Posts Tagged “astronomy”

Astrology Wheel DiskIt’s been the talk of the Internet for the past several days: Astrology isn’t just bullshit, it’s erroneous bullshit. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported a few days ago that the traditional zodiac scheme of 12 “signs,” is off by a couple thousand years, and fails to include a 13th sign that it should have had (WebCitation cached article):

Countless people were astonished by the “news” in Monday’s Star Tribune in which Minneapolis astronomy instructor Parke Kunkle affirmed that the Earth’s “wobble” has shifted the zodiac signs. The buzz has raced across the Web like a shooting star.

As an aside, it seems a bit like bragging for a newspaper to report on the popularity of one of its own stories, but hey, it’s not a perfect world.

In the article, Kunkle affirmed that since the Babylonian zodiac periods were established millennia ago, the moon’s gravitational pull has made the Earth “wobble” around its axis in a process called precession. That has created about a one-month bump in the stars’ alignment, meaning that “when [astrologers] say that the sun is in ­Pisces, it’s really not in Pisces,” said Kunkle, who teaches astronomy courses at Minneapolis Community and Technical College. …

By the reckoning of Kunkle and other astronomers, astrologers are not only a month off in their zodiac signs, but they are neglecting a 13th constellation, Ophiuchus (Ooh-FEE-yew-kus) the Serpent Bearer, for those born from Nov. 30 to Dec. 17.

Astrology’s believers and propagators, however, are unfazed by this news, and dismiss it out-of-hand:

Linda Zlotnick, an astrologer for 32 years in St. Paul, said she and fellow astrologers have long known of the issue raised by Kunkle, but that the most commonly used zodiac — tropical — isn’t affected by it. Zlotnick, also known as “Moonrabbit,” said the sidereal zodiac, which isn’t as widely used, IS based on the constellations.

This dismissal of Kunkle’s critique is echoed in this CNN apologia for astrology (cached):

But before astrology fans scrape the ink from their arms because they think they’re now a Virgo instead of a Libra, they should consider this: If they adhered to the tropical zodiac — which, if they’re a Westerner, they probably did — absolutely nothing has changed for them.

What makes this dismissal invalid, is that it’s basically tautological: The “tropical zodiac” is merely the name of the zodiac as laid down by the Babylonians and later used by the Greeks. That’s all it is … just a name. As Kunkle pointed out — and as the astrologers themselves admit — it no longer coincides with the motion of the sun through the constellations.

I note that the astrologers’ whine about this story is that “it’s old news, everyone knows that.” As such, it’s curiously like all the various defenses of Biblical literalism that fundamentalist Christians reflexively toss around, every time someone points out the many problems with scripture that have been found over the last couple centuries.

While it’s true that the precession of the heavens is “old news” — dating to the 2nd century BCE, having been discovered by Hipparchus of Nicæa — and is by no means a major revelation, this doesn’t mean it’s not important or insignificant. Quite the opposite, it means astrologers have no valid excuse for not knowing any better. But the truth here is that astrology is bullshit anyway, so it hardly matters to its peddlers that it’s out-of-whack and no longer coincides with reality. Facts don’t matter, only the belief does. Astrologers’ dismissal of this “news” tells us everything we need to know about astrology — and about them.

Hat tip: Bad Astronomy.

Photo credit: dragonoak.

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As if in agreement with my recent criticism of the state of journalism and the mass media … particularly in its staggering lack of anything resembling critical thinking or skepticism … Dean Burnett of the “Science Digestive” blog wrote some letters from “Science” to various other fields … beginning with the mass media. Here’s but a sampling:

  • From Dear Media, From Science (No. 1):

    Firstly, would it kill you to be a bit more specific when you tell people what I’m up to? The number of news stories I’ve read which end with “…say scientists” just drives me to distraction. And I can’t afford to be distracted, a lot of my work is quite delicate., some of it involves brains!

    Do you realise how vague a term ‘Scientists’ is? It’s like ‘cars’, there are hundreds of different types. It might be accurate, but it’s not specific. You’d never say “‘Kill all homosexuals’, say religious people”. And I don’t blame you, there’d be uproar, but it’s basically the same thing. You’re not helping by grouping my lot together like that, they’re a very diverse bunch. Einstein and Pasteur were both Scientists, but only one has anything useful to say on the laws of relativity. …

    This implication that ‘Scientists’ are all in agreement whenever a ‘breakthrough’ is made is gibberish. As a result, people think my lot are some shadowy cabal who meet once a month in order to decide what new rules we have to dictate to the general populace. I’ve tried telling them that they’re thinking of the Freemasons, not my lot, but to no avail. You’re the one who’s giving this impression, not me. Cut it out will you! …

    Oh, by the way, this whole ‘balanced argument’ thing you’ve got going on. I see your point, but make your mind up! Either you present 2 sides to every argument or none, why is it just when it’s a controversy involving me! Yes, some people think that MMR and Autism are linked, some people think that Me and my guys would knowingly build a device capable of swallowing the planet with a black hole and turn it on just to see what happens. These people are wrong, you know they are, but they get to air their views anyway. When a murder is reported, do you get statements from the people who thought that the victim had it coming? Why not? If balanced arguments are so vital, why are some stories exempt? Come on mate, a bit of fairness is all I’m asking for.

  • From Dear Homeopathy, From Science (No. 2):

    Hello. Science here. Thought I’d better introduce myself, seeing as how we’ve never met. I know you like to give people the impression that you work closely with me, and that I’m somewhat envious of you so try to suppress you, but seeing as we both know the truth, I have to ask; Who are you and what do you want? …

    I’ve noticed you do tend to talk and act like on of my team. Interesting, especially when you consider that the actual things you say are utterly bonkers. You’ve done no actual science of your own, so where do you get all your big words from? …

    Just to point out, not everyone who disagrees with you is in league with ‘Big Pharma’. I’ll confess, the pharmaceutical companies aren’t exactly my finest hour. But in my defence, it was Business’ idea. I hung around with him for a while in the 80’s, and you know what he was like back then. I was lucky to get out with my fillings in place. I admit, I still work with him for Big Pharma. I could sever all ties with them, but then they’d have no actual medicine, and people would die. Imagine that, a multi-billion pound company, selling sick people medicine that doesn’t actually work! I could never live with myself. How much are your retailers worth, just out of interest?

  • From Dear Astrology, From Science (No. 3):

    How are you anyway? Not been seeing you around much lately. It wasn’t too long ago that you and Media were best mates, you were always together. I guess you didn’t confuse him like I do, despite your insane claims. But now he’s ditched you in favour of psychics and health gurus. …

    Anyway, Astronomy asked me to write to you, largely because people keep getting him and you mixed up. I can see his problem, apart from the similar names and obsession with all things spatial; you guys have nothing in common. Oh, and stereotypically you are both advocated by socially awkward people with weird hair in long coats who speak in bizarre ways. …

    So, if you could somehow make it clear that you and astronomy aren’t working together, that would be cool. He wants to know how things in Space work; you want people to think that things in space effect how we work. Can’t say I agree with that, but then if there are people out there who feel they need the arrangement of celestial bodies to govern how they live their lives then I guess they need all the help they can get, so fair enough.

    Of course, this could be a simple oversight. Perhaps you know something I don’t, and your predictions are 100% accurate, but your proponents have not taken into account the light-speed factor. The stars we see in the night sky, their light is actually from anywhere between dozens to hundreds of thousands of years in the past. Maybe your predictions are completely true, but for people in the 3rd century? You might want to hook up with History and Archaeology, see if there’s something you can work out regarding this.

Burnett goes on, with letters “from Science” to “Dear Economics” and, perhaps most hilariously, to “dear Advertising.”

Burnett’s amusing delivery points out something which, really, is not all that funny: Not only has occidental culture — as a whole — forgotten what “science” really is, there are entire fields of study which have left it so far behind that they are basically antithetical to science. And these are fields which are becoming increasingly influential! We’re rapidly becoming dangerously anti-scientific (and anti-intellectual) at just the time when we should be embracing science and embracing humanity’s ability to learn and grow intellectually. Thanks to Dean Burnett for his brilliant send-ups.

Hat tip: Bad Astronomy‘s Phil Plait.

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