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On astrology and demarcation

I’ve been very busy applying to jobs and figuring out my life, so I’ll just leave you with a few posts all related to astrology. I meant to link to these a while back:

1. Start with Paul Newall for a somewhat academic summary on astrology, Kuhn, Popper and Feyeraband. Will be most relevant if you are at least somewhat familiar with the names. I liked the closing paragraph:

In summary, the philosophical problem for astrology is thus not that it can always explain failures (Popper) or that it does not attempt to solve problems (Kuhn) but instead that it has stagnated (Feyerabend) – assuming that this progression in criticisms is fair, of course. Notice that, for both Kuhn and Feyerabend, this is not a final verdict: if astrology can become problem solving or – better – if it can strengthen its arguments while proliferating alternative theories, it might be possible to eventually reassess it. However, excoriating astrologers or calling their discipline “rubbish” is perhaps unlikely to encourage such an improvement in matters.

Also read through the comment exchange.

2. Linked to from Paul, you should also read historian Rebekah Higgitt. Some fascinating history that I was completely unaware of:

When science happens there is always a reason: astronomy developed because, broadly, it served three masters: navigation, timekeeping and astrology. These were, all three, supremely important in ensuring development of accurate positional astronomy, because all were things for which people were willing to pay.

Although the words astronomy and astrology were often used interchangeably, I think it can be helpful to think about astronomy as the means by which data was generated (observations taken, mathematics applied, models created and tables drawn up) and the others as uses made of that data. The need for all three applications drove astronomy. Good, accurate astronomy would ensure good, reliable and accurate time-telling and navigation, and the best possible basis for astrological interpretation to take place. There are clear historical examples of astrology rather than the others being the impetus behind particular instances of patronage of astronomers or mathematicians to undertake observations or produce tables. This was the case up until the late 17th century.

3. Finally, here’s practicing astrologer (!) Deborah Houlding insisting that astrologers do in fact know their stuff:

All informed astrologers recognise the definition of the constellational groupings of stars, and draw meaning from planetary relationships to the prominent fixed stars. All informed astrologers also know that the Sun does not cross the equator at exactly the same point of the ecliptic year after year, but that the phenomenon of precession brings a 50 second shift between the first point of the tropical zodiac and the background constellations, which accrues a disparity of about 1 degree every 72 years (see here for explanation).

I will leave with yet another promise to expand on my thoughts at a later date! My only (brief) comment connects to Higgitt’s passage that I quoted above. If astrology was once a part of science, why do some scientists seem get so angry about it now? It seems to me that astrology is mainly a playful, harmless distraction that had distinct value at one point in history. So while it may be unscientific…why get so worked up about it?

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