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  • 24-Sep-2018

What would the ancient astrologers have told us about 2017?

Apparently 2017 will be my year – indeed, it is a good year for everyone born between November 22 and December 21 under the sign of Sagittarius – half man, half horse, all myth.

Modern astrology as we know it – in the form of a yearly, monthly or daily horoscope – is based on a celestial coordinate system known as the “zodiac”, a Greek word that means the circle of life. And, although astrology has been dated to the third millennium BC, it has been argued that it began as soon as humans made a conscious attempt to measure, record and predict seasonal changes.

But, unlike modern times where the idea of star signs and horoscopes is often scoffed at, until the 17th century astrology was seen as a scholarly tradition. And it is credited as influencing the development of astronomy – because back then its concepts were used in alchemy, mathematics, meteorology and medicine. And it was even accepted in political and cultural circles.

But by the end of the 17th century, emerging scientific concepts in astronomy undermined the theoretical basis of astrology, which as a result fell out of favour.

The ancient ‘mathematici’

Medieval astrologers – who were known as mathematici – wove stories in an attempt to say something true about the world. And, much like modern mathematicians, they made predictions which they hoped could be verified.

One of the earliest Christian authors, Origen, hinted at the presence and desire for knowledge about the future, given by mathematici. Origen, who had a somewhat uneasy relationship with Christian orthodoxy, speaks of man’s “insatiable desire” to know about the future.

He complained about the situation of the Old Testament Israelites who were forbidden from “heathen” divination techniques, including “astrology” and argued that in the Israelites’ desperation to know more about their future they turned to their prophets and the stories they told. Though, this was convenient for Origen because he argues that they foretold the coming of Christ.

Several centuries after Origen’s death, bishops at the Christian council of Braga in 561 condemned these mathematici and their stories because of their implicit assumption that the future could be told by looking at the stars – which raised questions about free will.

Stars aligned

Throughout history, astrology and the stories told by mathematici were repeatedly condemned – and the frequent criticism of the practice only makes sense in the context of astrology’s prevalence in the everyday life of the early Middle Ages. After all, you can only disprove what is practised.

Part of the problem was that the stories astrologers and their horoscopes elicited could be dangerous, wielded by kings and emperors like monarchical manifestos that described the tone of their rule, violent or peaceful, long or short. But like beauty, the meaning of a story lies in the eye of the beholder.

Astrology in the Middle Ages held an ambiguous position, disparaged but common, reviled but satiating an “innate desire”. It told stories about the world and the lives of the people in it, stories that hinted at their true desires and motivations.

Such desires are no more apparent and perhaps surprising that in the case of the bishop and amateur astrologer Pierre d’Ailly around the year 1400. At the time, the church faced a division which threatened to rip the institution in two. The Great Schism was a result of a desire for a Roman pope after years of the pope having a base in Avignon, France – and a series of popes and antipopes brought turmoil to the Church and across Europe.

Plus, historically speaking, the beginnings of centuries and millennia have tended to encourage people to reflect on the stability of the world and its possible end – and the schism brought that sharply into focus.

D’Ailly examined the night sky, but did not predict fire and damnation, instead, he suggested that the end of the world was far in the future, something for other generations to worry about. D’Ailly confounded expectations by reading the stars and telling whoever would listen to him a convenient truth: the stars tell us to press on and to make something more of this world – and who could argue with that?

Reading the future

For D’Ailly, the prospect of an imminent apocalypse called only for man to repent and pray – and possibly abandon the institutions that kept the world ticking over. Whereas D'Ailly hoped that, by facing the fact that the world would continue, the church would heal its recent division and carry on with what it was good at – saving souls.

Like D'Ailly, these messages from ancient star gazers tapped into an innate human desire: to gain a sense of control in a world of disorder. Something to hold on to when doubts formed about the road ahead.

Of course, human history is filled with foreboding about the future – and 2016 has shown us that the world is still full of surprises. So while these days we’re not all looking to the skies for an explanation of worldly happenings – like our ancestors did – perhaps we can look to the past to understand people’s desire to make reason out of the unreasonable.

And while astrology has a somewhat problematic relationship with modern science, my own prediction is that the year 2017 looks set to be as turbulent as any. So perhaps D'Ailly was on to something when he suggested we just try to do our best.


  • 10-Sep-2018

Supermoon … or not so super?

A beautiful full moon is set to rise this Sunday night, August 10. It will be spectacular and I encourage everyone to go outside and have a look. But the question is: will it be a supermoon?

Technically yes: by the definition that’s fallen into common usage, it will be a supermoon. By this I mean that the full moon will coincide with the moon being slightly closer to us, as it travels along its elliptical orbit around the Earth.

Will we notice that this moon is bigger and brighter than any other full moons to be seen this year? It might be nice to think so, but in all honesty it’s not really possible to spot the effect.

The moon is impressive as it is; being a little bit more impressive on odd occasions like this doesn’t make it stand out any more. But what it does do is give us the opportunity to think about our neighbour in space.

What’s in a name?

To set the record straight, the term “supermoon” comes from astrology. It was coined by Richard Nolle a “certified professional astrologer” in an article for Horoscope magazine in 1979.

Unfortunately, Nolle uses it to argue that this kind of moon will trigger cataclysmic events because of the extreme tidal forces at work. It won’t – the variations will bring about a tide that in most places is only a few centimetres higher than usual.

I must admit though, that supermoon has a better ring to it than perigee moon, which is the scientific expression.

Perigee denotes the point in the moon’s orbit when it passes closest to Earth. It brings the moon about 50,000km closer than at apogee when the moon passes furthest from Earth.

In the graph above, I have plotted the distance of each full moon throughout the year and you can see that this month’s full moon, at a distance of 353,552km, will be the closest for the year.

It just beats out last month’s by about 800km and it is almost 58,000km closer than the January full moon. Sounds impressive, right?

This change in distance, of about 14%, compares the perigee moon of August to the apogee moon of January. Not only are we relying on memory but the moon already looks big in the sky, so it’s quite a small relative change to notice.

Furthermore, most of the full moons we see across the year occur somewhere between these two extremes.

Of course if the moon is closer, then it’s also brighter. Sunday night’s full moon will be about 30% brighter than the one from January. But again, the moon is already the brightest object in the night sky, so spotting a difference looking at the moon is nigh impossible.

Lunar myths

The supermoon seems to be one of those stories that will just continue to hang around. Like the folklore that hospitals are busier on nights of a full moon or that the moon affects us in weird ways.

There is one moon phenomenon that is not yet explained and that is the moon illusion. It’s the idea that most of us perceive the moon as being bigger when it’s on the horizon compared to when it’s high up above in the sky.

When you are looking at the moon on Sunday night, measure it by putting your thumb in front of it or roll up a piece of paper to match the moon’s diameter as it appears large upon the horizon. Then do the same when the moon is higher in the sky and you’ll see that the change in size is all in your mind.

The Ebbinghaus illusion and the Ponzos illusion are often used to explain it, but researchers from the Susquehanna University, Pennsylvania have put forward that it may stem from us perceiving that the moon is closer on the horizon, while at the same time our binocular vision is telling us its not.

If you want to see a truly magical moon, then go no further than the video above. It is real time footage of the moon captured from New Zealand with a super telephoto lens and a great deal of creativity. Can the moon really get more stunning?


  • 10-Sep-2018

How many people actually believe in astrology?

Astrology and horoscope columns are a familiar feature of tabloid newspapers, women’s magazines and the web. They claim, controversially for some, that there is a meaningful relationship between celestial and terrestrial events, especially human affairs.

Astrology as we know it now, linking planets to the 12 zodiac signs in order to manage life on Earth, was devised in the Middle East and classical Greece between the fifth and first centuries BCE. It was largely transmitted to the 21st century via the Islamic world.

These days, astrology arouses vilification from two corners. On one side are evangelical Christians who regard it as seriously misleading at best, and Satanic at worst. On the other, sceptics denounce the idea that our destiny may lie in the stars as fraudulent and even harmful.

If such claims are true, it’s important to work out how many people believe in astrology, and why. The time is ripe for some serious investigation.

Meanings and belief

Just how many people believe in astrology and why they still do – even when their own experiences prove otherwise – is a curiosity for many. But in order to answer these questions, we need to first develop more fluid categories of belief and disbelief. We cannot simply say that followers of astrology wholly believe in it, or that others completely disbelieve. It is a complex question, even for professional astrologers and researchers.

Evidence suggests that over 90% of adults know their sun (zodiac) signs. Some surveys also indicate that well over half agree that the signs’ character descriptions are a good fit: Ariens are energetic, Taureans stubborn, and Scorpios secretive, for example.

To find out what the most involved “believers” – that is, those who are dedicated followers or professionally involved in astrology – think, I distributed questionnaires to public groups and astrology conferences from 1998 to 2012. The purpose of this recently published research was specifically to establish how many people believe in astrology, and why. Most published figures for belief in astrology are derived from Gallup polls taken in Britain, Canada and the US between 1975 and 1996 – to which around 25% of adults polled answered “yes” to questions such as “do you believe in horoscopes?”.

We might expect that all practitioners and students of astrology would say they believe. However, when I put the question to delegates at a British Astrological Association conference, just 27% said “yes” – about the same as the general population. When I asked the astrologers who didn’t “believe” for their reasons, they replied that astrology is no more a matter of belief than television or music: it is real, so has nothing to do with belief. Or to put it another way, people only believe in things which don’t exist. Which is why public surveys on belief can come up with misleading results.

Valued advice

During my research, I followed an established method of asking a series of questions on attitudes and activity, while avoiding mention of belief altogether. The picture which emerged is much more complex than the simple binary distinction between belief and disbelief suggests.

In one of my groups – of mostly male students aged 18 to 21 – I found that 70% read a horoscope column once a month and 51% valued its advice. Other questions produced a huge variation: 98% knew their sun sign, 45% thought it described their personalities, 25% said it can make accurate forecasts, and 20% think the stars influence life on Earth. The higher figures are close to previous research which showed that 73% of British adults believe in astrology, while the lowest figures are similar to those found by Gallup’s polls.

I asked other questions about the students’ behaviour as well as their attitudes. Nearly half (45%) confessed to finding out potential or actual partners’ sun signs so they could manage their relationships better, and 31% had read their predictions for the year ahead.

What became clear from all my surveys is that when we ask questions about personal experience, meaning and behaviour – such as valuing an astrologer’s advice or finding out partners’ signs – positive responses are about twice as high, if not more, than when we ask for statements of objective fact (such as “does astrology make accurate forecasts?”).

My samples were small, and each one represented a snapshot of a particular group, which makes it difficult to generalise. But all suggest that when we ask a variety of questions we arrive at different answers. How many people believe in astrology? It could be 22%. It may be 73%. The difference between the two figures is what I call the “belief gap”, the zone of doubt and uncertainty between deep and shallow commitment.

So why do people believe in astrology? The problem we have is in establishing reliable research. If we can’t actually get to first base and find out how many people believe in it, then attempts to establish why people find it meaningful – a better word than belief – get stuck.

  • 10-Sep-2018

Some people think astrology is a science – here’s why

Most people reading this article will have also read their horoscope at least once. Even though scientific studies have never found evidence for the claims astrologers make, some people still think astrology is scientific. We are now beginning to understand why, and people’s personalities might have something to do with it.

Astrology columns are widespread and have been around for a surprisingly long time. One of the earliest recorded columnists was 17th century astrologer William Lilly, who was reputed to have predicted the Great Fire of London, albeit 14 years too early.

The idea behind astrology is that stars and planets have some influence on human affairs and terrestrial events. And horoscopes are an astrologer’s foretelling of a person’s life based on the relative positions of stars and planets.

These forecasts are regularly read around the world. According to the Wellcome Trust Monitor Survey, 21% of adults in Britain read their horoscopes “often” or “fairly often”.

Undoubtedly many people read their horoscopes just for entertainment value, or as a topic for conversation. But some people attach scientific credence to astrological predictions and regard astrology as a valid way of understanding human behaviour. A surprisingly large quantity of scientific research has been carried out to evaluate the claims of astrology over the past 40 years. There is no evidence to support such claims.

It should then be a cause for concern if citizens make important life decisions based on entirely unreliable astrological predictions. For instance, people may decide for or against a potential marriage partner based on astrological sign. This happens quite often in India. Some may make rash financial decisions based on predicted good fortune.

Reassuringly, it turns out that the number of people in Britain who think that horoscopes are scientific is small. From the Wellcome Trust Monitor survey, we know that less than 10% think horoscopes are “very” or “quite” scientific. And a similar proportion thinks the same across the European Union as a whole.

However, if we ask people whether they think astrology is scientific, we see a different picture. In a Eurobarometer survey of attitudes towards science and technology, a randomly selected half of respondents were asked how scientific they thought astrology was. The other half were asked the same question about horoscopes.

The results shows a surprising disparity in opinion. More than 25% think that astrology is “very scientific” compared to only 7% for horoscopes.

In research I carried out a few years ago, I tested the hypothesis that people get confused between astrology and astronomy, and it is this that could account for widespread apparent belief in the scientific status of astrology. Even well-respected national newspapers have been known to make this mistake.

My survey also asked people how scientific they believed various activities to be. One of these was astronomy. Using a statistical technique known as regression analysis, I discovered, after adjusting for age, gender and education, that people who were particularly likely to think that astronomy was very scientific were also very likely to think the same about astrology. This points to semantic confusion about these terms among the general public.

In the same study, I was interested to look at other explanations for why some Europeans think astrology is scientific and others do not. The first explanation I looked at was people’s level of education and their knowledge about science.

If one does not have an adequate understanding, it might be difficult to distinguish between science and pseudoscience. So it turns out to be. When taking a wide range of other factors into account, those who have a university degree and who score highly on a quiz tapping scientific knowledge are less likely to think that astrology is scientific.

In line with previous studies, women are more likely than men to think astrology is scientific, regardless of their level of education and knowledge about science. Those who believe in God or a “spirit of some kind” are also more likely to find astrology a scientifically credible activity.

Take things as they are

The most interesting result, however, is based on an idea proposed more than 50 years ago by the German sociologist Theodore Adorno. In 1952, Adorno carried out a study of a Los Angeles Times astrology column. He is witheringly critical of astrology, dubbing it, with the rest of occultism, a “metaphysic of dunces”, suggesting “a climate of semi-erudition is the fertile breeding ground for astrology”.

What is particularly interesting, though, is the connection drawn between astrology with authoritarianism, fascism and modern capitalism (remember that this was in the aftermath of WWII and the Holocaust). For Adorno, astrology emphasised conformity and deference to higher authority of some kind. As some researchers put it: “Take things as they are, since you are fated for them anyway”. In short, Adorno believed that “astrological ideology” resembles “the mentality of the authoritarian personality”.

People high on authoritarianism tend to have blind allegiance to conventional beliefs about right and wrong and have high respect for acknowledged authorities. They are also those who are more favourable towards punishing those who do not subscribe to conventional thinking and aggressive towards those who think differently.

If this hypothesis is correct, then we should see that people who value conformity and obedience will be more likely to give credence to the claims of astrology. In the Eurobarometer survey, there was (by chance) a question that asked people how important they thought “obedience” was as a value that children should learn.

I used this question as a rough and ready indicator of whether a survey respondent was more or less authoritarian in their outlook. And, again, I used regression analysis to see if there was a link between people’s answers to this question and what they thought about astrology. In line with Adorno’s prediction made in 1953, people who attach high importance to obedience as a value (more authoritarian) are indeed more likely to think that astrology is scientific. This is true regardless of people’s age, education, science knowledge, gender and political and religious orientations.

So, on one hand, it seems that horoscopes and astrological predictions are, for most people, just a bit of harmless entertainment. On the other, the tendency to be credulous towards astrology is at least partially explained by what people know about science – but also what kind of personality traits they have. And these factors might prove useful in understanding beliefs about a whole range of pseudoscientific fields.