On Professor Nick Allum’s Attempt to Explain Away Belief in Astrology As Science with reference to Sociology
– Written by Philip Graves, August 12, 2014*
Nick Allum, Professor of Sociology at the University of Essex, England, recently posted this article at a website claiming to represent academic rigour:
Having read Professor Allum’s piece this afternoon, I was moved to critique it, as follows:
Professor Allum unfortunately reveals his shallow acquaintance with the topic from the introduction onwards. I have divided my critique into numbered points based on citations from his article, for ease of digest and reference in the event of any subsequent response.
1. “Even though scientific studies have never found evidence for the claims astrologers make” –
This is not true, unless you choose to discount all the many studies that have found some evidence of statistical correlations by regarding them as ‘unproven’.
2. “Some people still think astrology is scientific. We are now beginning to understand why” –
This was spoken like a true sociologist, and appears to be based on the preconceived premise that astrology is not scientific and that there is no rational cause to believe it might be, and that therefore any belief that it is can be explained away in terms of irrational human psychology and not reason. But the delivery of an analysis based on such a premise does a patronising disservice to the intelligence of those who think astrology is scientific for sound reasons.
3. “Astrology columns are widespread and have been around for a surprisingly long time” –
How exactly does Professor Allum define ‘astrology columns’? Sun sign forecast columns in tabloids and magazines and (formerly) on teletext? Those have only been around since the late 1920s or thereabouts, and are only the most superficial gloss of an introduction to the vast subject of astrology.
4. “One of the earliest recorded columnists was 17th century astrologer William Lilly, who was reputed to have predicted the Great Fire of London, albeit 14 years too early” –
This is misleading in that Lilly wasn’t a columnist in anything like the modern sense of the word (he wrote his own dedicated forecasts in discrete tracts, as well as books), and misleading in its suggestion that he predicted the Great Fire ’14 years too early’ when, to the best of my knowledge, Lilly made no specific claim that it would occur in the immediate future at the time of his prediction. Indeed, Lilly indicated that his prediction in diagrammatic form was one of various such he presented together that concerned the shape of the English Kingdom for hundreds of years to come. And according to the interpretation of my esteemed late astrological historian friend Maurice McCann, Lilly’s hieroglyphic for the fire encoded the exact date on which he expected the fire to break out: which is to say, September 2nd, 1666.
5. “The idea behind astrology is that stars and planets have some influence on human affairs and terrestrial events” –
This is only the flimsiest and most partial and limited outline of the ‘idea behind astrology’ and is also misleadingly weighted towards the influence of stars when in fact the only star most western astrologers use for most of their work is the Sun. I suspect Professor Allum is revealing here his ignorance of the basis for the tropical zodiac and mistakenly linking it to stars, like many other newcomers to astrology before him.
6. “And horoscopes are an astrologer’s foretelling of a person’s life based on the relative positions of stars and planets” –
This is not so. Here we have a wildly inaccurate definition of ‘horoscopes’, and one which also strongly supports my suspicion relayed at the end of Point 5 above.
7. “These forecasts are regularly read around the world. According to the Wellcome Trust Monitor Survey, 21% of adults in Britain read their horoscopes “often” or “fairly often”.” –
Here Professor Allum further muddies the waters by seemingly conflating personalised life predictions (as by his definition of ‘horoscopes’ in the previous sentence quoted in my previous paragraph of this critique) with Sun sign forecasts. Surely a career academic can do better than this in terms of clarity in the definition of terms?
8. “A surprisingly large quantity of scientific research has been carried out to evaluate the claims of astrology over the past 40 years. There is no evidence to support such claims”.
This remark fails the accuracy test on two accounts.
Firstly, there has been scientific statistical research into astrology carried out since the pioneering research of Paul Choisnard at the very end of the 19th century, so 40 years is a gross understatement – it should be 115 years.
And secondly, Professor Allum’s blanket claim that ‘there is no evidence to support such claims’ is an appeal to his personal authority without the backing of a proper presentation of the evidence on which he makes this claim, and as such is unscientific and unsatisfactory.
It is very easy for anyone to pose as an authority and say ‘there is no evidence’ in an attempt at persuasion of such, but much more difficult properly to summarise the complete body of scientific research and justify using it to refute all claims of astrological correlation in order to back up such an assertion. I would like to see Professor Allum attempt that rather than simply denying the existence of evidence.
9. “It should then be a cause for concern if citizens make important life decisions based on entirely unreliable astrological predictions” –
Since this is based on the author’s own false premise that ‘there is no evidence to support such claims’ and assumption that they are untrue, it is wholly debatable in both its narrative (with its claim that astrological predictions are ‘entirely unreliable’) and its moralising inference (that the use of astrology as a guide to the timing of life events should be a ’cause for concern’).
Furthermore, it inaccurately presupposes that the main use of astrological forecasting where it is used is to ‘make important life decisions’.
10. “Reassuringly, it turns out that the number of people in Britain who think that horoscopes are scientific is small. From the Wellcome Trust Monitor survey, we know that less than 10% think horoscopes are “very” or “quite” scientific. And a similar proportion thinks the same across the European Union as a whole” –
Once again here, Professor Allum is confusing the issue by hopping from the discussion of personalised astrological predictions to that of daily, weekly or monthly Sun sign columns as though they are the same thing or equivalent, and therefore that a poll regarding the scientific status or value of Sun sign forecasts (this being the mass-popular understanding of ‘horoscopes’) equally represents opinion on the scientific status or value of personalised astrological forecasts.
It is in any case also extremely unlikely that anything close to a majority of the randomly sampled public would have any direct experience of professionally prepared personalised astrological forecasts as a basis for assessing their possible scientific nature or otherwise. And it is certain that only a tiny minority of dedicated enthusiasts has access to the greater part of the accumulated body of statistical research into astrology by which to make an informed assessment upon it.
11. “However, if we ask people whether they think astrology is scientific, we see a different picture. In a Eurobarometer survey of attitudes towards science and technology, a randomly selected half of respondents were asked how scientific they thought astrology was. The other half were asked the same question about horoscopes. The results shows a surprising disparity in opinion. More than 25% think that astrology is “very scientific” compared to only 7% for horoscopes.”
This disparity should not be surprising to Professor Allum if he had clearly grasped the fact that horoscopes in the popularly-understood sense of Sun sign forecasts and astrology as a whole were not the same thing. His repeated affirmations of surprise only serve to strengthen the impression that he is ill-acquainted with the subject.
12. “In research I carried out a few years ago, I tested the hypothesis that people get confused between astrology and astronomy, and it is this that could account for widespread apparent belief in the scientific status of astrology. Even well-respected national newspapers have been known to make this mistake. My survey also asked people how scientific they believed various activities to be. One of these was astronomy. Using a statistical technique known as regression analysis, I discovered, after adjusting for age, gender and education, that people who were particularly likely to think that astronomy was very scientific were also very likely to think the same about astrology. This points to semantic confusion about these terms among the general public.”
In both the direction of his research and his inferences therefrom, I believe Professor Allum, not to put too fine a point on it, to be barking up completely the wrong tree.
That some of the general public may be confused between the terms ‘astrology’ and ‘astronomy’ does not alter the fact that the vast majority of the public is not, and nor does it account for the discrepancy between the proportion of the public that believes Sun sign forecasts to be scientific and the proportion that believes astrology to be scientific.
An alternative and plausible partial explanation for the findings of Professor Allum’s research as related by him above would be that, whereas nearly all people who have studied and recognised the scientific value of astrology have a strong and clear scientific recognition of the value of astronomy too, a higher proportion of those who do not recognise the scientific value of astrology are also dubious about the scientific value of astronomy. Astrologers as a rule are fans of astronomy and recognise its scientific value. Non-astrologers may or may not be, on a variable case-by-case basis.
13. “When taking a wide range of other factors into account, those who have a university degree and who score highly on a quiz tapping scientific knowledge are less likely to think that astrology is scientific.”
This by itself proves nothing regarding the question of whether or not astrology is scientific. It also presupposes that the ‘quiz tapping scientific knowledge’ was neutral, unbiased and fair in its implicit assumptions about the nature of science, and that it was testing for these and not merely for miscellaneous scientific trivia which are of no bearing upon whether or not the individual is capable of assessing the nature of science itself.
Furthermore, even if some of the public who expressed the belief that astrology is scientific did so from a position of scientific ignorance, it does not follow that all the portion of the public who expressed that belief did so from one of scientific ignorance.
14. “In line with previous studies, women are more likely than men to think astrology is scientific, regardless of their level of education and knowledge about science.”
This may reflect the fact that women on statistical average are more sensitive to and perceptually aware of subtle influences upon life and changes in mood and feelings, and therefore more likely to be open to believing that astrology is scientific when they have studied it than men.
It may also partly reflect men having been more strongly culturally trained to be impervious to and disbelieving by default in anything so subtle and intangible as astrological influence, anything that lies beyond the realm of the obvious five senses.
It certainly does not imply that men are more scientific than women.
15. “Those who believe in God or a “spirit of some kind” are also more likely to find astrology a scientifically credible activity.”
It could equally be said that those who rule out the existence of a God of any kind are more likely to rule out the existence of astrological influence because they are more prone to disbelief than to belief in conditions of scientific uncertainty.
But not all who recognise astrology to have scientific value as a field of study are believers in God, and the statistical trend described by Professor Allum’s research should not be overinterpreted to imply that all those who find astrology a scientifically credible activity are unreasonably credulous by nature.
16. “In line with Adorno’s prediction made in 1953, people who attach high importance to obedience as a value (more authoritarian) are indeed more likely to think that astrology is scientific. This is true regardless of people’s age, education, science knowledge, gender and political and religious orientations.”
This research (and without seeing his research methods, we can only take it as a given for the purpose of responding that it was fairly designed and accurately reported, while reserving the possibility that it may not have been) does not prove what Allum implies it to either. People who attach high importance to obedience as a value are more likely to accept anything they are told by authorities of whatever nature, while those who attach high importance to being cynical about authority are more likely to dispute or challenge anything they are told by authorities of whatever nature. No doubt the same trend would hold true in questions about the scientific nature of other subjects (including hard sciences). That proves nothing regarding whether or not astrology or any other subject actually is scientific.
Adorno’s original comments as reported hardly even bear a serious response (although if pressed I would be glad to critique them in detail), they are so obviously biased and presumptuous beyond all reason.
17. “So, on one hand, it seems that horoscopes and astrological predictions are, for most people, just a bit of harmless entertainment. On the other, the tendency to be credulous towards astrology is at least partially explained by what people know about science – but also what kind of personality traits they have. And these factors might prove useful in understanding beliefs about a whole range of pseudoscientific fields.”
Professor Allum’s conclusions cannot be taken for granted as valid when the reasoning and research behind them is so deeply flawed. While there are doubtless certain correlations between personality and belief or disbelief in astrology as a valid field for scientific study or indeed as a type of science, the existence of such correlations does not and cannot demonstrate that those who believe are incorrect or that those who disbelieve are correct.
* PS: This critique was written reactively in a single evening upon first encounter with Professor Allum’s article. It has lately received an unexpected level of renewed attention from people finding it through search engines. Realising that my original language showed a measure of frustration with Professor Allum’s article, I have slightly toned it down in a few places this morning, but stand by all the intellectual and historical points I originally made. Anyone in academia seeking further understanding of any of the above seventeen points is welcome to contact me through the Astrolearn contact form. Philip Graves, January 10th, 2018