Salon Writer Says We Should Stop Criticizing Astrology; Here’s Why He’s Wrong

Eric Adams considers himself a “man of science,” but doesn’t want to be a dick about it to astrology believers. That alone isn’t a bad idea — it’s hard to change minds by insulting people. In a piece for Salon, he shared how how he’s learned to strike a balance… but it quickly took a strange direction:

I have very few buttons people can press that will elicit any sort of knee-jerk reaction. Actually, I only have one: Astrology… The subject strikes a nerve because my main avocation happens to be astronomy. You know, the actual science.

When I thought about it, I quickly realized that similar low-level intolerance crops up other places in my life, as well…

So where do I get off being such a dismissive shit?

It’s the equivalent of dismissing entire religions, which just isn’t like me.

Let’s stop right there before he goes any further. Astrology’s fundamental principles tell you how you’re supposed to interact with others based on their star sign: You’re compatible with this person. You should avoid that person. In pretty much every other context where you treat people differently due to something beyond their control, we have a word for it. People deserve to be treated equally regardless of their sexual orientation, skin color, and when they were born.

An actual image from the Zodiac Society Tumblr
An actual image from the Zodiac Society Tumblr

In that sense, Adams’ piece is reminiscent of Christian fundamentalists’ demand that they not be criticized for their anti-gay beliefs (because, you know, it’s bigoted and intolerant to challenge bigotry and intolerance) or those who say we mustn’t criticize oppression of women in Islamic nations because it “disrespects the culture.”

Astronomy professor Andrew Fraknoi, winner of several national awards for education on the intersection of physics and culture, asks very bluntly:

Shouldn’t we condemn astrology as a form of bigotry?

In a civilized society we deplore all systems that judge individuals by sex, skin color, religion, national origin, or other accidents of birth. Yet astrologers boast that they can evaluate people based on another accident of birth — the positions of celestial objects. Isn’t refusing to date a Leo or hire a Virgo as bad as refusing to date a Catholic or hire a black person?

Ben Radford in Discovery Magazine made a similar point:

Astrology and racism share many of the same ideas… Just as people have no control over their skin color, they also have no ability to determine when and where they were born.

Both astrology and racial stereotypes are based on a framework of belief that basically says: “Without even meeting you, I believe something about you. I can expect this particular sort of behavior or trait (stubbornness, laziness, arrogance, etc.) from members of this particular group of people (Jews, blacks, Aries, Pisces, etc.).”

When an astrologer finds out a person’s astrological sign, he or she will bring to that experience a pre-existing list of assumptions (prejudices) about that person’s behavior, personality and character. In both cases, the prejudices will cause people to seek out and confirm their expectations.

Perhaps the point is best made by comic James Patterson in a hilarious Comedy Central clip on astrological stereotyping:

This girl I’m friends with is into this New Age bigotry called “astrology”… Like, she went out with this guy, and she’s like… “I don’t understand. We went out and we had a really nice time, and he said he was gonna call, and he didn’t. He just lied. He’s just a liar. He’s such a Gemini.” And I was like, okay, what does that have to do with it? And she looked at me like I was nuts. She was like, “Gemini? The sign of the twin? They’re two-faced and they’re liars!”

And I was like, “Yeah, there’s a nice little stereotype for you. You know, that’s just what we need. ‘Cause, you know, humans haven’t just made up enough reasons to hate one another. No, along with race, nationality, gender, sexual preference, religious or cultural differences… nah, it’s just that if you’re born in June, you’re a prick.

Too bad Patterson isn’t exaggerating. I’ve heard similar statements from dozens of different astrology believers. Go to any astrology discussion forum and you will quickly find thousands of remarks made recently just like these, all well received:

  • Libras are such liars.
  • Venus in Aquarius are whores.
  • Avoid Cancer women, who may sleep with your man.
  • Aries are selfish to the bone.
  • Ancient astrologers tell us that Scorpios are backstabbing and sneaky.

Unfortunately, Adams seems to think being a nice person requires that we turn off our brains and forget all we’ve learned about the scientific method and critical thinking:

And astrology, likewise, might have legitimacy that my ignorance and intolerance prevents me from seeing

… the notion of planetary alignments influencing people is perhaps something I can get behind: Gravity affects everything in the universe. Maybe the rhythms of the solar system – its perpetual push and pull – actually do hold sway over our emotional lives on some deep, cellular level, and hardcore science just hasn’t come around to that yet.

It’s ignorant and intolerant to call out ignorance and intolerance? And “hardcore science?” As opposed to what? Nicer, more inoffensive science? The scientific method is the scientific method. Why go so far as to adopt the stigmatizing rhetoric of anti-science activists?

Adams talked this all over with Mahzarin Banaji, Ph.D, a Harvard professor of social ethics. I actually quite like what she has to say, but I’m not sure Adams got her message. She explains he’s not unusual for being concerned about a belief in others that may affect his world:

“Human beings are learning machines. They use one bit of information about a person’s belief in astrology, say, to predict other things about the person, like their competence or incompetence. Often such generalization lands us in the correct place, and often it leads to error.”

Absolutely. That, too, can be bigotry. We should resist judging an individual or group’s character and ability because of a particular label they use or an inconsequential belief they hold. Adams relates an anecdote about his own obnoxious overall disdain for an acquaintance because of his astrology beliefs, which is of course going too far. But ideologies themselves can and often should be judged. As Banaji then says:

“We care about what people think and what they believe… And rightly so. What people believe tells us a lot about them. It predicts how they will behave, and how they will act towards us. The invisible thoughts in people’s heads are consequential for us.”

Adams misses what appears, at least to me, to be Banaji’s point: that it’s “rightly so” that we care about others beliefs. There’s tremendous irony in his finger-wagging at skeptics to reduce bigotry:

So hey, I’m over it… But evidently this sort of nuisance-level intolerance may be where we’re all headed – and the implications are significant. “Conscious racial and other discriminations are slowly fading,” Banaji says. “As modern, urban people move away from discriminating between ‘us and them’ along the usual dimensions of geography, religion, race, gender, sexuality, it’s the differences in what we believe that matter more and more.“

Call it an infinite loop of bigotry: Our low-level intolerances will expand to fill the space allotted for them. As a result, our focus on the details of peoples’ lives will generate still more prejudices…

Ominous stuff…

Wait. Believers seek to add birth month to his list of “us and them” traits like race, gender, and sexuality. That’s okay with him, but objecting to it is “ominous stuff”? If questioning pseudoscience is bigotry, are all scientists who publish and promote their findings similarly disrespectful toward pseudoscientists and their fans? Sigh. This is part of a tendency among my fellow progressives to criticize the Right while averting eyes from similar problems that are popular with the Left. The Christian Right is fair game, but New Age spirituality is off limits. This, or just being uninformed, is surely the only explanation for Adam’ characterization of astrology as

… a relatively benign belief compared to many of the other actually destructive pseudosciences and anti-scientific “arguments” we keep hearing about these days…

While I don’t necessarily think astrologers will take over the world, I suppose deep down I do feel threatened that something I don’t consider to be legitimate science could influence the world I live in…

Okay, that’s stretching the point…

It’s no stretch to suspect astrology influences the world, and in no way can it be considered “benign.” Let’s take a look:

  • Astrologers hurt people when they baselessly convince adults and children that they can’t help having certain personality traits so much that it’s been shown many actually become the stereotype they’re “supposed” to be like, good or bad.
  • It hurts people when NPR news station promoting a “forensic astrologer” calling for criminal profiling based on the zodiac, including teaching which signs he claims are most likely to murder and rape (Gemini, Capricorn, and Sagittarius).
  • Astrologers warn the Chinese people that babies born in a bad zodiac year will have difficult lives, leading to C-sections & abortions, and hurt people.
  • Chinese employers who discriminate against people based on their zodiac sign, especially Virgos, hurt people.
  • Astrologers appearing nightly on Indian news programs, to blame rape on “rape-prone” women born under the wrong planet and on planetary forces that make men rape, hurt people. The many popular western New Age astrologers who also teach this, and extend it to child abuse and other crimes, hurt people. Statements like this by an astrologer with OMSH Books and Services contribute to rape culture and victim blaming: “… those in situations that risk rape should be on heightened alert into the 19th at minimum (no joke) and for those who like and or enjoy aggressive sexuality, it’s ‘your time’ till then… the last time I gave this kind of astrological heads up… a man was breaking into houses there and raping women… Many of you will enjoy this energy…”
  • Horoscope matching, a massive wedding industry in India centered around promoting and profiting from bigotry, is wrecking the lives of many young Hindus. Families are expected to pay an astrologer to not only rate the match before they agree to it, but to confirm the prospective mate wasn’t born under the dreaded “manglik” sign. Families with less money use one of dozens of websites offering “Free Manglik Checks.”
  • Astrologers warning that India’s couples shouldn’t marry this year or risk bad planetary effects, hurts not only the couple but a very large wedding industry.
  • When India’s cabinet minister who is charged with “promotion of scientific temper among children” is an astrology believer, the futures of children, students, and a nation’s struggling economic future are put at risk.
  • Indian news media warning the public that solar eclipses can make us sick, contaminate our food, and cause tsunamis create fear, needless anxiety, ill-afforded financial outlays, and lost productivity, as people arrange protection, take cover, throw out food, and hire astrologers to “cleanse” them.
  • Major American media telling us we need to hire expensive astrologers to avoid “household crises” and computer failures because they use “special software to to make a local space map” of the “planetary lines” in our homes, hurt vulnerable people who fall prey to such scams.
  • Teaching our children astrology-based pseudoscience instead of actual science in public schools hurts our kids’ ability to achieve in science, just as those trying to teach Creationism.
  • Astrologers successfully persuading most voters in a poor nation to choose their leaders based on their horoscopes, who advised the Sri Lanka president to reschedule an election to help him win (which backfired and led to his defeat), hurt people.
  • Misinforming us that astrology is science so that people build their careers on it, only to realize too late that it’s not and that their “guidance” of people was without foundation, has hurt people.

Studies show Americans are increasingly shedding traditional religious beliefs and looking to New Age beliefs as a kind of compromise. The last thing we need is to start censoring ourselves from examining the ethics and consequences of those beliefs.

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