Age of Aquarius: in defence of Professor Brian Cox

09Apr10

My name is Krystal and I am an Aquarius. According to Cafe Astrology, I am an opinionated, intellectual eccentric. I am independent, if sometimes a little detached; assertive yet friendly in demeanour. Sounds quite charming on the surface; I can gloss over my alleged detachment with explanations of my unwillingness to follow the beaten track and revel in my eccentricities and wit. Hoozah! Let me bask in my apparent weirdness and individualism.

Well not really, this is an example of the Forer (or Barnam) effect. Psychologist Bertram Forer discovered that people will accept vague statements about their personalities, usually favourable ones, despite the fact that the same description could easily be attributed to anyone. In 1948 Forer issued a personality test to his students, ignored their answers and gave them all the same evaluation. When the class was asked to rate his analysis, 84% of them said it was an accurate summary of their personality. The analysis he gave them was from an astrology column.

My distaste for astrology can be summed up in one phrase: “Mercury in retrograde.” From what I gather it’s rather like planetary PMT and is often used as an excuse for being an arse. This week a conversation on Twitter about astrology caught my eye and led me to a note posted by a group called Equinox Astrology. The group was unimpressed by a comment made by Professor Brian Cox in his Wonders of Solar System programme. Professor Cox said:

Now astrologists have said for years that Jupiter influences our lives. But we now have scientific evidence that this mighty planet does have a significant connection with our own small world.

Now, Jupiter is so different to our planet, a big ball of gas half a billion kms away. It’s difficult to see how it could have anything to do with us at all. But despite the fact that astrology is a load of rubbish, Jupiter can in fact, have a profound influence on our planet. And it’s through a force that surrounds us and penetrates us and binds the galaxy together. Gravity.

Equinox described Professor Cox’s remark as “unresearched (sic), unsubstantiated and unscientific.” They also said this “bad science is an abuse of a position of trust in an educational scientific program funded by BBC licence payers” and lobbied Radio 4’s Today programme to discuss it. Despite the trifling issue of an election announcement being foremost in the public’s minds that very day.

“Has he explored his birth chart?” quoth Equinox. No, because it’s complete bollocks. And before Equinox come chasing after me, that’s an opinion based on all the evidence I’ve thus far been presented with. And may I add, bite me. I’m quite sure the good Professor hasn’t looked into the existence of leprechauns or hypothesised what killed off the unicorns either. But as they themselves pointed out: “Cox is simply not qualified to speak on astrology.” Shame on you Cox. Let’s see how far that PhD in high energy particle physics takes you.

What is so strange about this mild controversy (bit like mild peril) is that Equinox et al freely admit that they do not know how astrology works, just that it does. In an almost sweetly naive way they hope one day to discover how. We’re all rooting for you. I did a little digging into other opinions from the astrology community. One of the more hilarious comments I read was the claim from one forum member that “At birth our astrological ‘genes’ so to speak are switched on and the energies as set in the universe at the time of our birth are ‘programmed’ to our physical being.” The R&D money cannot be far away guys. He also claimed that astrology could not be proved because it was so advanced and put his analytical mind down to having Saturn conjunct Mercury and a Sun and Virgo ascendant. I have no idea what this means.

Now it occurred to me that the 200 complaints apparently already made to the BBC about this remark, and Equinox’s determination to have it discussed on Today, needed to be balanced out. I expressed my thoughts on Twitter and Professor Cox was kind enough to retweet me. With a smiley face. I won’t lie, it made my afternoon. I also encouraged my followers to show Cox some love and contact Today with favourable comments about the series. Wonders of the Solar System has been essential viewing these past weeks. Each episode has been peppered with big ideas, yet understandable and accessible explanations and Cox’s enthusiasm for astronomy is delightfully contagious.

I’ve been fortunate enough to see him talk on several occasions – at Godless Christmas, the recent Big Libel Gig and at a meeting of the Westminster Skeptics. Each time his passion has shone through and the very last thing he could be accused of is promoting bad science. I’m afraid the impasse we reach with our good friends at Equinox is that astrology simply isn’t science. It’s wish fulfilment, projection and lacks any semblance of scientific method. It’s a broken system that isn’t looking to revise itself any time soon.

Carl Sagan once said: “There are two ways to view the stars. As they really are or as we might wish them to be.” Astrology isn’t for me, mind you neither is particle physics but its practitioners never tried to break my personality down into sweeping generalisations designed to flatter me. Of course, an astrologer might put my ardour down to that stubborn streak of mine. Tsk, typical Aquarius.

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14 Responses to “Age of Aquarius: in defence of Professor Brian Cox”

  1. :like:

    Great post – also pretty in awe (and 100% jealous) at how much celebrity banter you seem to attract, missy!

  2. Brilliantly written!

  3. 3 Si Cole

    What a wonderfully articulate piece, Krystal. Bravo!

  4. I was going to say something along the lines of, ‘I take astrology with a pinch of salt, it’s funny and that’s all. Bollox really – typical Scorpio attitude!’ myself 😛
    Nicely done, ma’am.

  5. 5 Jo

    Don’t usually comment on things, otherwise would spend my life typing my thoughts and opinions on the endless amount of stuff now out there in cyber world, but, loved this and now found myself leaving a reply! Only came across it thanks to a giagia retweet. Funny because soon as Prof Cox said it, I knew there’d be a big hoo haah… Hope you don’t mind, but going to follow you on the ol’twitter now.. can always do with a little witty well written bloggin’ in ones life! (by the way, I won’t pretend I haven’t read read the odd horror-scope here and there.. but hey, that’ll be my damn twin personality, can’t decide who or what to believe ha – but quite content with the notion that it isn’t worth complaining to the dear BBC about, they’ve got enough on their plates, what with 6music and all!!!…) bored on a friday evening, gemini

  6. My goodness, thank you all so much for the feedback. It’s greatly appreciated. Some of the comments I read from astrologers on this were really quite hilarious. Have a dig around, you’re sure to find more! To their credit Equinox did a bit of a Q&A with their new “fans” on Facebook – a fair few science enthusiasts joined the group after the note was retweeted in order to have their say, some more eloquently than others. Although I confess I did titter at one comment which simply read “Astrollocks.” Again the “we don’t know how it works but it does” line came out:

    “In every astrological test (whether designed to prove or disprove) it has so far been impossible to isolate and replicate objective data. Tools that work well in physics, chemistry and molecular biology are far less appropriate and effective with the complexity and infinite number of variables in human behaviour.”

    And in another hilarious twist, the burden of proof, according to Equinox’s admin, lies with Professor Cox for bringing it up. Yeah Cox, you started it! I’m ranting a little again, I just logged in to say thanks! Really, thank you for reading.

  7. Fantastic piece, bravo!

  8. Found this topic by chance, but watched the episode and thought the comment was rather inappropriate and unkind. It was a seemingly surprising thing for him to say – someone so apparently so rapaciously curious about the ‘stuff’ around us.

    My knowledge of astronomy, and astrology are limited (although I’m fascinated by both and also their correlation to one another and to us). The silly thing is that Professor Cox has even mentioned Jupiter’s gigantic gravitational effect as influencing Earth physically – in a way astrologers already understand within their own vocabulary.

    Whilst many astrologers get upset by physical correlation of astronomy to astrology, I happen to think that astrological charts – which are in one sense, a 2 dimensional data display or naturally linked to ‘real’ movements.

    Also, as a point on ‘data presentation’, we are accustomed to understanding a visual model of atoms as mini solar systems with the sun-like nucleus and electrons orbiting. This is in fact ‘a load of rubbish’ as this is only a mathematical visual representation of what is really going on. The description (which is still fairly hypothetical) is only about as valid as an astrological chart and its archetypes (which are actually far better researched due to the fact that some charts and data have been around for several thousand years!).

    I hope you’ll permit me to link to a little light relief on this interesting debate – it’s a spoof of the programme in question. It does mildy make fun of Professor Cox, but according to his Twitter feed (http://twitter.com/profBriancox), he sees the funny side of being mocked. I think it is probably what he’d be truthfully saying of he wasn’t on the BBC!

  9. 9 TheMadMattster

    “Space,” it says, “is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly hugely mindbogglingly big it is. I mean you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist, but that’s just peanuts to space, listen…”

  10. The astrologer’s argument in this is akin to presenting a horse as evidence for unicorns.

    *sigh*

  11. 11 Bob Arthur

    I also thought Professor Cox’s remarks were unwise. By introducing astrology into the narrative, he has, unwittingly, not only caused annoyance amongst those who believe there is a shred of credibility to astrology, but also said just enough for some to read into his words some degree of validation of their beliefs.

    Let’s be quite clear on this. Where Professor Cox stated that Jupiter can have a profound influence on events on Earth, he was speaking _solely_ of its gravitational influence on nearby space objects, which, under certain circumstances, can redirect their trajectories, possibly towards parts of the Solar System that our little planet occasionally visits.

    Now I don’t tend to read my horoscope, but I don’t recall seeing one warning me of meteorite-strike a week Wednesday. Moreover, the complexities of multibodied gravitational models, combined with the fact that we have only recently had the ability even to detect most of the objects in the Solar System mean that if (and it’s a BIG if) events on a planetary scale could direct the course of events on a human scale, it would be simply unthinkable to assume that centuries old astrological models could lead to anything resembling realistic predictions.

    So no; Professor Cox perhaps shouldn’t have trash-talked astrology. He shouldn’t have let it come anywhere near a program devoted to real and respectable science.

  12. I still don’t know just how much gravitational effect Jupiter has on earth. I don’t think I’ll find out here.

  13. 13 Bob Arthur

    (G * m_1 * m_2 / r^2), which if I can use my calculator correctly suggests about 2.1879 * 10^18 N when closest to the Earth. Which is not an awful lot for our planet at 6 * 10^24 kg.


  1. 1 Astrologers throw their toys out of the pram | Mr Blackett

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