Stars in Their Courses

I got into a disagreement with someone yesterday in a TAPPED comment thread on the matter of astrology. Astrology is in the blog buzz these days because someone discovered Jerome Armstrong once practiced political astrology (or still does, but is keeping quiet about it). A rumor that Jerome also used astrology to choose stocks is making the rounds, but this may not be accurate.

Billmon writes,

Not content with picking through Jerome Armstrong’s dirty laundry at the SEC — at a time when he is expressly forbidden from talking about the case — the werebunnies of Right Blogistan and TNR (is there a difference any more?) plus Mickey Kaus, who flunked out of wererabbit basic training, are having themselves a gay old time making fun of Jerome’s interest in astrology, which I gather he has used in the past to pick stocks, or forecast political trends, or both — I’m not clear.

Nor do I particularly want to be. I’m very familiar with the practice of forecasting financial price trends based on charts of what are essentially random numerical patterns. But on Wall Street they call this “technical analysis,” and they pay thousands of guys millions of dollars to practice the art — even though any number of scientific studies have shown that it works about as well as astrology. (If it did work, the technical traders would own the world by now.) So irrational behavior by an ex-stock picker doesn’t seem like much of a scoop to me.

Like I told the commenter at TAPPED, I don’t see the scandal. Practicing astrology may be stupid, or delusional, or crazy, or a great many other adjectives, but by itself I don’t consider it unethical. If, hypothetically, someone were selling financial advice and telling his clients that the advice was based on in-depth analysis of profits or discounted cash flow or some such, but he was really using astrology, that would be unethical. But if he’s upfront about the astrology thing, what the hell. You pay your money and you take your chances. I’ve heard of people who successfully choose stocks by taping the newspaper stock market section to a corkboard and throwing darts at it.

Once upon a time I couldn’t stand to hear anyone talk about astrology without jumping in and proclaiming how dumb it is. But now I am older and either wiser or more demented; take your pick. I have cleared my head of opinions and judgments. If someone tells me he decided not to take a plane flight because there was a Grand Cross over the airport at the time of departure, I no longer feel an urge to lecture him on his credulity. Likewise, if someone tells me he thinks astrology is bunk, that’s fine with me. Whatever.

I’ve never seen empirical evidence that astrology forecasts specific events, like plane crashes or election results, any better than flipping coins or throwing darts. But I’ve known a few people who were deeply into astrology and who were brilliant at using it to predict general trends. In these cases, I suspect the astrologer (consciously or not) uses star charts to jog intuition. In other words, interpreting star patterns might be helping the astrologer access something he already knows, or believes, at some sub-cognitive level.

Knowing something without knowing you know it isn’t as far-fetched as it might sound. Maybe you’ve had the experience of reading a book or hearing a lecture, when something you read or hear causes an understanding, or realization, to pop into the forefront of your brain. And you recognize that this little eureka had been in your head for a while, but it had been a fuzzy thing dangling at the edge of cognition that you’d overlooked. It took someone else’s words to give it clarity and bring it to your full attention.

Another example: These days we nearly always use the word myth as a synonym for fallacy, but myths, it is argued, can be interpreted allegorically as windows to the psyche, or guides to truths that defy articulation. “For the myth is the foundation of life; it is the timeless schema, the pious formula into which life flows when it reproduces its traits out of the unconscious,” Thomas Mann said. Dismissing myths because they aren’t historically or literally true misses the point of them.

I’ve come to appreciate that literalness and truth are not at all the same thing, but I’ve yet to be able to explain why that’s so to someone who doesn’t already get it. The ability to realize truth outside of language or conceptual knowledge seems to come naturally to some people but baffles others, possibly depending on how their brains are wired.

Back to astrology — does “believing in” astrology require believing that events here on earth are caused by the alignments of planets and stars many light years away? I don’t think so, but then just because something isn’t literally true doesn’t make it worthless. If interpreting a star chart — or reading tea leaves, or chicken bones, or the I Ching — causes someone to access depths of intuition he couldn’t get to otherwise, I say there’s some value in that.

And if all of this leaves you cold, that’s fine, but you don’t have to get hostile about it. Think of it as a harmless quirk, like saving gum wrappers or eating eggs with ketchup.

This forecast posted in December 2002 was linked to by Garance Franke-Ruta as a shocking example — she called it “Armstrong’s analysis of the causes of 9-11.” However, it’s not about the causes of 9/11. Rather, it’s about the subconscious impulses driving people, mostly President Bush, in a particular direction. The section subtitled “Bush, Republicans, and Varuna” proved to be accurate in many ways. However, I don’t believe it says anything that people weren’t already suspecting in December 2002 without using astrology. And whatever was going on with Pluto and Bush’s south node doesn’t seem to have tripped him up in the 2004 election.

On the other hand, these predictions for likely Democratic presidential candidates, also made in December 2002 by another astrologer, are pretty darn close — well, except for the Kerry section — and I don’t think these predictions could have been constructed from conventional wisdom in December 2002. This is either one amazing astrologer, or she opened the file last year and re-wrote the predictions. I can’t tell. But if this really is what the lady predicted in 2002, look for John Edwards to be a factor in 2008.

6 thoughts on “Stars in Their Courses

  1. Another problem is the semantics of the charge. When you read that Jerome “believes” in astrology, it sounds as if he has a little shrine set up in his bedroom, where he goes every night to worship the stars.

    I’m not saying he doesn’t. But that’s usually not the case with those who follow astrology. It’s not a belief in the current (that is, Christian) sense so much as it is a study of pattern and tendency, which many find helpful as a (not THE) way to make a little more sense out of the world.

    That’s all. People go overboard on all kinds of things. Geez, last year loads of people “believed” in the Atkins diet. But few associated it with wingnuttery, even though I saw lots of people in restaurants and at the ballpark asking for their burgers without buns. I thought it was a little nutty.

  2. I like astrology when it involves persons who make a serious hobby of it. I once had a teacher who did charts on each student. When he came to mine, he announced that the time of my birth was wrong. [I had asked my Mom for the time, but she later admitted that she was ‘guessing’— yep, I was born at home]. Well, later another person with whom I became friends, offered to ‘rectify my chart’ to find the exact time of my birth. She used a computer to do a bunch of math…..somehow working back from events in my life. What blew me away was that, as she got closer and closer to the moment of my birth, she began to ask uncannily specific questions of me……. “Did you get spanked your first day of school?” [Well, yes, I did….because the first grade teacher got tired of telling me to stop talking to a girl across the aisle in our classroom. I was from a farm and only had brothers, and was fascinated to find a girl to talk to].

    Whether the serious astrology hobbyists are using it as a tool to bring intuition to a focus, or whether there is actually some pattern within small pieces of the universe [individuals] that reflect something from heavenly alignments…..who knows or cares. Energy follows thought, and thought follows energy.

  3. Taking a cheap shot at some one for their beleif in astrology or numerology or their religion for that matter is just that – a cheap shot. Kudo to Maha for the discussion.

    Let me ask a question (and this is not pointed at you Maha – everything I have read from you shows you are above a cheap shot) Those who are as old as I am may remember that there were credable rumors that Nancy Regan was into astrology. Suppose (for discussion – I am not suggesting this is true) Barbara Bush was a fan of astrology. Where would you stand then on astrology?

    IMHO defending someone for practicing in private a minority belief has to cross over regardless of who is being ridiculed. This is a real test of how ethically developed you are.

  4. As I said, I don’t believe it or disbelieve it; I’d say that on some level I accept it as one more thing in the world I don’t understand, like calculus or accupuncture. I wouldn’t cancel a plane trip because of a grand cross over the airport at the time of departure. Also, I must say the Age of Aquarius has been a bust so far. On the other hand, natal charts, if they’re calculated accurately, in my observation are usually remarkably accurate.

  5. I think that a lot of divination works by providing two things:

    1. A good set of symbols, rich in allusions and implications, which can interact in lots of ways, so that you can combine factual objective details and emotional responses and not-previously-verbalized concepts and all the different sorts of thoughts we have in one fabric, rather than trying to force them all “up” or “down” into the structure of just one kind of thought.

    2. A source of randomness in the arrangement of things, to help you get out of a mental rut and see possibilities and connections you might otherwise not have gotten to.

    The interesting thing is that these seem to be worthwhile regardless of what deeper truth there is (or isn’t) to any particular practice. They help let the human mind, a truly amazing pattern-making instrument, do its thing. If they also allow connections of any other sort, so much the better. 🙂

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