Popular Science, September 1931 - Why Astrology is a fake.

You could be forgiven for assuming that the Age of Reason started some time around 1960, when humans started looking seriously at going into space. However, there actually was an apparently robust community of rational thinkers, way back in 1931. Also consider that we in The Future still wrestle with the problems of willful ignorance and superstition (the GMO debate, anti-vaxxers, the Texas Board of Education, acupuncture, homeopathy, and the herbal supplement industry being notable examples that spring easily to mind).

But dig this: an article from the September 1931 issue of Popular Science explaining why astrology is bogus. Turns out there have been clear-thinking people as long as there have been credulous people who believe in magic.

A sidebar on Mostly Harmless, by Douglas Adams (You can skip on down to the PopSci article if you like).

This reminds me of one of the plot lines in Mostly Harmless, by Douglas Adams. It pretty elegantly points out why astrology can't possibly work. A race of aliens, the grebulons, are stranded on a recently discovered tenth planet of our solar system called Rupert. Due to a technical problem with their ship, they have lost all computer records, as well as their own memories, which were stored in the ship's computer. They don't know anything other than they are meant to observe Earth. And so they have been watching our television and radio broadcasts for decades. Naturally, they're clueless as a result. The Grebulons approach a TV news reporter called Tricia McMillan (with an advanced degree in mathematics) to, among other things, help them learn their future using astrology.

This is where Adams' trademark cleverness comes into play. Astrology is based on the idea that the positions of planets govern our lives. So, how could that work when we didn't even know about Pluto until 1930? Were all astrological predictions before that time thrown out after it's discovery? We now regard Pluto as a "dwarf planet". Surely there are large asteroids that approach Pluto's size out in the Kuiper belt. Why should we concern ourselves with the motions of tiny planets and disregard really big asteroids also in our neck of the woods? Shouldn't the expansion of our understanding of astronomy alter our "understanding" of astrology?

In Mostly Harmless, Tricia, trying to humor the Grebulons, is forced to calculate the positions and orbits of all the heavenly bodies in the sky from the point of view on the Grebulon home world in order to come up with some kind of astrological prediction for them. The effort basically falls apart and can't be done, because it's a fool's errand. That part of the book constitutes a satirical and effective disassembly of the whole notion of astrology.

This is trademark Adams: clever, insightful, and wildly entertaining, just like his argument against intelligent design, as found in the posthumous collection of his essays and talks "The Salmon of Doubt". It goes like this:

This is rather as if you imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, 'This is an interesting world I find myself in — an interesting hole I find myself in — fits me rather neatly, doesn't it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!' This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, frantically hanging on to the notion that everything's going to be alright, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise. I think this may be something we need to be on the watch out for.

The puddle feels that the hole was made to fit Puddle, when it's the puddle that adapts to the shape of the hole, which is why it seems to fit so nicely. The world wasn't made for the puddle. Puddle is just a product of the world, which will barely notice when it's gone.

Please enjoy this article, bearing in mind that some of their astronomical references may be out of date, as science is a self-correcting endeavor and has probably come a little ways in the intervening years.

 Higher-resolution versions can be clicked below...


Michelle_Randy said...

I haven't read any Adams since I read Hitchhiker's Guide back near high school, but just recently started his "Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency" after a recommendation from iO9. I anticipate much more of his work after this.

PhilAreGo@gmail.com said...

Aah, Dirk Gently! It's just more product of the mind of Adams, which is nearly always a wonderful thing, and generally good for yours. It's no Hitchhiker's Guide, but neither are the last two books of that series. In retrospect, I think you'll like The Salmon of Doubt a little more, since it's just a collection of his essays on the subjects of technology and philosophy and life in general, and it's a lot like attending a series of lectures from him, which would be a dreamy fantasy, right?

Come to think of it, the whole part of Dirk Gently that takes place at Cambridge is really interesting. And the part that's a ghost story from the viewpoint of the recently deceased.. that's great too. Man that's a good book. I need to re-read that! Thanks, Michelle!


Post a Comment