Posted by: mattburleigh | August 1, 2014

Medical astrology is nonsense

Earlier this week, the University of Leicester website published an Opinion section piece that seemed to endorse the practice of “medical astrology”. This followed comments by Conservative MP David Tredinnick suggesting that astrology has a role in medicine. I was gobsmacked and dismayed, as were my colleagues in the Dept of Physics and Astronomy. Not only is “medical astrology” complete nonsense, with no credible evidence to support it, but it is embarrassing to me that my own University has been associated with it, albeit in an opinion piece. I received several tweets from astronomers and others outside Leicester expressing the verbal equivalent of raised eyebrows, and was aware of other critical comments made online.

I have been on holiday this week playing cricket in the West Country, but fortunately some of my colleagues (Dr Paul Abel, Dr Graham Wynn and Dr Mervyn Roy in particular) have swiftly put together a response which has also been published on the University website. I have co-signed this, along with other colleagues who were able to comment on the draft today. I also re-publish the full piece below.

One argument I would like to add, is to try and ward off the inevitable forthcoming accusation that scientists like myself “do not have open minds” and that science “cannot explain everything about the Universe”.  Firstly, the whole point of the scientific method is to be as open minded as possible about the results of any experiment undertaken. Astrology has been subjected to scientific experiment on numerous occasions, and always found wanting, despite the cherry-picked studies & arguments its advocates like to refer to. There is no mysterious energy associated with the movements of planets and the positions of stars that influences human lives and bodies in the manner advocated by astrology. If there was, astronomers would be very rich and powerful and probably employed by the military in order to weapon-ise it. OK so we were once paid by the Royal Navy (for reasons of navigation at sea), and yes there’s still a US Naval Observatory (still plotting star positions and more), and yes the Vatican funds an Observatory doing world-class research, but astrology is still bunkum. And yes some of the first recognizable scientist/astronomers were sometimes employed as Royal Court astrologers (eg Tycho Brahe) and Isaac Newton practiced alchemy, but they couldn’t be expected to get everything right at a time when maps marked half the world “Here be Dragons”. Astrology is still baloney.

As for science not being able to explain everything about the Universe, I’m not going to get deeply into that. It does a pretty good job, and I’m satisfied that it will continue to do so. We may not yet understand dark matter and dark energy, but science will get us there, and astrology is still completely bogus.

Finally,  to point out that astrology is utter bovine manure is not, as David Tredinnick claims of his critics, “bullying”. Neither is it slavishly conforming to some scientific establishment viewpoint, patriarchal, “Western”, or whatever other label you want to throw at it. Astrology doesn’t work. It is balderdash, poppycock, blarney, guff and twaddle. It has been discredited on numerous occasions. It doesn’t exist. It should be a dead pseudoscience, but sadly we have to keep pointing this out.

Academics from the Department of Physics and Astronomy say “ideas behind astrology are fundamentally wrong”

We are dismayed to read views expressed by Dr Elizabeth Hurren that seem to endorse the practice of medical astrology.  It is disappointing to find an article supporting the use of astrological charts by the NHS expressed by an academic in an Opinion section of the University of Leicester, an institution with a long and successful history of research in astrophysics and space science.

While this article was presented as academic opinion, no evidence was presented in support of statements concerning the application of astrology. This is because the ideas behind astrology are fundamentally wrong. Many of the claims made in the article ignore and are falsified by a wealth of astronomical data, some of which was gathered by instruments designed, built and operated just a short distance across campus from the author’s office.

If we consider the opening sentence: ‘the history of the body has always been a star map.’ This is presented as a statement of fact, but makes no tangible sense. What does it mean? Is the author alluding to evolutionary history, the history of anatomy? In either case the association with star maps is spurious. A star map is a two dimensional projection of a three dimensional reality. It is simply the position of the stars as viewed from Earth at a given point in time. The only association with the history of the body can be the historical use of discredited superstitious medical practices. Vague and ill-defined statements pervade the article and, like a horoscope, we suspect the hope is the reader will find their own meaning in it.

Astrologers believe that the position of the sun, moon and planets as they pass through constellations have an influence on our lives. However, the constellations are just the pictures imagined by our hunter-gatherer ancestors among the crowded majesty of the night sky. While fascinating in their own right, these pictures have no scientific meaning. Stars are vast spheres of gas, nuclear furnaces burning hydrogen and enriching the Universe with heavier elements. They are arranged in galaxies, great structures containing hundreds of billions of stars, and in turn, there are many billions of galaxies.  Stars orbit within galaxies, continually moving through space, and so the constellations change over thousands of years: they are transient things. Astrology is ignorant of all of this.

Beneath the veneer of pseudo science the article suggests that medical practice would benefit from a more patient-centric approach. This point may well have merit, but this has nothing to do with astrology.  The suggestion that the personal circumstances of patients be taken into account is worthy, but it has nothing to do with astrology.  Of the points of note in the article, none have anything to do with astrology. Astrology has not cured any of the world’s diseases or led to any proven medical practices. The reason astrology is not taken seriously is clear and simple: there is absolutely no evidence to support any of its claims.

The article demonstrated a disregard for the scientific method and general scholarly practice.  We find it embarrassing to have to respond to such an article in the 21st century. As scientists, we welcome and embrace scholarly debate and understand the context of such debate. We have no strong objection to the relatively harmless horoscope sections of many national newspapers, but when superstition and misinformation masquerade as science then we must object. We think that the suggestion that astrology has any place in modern medical practice is dangerous and without scientific merit. In our view, the publication of this article has done a disservice to our University’s name.

Dr Paul G Abel, Centre for Interdisciplinary Science, University of Leicester

Dr Graham Wynn, Dr Mervyn Roy, Prof Ken Pounds, Prof Andrew King, Prof Steve Milan, Prof Paul O’Brien, Prof Nial Tanvir, Dr Jonathan Nichols, Dr Sarah Casewell, Dr. Matt Burleigh, Dr Mark Wilkinson, Dr Richard Alexander, Dr Steve Baker, Dr Simon Vaughan, Department of Physics and Astronomy, University of Leicester.

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