Astrology versus the scientific mind

I am the kind of person who gets in trouble for being "too hung up on logic." The other day, I was in an argument and my family member yelled, "I don't care about the facts!" It's the sort of response you get when even your spoken words come with bullet points.

I'm just saying that I have a moderately scientific mind. I want to see the evidence. I have a really hard time taking things on faith, even when I really want to. For instance, when I study herbs, I need a scientific source or a good reasoned argument to even begin to experiment with a new herbal treatment and then I need to see several clearly successful cases to put it down as a useful remedy. 

As a result, I have this problem with astrology.

Creative Commons image by chelmsfordblue of

Creative Commons image by chelmsfordblue of

Actually, it isn't just astrology. It's everything to do with the energetic level of reality. I have seen an energy healer diagnose a long-standing chronic illness and fix it in minutes. I've also seen a traditional shaman fail to cure a child of a dangerous but treatable case of dysentery. I've seen an astrologist pinpoint major events in the lives of strangers with astounding accuracy and I've seen a strong prediction by the same astrologer go awry. 

I'm a strange specimen--a person who demands logic and evidence and yet studies the Tarot, astrology and the five-thousand-year-old Chinese divination system of the i-Ching. And increasingly I trust those systems of connecting to non-physical reality. 

Lay people outside science often assume that scientists must know a thing one hundred percent without doubt and know how and why a thing is in order to accept it. That is far from the truth. In fact, science is made up of conditional facts and endless skepticism. What lay people call "facts", scientists call "theories."

That's why evolution and climate change are called "theories." They are as true as anything we know. Gravity is also technically a theory and less understood than evolution. That doesn't make it less true. There are well-developed theories like these in which scientists know not only that a thing works but even why and how it works in the world. 

But there are also instances where scientists know that something is or that it works but not why or how. Scientists still don't know exactly why we yawn, how cats purr or why there is an ambient hum in the air. The sun's corona is several million degrees hotter than the surface and scientists don't know how that can be.

You've certainly heard doctors and scientists talk about "the placebo effect." It's a well-known phenomenon and you can watch it work yourself, but scientists still don't know WHY placebos work so well. Yet every local doctor worth their salt uses them for the very real aid of their patients. Similarly we demonstrably need sleep. Sleep deprivation causes severe medical problems, but scientists still don't understand exactly why the human body needs so much sleep and some animals need much less sleep.

Here's one mystery that gets a bit closer to my main topic about astrology. Nine out of ten people are right-handed. We know the medical costs of forcing left-handed people to use their right hand and it is likely that the same costs would apply to a right-handed person forced to use their left hand. So this is a real, inborn trait. But why isn't it random? What evolutionary advantage could have caused right-handedness to become so dominant? One possibility is a connection to the magnetic poles of the earth and the earth's spinning and it's affect on the perceived motion of the sun and moon. 

Many types of birds migrate thousands of miles back to the same location every year. There are hypotheses about how this may also be connected to the earth's magnetic field but really scientists are still very unsure how the internal GPS system of birds works. If you look at monarch butterflies you add a whole extra layer of complexity. The butterflies migrate to very specific areas every year but each butterfly only lives six months, so the butterflies that return are the children of those that left and make the journey precisely and only once in their lifetimes. Scientists really don't know how that works.

The possibility that the movements of enormous planets, even at a great distance, could have an effect on the delicate chemical balances of our brains isn't really all that implausible. We know for instance that the cycle of the moon impacts the ovulation cycle of human women, while most other female animals ovulate on rhythms independent from the moon. So it is just our special connection to that orb. 

And the gravitational pull of planets, the moon and the sun is not the only possible reason for the observable effects of astrology. It is possible that astronomical movements simply provide us with a time-keeping system and the cause is something much closer to home, such as the kind of magnetic forces that affect monarch butterflies. 

Still, astrology is one of those things most scientists won't touch with a ten-foot pole, which means that there are very few large-scale psychological studies that look at the possible effects of astrology and certainly none with any degree of nuance.

Newspaper horoscopes may or may not actually be written by real astrologers, but they clearly bear little or no relationship to reality. They are generally too vague and when they aren't, they are just wrong. Even the more detailed predictions of individual astrological charts, involving trines, squares and asteroids confound my need for logic and evidence. 

The most common argument against astrology is that it is so vague that it can apply to anything. But in the case of the details of astrological charts, I find that they are too specific and thus too easily disproved. 

But there are other things in astrology--primarily sun signs, ascendants and moon signs as well as the houses to some degree--that cause my skeptical mind to stop and take notice. Take a few dozen friends and it is easy to observe that people born between March 21 and April 20, give or take 24 hours, are disproportionately feisty and adventurous--both typical Aries traits, while people born between August 23 and September 22 tend to focus on details and have high standards--both Virgo characteristics.

There are a few scattered studies that make weak attempts to document the correlation between birth seasons or months and character traits. Scientists in Japan showed that people born between December and February have a significantly lower propensity to agree to new ideas presented by others. A Swedish study found that women born February through April seek new experiences more readily than others. Those who wish to dismiss astrology out-of-hand point out that Capricorn (mostly January) and Sagittarius (mostly December) have very different astrological profiles and so these studies shouldn't be taken to support astrology. However, real astrology is based on nature and no competent astrologist will insist that characteristics are cut off on a hard date or that adjacent signs bear no relation to each other.

Sagittarius and Capricorn are both signs in which one would expect a lower level of agreeableness, although they are different in other ways. While Aquarius, Pisces and Aries are all signs that point to quick beginnings and exploration, although in different areas and in different ways. 

Beyond that, astrology is much more complex than the month of one's birth. Ascendants have as much or more effect on a person's outwardly measurable personality than the month of birth and ascendants change every four minutes or so. With a good understanding of both psychology and astrology, one can easily observe the correlations between the month of birth or ascendant and the personality of the individual, but at least those two factors must be taken into account and it is difficult to isolate one specific measure to tag on its own.

Even worse than establishing astrological correlations would be explaining how or why such effects might occur. Some birth-date-connected differences in personalities are found to follow the seasons rather than the months in the southern hemisphere. But others do not. Seasonal differences in personality could be linked to the weather, temperature or habits of those first perceived by the infant. On the other hand, calendar-correlated differences are harder to explain away without getting close to astrology.

So how could such a phenomenon work? One theory is the gravitational pull of different planets, the moon and the sun. Another is something to do with the earth's magnetic field. But we're far from understanding how astrological correlations to personality come about and with the taboo on the subject in scientific circles it is unlikely to be seriously studied.

Still I can't help myself. My child with both a sun sign and an ascendant in Capricorn is the most stubborn and persistent person I have ever seen. My Gemini brother is so sociable and indecisive that it's a family joke. And I fit my sun sign so well that people think I was named for it, which I wasn't but I might as well have been.

Astrology is too complex to use it as a simple measure but knowing the combination of sun sign, ascendant and moon sign for a particular person gives you about as much information as either a week living with them or a Myers-Briggs personality test. It's correlation though, not fate written in stone. 

Going on the theory that some influence might be exerted on us in line with the calendar because of either magnetic fields or subtle gravitational forces, it is understandable then that the cut-off lines are not sharp and that these are merely influences, not hard and fast rules. We're talking about natural phenomena after all.

Just as my brain naturally tends toward visual learning and I have a knack for graphic design, even though I'm legally blind, we can find conflicts between circumstances and a person's astrological influences. My daughter, the one with the double Capricorn influence, also happens to have severe ADHD. So, while she is stubborn and can persist at an argument longer than anyone else I know, she is easily distractable and terribly impulsive, which are not typical Capricorn traits. She often gets horribly frustrated by the distractions and appears torn about persisting on tasks. It is as if the neurological glitch of ADHD, which can be linked to chemical exposure or other external circumstances, clashes with her basic temperament, much the way my visual disability clashes with my learning style.

What I take from this, as a logical person with an--at times--overbearing demand for evidence, is that astrology is an influence only, not a predictor of fate. Astrology is a pull in one direction or another that may or may not be readily apparent depending on how strong the specific pull is and how circumstances compound or contradict it. 


Arie Farnam

Arie Farnam is a war correspondent turned peace organizer, a tree-hugging herbalist, a legally blind bike rider, the off-road mama of two awesome kids, an idealist with a practical streak and author of the Kyrennei Series. She grew up outside La Grande, Oregon and now lives in a small town near Prague in the Czech Republic.