Columns, Opinions

Flynn ’20.5: When the stars don’t align: The failures of astrology

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Opinions Editor
Wednesday, October 9, 2019

As a student at Brown, you have probably been asked at some point about your astrological sign. People you have just met garner information about your personality from how your time and date of birth align with the patterns of the stars. If you were born between Nov. 22 and Dec. 21 like me, you are a Sagittarius (according to the stars, I am generous and idealistic, but also impatient). Many will look to their horoscope to predict their futures or explain their pasts. If you get rejected from a job, it is because your horoscope predicted that you would be unlucky in your professional life. These attempts to imbue the randomness of life with cosmic significance seem to be ubiquitous among college students.

It goes without saying that astrology is pure pseudoscience. There is no more evidence that astrological signs produce accurate information than there is evidence that the earth is flat, that the universe is 6,000 years old or that climate change is a hoax. While some do believe that astrology works, many others embrace a paradox: they acknowledge it is fake but still take it very seriously. Others may consider zodiac signs and horoscopes — two core tenets of astrology — to be harmless gimmicks that they use merely for fun or to bond with others.

In what the Atlantic calls “The New Age of Astrology,” millennials are increasingly turning to the stars to take comfort and to deal with their problems.  These superstitions are becoming worrisome. Astrology is harmful, even if one acknowledges it as pseudoscience while fully embracing it. It encourages people to make decisions on the basis of superstition, justify outcomes in their lives on the basis of fate and prejudge others on the basis of fictitious cosmic characteristics. In this sense, astrology serves as a way of avoiding any genuine confrontation with the inevitable uncertainty of life.

We must not underestimate how many people literally believe that zodiac signs reveal character traits and that horoscopes predict the future. A 2018 Pew Research poll found that 29 percent of Americans, both religious and non-religious, subscribe to astrology. In 2014, the National Science Foundation found that over a quarter of Americans said astrology was “sort of scientific,” and 6 percent said it was “very scientific.” College students in particular are at risk of falling for the pseudoscience. A 2011 survey at the University of Arizona tracked attitudes toward science of nearly 10,000 undergraduates over a 20-year period, and found that 78 percent of students considered astrology “very” or “sort of” scientific.

But another subset of astrologers — I reckon that most astrologers at Brown fall into this category — acknowledge that astrology is probably fake, but still use it to inform their decisions, whether ironically or not. The Atlantic describes the attitude of many millennials: that astrology is useful, whether or not it is real. One millennial in the article says: “We take astrology very seriously, but we also don’t necessarily believe in it … because it’s a tool for self-reflection, it’s not a religion or a science. It’s just a way to look at the world and a way to think about things.”

I have tried my hardest to understand the appeal of astrology as a “tool for self-reflection.” In our increasingly secular age, astrology taps into an all too human urge to transpose cosmic certainty onto the terrifying randomness of life. My friends who practice astrology say that it provides them with a framework for making sense of something that has happened in their lives that is otherwise inexplicable. It is also a coping mechanism. A 2015 study found that people tend to consult astrology because of stress in their lives.

Given the many sources of stress to which college students are incessantly subjected, it is hard to deny someone any kind of stress relief. But it is important to understand that astrology is not a viable long-term solution —nor even a good short-term relief — to stress. Astrology misrepresents the nature of the stressful problems of life. It says that those problems are due to fate and are out of one’s control. It makes people look for certain outcomes that will never come. Once people’s horoscopes prove incorrect, they are bound to feel disappointed, and no less stressed.

If something is to serve as an effective “tool for self-reflection,” then that tool ought to help people come to real insights about themselves. Astrology is a tool that is not merely inaccurate, but fundamentally misleading. It will provide insights that are fake and meaningless, and will inspire one to act in uninformed ways. There are so many ways of reflecting on oneself and of reducing stress that have actual scientific basis, such as cognitive therapy, walks in nature and meditation. If people actually want to help themselves, they should consider dropping the pseudoscience.

James Flynn ’20.5 can be reached at james_flynn1@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

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