The more things change…

Most people are hopefully aware of the very strong religious right movement to incorporate creationism (the belief that God created the world and everything in it in its present form) in science classes as valid topic of study alongside evolution (the reality that all living species evolved from ‘lower’ forms of life, and continue to evolve over timescales almost incomprehensible). This dishonest movement, now referred to as ‘intelligent design’ or ID to get past the religion ban in classrooms, has no evidence in its favor and consists almost entirely of negative arguments (“You can’t explain that? Then God did it!”). The biology website Pharyngula, written by PZ Myers, is a good place to get the latest scoop on creationist nonsense. And these things have potentially catastrophic consequences: a Presidential candidate, for instance, is on the record as saying he doesn’t believe in evolution, and has other ideas that are far out of the mainstream of reality.

Leafing through the collected science essays of H.P. Lovecraft (hey, that’s what I do for kicks), one finds that similar problems have been around before.

Before becoming prolific as a weird fiction writer, Lovecraft had an interest in astronomy, and wrote a regular column for a local paper. One week, an article by a practitioner of astronomy, on Mr. Hartmann, appeared in the place of Lovecraft’s column, provoking a reply and starting an increasingly intemperate dialog. Let’s quote from Mr. Hartmann’s article first (from The Collected Essays of H.P. Lovecraft, vol 3: Science, edited by scholar S.T. Joshi):

The vulgar prejudice against the noble science of astrology by otherwise learned men is greatly to be deplored.

Almost every author on astronomy, mythology, anthropology and philosophy, school teachers, professor of universities and the clergy, while willfully ignorant of astrology, yet never tire loading it with slurs and abuse, ridicule and misrepresentation, ever insinuating that astrologers must be fools or knaves.

It is only those who have never studied this science who in their self-sufficient conceit dare assume authority to condemn it.

There are three items very similar to the ID’er in this letter: the complaints of unfair treatment from mainstream scientists, the belief that scientists simply don’t understand astrology, and the accusations of ‘conceit’ from the scientific community.

Lovecraft’s response is really pretty spot-on perfect, and with a few words changed might as well be a response to an ID’er. I quote selected bits:

Science versus charlatanry

To the editor of the Evening News:

It is an unfortunate fact that every man who seeks to disseminate knowledge must contend not only against ignorance itself, but against false instruction as well. No sooner do we deem ourselves free from a particularly gross superstition, than we are confronted by some enemy to learning who would set aside all the intellectual progress of years, and plunge us back into the darkness of mediaeval disbelief.

While I entertain no doubt as to the sincerity of the author… [it is impossible] for me to comprehend how any person of judgment and education can now give credence to the doctrines of a false and ridiculous system completely exploded over 200 years ago. In this age of enlightenment it out not be necessary to shew the utter absurdity of the idea that our daily affairs can be governed by the mere apparent motions of infinitely distant bodies whose seeming arrangements and configurations, on which the calculations of judicial astrology are based, arise only from perspective as seen from our particular place in the universe. It seems very provoking that astronomers and other men of sense should be obliged to waste their time and energy in proving Astrology to be false, when there exists not the slightest reason to believe any part of it true…The fallacies of Astrology are like the many heads of the Lernean Hydra; chop off one, and two grow in its place.

I should not take up your time… if I did not consider Astrology a dangerous as well as a silly subject. In the minds of the masses it tends to become confused with Astronomy, and thereby to injure the reputation of that science.

As I’ve said, the similarities to the ID confusion of modern times is striking: “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” Also all too similar is the fact that this letter didn’t end the discussion, but lead to further arguments and an increasingly exasperated Lovecraft.

Fortunately, good sense won out in the end; astrology is now simply an amusing game for the vast majority of humanity, and one that is often openly mocked. This makes me optimistic that the same will happen to ID in the end. Hopefully I won’t be burned at the stake before that happens.

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8 Responses to The more things change…

  1. babs67 says:

    I have absolutely no proof of this, but it is one of my pet theories. I may not say this very elegantly, but here goes. Since all matter is made up of energy and we are always being influenced by other matter around us, I don’t think it is far fetched to believe that we are influenced by larger bodies of energy. So, if a star is a large body of energy that may have some influence on the earth, the earth may have some influence on our energy, it only leads me to think that we may be influenced by the stars.

    I know you think it is a bunch of drivel, but in my experience, I know plenty of people that meet the descriptions of their “sun sign”. I am almost always attracted to men that are compatible signs with me – Scorpios, Pisces and Cancers, Taurus. I’m attracted to them before I know their birthdays.

    This may have to be one of the things that we agree to disagree about…

  2. Personal Demon says:

    babs67 wrote: “This may have to be one of the things that we agree to disagree about…”

    I don’t take any issue with that as long as astrologers don’t advocate that astrology should be taught in schools as a “science.”

  3. babs67: I should point out that Mr. Hartmann, the astrologer mentioned above, was using astrology for predicting future events and had given examples of what he considered successful predictions. Assuming that the stars are directly correlated to every event that happens on Earth is a far cry from assuming that stars may have some influence on our personalities.

    PD: Hear, hear.

  4. babs67 says:

    I agree with you both that it shouldn’t be regarded as a science or taught as such or used to predicte any future events. I just don’t think it is completely without merit in some of its fundamental beliefs.

  5. Nullifidian says:

    I just found this website through a trackback on The Little Professor’s blog.

    There are several problems with providing any scientific basis to astrology. One is that the only fundamental force capable of operating over interstellar distances is gravity. Now, I’m sitting next to my keys and a mini nail clipper hung from the keyring. They are exerting a considerably greater gravitational force on me than Van Maanen’s Star, the closest star to the Earth in the constellation Pisces, which happens to be my star sign.

    Secondly, even if we could ignore the gravitational forces of everything on Earth, there’s the problem that the stars are equally distant for everyone. If this force is a physical force, why should Van Maanen’s Star have any greater “pull” on me, just because of my birthdate, than it would for someone born in August, for example?

    Thirdly, the constellations do not represent the closest stars to the earth. Instead, they’re an entirely arbitrary collection of stars of varying distances from the Earth. Since this is the case, why don’t closer stars swamp the power of the farther stars, so that we see an astrological set of constellations which accurately indicate the relative distance of groups of stars, rather than one which simply replicates an arbitrary Greek tradition?

    And lastly, astrology goes back to the ancient Greeks, and planets are assumed to be influential to one’s star sign, but not a single astrologer got to the existence of Uranus or Neptune before the astronomers did. If there were a physical force from these planets which influenced one’s predictions, why weren’t they predictably wrong in such a way that allowed the position of the undiscovered planet to be tracked as it moved through these star signs relative to the position on Earth?

  6. Nullifidian wrote: “There are several problems with providing any scientific basis to astrology.”

    Yep, I completely agree. Very nice points; I wouldn’t have thought of number four. Number three was the first thing that came to my mind.

    I certainly wouldn’t ascribe any scientific significance to astrology myself, and I treat it more or less like other religious beliefs. For the religious, as long as reason trumps religion in any real world, practical argument, I’m perfectly happy to let them believe what they want to believe. (In other words, saying, “I think the stars have some influence on me” doesn’t trouble me as much as “The stars tell me I should sell all my possessions and shave my head.”)

  7. It’s probably just the “placebo” effect – people who believe strongly enough make it real for themselves.

  8. Pingback: Weird science facts, July 18-July 31 | Skulls in the Stars

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