Astrological Musings

Chris is one of the smartest astrologers around, and he has a great breakdown of four of Dawkins’ arguments against astrology. Here’s just the fourth, but it presents an excellent discussion of the argument between the tropical zodiac (0 degrees of the cardinal signs at the solstice/equinoxes) and the sidereal (adapted to precession):

according to Dawkins, astrology hasn’t changed since the time of Claudius Ptolemy in the 2nd century ‘despite a shift in the Earth’s rotational axis that has thrown Ptolemy’s zodiac out by 23 degrees.’ [quotation from Dawkins].

The problem with this statement is that in the process of borrowing old arguments from earlier skeptics Dawkins got mixed up due to his unfamiliarity with the subject that he is attempting to dispute. Skeptics of astrology tend to favor this argument that centers around the fact that the sidereal zodiac of the constellations has moved out of alignment with the tropical zodiac of the seasons over the course of the past 2,000 years since horoscopic astrology was developed. The problem with Dawkins’ statement is that since he is under the assumption that Ptolemy was the one who invented astrology, he assumes that Ptolemy was the one who originally used the sidereal zodiac of the constellations, and then later astrologers started using the now common tropical zodiac of the seasons. But in actuality Ptolemy was the one who instituted the tropical zodiac of the seasons as the main zodiacal reference point in the western astrological tradition, as opposed to the sidereal zodiac of the constellations that prevailed prior to Ptolemy’s time. So, basically, Dawkins got it completely backwards. His first historical mistake led to another even more ridiculous one. This is from a guy who fashions himself as some sort of champion or advocate of reason and rationality against what he is apparently calling the “enemies of reason”, as the title of his documentary states. In this instance it would appear that in his quest to smite the “enemies of reason” he forgot to use his own powers of reason in order to read a lousy history book or two.

This whole episode may seem a bit surprising to some, but what is actually surprising is how common it is. In fact, it is so common that Dawkins can hardly even be faulted for his mistakes here because he is simply ‘toeing the party line’ and repeating a bunch of old statements that have been recycled again and again by careless skeptics over the past several decades. These arguments are then duly repeated without any real comprehension of their intrinsic merit by those who are willing to take up ‘the cause’ and act as soldiers of science or rationality or whatever simply as an excuse so that they don’t have to actually research the subject that they are denouncing so readily. What Dawkins can be faulted for is his readiness to denounce a subject that he is so clearly ignorant of, and his unwitting acceptance of faulty arguments that aren’t even his own. In doing so he is guilty of perpetuating the same sort of misinformation and sloppy thinking that he accuses astrologers of.

But hey, its all for a good cause, right? Even if Dawkins is making blatantly inaccurate statements it is ok because it conveys a sense of authority and it convinces people to relinquish archaic belief systems which no longer hold any place in our society due to their presumably false premises. He doesn’t need to actually know anything about the subject. He feels that astrology is false, his colleagues tell him that that is the case, and thus accepts any counterarguments against it, regardless of their validity. The end justifies the means. In a situation like that, one sometimes wonders who the real ‘enemies of reason’ are…

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