Friday, January 14, 2011

Ophiuchus! What now?

I woke up yesterday thinking I was an Aries, and went to bed thinking I was a Pisces.  Oh brother.  I guess it means that I'm "compassionate, gentle, artistic, mystical and highly intuitive."  All this time I thought I was "optimistic, independent, impulsive, playful, competitive, courageous, sometimes combative and always adventurous."  Gee, I'm sort of all those things sometimes. 

I really couldn't care less, you understand, but the big news yesterday in the twitterverse and elsewhere was the addition of a 13th sign to the zodiac, called Ophiuchus.  Of course, it's not really a new addition to the zodiac... The constellation of Ophiuchus has always been there along the ecliptic, we've just traditionally left it off the list of the big 12 astrological signs.  But it was widely reported that not only is Ophiuchus a new sign that we'll all have to learn to live with, but that the precession of the Earth's axial rotation has, over a few millennia, shifted our view of the sky so that the Sun is no longer in the same apparent position along the zodiac as it was thousands of years ago, when this version of astrology was concocted.  In other words, people with birthdays in late March have traditionally been considered Aries, but today the Sun is really in Pisces at that time of year.

This story is just so silly in a variety of ways.  For one thing, it wasn't actually news.  The Earth's axial precession doesn't happen overnight, and astronomers haven't just discovered it (read this discussion of the problem by Phil Plait way back in 2008)..  In the words of Sam Cooke, it's been a long time coming.  Then there was the panic and irritation that the traditional signs are all wrong (today HuffingtonPost cleverly examined the Earth-shattering consequences of this shift).  If you've got a tattoo of your astrological sign, tough luck buddy.  And then there was the inevitable backlash from those unlucky souls born in late November and early December, suddenly thrust into a brand new personality profile.  How would you feel to grow up thinking you're a Scorpio, and suddenly find out you're really an Ophiuchus?  The name sounds like a disease.   What's my birth stone?  And how am I supposed to know what kind of person I am?  No one has published my new attributes yet.

Then today, the astrologers came to the rescue.  Nothing to fear, they said.  The Ophiuchus shift only applies to Sidereal Astrology, not Tropical Astrology.  Most believers probably don't know the difference, but don't worry, we westerners typically believe in Tropical Astrology, which is unaffected.  On twitter I saw several people commenting in a similar, but tellingly inconsistent vein: "Ophiuchus only affects those who were born 2009 onwards. If you're born before 2009, the sign stays the same."  That's a relief.

It remains to be seen whether the new dates for the 12-sign zodiac will be adopted, whether we'll keep the dates as we have come to know them, or whether we'll switch over to the new 13-sign zodiac.  In other times, the astrologers might have ignored this story, let everyone just forget about it.  But if this story reached a critical mass of attention, they might have a real problem on their hands.  You see, this little incident has highlighted just how pointless the whole thing is.  Since it has taken so long for the Sun's apparent position in the sky to change, reassurances that Ophiuchus only matters for people born now aren't very convincing.  That there are two schools of thought when it comes to astrology is also a troubling revelation.  If you're a casual horoscope reader, you probably have little reason to think Tropical Astrology is any more valid that Sidereal Astrology.  But you'll probably just go along with whatever is easiest, or whatever your newspaper decides to use.  You'd like to stay an Aries, and one of these astrologies lets you stay that way.  Good enough.

But if we can just arbitrarily decide how we wish to interpret the position of the Sun and the planets along the zodiac, if we can decide that it doesn't really matter that the Sun is not really in the place astrology pretends it is, then did it really mean anything in the first place?  What is the point of reading signs in the sky if we get to ignore the signs?  The ease with which we can ignore these little problems, like the precession of equinoxes, is indicative of astrology's fallacy.  It's easy to make things up as you go along when that's what your entire business has always been about.

Skeptics get a bad wrap sometimes.  People think skeptics are just out to spoil all the fun, but that's not really what it's about.  It can be fun to pretend that we are somehow tied to the motions of the planets, that there is something concrete yet ethereal steering our lives.  I still enjoy fortune cookies.  Maybe astrology is just a harmless pastime, but maybe not.  For people who can enjoy it the way most of us enjoy a magic show -- suspending our disbelief to be amused for a few moments -- that's fine.  But if anyone out there is making decisions based on horoscopes, that's a problem.  If we go into it not knowing on some level that it's just an illusion, not thinking critically about what we're being told, we become susceptible to fraud and deception.  But more troubling than that, this way of thinking extends beyond astrology.  If we can't think critically about astrology, how can we expect to accurately evaluate the intentions of our politicians, or our clergy?  We've got to ask skeptical questions if we're not to be bamboozled by charismatic charlatans.

The thing is, there are many questions with which science must continue to grapple, but astrology is not one of them.  Astrology is inconsistent, and falsifiable.  Just enjoy responsibly, and don't throw your money away.


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