»  National Review

July 9th, 2001

  Stars Above!

[Note: The text below is what appeared in the magazine. Some months later, however, I got an email from the Higher Education Coordinating Board of Washington State, pointing out that: "Kepler College is not 'accredited' by the HECB, but rather 'authorized' to operate in the state, which has an entirely different meaning." The difference, as best I can understand it, is that "authorization" certifies the institution as meeting certain regulatory requirements relating to "infrastructure, policies, programs and procedures," while "accreditation … is the process that ensures educational quality during the continuing operation of the institution." Got that? For further information, contact the HECB.]


Those of us who were around in the 1970s often felt we might not make it through that strange decade with our sanity intact if just one more person came up to us at a party and said: "What sign are you?" That particular form of silliness has not so much sunk without trace as risen without trace: astrology can now be studied, for a Bachelor's or Master's degree, at the Kepler College of Astrological Arts and Sciences in Seattle. Nothing very deplorable about that, you might think. The New Age movement has thrown up all sorts of odd manifestations. Kepler College, however, is accredited by the Higher Education Coordinating Board of Washington State, which means that the degrees it awards are, by power of law, equal to those issued by the University of Washington.

As Kepler College prepares to take in its second freshman class, from Paris comes the story of Mme. Elizabeth Teissier, who has just received a passing grade from the Sorbonne sociology department for a 900-page Ph.D. thesis on astrology, in which Mme. Teissier makes it plain that she takes this "science" very seriously. She is, in fact, a professional astrologer, and served in that capacity to the late French socialist president François Mitterrand. The gist of her thesis, according to one sociologist who has read it, is: "[T]hat astrology is the victim of domination. That science, which is renamed 'official science' or 'monolithic thought', oppresses astrology." The acceptance of Mme. Teissier's thesis by the Sorbonne has created a great fuss in France, especially among professional sociologists, who apparently are not much taken with Mme. Teissier having described Max Weber, one of the revered founders of their discipline, as "a pragmatic Taurus." After firing off a single letter of self-justification to the French newspaper Le Monde (the valediction read: "Astrally yours"), Mme. Teissier is not speaking to the press.

Further afield, India's large and prestigious scientific community is up in arms about a decision by that country's education authorities to create astrology departments in 24 public universities in the next academic year. At a time when India is building a reputation as a rising power in information technology, the official sanctioning of astrology would, says world-renowned astrophysicist Jayant Narlikar, take India "backwards to medieval times."

It hardly needs saying, I hope, to a readership as intelligent as NR's that astrology is twaddle. An astrologer can tell you nothing useful, though one with a good bedside manner can, of course, cheer you up a bit. The perfect emptiness of astrology has been demonstrated countless times. The Dutch investigator Rob Nanninga, for example, took seven subjects, extracted from them all the information necessary for an astrologer to make up a full horoscope, and gave that information to 50 astrologers. He then administered to the same seven subjects a set of questions, supplied by the astrologers themselves, about their personality and life experiences. The completed questionnaires were passed to the astrologers, who were then asked to match horoscope to questionnaire. Their failure to do so was total: results were exactly what one would expect from a random pairing of horoscopes with questionnaires. If you don't like that experiment, any number of others have been done, with different methods but identical results — Skeptical Inquirer magazine can supply a full list. Astrology is pure flapdoodle.

Even if one did not know this from controlled experiments, one could deduce it from the results of applied astrology. The complete failure of astrologers to have anything useful to tell us was demonstrated rather dramatically on June 1st this year when Crown Prince Dipendra of Nepal murdered most of that country's royal family. In common with many other leaders in third world countries, the Nepali royals had relied heavily on court astrologers to steer them through life's vicissitudes. One of these seers, interviewed after the event by a London newspaper, was clearly embarrassed by his inability to predict the massacre. "Heavenly planets control the situation on the ground and sometimes we are unable to explain them adequately," confessed Mangal Raj Joshi. (Who also teaches astrology at Kathmandu's Tribhuvan University. Mr. Joshi still has the day job, though: "His first task for the new monarch is to determine the most auspicious time for his crowning on Monday morning." I can't help thinking that if I were the new monarch, I'd be looking for a new astrologer.)

Astrology anyway gives itself away by the company it keeps. Considered in isolation, astrology may be harmless piffle, but it travels with all the most poisonous and anti-social trends in contemporary thinking. The odor that arises from current astrology propaganda is that of the post-modern "deconstruction of knowledge": the conceit that, hey, we can't really know anything, so one set of beliefs is as good as another. This agrees very nicely with the current fads about race and "multiculturalism" that are so busily eating away at our social cohesion. If all beliefs are as good as each other, then the bushmen of the Kalahari are, and the necromancers of old Babylon were, as wise as the Harvard faculty — probably wiser, in fact, since their beliefs owe nothing to 'official science'.

Consider, for example, Valerie Vaughan, one of the cult's most vocal defenders here in the U.S.A. Ms. Vaughan, a professional astrologer, is also director of a science education library in Amherst, Mass. Her latest crusade is to get astrology into the public school curriculum under the cover of "multicultural studies":

Since every culture in the world has developed a form of astrology, it is inherently diverse …

(I confess that, in spite of my disapproval of the things Ms. Vaughan believes and does, I find her one of the most engaging and quotable of astrology propagandists. Sample: "Scientist debunkers have discovered they can expand their power to the realm of public school education — but what else would you expect with Pluto currently in Sagittarius?")

In a free country, of course, people should be left alone to believe what they like. We can, however, disapprove and discourage, and there are strong conservative reasons to speak out against the promotion of astrology in public schools and colleges. There is a good political case against allowing belief in astrology to go unchallenged: namely, that such belief is unworthy of a free people. Astrology's implicit fatalism and disdain for the common rules of evidence simply do not fit well on citizenship of this republic, where people carve out their individual destinies in defiance of anything Nature might throw at them, and are determined to uncover the truth about the world by reasoned inquiry. Astrology belongs in another kind of society, whose citizens are the helpless slaves of forces they cannot control, where truth counts for nothing, where lives and property exist at the whim of the powerful. It arose in, and is best suited to, great despotic empires like those of the pre-industrial age described by Robert Wesson in his book The Imperial Order:

To sift truth from error … requires an effort; where there is no great advantage for the former, the latter often prevails … The imperial order, itself irrational and hence distrusting reason, excels in credulity and superstition … Weary old empires have been buried in a jungle of … geomancy, astrology and magic … and their few intellectuals strive rather to glimpse mysteries than to grasp facts.

The connection between pseudoscience and despotism has carried over into the modern age. Remember the steady flow of news stories from the old U.S.S.R. of telepaths, 150-year-old goatherds in the Caucasus, the woman who could detect colors by touch — not to mention the official promotion, in Stalin's time, of the pseudo-geneticist Lysenko and the pseudo-linguist Marr.

Thomas Jefferson spoke of " that liberty which takes root and growth in the progress of reason." As our reverence for reason ebbs away, so will our liberties, until at last we are reduced to the condition of apathetic serfs, seeking hope not in the fruits of our own exertions, but in the dispositions of the planets. The growing acceptance of astrology is not a cause of that decline, it is only a symptom; but it is sufficiently deplorable on those grounds, and ought to be resisted.