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Astrology Aims for Respectability

Thin Evidence Hasn't Hampered Brisk Business

NEW DELHI, India, JUNE 13, 2004 (Zenit) - Astrology enthusiasts recently won a battle in India in their efforts to obtain academic credibility. The nation's Supreme Court upheld a 2001 decision by the University Grants Commission (UGC) to introduce courses in Vedic Astrology leading to undergraduate and postgraduate degrees, the Indian magazine Frontline reported in its June 5 issue. The court decision, handed down May 5, rejected a challenge to the UGC approval brought by several academics.

In their petition to the court the academics argued that Vedic Astrology cannot be considered a part of scientific study because astrology lacks the basic attributes and tenets involved in the pursuit of science. Specifically, they argued, astrology does not use the accepted scientific method of inquiry that is characterized by fallibility, verifiability and repeatability.

In 2001 the UGC invited applications from universities to set up astrology departments. Out of 41 submissions the UGC accepted proposals from 20 universities. The article termed the Supreme Court decision "a serious blow to the efforts of the scientific community and rational-minded people who have been relentlessly campaigning against the pernicious move."

Nevertheless, the writer took solace in the recent defeat of the Bharatiya Janata Party in India's national elections. The BJP, observed the article, gave backing to astrology and other similar practices as part of its support of traditional Hindu culture.

Defenders of astrology are not limited to India. On May 16, Britain's Sunday Times reviewed a book published by a Royal Astronomical Society member, Dr. Percy Seymour, in which he lends some credence to astrology. Seymour, former lecturer in astronomy and astrophysics at Plymouth University, stated that he does not believe in the validity of star-sign horoscopes. Yet, in his book "The Scientific Proof of Astrology," he maintains that brain development may be affected by the Earth's magnetic field, especially during a child's growth in the womb. This magnetic field is affected by interactions with the sun, the moon and other planets.

The review did note, however, that Seymour is a lone figure in scientific circles in his defense of astrology. Sir Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal, has described astrology as "absurd," noted the Sunday Times. "There is no place for astrology in our scientific view of the world; moreover its predictive claims cannot stand any critical scrutiny," commented Rees.

Payoff, but no proof

An example of this scrutiny was a decades-long study of more than 2,000 people, reported on in the British newspaper Telegraph last Aug. 17. The study involved a group born in early March 1958. Many of the babies were born within minutes of one another and, according to astrology, should have many traits in common.

Researchers examined more than 100 different characteristics, including occupation, marital status and IQ levels. In their findings, published in the Journal of Consciousness Studies, the scientists reported no evidence of similarities between those born at the same time.

One of the researchers, Dr. Geoffrey Dean, said the results undermined the claims of astrologers, who typically work with birth data far less precise than that used in the study. "They sometimes argue that times of birth just a minute apart can make all the difference by altering what they call the 'house cusps,'" he said. "But in their work, they are happy to take whatever time they can get from a client."

But while scientists may scorn astrology, the general public flocks to read what the stars have to say. Writers of astrological columns in major newspapers can expect pay packages in the range of 250,000 to 500,000 pounds ($458,000 to $917,000), the British newspaper Guardian reported Jan. 12.

And this is just for starters. On top of this comes the income from telephone lines. Newspaper reports put the overall income of Daily Mail astrologer Jonathan Cainer at more than 2 million pounds ($3.6 million).

In Italy, according to the Jan. 25 issue of the weekly magazine Famiglia Cristiana, the nation's 22,000 astrologers and assorted seers enjoy a combined income of around 550 million euros ($613 million). Periodic revelations of fraud and tax evasion have not diminished the popularity of the occult in Italy. A government decree in 2002 sought to introduce restrictions on television spots selling astrological and fortunetelling services, especially common on the 600 or so small stations that reach local areas. But the effects of the decree so far have been limited.

Debunked

Those looking for arguments against astrology and other assorted superstitions now have a handy resource in the just-published "Debunked!" The book was originally published in France two years ago. The authors, Georges Charpak, a physicist at the European Center for Particle Physics in Geneva, and Henri Broch, a teacher at the University of Nice-Sophia Antipolis, deal with a wide variety of themes.

The book notes that some people defend the accuracy of horoscopes, arguing that they have accurately predicted events. Yet, the simple occurrence of predicted events does not validate astrology, contend Charpak and Broch.

What happens, the authors say, is that such people are convinced they are dealing with horoscopes written specifically for them. But what is at work is what the authors term a "well effect." Horoscopes typically use vague generalizations, making it easy for people to recognize themselves in what is described. These descriptions "are only deep in the sense that a well is deep -- deeply hollowed out, that is, empty," write the authors.

Such descriptions are not, in fact, based on what astrologers know about people, but on what people wish were true about themselves. Added to which, astrologers count on the public quickly forgetting past predictions. Supermarket tabloids, for example, regularly publish end-of-year predictions, such as of assassinations, which are simply repeated annually.

The book also cites examples of affirmations by popular astrologers that reveal a lack of basic astronomical knowledge. One astrologer argued that two people born under the sign of Capricorn -- one on Jan. 9, 1924, and another on the same date in 1960 -- would be under the same planetary influences because the sun is in the same place in the sky. But, the authors observe, this is not true at all and there is a difference in the Earth's orbit around the sun between these two dates of no less than 780,000 miles.

In fact, the zodiac birth signs so common in astrological columns, along the supposed personal qualities for those born under them, are mostly based on astronomical positions traced out thousands of years ago. The problem with this is that the axis of the Earth's rotation is in continual change. The axis pivots, in a way similar to a spinning top, completing a revolution in about 25,790 years. As a result the zodiac signs in use today by astrologers do not correspond at all to the constellations represented when the charts were originally drawn up.

The book goes on to debunk other phenomena such as levitation, walking on hot coals and metal bending. Regarding events which some regard as unusual coincidences, and therefore require some paranormal explanation, the authors recommend that the public should study probability theory, which quickly reveals that many supposedly unusual occurrences actually fall within the bounds of probable events.

The authors conclude that society is now infested with unscientific thinking, which has allowed the occult to transform itself from a local affair to the realm of big business. It seems modern society isn't so rational and scientific after all.

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