart?” I quite fell in love with her at that moment.

  2. Eric Francis

    Actually there is science that points to the season of birth influencing temperament. But note even The Atlantic introducing the topic has to insult astrology:

    “Astrology is, of course, basically bunk. Which is why it’s surprising that a study presented at the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology over the weekend suggests that the month in which we were born can, in fact, have an important effect on our mood.

    “For the paper, Xenia Gonda, an associate professor at Semmelweis University in Budapest, asked 366 university students to fill out a questionnaire that aims to determine which of four kinds of temperaments they most personify. The questions included things like ‘My mood often changes for no reason’ and ‘I love to tackle new projects, even if risky’ and ‘I complain a lot’. She then correlated their answers with their birthdays.”

    However, note that science itself is having problems: most studies involving psychology could not be repeated, in this one experiment that sought to do so:

  3. Geoff Marsh

    I think there is a scientific correlation between month of birth and astrology which could fairly readily be put to the test.

    In the northern hemisphere, if you are born in January your first three months may well be spent indoors where there will be natural sunlight for only a few hours each day, it will feel cold out of your crib, food may be scarce and those around you may exhibit worries about things you cannot comprehend such as basic survival. At three months old, your environment will start to improve – it will steadily be getting warmer each day, your parents will be busy preparing for the planting season, there will be more to-ing and fro-ing and joy in your surroundings. At six months old, you’re out in the sun for a large part of the day, food is generally plentiful, and everyone seems to feel good.

    If you are born in July, you experience the reverse of this process – at birth you are aware of warmth, sunlight, good times, plenty food. But at six months old things have become darker and colder, you spend a lot of your time indoors, etc. I’m sure you get my drift – the month of the year in which you are born has a profound effect on the development of your psyche.

    This would, of course, mean that people in the southern hemisphere should have a complementary astrological signature to those in the north: Aries in Oz should resemble Libra in London, for example. In order to test this hypothesis I would suggest a blind trial for people living south of the equator. Provide daily horoscopes which were for their opposite birth sign and let them judge how relevant or valid they are. It would be necessary, perhaps, to screen out anyone with more than a passing awareness of astrology since they might figure out what was going on.

    Such research might well show that, at least in less-developed communities where working with nature is still the norm, the conditions surrounding our first year after birth do indeed sow the seeds for our developing personalities much in line with what astrology predicts.

  4. beleclaire

    The thing I have observed about these scientific rational types ( confession time: I used to be one of them many moons ago so was able to get up real close ) is that they are hugely irrational when it comes to any subject that falls outside the status quo. They get very angry and dismissive. The irony of this reaction is, needless to say, lost on them. It used to remind me of the Spanish Inquisition ( no, not the Monty Python version )

    Yes the dichotomy between us and them did not exist before the ‘Enlightenment’. Newton was writing as much about occult studies as he was about physics.

    Thanks Amy!

  5. Len WallickLen Wallick

    Thank you, Amy. There is also the additional point that Ophiuchus is really not a consideration for tropical astrologers (who base their work on the relationship of the Sun, Moon and planets to the surface of the Earth, rather than the constellations), as opposed to sidereal astrologers who might have to go the extra mile make their point in the face of what slander otherwise good scientists somehow feel compelled to reflexively mimic.

  6. cj

    This came up in my facebook feed today, from Astrology News Service, written by Edward Snow…

    Guess who is listed as a fellow on this committee…
    Neil deGrasse Tyson astrophysicist and director, Hayden Planetarium, New York City

    Looking through some articles at the CSI site I found this interesting agenda from Professor Paul Kurtz…

    “I submit that it is incumbent on us to defend the naturalistic interpretation of reality, a materialistic not a spiritual-paranormal account. We need generalists of science who can sum up what science tells us about the human condition in a universe without purpose or design, yet who have the ability to awaken wonder and excitement about the scientific quest itself.

    Given the massive cultural fixation on the spiritual-paranormal outlook, perhaps the most that skeptical inquirers can hope for is that we can lessen the excessive follies of its proponents. Perhaps our most effective course is to moderate untested overbeliefs and encourage critical thinking as far as we can. Our agenda should be to encourage the extension of critical thinking to all areas of life-including religion, politics, ethics, and society.

    Looking ahead, I think that we can expect, unfortunately, that spiritual-paranormal beliefs will continue to lure the public. Although the content of their beliefs may change in the light of criticism, some forms of the paranormal will most likely persist in the future. Skeptical inquirers thus will have an ongoing role to play in civilization. Our mission is to light candles in the dark, as Carl Sagan so eloquently stated, and to become Socratic gadflies questioning the sacred cows of society and cultivating an appreciation for reason.”

    And this supposedly humorous piece…
    The First Thing We Do, Let’s Get Rid of All the Astrologers by Paul DesOrmeaux

    “If newspaper horoscopes disappear, just maybe—astrologers, will just fade away. And just maybe—other pseudosciences will follow suit. It’s worth a try, isn’t it? After all, scrapping newspaper horoscopes would be one small step for reason and one giant leap for articles reviewing beer.”

    So it seems that is a very well organized discrediting campaign.

    Cindy Ragusa

    1. Len WallickLen Wallick

      Cindy: Thank you for your comprehensive and well-documented comment here. i agree with your perception of a campaign to discredit astrology, organized and put forward by those who themselves live in the proverbial glass houses (as Eric pointed out in his comment above, “science itself is having problems”). It makes me sad. i very much like Amy’s idea of holding open the possibility of reconciliation and a return to wholeness. That would make me happy.

  7. Leilani Curry

    I guess Pluto in Capricorn is working hard on breaking down those archaic structures, like the scientific community, who have too long preached their exclusive stance to the rest of us, and now, like the war machine, are cornered in the glare of global enlightenment and human compassion, and are fighting any which way they can to stay alive.

    If only they knew we don’t want to kill them, just include and integrate them with the rest of us, as they should consider, include and integrate the many trains of thought, study and wisdom, new and ancient, that the majority of the population freely chooses to believe in.

  8. Pisces SunPisces Sun

    Seek and ye shall understand. In my opinion the problem with the scientific community of astronomers is fear. This community finds it difficult to meld anything that has a humanistic influence into the science itself. It’s difficult because in many respects, astrology are mathematical observations with stories attached that do contain a human emotive response.

    The astronomers would prefer for everything to be rationally based and observed, as if such a thing truly exists on earth and in the cosmos. I believe it does not because it is us, the human, that makes everything exist and come into reality; and it is our human interpretation, our perception and through our experiences, knowledge and stories that couches the reality of what is. This is very difficult for a scientist to grasp. It is easier for them to take observations, make mathematical calculations, study objects and make assumptions.

    I recently read an article written by the notable astrologist Robert Hand who recently earned a PHD in philosophy at Catholic U, but also has a Masters in History of Science from Princeton. His article was describing his research probing into ancient astrologies (plural) practiced by different groups such as the Greeks, Egyptians, others. He said that not all had the same constellations yet each captured relevant astrological happenings and credited them to events that were captured in historical records. He of course wondered how this could be so? Of course one of his theories were that one astrological system suited one set of civilization and another astrological system suited another civilization but he set out to find out why this could occur.

    His theory is that astrology is made real because of the role that the astrological society plays in making it real. The more established an astrological footing, the more real it seemed to be (sort of like, or probably is the same concept as “meme” but perhaps also there could be new age theories to support all of this with intentions, vibrations, etc., this is me saying this, his writing did not). But Robert Hand was making the point that the more sustained the system is the more real the astrology is, regardless of the civilization. So here is the historical record, where events actually occurred and were captured in recorded history and were pointed to astrological events in the respective civilization. But, it’s likely that the astronomers will have an answer for this too. The point is, they can’t discredit the underlying premise, it’s real because man makes all of reality real. Of course, this holds true for astronomy too, dare we say it?
    I can’t help but wonder what the astronomers are so afraid of, especially to the point of personal attacks it seems, it’s almost like how it was in Galileo’s time? Even Einstein said he wanted to know how God thinks!

  9. Geoff Marsh

    Meanwhile, back at the publicly-funded BBC which has to represent all opinions in a fair and balanced way, last night’s flagship science programme ‘Horizon’ was all about the multiverse. As its promo blurb states: “Until very recently the whole idea of the multiverse was dismissed as a fantasy, but now this strangest of ideas is at the cutting edge of science.”

    Excuse me, Prof Cox, but isn’t the basic idea of the multiverse that we are enmeshed in so many realities that everything that could exist does exist somewhere, including presumably a verse where planets really do symbolise and represent the feelings of God to Her creation?

    As I’ve said here before, all the laws of mathematics, physics and chemistry that we use to understand our universe were either laid down or made manifest at big bang, assuming that that event happened. As a result, everything that is could not be any other way than as it is. That’s the sum total of the laws. You can call it phate or you can call it fizzics, it really doesn’t matter. We – this universe, our galaxy, the planets in our solar system, our bodies and our minds – are the direct and inexorable result of the “scientific” laws established by the event that brought us into existence. Nothing very difficult to understand there, surely?

    Now could you please explain quantum physics for me, Brian? I’m feeling slightly bemused by that one.

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