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Health, psychology & science stories



12 June 2002

Published in the Byron Echo

[This story would not have been necessary in most places other than Byron Shire. It silenced the chorus of astrology-talk by which I was surrounded for about a fortnight.]

There has been an outpouring of emotion recently on the subject of astrology.

Everyday evidence is not much help in assessing astrology. On the one hand, one anecdotally observes that the less intelligent one's friends are, the more they talk of it. On the other, one has met an awful lot of lustful, secretive power-obsessed people born in November, and many born in March who can barely find their way out of their own bathroom. One's own chart is even more compelling - describing a person who is remarkable and unique: a giant among men. This gives it a deeply authentic ring.

Because these observations are so suspect, one must probably look to science for a way of verifying - or debunking - astrology's claims. Let's do that.

First, the science of logic. Of all the American boys born on or around 3 p.m., May 17, 1917, why did only one become President of the United States? The later intrusion of "social factors"? Alright then: Whilst the Central Intelligence Agency was, over several months, planning that same President's murder in 1963 - a murder which would prove a seminal world event - why did no astrologer predict it?

Secondly, the science of genetics. The genetic factors in our make-up are established at conception. Whether I am (a) induced, to allow the obstetrician to start his golf holiday; or (b) go full-term, and am born a fortnight later - my genetic structure will be the same. How can the very different personalities which, according to astrology, would result from births (a) and (b) be explained? It defies what we know about the sheer pervasiveness of heredity to say that it can be varied by a last-minute factors which are not genetic.

There is the explanation that astrology doesn't over-rule but overlies heredity - like a second "grid" of influences: mapping character as the genes do, but being divided into different categories, and given different names. (Rather as Aboriginals and Europeans categorise and describe Australia's flora differently, though it is but one phenomenon.) In other words you are an oversexed buffoon because you are a triple Scorpio and because you are very much like your father. However this theory also collapses when we apply the alternate birth scenarios, above.

Thirdly, let's introduce the science of geography. How does one compute an astrological chart for those born above the Arctic Circle, where there may be no planet on the horizon for several weeks in a row? Are we to believe that the great forces in astrology affect everything and everyone - from one end of the universe to the other - except Finns and Alaskans?

Let us fourthly introduce the science of astronomy. Due to what astronomers call "the procession of the equinoxes" - wherein a slow oscillation of the alignment of the poles changes the celestial equator among the constellations - the signs of the zodiac have "slipped" about one case since the time of Christ. In other words if, astrologically, you were "born under the sign of" Libra, the sun at the time of your birth was actually traversing the constellation of Scorpio. This is bad news for astrologers, and catastrophic for Librans.

Finally, let's wave aside these theoretical objections - and see whether, in practice, astrology works. Michel Gauquelin graduated in Psychology and also Statistics from the Sorbonne, and was at the time of his death last year Scientific Editor of the the French journal Psychologie. Gauquelin is well-known for his investigations into astrology. His general method is to take a population sample - one whose astrological data is known - and test that population for certain major events which should, according to astrology, have been predictable. For instance Gauquelin investigated the claim of the astrologer Paul Choisnard that "people die under particular celestial configurations": Choisnard had done a 200-person study "proving" that Mars and Saturn were more frequently in conjunction with a person's sun sign at death. Gauquelin analysed information on 7,000 lives - and established there was no such correlation.

Gauquelin collected from the Paris Courthouse the birth statistics of France's 623 most notorious murderers. He analysed them to establish whether Mars - as astrology claims - "makes one impulsive, aggressive, tyrannical" and "rules tempers...and also objects which are hard, fast or dangerous". Unhappily the vaunted relation of Mars to violence and blood was not to be found. 

During the 1950s Gauquelin and his team criss-crossed Europe, studying populations of scientists, physicians, military men, athletes, businessmen, politicians, actors, journalists, playwrights and writers. In the case of doctors, for instance, he dug out the birth dates of 576 members of the French Academy of Medicine. For other categories he spent months writing to obscure country parishes to get birth times. He eventually studied over 25,000 people overall. In each category, an analysis of his data revealed that the patterns of the births and the subsequently-lived lives "did not correspond to any of the traditional laws of astrology".

Scientific method, as a route of discovery, is hard to criticise: it is the method par excellence of uncovering the realities of the world. One of those realities, it now appears, is that astrology is ripe for the recycled plastic, solar absorbent, fully aerobic compost bin of history.

Michel Gauquelin's book, from which more than half the contents of this article were pinched, is The Cosmic Clocks. (Paladin.)


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