Richard Dawkins’ Coverage of Astrology in Enemies of Reason
I came across a clip today from Richard Dawkin’s new documentary titled Enemies of Reason in which he attacks a number of paranormal fields, including astrology. Dawkins brings out the usual modern arguments against the subject that have been recycled over and over again over the past couple of decades, mainly focusing on Sun-sign columns and invoking the Barnum effect in order to make the case that the entire field is rubbish.
This is all old news, and there weren’t any new or terribly poignant arguments brought out against the theory or practice of astrology itself. The main argument that he made was simply about a legitimate psychological tendency that people have to seek or contrive a correspondence between something that they think is linked with them and their perception of their life or personality. While the Barnum effect or “Forer effect” is striking and certainly relevant, this phenomenon only has a sort of peripheral relevance in disputing the actual validity of the subject of astrology itself.
This isn’t what struck me as interesting though, although the filming of that segment was directed in a much more artistic manner than say, James Randi’s clip from the 80’s in which he held the same kind of experiment in a classroom. What really caught my attention in Dawkin’s coverage of astrology was this sudden string of blatantly false historical statements about a third of the way through the segment. In reference to astrology, Dawkins tells us that
It was developed in the 2nd century AD by the philosopher Claudius Ptolemy, and has not moved on since, despite the discovery of new planets, and despite a shift in the Earth’s rotational axis that has thrown Ptolemy’s zodiac out by 23 degrees.
There are at least 4 major historical inaccuracies in just this one sentence. It is rather astounding actually. Commendable even. How so, you might ask incredulously? Lets break it down piece by piece.
Western Astrology Developed by Ptolemy?
1) It [astrology] was developed in the 2nd century AD by the philosopher Claudius Ptolemy…
Dawkins claims that astrology was invented in the 2nd century of the common era. That is, despite the fact that western astrology has roots in Mesopotamia that go back more than 2,000 years before Ptolemy was even born. Despite the fact that the finalized form of the zodiac with 12 signs of 30 degrees each dates back to the 5th century BCE. Despite the fact that evidence of the practice of natal astrology, casting astrological charts for the birth of an individual, goes back at least as far as the first known birth chart which has been dated to 410 BCE. Despite dozens of extant birth charts, sometimes known more generally as “horoscopes”, in Cuneiform, Demotic, and Greek which date to well before the period when Ptolemy flourished in the 2nd century CE. Despite the earlier Greek and Latin textbooks on the subject that exist, which demonstrate the use of the same system of horoscopic astrology that Ptolemy wrote about. Despite Ptolemy’s own references to earlier astrologers. Most of all, despite the current historical consensus among academics that Hellenistic astrology originated sometime around the 1st or 2nd century BCE. Despite all of this, Dawkins unflinchingly tells us that astrology was invented in the 2nd century CE by Claudius Ptolemy.
Western Astrology Has Not Changed Since Ptolemy?
Dawkins, clearly very knowledgeable about the subject at this point, goes on to tell us that
2) [astrology] has not moved on since [Ptolemy invented it]…
So, in Dawkins’ opinion, astrology, as devised by Ptolemy, hasn’t changed or developed at all since the 2nd century CE. This is of course despite the fact that the way that astrology is practiced today in the 21st century is quite different than the way that it was practiced nearly 2,000 years ago in the Hellenistic and Roman traditions. Despite the fact that most modern astrologers don’t have the slightest clue what Ptolemy is talking about in the majority of his astrological text, known as the Tetrabiblos, since the practice of astrology has changed so drastically both in theory and in technique since his time. Despite the fact that astrology was transmitted through several different cultures and several different languages over the past 2,000 years until it reached the form that it is in today. Despite the advances in astronomy that were partially spurred on by astrologers such as Galileo , Brahe, and Kepler. Despite that fact that Sun-sign astrology, the type that Dawkins is familiar with, is a recent mutation of astrology that took place as recently as the early 20th century. Despite all of this, as far as Dawkins knows astrology is the same today as it was in the 2nd century.
Western Astrology Has Not Incorporated Newly Discovered Planets?
According to Dawkins astrology is the same
3) … despite the discovery of new planets…
He apparently thinks that modern astrology either hasn’t incorporated the outer planets, which it has, or that the discovery of the outer planets didn’t change the basic technical or theoretical structure of modern astrology, which, again, it has.
Ptolemy’s Zodiac Is Wrong?
Finally, according to Dawkins, astrology hasn’t changed since the time of Claudius Ptolemy in the 2nd century
4) … despite a shift in the Earth’s rotational axis that has thrown Ptolemy’s zodiac out by 23 degrees.
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.
Insight Into the Modern Skeptical Movement
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…