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Woo in the White House

Oct. 27, 2014 by | Comments (17)

The news just came out that astrologer Joan Quigley died on Tuesday, Oct. 21, at age 87. Unlike most astrologers who just mess up the lives of a few ordinary people with their phony mumbo-jumbo, Quigley had the ear of Nancy Reagan during most of the years of the Reagan Administration. For seven years, Quigley had extraordinary power over the events of the Reagan White House. Although Nancy Reagan minimizes her influence, Quigley herself claimed in her 1990 book, What Does Joan Say?: My Seven Years As White House Astrologer to Nancy and Ronald Reagan, that:

I was responsible for timing all press conferences, most speeches, the State of the Union addresses, the takeoffs and landings of Air Force One. I picked the time of Ronald Reagan’s debate with Carter and the two debates with Walter Mondale; all extended trips abroad as well as the shorter trips and one-day excursions.

White House Chief of Staff Donald Regan wrote in his 1988 book For the Record that “the president’s schedule—and therefore his life and the most important business of the American nation—was largely under the control of the first lady’s astrologer.” Once the news leaked out, the Reagans had to distance themselves from Quigley as the nation ridiculed the idea that astrology was a valid way to make executive decisions. A New York Post headline said, “Astrologer Runs The White House.” Another joke suggested that Reagan create a Cabinet post in charge of voodoo.

Although this seems bizarre or silly to us today, astrology is not harmless. This phony pseudoscience sucks the money out of people with its false claims, induces them to make bad decisions based on false information, and in many cases has ruined lives. But it’s even more frightening to think that it might run the life of the most powerful man in the world, and possibly influence him to make bad decisions like start a war.

Astrology grew out of a  concept of the skies dating back to early Mesopotamia, which no longer even matches the skies we see today. And it has been debunked over and over again by every possible means. Yet this scientific rejection of astrology has had relatively little impact, thanks to the general scientific illiteracy of the American public. Despite the increased level of overall literacy and education of the past century, astrology experienced a new surge in popularity in the early twentieth century when newspapers began to run daily horoscopes. A high percentage of people don’t even know the difference between astrology and astronomy, something that drives real scientists (astronomers) crazy. Various polls estimate that about 25-30% of Americans, Canadians, and British believe in astrology, or at least read their daily horoscopes in the newspaper or on line. There are roughly 10,000-20,000 astrologers practicing in the U.S. alone. Popular astrologers like Sydney Omarr, Jeane Dixon, and many others wrote (and others still write) daily columns in the newspapers for decades, and sold (and still sell) hundreds of thousands of copies of books on astrology. A surprising number of powerful people, including modern world leaders, as well as businessmen, athletes, and entertainers, make crucial decisions based on the junk that astrologers tell them.

It is still common to go to any social event, and one of the first questions a stranger will ask you (sometimes as a pick-up line) is “What’s your sign?” From this, people instantly make snap judgments about you based on phony generalities about the nature of each astrological sign. They often end up accepting or rejecting you based on this fantasy rather than who you really are. (It’s bad enough that people make snap judgments of you based on other irrational and unfair criteria, but astrology shouldn’t be one of them.) Astrologers have their own cable TV shows, major websites, and presence in nearly every medium. They have long been common on talk shows like the old Merv Griffin Show, The Tonight Show, Larry King Live, or Oprah, as well as in the conventional news media. With this kind of pervasiveness and acceptance across the entire culture, it’s not surprising that most people have not heard about why astrology is bunk, or that they consider it a legitimate form of understanding life and the future.

In my book Reality Check: How Science Deniers Threaten our Future, I discuss at length the reasons why astrology is bunk. In a nutshell:

1) All horoscopes work on the same principle that “psychics” and “fortune tellers” use to trick people (known as “cold reading”): tell them lots of generalities that apply to most people, and our minds will do the rest. As psychologists have long shown, we are prone to notice the handful of times that the random guesses of a psychic or horoscope get it right, and ignore or undercount the number of times they were wrong. This habit of noticing the “hits” and ignoring the “misses” is a familiar psychological effect known as confirmation bias. Our minds tend to notice things that favor or support what we already believe, and discount or ignore observations that don’t fit within our preconceptions.

If you think about it, the entire idea that there are unique predictions about you based on the date and time of your birth is obvious nonsense. Why should it be your moment of birth that matters so much? As we know, many babies are born prematurely or late, and some are born ahead of their natural gestation period by medical intervention. If a surgeon removes a baby a week early by C-section, is their fate different than if they had been born at the normal 9 months? The time of birth is arbitrary and influenced by factors like the baby’s and mother’s health. Now if astrology made prediction based on the moment of your conception (a truly unique event), it might be slightly more plausible. But there’s a good reason they don’t use it for predictions: few people know the exact moment they were conceived, while the date and time of their birth is usually well recorded. Many studies of  “time twins” (two individuals born within minutes of each other) show conclusively that there are no real statistically significant similarities, no matter who casts the horoscope.

2) A rigorous way to evaluate this issue is to conduct a double-blind test the claims of astrologers and show whether they match reality with better than a random probability. A 1985 study by Shawn Carlson, a researcher in the University of California at Berkeley astronomy program, tested this in detail. He send “natal charts” of real people to 30 prominent American and European astrologers considered among the best in the field, but the astrologers knew only the exact time date of birth. They had no face-to-face contact with the person whose chart they were reading, so they could not watch the body language cues of the “mark” to refine their “hits” and “misses” as psychics and astrologers do when they “tell your fortune” in your presence. The astrologers were given three “personality profiles” that might match the “natal chart,” one from the client and two others chosen at random, and had to decide which profile matched the chart they were reading. The experiment was double blind, so that neither the astrologers nor the experimenters knew which profile was which until the results were all in. Sure enough, the astrologers were able to get the “right” profile only one in 3 times, exactly the probability to be expected if they were randomly guessing. The astrologers had claimed they could do better than 1 in every 2, and some who were most confident of their matches were the most wrong.

Then there are the physical absurdities of astrology, due to the fact that it dates back 5000 years when people did not know that stars are simply giant balls of flaming gas, and that they are not stuck on some “celestial sphere” just above our heads, but inconceivably far away from us. For example:

1) The ancient astrologers had the idea that stars might influence the fates of people through some sort of magical force applied at a distance. Now, thanks to Newton and subsequent physicists, we know how extremely far away these objects are, and how much gravitational and other forces they exert on earth. You yourself can do the simple calculation using Newton’s law of gravitational attraction (F = constant x m1 x m2/d2), which states that the gravitational force is a product of the masses of the two objects (m1 and m2), and diminishes rapidly as the square of the distance between them (d2). Simple calculations show that even the closest stars (none of which are in the constellations of the Zodiac) like Alpha Centauri are so far away that they have the same attraction as a cell phone more than 20 feet away from you (that is, so small it is not even measurable). Even the planet Mars is so far away from you that it has the same gravitational attraction as a truck placed 45 feet away from you (again, too weak to feel or even measure with the most sensitive gravimeter). Only the moon and sun are close enough and massive enough to have a gravitational pull on earthly objects, and they do so in well understood ways: the sun hold the earth in orbit through its immense gravity, and the moon causes the bulge of water on the earth’s surface that we know as tides. If astrology were about the actual gravitational attraction of different celestial bodies, the moon and sun would be the only ones of importance and the rest of the zodiac is irrelevant. But astrology is all about the alleged effects of distant stars and planets, with only limited use of the sun and moon, so there is no correspondence between astrological ideas and any real physics of gravity. Likewise, the only other known force acting at distance, electromagnetism, is too weak to operate at these immense distances, and more to the point, most celestial objects have no electrical charge! Nor do electromagnetic changes correspond to known astrological patterns to have anything to do with stars and planets influencing our lives. If there is any other force out there that astrologers are using, it has never been detected by science. Thus, there is no physical basis for the “power of the stars” on our fate.

2) Secondly, the “constellations” and the basic view of the stars as patterns are completely arbitrary and culture-bound. You can demonstrate this by going out to see the sky on any dark night with good visibility (i.e., away from the light pollution of the cities, on a night with no clouds and no moon). Most people look up at the sky and see huge numbers of stars (some brighter than others), but there are no obvious patterns or constellations to the untrained eye. It actually takes a lot of practice and using “star charts” to force your imagination to see “the Big Dipper,” find the North Star (Polaris), or any other constellation—and many people still have trouble twisting their imagination to make an arbitrary number of points of light into a meaningful shape. Those “constellations” are actually even more arbitrary, because we have inherited them from the astrological traditions of the Arabs of the Middle Ages, or from the ancient Greeks. If you look at Babylonian or Chinese or Mayan or Hindu astrology, they used an entirely different “star map” and make entirely different astrological predictions—based on the exact same view of the sky. Thus, the entire concept of “constellations” and “signs of the zodiac” is purely from human imagination, and has no basis in reality.

3) Even more to the point, we see a “constellation” as a series of stars arranged in a pattern on a flat plane from our perspective on earth. But in fact, each of the stars in any constellation is not the same distance from us. Some are extremely distant, and some are much closer. They actually form a complex three-dimensional array, and only from our earth perspective do they form a pattern we might call the “Big Dipper.” If we viewed them from out in space so we were on the “side” of the cluster, the “Big Dipper” pattern would disappear entirely.

4) Another glitch in the astrological view of the universe is the fact that the earth wobbles around its spin axis like a top (known as precession). Thus, its rotational north polar axis (currently pointed at Polaris, the “North Star”) has pointed in different direction as the wobble goes through a cycle of roughly 21,000-23,000 years. Five thousand years ago, when the Babylonians first developed astrology, it would not have pointed at Polaris at all. If a human looked at the sky ten thousand years ago, halfway through the precession cycle, it would have pointed to a completely different “north star”, Vega (one of the brightest stars in the northern sky). Due to the precession, the phases of the moon and the positions of the sun have all changed with respect to the constellations that were studied by the Babylonians over 5000 years ago. For example, the astrological calendar originally began with the day of the vernal equinox (the first day of spring, March 21 in our current calendar), when the sun was supposedly “in” the constellation Aries. Due to precession, however, the position of the sun during the time frame of Aries (March 21 to April 19) has “slipped” in the past 2200 years, so that today it is actually “in” the constellation Pisces (February 20-March 20). Thus, the zodiac signs and the predictions made by astrologers based on the patterns from 2200 years ago no longer actually match the real night sky, or the sun’s “position” with respect to the zodiac signs.

5) In addition to archaic notions of the stars and the sky, astronomers have since discovered several planets (Uranus, Neptune, and maybe Pluto if you consider it a planet) that were unknown when astrology originated—yet they’ve been out there for billions of years. If planets have an effect on us, why didn’t astrologers predict the effects of as-yet-unseen planets like Uranus or Neptune, or the dozens of new planets in other solar systems that have been found by astronomers in the past 10 years?

So what’s the harm of 25% of the population believing this garbage? As Phil Plait puts it, there is serious harm. First of all, there is an enormous amount of time and money wasted on pure garbage. This is money spent on something that does not work, which could be spent on more important and real needs. It is truly frightening to think that the activities of the most powerful man on earth from 1981–1988 were dictated by an astrologer, and that we could have done terrible things or even gone to war on the advice of a woo-meister.  Even worse, astrology promotes uncritical pseudoscientific thinking, and leads people into making all sorts of bad irrational decisions not only about their futures, but also thinking badly about other topics. In Plait’s words:

The more we teach people to simply accept anecdotal stories, hearsay, cherry-picked data (picking out what supports your claims but ignoring what doesn’t), and, frankly, out-and-out lies, the harder it gets for people to think clearly. If you cannot think clearly, you cannot function as a human being. I cannot stress this enough. Uncritical thinking is tearing this world to pieces, and while astrology may not be at the heart of that, it has its role.

Donald Prothero

Dr. Donald Prothero taught college geology and paleontology for 35 years, at Caltech, Columbia, and Occidental, Knox, Vassar, Glendale, Mt. San Antonio, and Pierce Colleges. He earned his B.A. in geology and biology (highest honors, Phi Beta Kappa, College Award) from University of California Riverside in 1976, and his M.A. (1978), M.Phil. (1979), and Ph.D. (1982) in geological sciences from Columbia University. He is the author of over 35 books. Read Donald’s full bio or his other posts on this blog.

17 responses to “Woo in the White House”

  1. Helena Hanbasquette says:

    Yada yada yada — we get it: you think it’s bunk. It doesn’t fit into your paradigm. I wish one of you people would seriously look into it first before making a judgement. Your refutation doesn’t even address the actual praxis of astrology, but is a messy confusion of the most surface elements. Of course you will counter by saying it’s so ridiculous that you wouldn’t waste your time looking into it properly. If that is the case, then please refrain from commenting on it or attempting to “debunk” that of which you know not.

    • Donald Prothero says:

      It’s not that it doesn’t fit my paradigm. It has been tested many times, and always shown to be bunk by numerous rigorous studies, which I outlined in my book. It has no basis in the reality of the solar system and universe as we now know it, and no basis in the laws of physics. Instead, it has been shown that is it simple cold reading, confirmation bias and wish fulfillment.
      And I DID get my horoscope read by a skilled astrologer once, as I explained in my book. It was completely and utterly wrong.

  2. larsjaeger says:

    it works, makes no attempt at hypothesizing a cause or mechanism, .A good way to get on some folks’ bad side is to decline to state what your

  3. TerryR says:

    I’m a veteran of the Vietnam war. If you go look on any battlefield, you’ll find every birth date of the year out there…

  4. Stella Mazikowski says:

    Hey there Doc … how’ve you been?

  5. raybar says:

    An astrologer I know says that all the scientific considerations Dr. Prothero mentions above about gravity, constellations, precession, and so on, are irrelevant.

    He contends only that there is a demonstrable correlation between events in the sky and events on earth. He doesn’t know how or why it works, makes no attempt at hypothesizing a cause or mechanism, doesn’t claim that correlation implies causation. It just works — says he.

    Rational discusion is futile. You may as well be talking about geology or genetics with a creationist. His belief in this nonsense is based on, well, belief, and his mind is absolutely closed to opposing views.

    • Ray Sutera says:

      Whenever someone asks me what my sign is I simply say, “Positive”.

      It either gets a laugh or it makes the person angry – either one of which is acceptable.

  6. Gary says:

    in addition, the gravitational attraction of the obstetrician at birth is proportionally much greater than any star.

  7. boocat says:

    What about the money the government wastes? Yet people believe Barry Obama is president of a representative republic, so much so they voted for him twice. Citizens are brainwashed about the government, why not other magical garbage that makes no sense?

  8. Steve Hine says:

    Whenever asked “what’s your sign”, I answer “you mean what sign was I born under?… Maternity Ward Please Be Quiet”.

  9. Oliver Saffir says:

    Once time when I was taking a guided tour of the famous Lick Observatory on Mt. Hamilton in California, a woman asked the guide about the ramifications of the discoveries made there on astrology. The guide responded “I’m afraid that I can’t answer that question because this observatory is run by the University of California Physics department and astrology would be under the Humanities department.”

  10. F. Fairfield says:

    Years ago, I read in a French magazine that several important politicians had been seen going to the apartment of an astrologer. I do not believe in astrology, so I naturally assumed that the “astrologer” in question was a madam running an upper-class brothel for politicians. Could anyone tell me whether I was right?

  11. Brian taylor says:

    When asked my sign,I answer,I am a Piscean,and Pisceans don’t believe in astrology.

  12. mikeb says:

    “And it has been debunked over and over again by every possible means.”

    And yet you have to stand in awe at the sheer intractability of human ignorance.

  13. Mark Scurry says:

    A curious thing for me was I read about precession in a book heavily laced with woo. For me at least it led me to explore other topics that had a bit more substance to them.

  14. Barry Roth says:

    A good way to get on some folks’ bad side is to decline to state what your sign is. I generally try to deflect the conflict by saying “oh yeahhh? Who wants ta know?” or “I’ll ask my grandmother. She’s a Leo.” I once told a questioner, “I decline to state. Now that ought to tell you something. What signs are the ones most likely to decline to state?” Even that form of, in effect, inspecting the mode didn’t penetrate. Of course, I’m talking here basically about cocktail party conversation and the harm is limited. But’it’s horrifying to think that the same crud can infect the halls of real power.

    • Gary says:

      once a woman in the office asked me what my sign was, and before I could answer the office wise guy said “he’s off the chart!”

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