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An Open Letter to Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson

An Open Letter to Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson

Dear Dr. Tyson,

You may have noticed a story circulating on social media talking about how NASA had discovered a new zodiac sign and thereby changed astrology. This canard resurfaces every few years, with minor variations. NASA's involvement is a recent wrinkle, but for me, it was the last straw. 

I may not be able to stop this story from showing up again in a few years because Internet memes are harder to kill than crabgrass, but I at least resolved to create an antidote to it. I set out to write an article that addresses each inaccuracy, fallacy, and invalid assumption in this meme. While researching the origins of the story, I came across your article, "Horrorscope" which was excerpted from Chapter 12 of your book, Universe Down to Earth. The article dates back to 1994, and it's still live on your blog on the Hayden Planetarium website.

Dr. Tyson, you are the most respected and prominent astrophysicist and cosmologist alive today. I know you care about truth, reason, knowledge, and the integrity of science. I know you are vigilant in the fight against ignorance. And this is why I'm addressing this letter to you, and asking that you retract, amend, and correct the allegedly scientific arguments and examples you have presented to refute or call into question the value of astrology.

The arguments and examples (which you did not originate, but which you have repeated for some time now) are fallacious and inaccurate. But even worse, they are bad science. They are the kinds of fallacies and violations of the scientific method that are used to deny the reality of climate change.

I know you find the misrepresentation of science as abhorrent as I do. It is my hope that you will consider my arguments and lend your support to correct these errors, if only to restore the integrity and authority of science. 

I have no interest in arguing the value of astrology with you; but you misrepresent your arguments against astrology as scientific, and this is what I hope to address.

I have to begin at the beginning and consider the origins of the bias that you, along with most astronomers, have against astrology. The flashpoint of this bias was a highly controversial opinion paper published in 1975, titled "Objections to Astrology." This attack on astrology by a group of 186 "leading scientists" amounts to a straw man argument. I will provide the missing historical context that explains how this error happened and why it has persisted so long.

Next, I will address the errors, invalid assumptions, and critical flaws in the arguments against astrology that you include in "Horrorscope." Many of these can be traced directly back to the straw man arguments in "Objections to Astrology." Of greater concern is the classroom anecdote that you egregiously misrepresent as a "controlled experiment."

Finally, I will ask for your support to correct these errors and inaccuracies in the scientific community.

The history of astrology is the history of astronomy.

The pioneers of astronomy, the men whose genius forms the basis of your work, men such as Tycho Brahe, Johannes Kepler, and Galileo Galilei, were astrologers by profession. They studied the celestial bodies for divinatory purposes. In fact, until the 17th century, the "hard" science of astronomy existed only to serve the "pseudo-science" of astrology.

It's because of Isaac Newton that astronomy and astrology began to part ways. Newton was the first astronomer who was not also a practicing astrologer. Newton was one of the standard-bearers of the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason. Science, which for thousands of years appreciated that the foundation of physics is metaphysics, turned its attention exclusively to the natural world and the physical universe. Newton established a mechanistic view of the universe, rejecting alchemical, astrological, and occult views, and that has become the most popular definition of "science" today. 

While Newton's version of science prospered, the practice of astrology fell into deep decline in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Rather than making new contributions to the field, astrologers first began to reject any parts of astrology that came from the Middle East, and then spent their remaining time taking pot shots at each other. This rejection of classical wisdom led to the dark ages of astrology.

Astrology was reborn during the first "New Age" in England at the end of the 19th century. Along with a renewed interest in Spiritualism, Theosophy, and (after all, this was England) the existence of fairies, came a renewed fascination with astrology. Alan Leo began selling astrology lessons and became quite well known.

There was one small catch. Fortune telling was illegal in England, and at the time, astrology was largely predictive. When Leo was prosecuted for trafficking in illegal information, he proclaimed that he wasn't teaching fortune telling; instead, he was teaching how to use astrology for personal development — you know, like that nice Viennese fellow, Freud had been touting for the past few years?

Leo was eventually arrested and convicted of fortune telling. But between his first arrest in 1914, and his death in 1917, he had revised his extensive writings about astrology, moving from what he called "event-oriented" astrology to the astrology of character analysis. 

Astrology as you know it originated in 1968 with the publication of “Sun Signs” by Linda Goodman.

Goodman's book sparked national interest in a diluted, over-simplified, pop-psychology take on astrology. No longer did the practice of astrology require an accurate birth time, and hours of complicated math to draw up a unique birth chart. According to Goodman, knowing your birthday was sufficient. Goodman's book led to the explosion of syndicated Sun Sign horoscope columns and their vague, unfounded, and misguided predictions.

Sun Signs and horoscope columns are to real astrology what a spyglass is to astrophysics. Sun Sign columns are one of a number of contentious issues within the astrological community. Many astrologers revile these columns because they misrepresent astrology, but no astrologer, including astrologers who write horoscope columns, has ever claimed that these daily aphorisms have any value beyond entertainment. Attacking horoscope columns because they lack a scientific foundation is like attacking The Flintstones for historical inaccuracies. 

Nevertheless, in 1975, a group of 186 self-proclaimed “leading scientists” published a manifesto titled “Objections to Astrology.”

The paper begins with a declaration: "Scientists in a variety of fields have become concerned about the increased acceptance of astrology in many parts of the world. We, the undersigned—astronomers, astrophysicists, and scientists in other fields—wish to caution the public against the unquestioning acceptance of the predictions and advice given privately and publicly by astrologers. Those who wish to believe in astrology should realize that there is no scientific foundation for its tenets."

The scientists proceed to misrepresent, misunderstand, and misidentify the tenets of astrology by assuming that astrology is based on the physical impact of celestial objects. The manifesto continues, "We can see how infinitesimally small are the gravitational and other effects produced by the distant planets and the far more distant stars. It is simply a mistake to imagine that the forces exerted by stars and planets at the moment of birth can in any way shape our futures."

The manifesto concludes with the pronouncement, "It should be apparent that those individuals who continue to have faith in astrology do so in spite of the fact that there is no verified scientific basis for their beliefs, and indeed that there is strong evidence to the contrary."

The manifesto was criticized for its tone, its arrogance, and its ignorance of the subject.

Paul Feyerabend, Professor of Philosophy at University of California, Berkeley, criticized the manifesto, stating, "We see: the judgment of the '186 leading scientists' rests on the antediluvian anthropology, on ignorance of more recent results in their own fields (astronomy, biology, and the connection between the two) as well as failure to perceive the implications of the result they do know. It shows the extent to which scientists are prepared to assert their authority even in areas in which they have no knowledge whatsoever."

To be clear, Feyerabend did not argue in favor of astrology. He simply argued in favor of critical thinking and appropriate application of the scientific method, both of which are absent from this ironically pseudo-scientific attack on astrology. 

Even Carl Sagan refused to sign the statement.

Sagan explained, "I struggled with his wording, and in the end found myself unable to sign, not because I thought astrology has any validity whatever, but because I felt (and still feel) that the tone of the statement was authoritarian. It criticized astrology for having origins shrouded in superstition. But this is true as well for religion, chemistry, medicine and astronomy, to mention only four. The issue is not what faltering and rudimentary knowledge astrology came from, but what is its present validity."

Unfortunately, Sagan later presented the same straw man arguments against the scientific basis of astrology in his television show, Cosmos. Sagan did not take the time to investigate astrology, and instead based his arguments on the popular perceptions of Sun Sign astrology and syndicated horoscope columns that inspired the initial objections to astrology. In doing so, Sagan began a long-standing tradition of ignorance, antipathy, and bad science, intended to disprove straw man claims about astrology that have never been put forth by any respected astrologer.

You, Dr. Tyson, have continued this tradition. It is to the detriment of science because it misuses and misrepresents science, and I ask that you help end this now.

The practice of astrology has more to do with philosophy than with physics.

You devote a large section of your article to demonstrating how on a physical level, the movement of the planets has an insignificant effect on our lives. This is one of the arguments cited in the original "Objections to Astrology." You, and the scientists who have argued this before you, mistakenly assume that when astrology talks about the effects of the planets that it refers to the physical planets.

All astrological interpretations operate on a symbolic level. Astrology has never made the claim that the physical planets have an effect on life on earth. Astrological interpretations are based on the Hermetic Axiom, "As above, so below." The philosophical foundation for astrology is that the same (spiritual) force that moves the planets also moves us. By observing the cycles of the movement of the planets in the macrocosm, we can gain insight into our own lives and our place in the universe in the microcosm.

It's not my intention to argue the merits and value of astrology with you. It is, however my intention to clarify that this part of astrology is a "soft" science steeped in philosophy, spirituality, and metaphysics. You're free to disagree with it, but please do so on its own terms. 

You also misrepresent the relationship between the constellations and the signs.

Just as there are important differences between climate and weather, there are important differences between constellations and the signs of the zodiac.

Constellations are imaginary pictures drawn around groups of fixed stars. Signs are units of measurement equal to 30° of arc along the ecliptic. The confusion is understandable, as the signs of the zodiac share the same names and sequence as twelve of the constellations that cross the ecliptic, but astrology has never used the constellations to determine the position of the planets.

Astrology is only concerned with the movement of the planets from a limited, specific context. Astrology tracks the longitudinal position of the planets against the backdrop of the ecliptic. Latitude and declination play only a minor role in astrology. And, of course, astrology is geocentric, and tracks the longitude of the planets from the perspective of a specific location on Earth. Rather than using a 360° measurement, such as astronomers use to measure Right Ascension, astrology divides the great circle of the ecliptic into twelve units of 30° each, and further divides each sign into degrees, minutes, and seconds. The constellations do not divide the ecliptic into uniform or equal increments, and have never been used to identify or measure the relative position of the planets. 

The fact that there are more than twelve constellations that cross the ecliptic has nothing to do with astrology.

Ophiuchus is not a "missing sign" or a "thirteenth sign" and today's scientists are not identifying a glaring error that went unnoticed for literally thousands of years. Ophiuchus did not cross the ecliptic until 1930, when the International Astronomical Union defined the boundaries of the constellations, deciding that the constellations must encompass the entire celestial sphere and should fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. Ancient astronomers acknowledged empty spaces in the night sky, filled with "unformed stars" which were not directly associated with any major constellation.

That a few astrologers have proposed alternative systems of astrology based on either 13 signs (including Ophiuchus) or 14 signs (including Cetus) is an irrelevant aberration. These astrologers are to astrology what the scientists who deny climate change are to science. 

The misrepresentation of the precession of the equinoxes is also related to the assumption that the signs are tied to the constellations.

A great deal of astrology relies on the hard science of astronomy. The interpretation of Saturn's placement in the sky is subjective, but the actual position of Saturn is objective and observable. Astrology measures the longitudinal position of the planets along the plane of the ecliptic. To measure a position on a circle, you have to define an origin point, and in astrology, the origin of the zodiac is 0° Aries. However, this point has nothing to do with the beginning of the constellation of Aries.

The boundaries of the constellations are not observable, and as mentioned above, were only formalized in 1930. Astrology has always used the Vernal Equinox to define 0° Aries because the equinox is an objective, observable event. Two thousand years ago, when this zodiac system was emerging, the Vernal Equinox occurred against the backdrop of the fixed stars in the constellation of Aries.

In your article, you state, "…The first point of Aries today no longer coincides with the first day of spring. This is a far-reaching twist of the same magnitude as if Alex Haley, author of his well-known genealogy Roots, had later discovered that he was an adopted child."

This twist is only far-reaching in the sense that astrologers have known about it for well over two thousand years. Hipparchus, who lived approximately from 147 BC to 127 BC, discovered the precession of the equinoxes. This was documented by Ptolemy in the Tetrabiblos, his comprehensive catalog of the science of astrology/astronomy in ancient Greece.

Astrology has always known about the precession of the equinoxes. And as a consequence of the precession of the equinoxes and centuries of cultural and religious segregation, we have two systems of astrology, each of which uses a different zodiac.

In the West, astrologers use the Tropical Zodiac. The equinox defines 0° Aries, and the symbolism of the signs and cycles are closely tied to the seasons in the Northern Hemisphere.

In the East, Vedic and Jyotish astrologers use the Sidereal Zodiac. Sidereal refers to fixed stars, and this zodiac system attempts to compensate for the precession of the equinoxes to orient 0° Aries with the beginning of the constellation of Aries. Since this is still not an observable marker, they begin with the Vernal Equinox and use one of a number of Ayanamsas to calculate the difference.

It's important to note that the meanings of the symbols in Western Tropical Astrology are quite different from the meanings of the symbols in Vedic astrology. The fact that your Sun in Scorpio in the Tropical Zodiac is in Libra in the Sidereal Zodiac cannot be used as an argument against the validity of astrological interpretations. The Sun in the language of Vedic astrology is not the same as the Sun in the language of western astrology. But that opens up a philosophical discussion, and my intention is to limit this to the realm of science. 

You, Dr. Tyson, abandon all pretense of science every time you relate your “controlled experiment” that you claim invalidates astrology.

You've told this story on many occasions, in lectures and events, and videos of you telling this story are available on YouTube. Below is an excerpt of the anecdote from your "Horrorscope" article.

"I once tested a daily (syndicated) horoscope from the newspaper on the 50 students in one of my introductory astronomy classes. Rather than have the students read their horoscope and decide whether it applied to that day's dilemmas, I picked one of the twelve horoscopes at random and read it to the class. I then asked all students to declare whether it was "unlikely", "possible", or "likely" that I had just read the their own horoscope. Fully one third (17) of the class declared that the horoscope was "likely" to be their own. The class was astonished to learn that the horoscope I read belonged to none of these people. Of the ten people who responded "unlikely", the horoscope actually belonged to three of them. Controlled experiments such as this one, consistently demonstrate that daily horoscopes would do no worse if they were laid on the page at random, yet horoscope casting in the United States remains the most lucrative industry among the pseudo-sciences."

I will now identify the most egregious fallacies and flaws in this argument.

First, the premise that daily syndicated horoscope columns are accurate representations of predictive astrology is a straw man argument.

Sun Sign horoscope columns are not accurate representations of astrology, and they are most certainly not accurate examples of predictive astrology. No astrologer has ever argued that Sun Sign columns are more than entertainment. Predictions in Sun Sign horoscope columns are on par with messages found in fortune cookies. The idea that astrology can predict specific events for one twelfth of the population is laughable.

When astrology is used for prediction or divination, it requires complete, specific, and precise charts. Predictive astrology can provide specific answers to specific questions, such as "Will I get the job?" or "Should I buy this house?" but it can't tell you what will happen to you next Tuesday, even by considering triggers to your unique birth chart.

The more serious violation is that you, as a scientist and an ambassador of science, reason, and critical thinking, misrepresent your classroom diversion as any kind of valid scientific experiment, much less a controlled experiment.

Where, precisely are the controls in this exercise? What variable is it that you are evaluating and against what standard? Your hypothesis seems to be that horoscope predictions are inaccurate, but where is your baseline to evaluate the mean accuracy of predictions?

Your sample size of 50 students drawn from a pool of university students is neither diverse enough nor large enough to be statistically significant. The methodology you use to evaluate the responses is imprecise at best. The fact that students had to give their answers in a public forum invalidates the data because it introduces social variables including but not limited to peer pressure and the desire to seek approval from you, their teacher, whose bias is clear from the outset.

Your conclusions are also entirely unfounded and unsubstantiated. Setting aside the straw man premise that anyone expects predictions in syndicated horoscope columns to be valid or accurate, your conclusions apply only to the predictions made by the author of that specific column, on that particular day. That you conclude, "controlled experiments such as this one consistently demonstrate that daily horoscopes would do no worse than if they were laid on the page at random…" is an appalling violation of the scientific method and critical thinking. It is on par with asserting that a cold winter invalidates global warming, and frankly, sir, it is beneath you.

Denigrate astrology if you must, but do not demean and misrepresent science in the process.

If you are truly interested in using science to question astrology, begin with the existing body of scientific astrological research.

Michel Gauquelin and Francoise Gauquelin were scientific researchers who devoted 45 years to astrological research. They followed strict methodology, and worked with statistically significant data samples of hundreds of thousands of cases. What emerged from these studies was the discovery of the "planetary effect" where key planets in the charts of eminent professionals (such as Mars for professional athletes) were far more likely to be near an angle in the chart.

This research was first published in the mid-1950s and was replicated in 34 out of 35 studies, including 8 studies by independent researchers. And like all good scientific research, the results upset everyone, astrologers and scientists alike, because the scientific facts did not fully support the bias or expectations of either group. 

In conclusion, I ask that you publicly address the inaccuracies and misconceptions about astrology that you included in your article, “Horrorscope” and your book, “Universe Down to Earth.”

  1. Acknowledge that the interpretive foundation of astrology is based in philosophy and not physics, and address the straw man argument that astrologers believe the physical planets have a direct effect on human behavior.

  2. Acknowledge the difference between the constellations (arbitrary groupings of fixed stars) and the signs (units of longitudinal measurement along the plane of the ecliptic), and explain that the constellations have never been used as units of measurement.

  3. Acknowledge that the current definitions of the constellations, including the fact that more than 12 constellations cross the plane of the ecliptic, are the consequence of decisions made by the International Astronomical Union in 1930, and have nothing to do with astrology.

  4. Acknowledge that astrologers have known about the precession of the equinoxes since at least 124 B.C., and that as a consequence of this there are two different zodiac systems, Tropical and Sidereal. Western astrologers use the Tropical Zodiac, which has never had a connection to the fixed stars or constellations. The interpretive basis of the symbols of Western Tropical Astrology comes from the cycles of the seasons in the Northern Hemisphere.

  5. Acknowledge that the popular view of astrology is on par with the popular view of astronomy. Horoscope columns and Sun Signs no more represent the tools or practice of astrology than a spyglass represents the tools or practice of astronomy.

  6. Acknowledge that your "classroom experiment" is invalid and in no way represents science or scientific research. You may even point to the Gauquelin research to illustrate the difference.

I hope you will agree that addressing these inaccuracies does not imply that you are endorsing astrology in any way, but that letting these inaccuracies, misconceptions, and fallacies stand is an insult to science. Nothing about these arguments is scientific.

A blog post would be sufficient to rectify these errors. It would also help if you took down the "Horrorscope" article from your blog. If you are inspired to do more to correct these scientific inaccuracies, you could reach out to your colleagues at NASA. Many of these fallacies and inaccuracies are included on NASA-run websites, including NASA Space Place (http://spaceplace.nasa.gov/starfinder2/en/). 

I sincerely hope that this can mark the beginning of détente between science and astrology.

As science begins to reject the Newtonian model of the Universe and embrace the quantum nature of creation, the gap between science and spirituality grows smaller. While astrology may never again be an integral part of science, quantum theory brings a level of philosophy back into the scientific discussion. The implications of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle are profound, and call into question the very objectivity of science itself, as the observer is entangled with the experiment. The mere expectation of an outcome has an effect on the outcome, however small.

For my part, I hope to bring some of the rational, critical tools of science back to the practice of astrology. Astrology is entering its own renaissance, as modern astrologers gain access to thousands of years of astrological knowledge that had been all but forgotten for centuries. I'm doing what I can to introduce critical thinking to the practice of astrology through my classes, books, videos, and articles. There's a lot of bad astrology out there, but when you remove the chaff, what remains is profound. As a telescope allows you to explore the outer universe, astrology allows me to explore the inner universe.

In a cosmos so vast and varied, surely it's possible for science and astrology to co-exist. I invite you to consider the possibility that to continue to evolve, mankind needs both science and astrology. The optimal ratio is a matter for debate, of course. But if that debate can proceed from a place of mutual acceptance, if not mutual respect, I would welcome it.

With respect and admiration,

Kevin B. Burk

Headmaster, The Real Astrology Academy

NCGR-PAA IV Certification in Astrological Counseling

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People in this conversation

  • Chapeau, Kevin, very well proposed.
    I have no idea if Dr Tyson is willing to give this the serious contemplation that it deserves, but to be honest I think it is irrelevant. The ball is rolling in the right direction for astrology anyhow and nothing will stop this; no matter how stubborn astronomers might continue to hold their grounds. I was just reading an article by Michael Tsarion and he included the following quote from Richard Tarnas PhD:
    Psychology text books of future generations will look back on the modern psychologists
    working without the aid of astrology as being like the medieval astronomers working
    without the aid of the telescope

    We are living in a era of mass awakening and although the short term future might look far from promising, from this astrological perspective we can be hopeful.

    from Mexico
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  • Guest - Jillian Taylor

    Rated 5 out of 5 stars

    Brilliant!!! You just made history because this letter is certainly going to have an impact. This is exactly what was needed to finally get astrology in the classrooms and in everyone's lives to use a tool in order to enrich and awaken a consciousness and awareness that is lacking in society!! I think this letter was absolutely genius and it took tremendous courage, insight and knowledge to stand up and fight for truth.. I have such admiration and respect for you Kevin!!!!

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