Wednesday, June 24, 1998 Published at 16:54 GMT 17:54 UK
Are scientists prejudiced against astrology?
Dr Paul Kail: Defends astrology as a science
Earlier this month our Science Editor Dr David Whitehouse, took a sideswipe at astrology following reports that footballers were preparing for the World Cup by studying the stars - their signs, in this case, rather than the opposition's strikers.
It was all, concluded Dr Whitehouse, a hoax.
The article infuriated another scientist - Dr Paul Kail of Prague in the Czech Republic. So we asked Dr Kail to expand on his point of view.
David Whitehouse should stick to talking about things that he knows something about. His comments on astrology reflect a complete ignorance about the subject, coupled with the irrational nihilism.
We have come to expect this from scientists who are frightened by ways of looking at the world which are not consistent with existing scientific dogma
Mr. Whitehouse's knowledge of astrology seems to be limited to newspaper columns, since he believes that a major part of astrology is predicting the future, and that astrologers might claim to be able to predict the World Cup.
He claims to have talked to practicing astrologers: however, any professional astrologer would have told him that newspaper columns have little or no connection with proper astrology.
He claims that "There is not the slightest bit of serious scientific evidence that it works." This simply isn't true, and shows that he has not taken the trouble to look at the literature.
The claims that astrology makes are just as testable as the claims made by chemists or physicists.
For example, astrology claims that people born with Mars in Aries are likely to be more aggressive than average. This is testable.
Unfortunately, because of the prejudice of the scientific community, funds for studying astrology are limited. Consequently, much astrological theory is unproven.
Despite this, there is very strong evidence that a core of astrology is, indeed, valid. Hans Eysenck, professor of Psychology at the University of London, has written an excellent review of recent literature.
Another book I would recommend him to read is "Recent Advances in Natal Astrology" by G. Dean, an analytical chemist from Perth.
'Does astrology work?'
Professor Eysenck's conclusion is as follows: Overall, then, in response to the question "Does astrology work?", we would agree with the summing up of Dean and others (1977), that 'the picture emerging suggests that astrology works, but seldom in the way or to the extent that it is said to work.'
One could hardly expect otherwise from a tradition which is thousands of years old, but which has only in the last century been subject to scientific analysis.
My objection to Mr Whitehouse's attitude is as follows. Science will advance if we constantly question the things that we see around us.
The moment we tell ourselves that science has answered all our questions, and simply needs to be "defended" against heretics, it becomes a religion.
Astrology will succeed or fail on the basis that the claims that it makes are tested, and found to be valid. It cannot be judged on the basis that we don't yet have a plausible mechanism for it.
When I studied medicine and neurophysiology at Oxford, back in the early eighties, anaesthetics had already been used for many years. Yet nobody really knew how they worked (of course, there were various conflicting theories). Nor did we really know how most of the neuroleptic drugs worked, let along ECT.
However, nobody pretended that they couldn't work, just because we didn't have a completely watertight mechanism to explain what they did. Maybe by now, we do have a better understanding of these areas.
However, many phenomena which we know exist are inexplicable; and others have accepted explanations which are probably wrong.
Yet scientists scoff at astrology because they cannot understand how it could work. This is an irrational approach, not a scientific one.
Moreover, it is getting the cart before the horse. If at least 20% of what astrology claims is proven (and at least this is certain), then we have something to investigate.
With a scientific background and a strong interest in astrology, am very interested to find out what the mechanism actually is.
I think that any scientist should be equally curious: if astrology cannot be explained by existing laws, then maybe it can tell us something new about the universe. Mr Whitehouse's comment that the gravitational fields of the planets at the time of birth are too weak to affect the child is trite. We know this, thank you very much.
Open to new ways
It is your job as a scientist what the mechanism actually is. Indeed, any scientist worthy of the name should be open to new ways of looking at the universe, rather than to defending existing dogmas.
Dr David Whitehouse replies:
Ever since my early interest in astronomy and especially when I was a professional astronomer, I have been regularly told by someone or other that there is something in astrology. If only I wasn't a blinkered scientist with a biased mind I would see it.
But I refuse to be gullible. When I look at the evidence put forward that astrology works I come away very unimpressed. I can't agree that at least 20% of what astrology claims is proven.
Just because science can't explain everything doesn't mean that it has not explained astrology. Because we cannot explain why some things work, like some drugs, does not mean that astrology works in an as yet undiscovered way. Some things are just plain wrong.
Thor is not the god of thunder, the earth isn't the centre of the universe and there are not fairies at the bottom of my garden.