Astrology and its problems: Popper, Kuhn and Feyerabend

The merits or otherwise of astrology have been subject to much discussion recently, resulting in attacks that have been critiqued by Rebecca Higgitt, amongst others. The problem, according to Higgitt, is that astrology is “rubbish” but not because of the astrologers’ knowledge (or otherwise) of astronomy, which has been the subject of derision. Since some astrologers do understand precession, for example, this focus on astronomical proficiency is the wrong way to object to astrology, serving only to annoy them (which may be an end in itself for some). Such an approach also provides astrologers with opportunities to gain credibility if they can demonstrate sound knowledge of astronomy and it may fail as a rhetorical strategy if the ridicule prompts believers in astrology to become intransigent and less likely to heed criticism (although this, again, may be an end in itself – a self-fulfilling “rubbish” astrology that never develops). In this context, it is interesting to consider the views of some philosophers of science who wrote on astrology and in this entry I look at the treatments of Popper, Kuhn and Feyerabend, not least because all three used astrology to make philosophical points about science.

For Popper, astrology was the prime example of pseudoscience and was precisely what a successful demarcation criterion should be able to exclude from science. The problem that he identified and sought to capture, through his emphasis on testability, was his insistence that astrologers are not interested in the possibility of their claims being falsified, such that any failures can be accounted for without danger to the overall theory:

Astrologers were greatly impressed, and misled, by what they believed to be confirming evidence – so much so that they were quite unimpressed by any unfavourable evidence. Moreover, by making their interpretations and prophecies sufficiently vague they were able to explain away anything that might have been a refutation of the theory had the theory and the prophecies been more precise. In order to escape falsification they destroyed the testability of their theory. (Conjectures and Refutations, pp48-49)

It is probably fair to say that this view of astrology remains popular today and is the one typically objected to as “rubbish” or fundamentally not science. Popper did accept that astrology had played a role in the history of science, noting for example the disagreement between Galileo and Kepler on the role of the moon’s influence in explaining the tides (both men also casting horoscopes for others). However, Kuhn argued that Popper’s characterisation of it was unfair: “[n]ot even astrology’s most convinced and vehement exponents doubted the recurrence of such failures” (see Kuhn’s Logic of Discovery or Psychology of Research? in Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge, pp8-9). In Kuhn’s account, astrologers were well aware of the epistemological difficulties confronting them, such as changes to the configuration of stars and planets, the imperfections of astronomical tables and the fact that most people did not know the time of their birth with any degree of precision. He complained that it is anachronistic to dismiss these as question begging because they were understood as limitations by astrologers; only afterwards, when astrology joined the ranks of pseudoscience, did they become examples of how astrologers would disingenuously account for failures.

Kuhn went on to claim that astrology is not a science but “a craft, one of the practical arts”. A shared theory of astrology was

… adequate only to establish the plausibility of the discipline and to provide a rationale for the various craft-rules which governed practice. These rules had proved their use in the past, but no practitioner supposed they were sufficient to prevent recurrent failure. A more articulated theory and more powerful rules were desired, but it would have been absurd to abandon a plausible and badly needed discipline with a tradition of limited success simply because these desiderata were not yet at hand. [Astrologers] had rules to apply [but] they had no puzzles to solve and therefore no science to practise. (Logic of Discovery or Psychology of Research?, pp8-9)

This, then, is Kuhn’s criticism of astrology: although failures existed and were accepted, they could be explained within the tradition and hence did not give rise to puzzles that needed to be solved. The epistemological problems noted above were known limitations but were not and could not be recast or used to revise the tradition. Kuhn thus corrected Popper’s limited appreciation of what astrologers historically did and pushed the problem to another level, according to which the issue is not what astrologers do but their inability to improve on it by recognising restrictions on development and trying to solve problems.

To see where Kuhn may have missed something, I now detour to look briefly at his notion of normal science. Feyerabend objected to Kuhn’s characterisation of normal science via the activity of problem solving, arguing that “[e]very statement which Kuhn makes about normal science remains true when we replace ‘normal science’ with ‘organized crime’.” Indeed, he claimed that organized crime could be understood as “puzzle-solving par excellence“, complete with “outstanding individuals, such as Dillinger, [who] introduce new and revolutionary ideas” (see his Consolations for the Specialist in Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge, p200). This criticism was obviously a reductio, which Feyerabend was fond of employing.

Feyerabend further argued (p207) that Kuhn’s own discussion of how paradigms are overthrown (i.e. via the help of alternatives (proliferation) and the enlargement of existing anomalies) does not permit a temporal separation of normal and revolutionary activity. If both tenacity and proliferation are important then we have no reason or obligation to wait – to first engage in a period of normal science – before we begin proliferating theories. Feyerabend therefore concluded that

… it is not the puzzle-solving activity that is responsible for the growth of our knowledge but the active interplay of various tenaciously held views. Moreover, it is the invention of new ideas and the attempt to secure for them a worthy place in the competition that leads to the overthrow of old and familiar paradigms (Consolations for the Specialist, p209).

Kuhn’s response (Reflections on my Critics, also in Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge) misread this. Having defended his prescription that “in the absence of an alternate mode that would serve similar functions, scientists should behave [according to Kuhn’s model] if their concern is to improve scientific knowledge”, Kuhn claimed that both Feyerabend and Popper “find menace in the enterprise” and quoted Feyerabend to the effect that it is “liable to corrupt our understanding and diminish our pleasure” (p237). However, Feyerabend actually wrote this (in the form of a question) about his own “proliferation+tenacity” model (p209; see also the previously linked entry at this blog). He had posed the question after noting that “inventing goes on all time” (i.e. proliferation) and that the “change of attention does not reflect any profound structural change (such as for example a transition from puzzle solving to philosophical speculation and testing of foundations). It is nothing but a change of interest and of publicity.” For Feyerabend, normal science therefore does not exist: his own model describes how scientists actually behave (as opposed to how we say science occurs post facto) and the promotion of normal science or science as puzzle solving actually constrains science, along with the likelihood of revolutionary activity, because it fails to promote the need to immediately and of necessity begin proliferating theories.

Returning again to astrology, Feyerabend complained separately (see The strange case of astrology in Science in a Free Society) about the “Statement of 186 leading Scientists” against astrology in the Sep/Oct 1975 issue of the Humanist. For Feyerabend, astrology

… inherited interesting and profound ideas, but it distorted them, and replaced them by caricatures more adapted to the limited understanding of its practitioners. The caricatures are not used for research; there is no attempt to proceed into new domains and to enlarge our knowledge of extra-terrestrial influences; they simply serve as a reservoir of naive rules and phrases suited to impress the ignorant (p96).

Feyerabend’s criticism was that this lack of development was not the objection raised by the 186 leading scientists: instead of lamenting the stasis of astrology, they focused on its basic assumptions and indeed did so in ignorance of astrology (even later admitting a lack of knowledge of it). Moreover, they insisted on the power to declare it false by decree, which violated the most basic lesson from the history of science that even apparently hopeless ideas might one day be developed and shown to be worth considering. The real issue, for Feyerabend, was astrology’s failure to accord with his model: although astrology’s exponents exhibit tenacity, especially in the face of difficulties, there is no attempt to enhance the defence of this tenacity and no proliferation of alternatives.

In summary, the philosophical problem for astrology is thus not that it can always explain failures (Popper) or that it does not attempt to solve problems (Kuhn) but instead that it has stagnated (Feyerabend) – assuming that this progression in criticisms is fair, of course. Notice that, for both Kuhn and Feyerabend, this is not a final verdict: if astrology can become problem solving or – better – if it can strengthen its arguments while proliferating alternative theories, it might be possible to eventually reassess it. However, excoriating astrologers or calling their discipline “rubbish” is perhaps unlikely to encourage such an improvement in matters.

References:

Popper, K. (2010 [1963]) Conjectures and Refutations. Abingdon: Routledge.
Lakatos, I. and Musgrave, A. (Eds.) (1970) Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Feyerabend, P. (1978) Science in a Free Society. London: New Left Books.

This entry was posted in Feyerabend, History and Philosophy of Science and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to Astrology and its problems: Popper, Kuhn and Feyerabend

  1. Thank you for another angle on the astrology ‘problem’ Paul – I’m not sure what the problem is myself; I suspect it is because astrology just won’t go away quietly and stop putting up a defence.

    You say:
    In summary, the philosophical problem for astrology is thus not that it can always explain failures (Popper) or that it does not attempt to solve problems (Kuhn) but instead that it has stagnated (Feyerabend) – assuming that this progression in criticisms is fair, of course.

    As a horary practitioner I use astrology to help resolve problems regularly, so I don’t see this as a system that has stagnated, because the bottom line (for me as a practitioner) is – it works. It may have stagnated as a way to solve new dilemma’s in science, but there are aspects of astrology that have screamed for better scientific attention and the fact is that scientists have been so biased against considering the clear evidence before them, that they are more willing to dishonour science than further the investigation of something that conflicted with their prior assumptions.

    So in my opinion no one can offer an informed opinion on whether astrology has a problem, unless they have first read Dennis Rawlins’ hindsight admission of the corruption, manipulation and outright deceit of CSICOP’s investigation into Gauquelin’s data, and how this also reveals the Humanist’s “Statement of 186 leading Scientists” to be nothing more than a farce, and ‘Randi’s challenge’ to be nothing short of a scam.

    Dennis Rawlins was a cofounder of CSICOP (the Committee for the Scientific
    Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal), served on its Executive Council from 1976 to 1979, and was an Associate Editor of the Skeptical Enquirer – so we don’t have to suspect him of having any kind of bias towards astrology, and he is clear to admit the actions he took himself to try to ‘bury’ the subject.

    His account shows how the scientific community threw everything they had against Gauquelin’s data, but all their tactics only served to confirm his initial assertions and demonstrate how careful and precise Gauquelin had actually been. So they resorted instead to hiding the data and outright lies, rather than admit that the additional challenges they themselves set, which was supposed to provide a conclusive “unambiguous corroboration or disconfirmation” had been successfully met.

    The fact is, Gauquelin’s evidence of an astrological principle is a scientifically established fact. But still, the world of science continues to prefer the smokescreen of 186 signatures than the unpalatable truth that something which ought to be rubbish keeps giving them irritating new proofs of things they have not established for themselves.

    It is vitally important that new explorer’s of astrology be aware of what the sTARBABY explanation has to say about the lack of objectivity given to astrology’s claims. The text is not too long for anyone to read and it is freely available.

    There is a very powerful story there for science bloggers to investigate; should anyone care to wonder why astrologers have lost just as much interest in claiming scientific approval for our work than the world of science has in giving it.

    (On a related point, Ken McRitchie recently added a post to Rebekah’s article “Astrology is rubbish but” (dated Feb 13, 2011; 12:34 pm) explaining how the controversial Shawn Carlson double-blind experiment, published in 1985 in Nature, has actually been reversed in favor of astrology. He has stated that he welcomes thoughts and discussions on this issue, but no one is taking him up on this.)

    I hope this doesn’t seem off-topic from your post, but in conclusion you write: “if astrology can become problem solving or – better – if it can strengthen its arguments while proliferating alternative theories, it might be possible to eventually reassess it.”

    The real ‘problem’ here is that before reassessing astrology, science first needs to reassess the way that it assesses anything to do with astrology, and be truthful with itself about the errors and falsities of its recent past.

    • Paul Newall says:

      Thanks for the comment and your thoughts, Deborah. I’m familiar with Gauquelin’s work and Rawlins’ comments.

      Just to clarify, my intention here was only to look at what these philosophers of science had to say about astrology from a philosophical perspective, not to assess astrology’s merits myself. Hopefully this post at least gives an indication of some philosophical issues associated with astrology and its use in the demarcation problem, rather than concentrating solely on what scientists think of it.

  2. In your conclusion, you said:

    “In summary, the philosophical problem for astrology is thus not that it can always explain failures (Popper) or that it does not attempt to solve problems (Kuhn) but instead that it has stagnated (Feyerabend) – assuming that this progression in criticisms is fair, of course.”

    How fair are these criticisms? Does not science too always find a way to explain its failures, sometimes by alternative theories? If you read the articles Deborah has suggested, you will see that the more sensitive methods where data is ranked or rated do result in findings that support astrological claims. These methods have been applied to the Gauquelin data by Professor Suitbert Ertel. This shows not only that scientists are willing to solve astrological problems, but have explained the reasons and methods that separate its failures from its successes.

    Deborah makes a critical point about why astrological research has stagnated. This is not a scientific issue so much as a social phenomenon. There is an opposition to astrology that is so overwhelming that it is a very uncomfortable area in which to do research.

  3. Paul,

    In case you are not familiar with them, let me just add two relevant articles:

    Gauquelin’s last published article, “is There Really a Mars Effect?” in which he describes how Ertel solved the problem he was having with the “Mars effect.”

    Ertel’s published article on this was: “Raising the Hurdle for the Athletes’ Mars Effect: Association Co-varies with Eminence”.

  4. Sorry Paul, but my comments did not do justice to your analysis of the criticisms as a progression from Popper to Kuhn to Feyerabend. It is difficult to argue against a certain stagnation in astrological research in that it has not captivated the imaginations of people who could develop it. I can think of a couple of contributors to stagnation.

    Hellenist astrologers did not make a clean break from the constellations when they adopted the tropical zodiac. They continued to use the names of the constellations for the signs (tropes), which are more weird, arcane, freakish, mysterious, strange, supernatural, and outright creepy than they need to be. No doubt, this has contributed to millenia of confusion and hostility towards astrology. The Chinese adopted a more modern interpretation of values with their zodiac, although it is not attached to the tropical reference frame.

    Astrologers also missed out in early modern science, when material things were said to have “properties” and this concept did not spread to astrology. Astrology continued to develop its system of “rulerships” where there is no reason why these studied characteristics could not be described as “astrological properties.” This also contributed to stagnation and a resentment against a sort of planetary subjugation that astrology seemed to suggest.

    Modern astrologers are modern thinkers; they see through these problems and are not bothered by them. Perhaps if they were a little more reflective they would be willing to make some changes.

  5. How fair are these criticisms? Does not science too always find a way to explain its failures, sometimes by alternative theories? … a critical point about why astrological research has stagnated. This is not a scientific issue so much as a social phenomenon.

    The criticism seems utterly fair. However, what needs to be understood is that the point of the criticism is directed particularly at those who are especially intent on being able to distinguish science from pseudoscience or those who apply the term science as if it were an honorific (including astrologers who for whatever reason want their practices to be regarded as at all scientifically valid or as a sort of legitimate science).

    What is it about science that would make it most worthy of an honored status? It is often claimed that what makes science particularly laudable is its historical (and reproducible) productivity. But, that is a retrospection which, in itself, is anything except sufficient to transfer respect to scientific activities being currently undertaken. This is why there is so much focus on a definition or description of science in terms of the methods and techniques employed. After all, it is impossible to know what research ultimately will turn out to be most productive, and that means that the worthwhileness of any science must pertain to some characteristic having to do with the manner in which science is conducted.

    Any system of investigation which explains away failures instead of seeking to replace itself via the pursuit of ways to solve the problems it encounters is a system which assuredly mires itself in stagnation. What saves any system from stagnation is a break from – or a challenge to – established convention. The only thing that has ever saved science from stagnation is innovation, invention, and innovation only comes about when the imaginative – the creative – mind concentrates on the anomalies, the problems which have been encountered. Innovation (or creativity) is not – and can never be – a product of routine, prescribed, or reproducible process, technique, or method. The concentration upon anomalies can be said to begin (as per Feyerabend) with a proliferation of hypotheses/theories.

    What is ever laudable about any scientific activity is first and foremost the commitment to fight the stagnation which naturally follows from the establishment (and comfort) of convention. If “astrological research has stagnated”, then it matters not at all whether astrology is science or not; the problem is the stagnation and the factors that effect the stagnation. Attributing the stagnation to “a social phenomenon” does not lessen the problem; all sciences (indeed all religions, all human pursuits) are always at risk of socially-induced stagnation, and it can well be scientific societies themselves which douse whatever vigor a science has had.

  6. Your description of Feyerabend’s position is:

    “Any system of investigation which explains away failures instead of seeking to replace itself via the pursuit of ways to solve the problems it encounters is a system which assuredly mires itself in stagnation.”

    In other words, if astrologers, instead of explaining away failures, would try to solve the problems by proliferating theories, then they would not be mired in stagnation.

    By “explaining away failures” we would have to mean the criticism against numerous scientific tests of astrology as “unfair” such as Rawlins has done with regard to the Gauquelin “Mars effect” studies, as Deborah has pointed out, such as Ertel has done with regard to other “Mars effect” studies, and as Eysenck has done with regard to the Shawn Carlson double-blind study.

    Rawlins, although he recognized the unfairness and explained away the results, did not try to provide alternative theories. Eysenck tried to apply his own theories of personality to astrology, which I don’t believe was successful. Ertel, however decided to use a very sensitive method of ranking and rating, and produced positive results for astrology using the gathered the Mars effect data. No new theories were required.

    Clearly is it possible to find flaws in scientific tests of astrology and argue the tests are “unfair” and this cannot be judged as “explaining away failures.” Unfairness is the leading criticism of the scientific tests that fail. In some cases astrologers just don’t know what to think, in which case they do not try to explain the failures. It is an assumption that they do.

    Astrologers do proliferate theories, but they are exactly what you might think. If new asteroids or planetoids are discovered, astrologers will proliferate theories and the theories are developed among the community. Theories are proliferated for the astrology of historical events. The work of Richard Tarnus comes to mind. If astrology is stagnant, then why is it attractive to so many enthusiastic people? I don’t think “stagnant” describes it.

  7. In other words, if astrologers, instead of explaining away failures, would try to solve the problems by proliferating theories, then they would not be mired in stagnation.

    Facing the inadequacies or imperfections of a system and then setting about on a course that attempts to fathom the natuer or causes of the inadequacies is most certainly a necessary condition for avoiding stagnation.

    By “explaining away failures” we would have to mean the criticism against numerous scientific tests of astrology as “unfair” such as Rawlins has done with regard to the Gauquelin “Mars effect” studies, as Deborah has pointed out, such as Ertel has done with regard to other “Mars effect” studies, and as Eysenck has done with regard to the Shawn Carlson double-blind study.

    Those critiques only apply to the “scientific tests of astrology”; consequently, those critiques in and of themselves produce no improvement in the astrological approach employed by astrologers.

    No new theories were required.

    If astrology is a perfect system, one which it is impossible to improve, one which produces perfect results whenever applied, then astrology is most definitely stagnant. Do astrologers assert that astrology (including astrological understanding) cannot be improved? I would be astounded were this the case, and, were it the case that astrologers hold that there can be no further improvement to astrology and astrological practice, then astrology in itself would be a not particularly interesting matter. But, the more important point is the matter of whether astrologers themselves recognize their own field as subject to improved understanding and techniques.

    Astrologers do proliferate theories, but they are exactly what you might think. If new asteroids or planetoids are discovered, astrologers will proliferate theories and the theories are developed among the community.

    Theories are proliferated in an attempt to improve understanding and results. The fact that present day astrologers utilize the objects discovered by astronomers no more makes astronomy a science than does the fact that clinical physicians utilize the products of research make scientists of those physicians. If the addition of newly discovered astronomical objects has improved astrological practice, and if astrologers (for whatever reason) want to be thought of as part of the scientific research community, then maybe astrological theories can be put forth that both improve astrological practice and anticipate/predict astronomical (or physics) discoveries yet to come.

  8. Those critiques only apply to the “scientific tests of astrology”; consequently, those critiques in and of themselves produce no improvement in the astrological approach employed by astrologers.

    The improvement is in the scientific methods used to test astrology. This is an improvement in science today and it is an assumption that these improvements would never lead to improvements in astrology. Otherwise, why would the astrologers themselves participate in the studies and wish to help design the tests? Again, I don’t think this is stagnation, especially if they are involved in the design of experiments.

    Ertel, however decided to use a very sensitive method of ranking and rating, and produced positive results for astrology using the gathered the Mars effect data. No new theories were required.

    Sorry if this was not clear. Ertel did not need new astrological theories to scientifically demonstrate a correlation between the rankings of sports champions and Mars placement. This one instance does not lead to the conclusion that astrology never needs new theories. New theories are developed in astrology, but in this instance were not needed.

    If the addition of newly discovered astronomical objects has improved astrological practice, and if astrologers (for whatever reason) want to be thought of as part of the scientific research community, then maybe astrological theories can be put forth that both improve astrological practice and anticipate/predict astronomical (or physics) discoveries yet to come.

    Yes, this comes close to what some astrologers want to do, except such research would not anticipate astronomical discoveries (how could it, and why should it?) as much as shed light on what astrology may be able to further discover, which is more in the nature of psychological and social understanding.

  9. The improvement is in the scientific methods used to test astrology. This is an improvement in science today and it is an assumption that these improvements would never lead to improvements in astrology.

    You misunderstand. Even if the critiques of the scientific methods used to test astrology were to lead to improvements in scientific testing pertaining to astrology, that would not itself produce any change whatsoever in astrological practices. That is not an assumption; that is a conclusion which logically follows from the fact that it is the testing and not astrology which is put forth as being improved.

    Ertel did not need new astrological theories to scientifically demonstrate a correlation between the rankings of sports champions and Mars placement.

    Correlational studies generally do very little to advance understanding, because such studies tend to be merely superficial; accordingly, they are most often to be regarded as a preliminary stage of investigation, at best. See here and the discussion starting here.

    Yes, this comes close to what some astrologers want to do, except such research would not anticipate astronomical discoveries (how could it, and why should it?) …

    If a better accounting of astronomical objects effects astrological improvement, then, to the extent that astrological improvements can be effected independent of new astronomical discoveries, it could well turn out that improvements in astrology would anticipate astronomical discoveries yet to come. I expect that the only astrological researchers who might be interested in such a possibility would be those who desire recognition/acceptance by the non-astrological scientific community. Why any astrologers would – and whether any astrologers should – be especially concerned with such acceptance, is another matter altogether.

    Defending astrology is one of the most uncomfortable and thankless positions anyone can take.

    Paul’s blog post was not an attack on astrology; hence, an attempt at mere defense ends up not having actually engaged with the points Paul makes – points that apply to all human endeavors that are concerned with the development and furtherance of any sort of understanding.

    • Paul Newall says:

      As Michael has pointed out, these responses do not address the points I made above. I will amend and add a short essay I wrote on proliferation but here Feyerabend means increasing the empirical content of a theory by contrasting it with others, particularly ones that are mutually inconsistent. It may well be that the models of science discussed here are flawed (and indeed that is the point of this presentation) but the supposed or actual suppression of a “Mars effect” would not have a bearing on this unless it shows that astrology makes testable claims (Popper), gives rise to puzzles and puzzle solving (Kuhn) or proliferates alternative theories to increase empirical content (Feyerabend).

  10. Pingback: Weekly Roundup | The Bubble Chamber

  11. Kevin says:

    Great essay, Paul. Thanks for writing it. I think it is interesting that while your essay was directed towards one audience, an unanticipated audience, astrologers themselves, have come here to offer comment. But this is exactly the way it should be, they are part of the conversation, they are being talked about. But it has also caused me to realize that I know very little about astrology—all I knew is the superficial stereotypical view—what is contained in the daily horoscope. I’m also enjoying the comments of the astrologers here who are defending their practice, mainly because of my own ignorance.

  12. Pingback: baalbek.org » What’s wrong with astrology?

  13. Pingback: History of Science through the eyes of a dog: Giants’ Shoulders #33 | The Renaissance Mathematicus

  14. Pingback: On astrology and demarcation « Praj's Blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s