My woman chum is not alone in believing there is something
in astrology. In the year 2000 a survey of British women found that 70% read
their horoscopes regularly. Almost all knew their birth signs and 85% agreed
that the astrological description of their sign fitted their personality.
Interest in astrology is not limited to Britain. A market
research study, carried out in the USA, found that 98% of the population know
their zodiac sign and 66% read astrological columns regularly (i.e. once a
Although I didn't want to take astrology seriously, it
seems a lot of people did.
Then, I found a remarkable correlation between planetary
positions and peaks of human achievement. The statistical tests I applied showed
this correlation was too strong to dismiss out of hand, yet I couldn't put
forward any scientific explanation of why it should be.
When I mentioned what I'd found to my astrology-quoting
lady friend, she just smiled a knowing smile and said.
Is it pseudo-scientific twaddle or is there a
real effect hiding beneath an encrusted veneer of ancient nonsense?
A Cosy Superstition
Astrology just won’t go away. It was supposed to wither
and die under the harsh glare of scientific understanding. Instead it lingers on
to embarrass scientists. Magazines and newspapers encourage its adepts to parade
their lack of logic and air their superstitious ‘truths’. Scientists
denounce it, yet top astrologers are more widely trusted by the public than top
scientists. They also earn more.
It wasn't supposed to be this way.
In 1885 the philosopher Friedrich Nietzche made his famous
statement that God was dead. He was dramatizing a popular claim among
intellectuals that the idea of God was a vestige of an unscientific past that
mankind would soon outgrow. At God’s funeral pyre a whole range of
superstitious beliefs including astrology were supposed to throw themselves into
the flames, never to rise again. But astrology not only survives it prospers.
Rationalist thinkers hoped that as educational levels rose and science provided
more realistic explanations for the mysteries of existence the appeal of
astrology would fade away. But they were wrong. To survive astrology must meet a
human need, or we would let it go along with the idea that the Earth is a flat
disc supported on the backs of four turtles swimming in a sea of milk. So what
does astrology offer which a flat Earth cannot?
Remember how as a child you looked up into your mum's face
as she tucked you into bed, your Teddy bear was snug against your side and your
eyes closed to the warm touch of a goodnight kiss. It's a reassuring feeling to
know that someone is looking out for you. Is this why people want to believe in
astrology. It offers an order and structure for complex adult lives that reminds
us of the cosy certainties of early childhood.
Most scientists will tell you that astrology is nonsense.
It can tell us nothing about ourselves or our futures. Many people have done
surveys into what people think about astrology. And they’ve found some common
threads. Kendrick Frazier found that women are more likely to believe than men.
Believers often show an interest in affairs of the spirit, but no interest in
old time religion. The young are more likely to believe than their elders. But
approval for astrology does not always mean a lack of understanding of, or
hostility to, science.
A study by John Durant and Martin Bauer found that people
who scored well in tests of scientific knowledge have lower levels of belief.
Believers in astrology tend to put their trust in authority but often aren’t
married. But a study carried out ten years ago Dr Thomas Gray found that a
university education didn’t do much to reduce belief in astrology. I was able
to confirm his finding by running a straw poll with my colleagues. I asked if
they thought there was anything in astrology and over half thought there might
Why do so many people want to believe that an astral
dictatorship rules the most private details of their lives? If any government
tried to impose such a regime on them there would be instant rebellion.
Professor Hans Eysenck is a psychologist at London
University. In 1982 he carried out a survey which found that a third of the
people in Western countries believe in astrology. Another third read their
horoscopes in the papers, even though they claim it is 'just for fun'. Only one
third is sceptical. What seems clear, from recent surveys, is that the number of
folk who accept astrology is increasing. And this is at a time when our society
is getting more scientific.
Pop songs are written asking 'What's your sign?' During a
recent spectacular alignment of Venus, Mars Mercury and Jupiter in the evening
sky, the BBC Radio Four's Today programme interviewed a 'qualified' astrologer.
She was asked if the positions of the stars would have any effect on the density
of traffic on the roads of Britain. It wasn't even April Fool's Day.
But science does not let this cosy superstition pass
Like the dry old bones stored on the shelves of museums,
astrology is fossilised. Nothing has changed since the ancient Greeks laid down
its basic principles. It is just more commercial, and wears a
pseudo-mathematical fig leaf to cover the lack of logic behind its claims.
Nothing astrologers say explains why the positions of distant stars should make
things happen to humans. Astrologers don’t try to explain themselves in the
terms of physics. Is this because the people who know physics aren't encouraged
to think about astrology?
The human need to believe in the ability of leaders or
priests to predict and control the future is deep rooted. The oldest surviving
buildings in the world were built at the behest of strong leaders. The
structures they left behind show they could predict where future sunlight would
shine. Was this astronomical trickery the basis of their ability to control the
masses? They had to command enormous economic resources to build vast structures
such as the Ring of Brodgar, Newgrange and Stonehenge. The remains of their
civil engineering projects show they were able to maintain a sense of purpose
over many generations. Did a knowledge of the movements of the heavens help them
prosper? And if it did, how did their belief work? Did it involve reducing
mankind's fear of the future?
Surely for a belief in astrology to thrive today it must
offer some basic value to its followers? It should have some proof of its
claims, something better than Jeanette Winterton's claim that her personal
astrologer 'is often - but not always – right'. What might this be?
In our modern cities there is so much light pollution we
have largely forgotten just how awesome the naked sky can be. Few city dwelling
people see the vast number of stars which pepper the heavens when the comforting
orange glow of street lamps is absent. A few of these stars stand out, much
brighter than others, and are known as first magnitude stars. These bright stars
do not appear to move about the sky but remain, sitting in well defined
positions, forming patterns that we call constellations.
The two most obvious bright objects in the sky are the Sun
and the Moon. They are so bright they cast a shadow, and can been seen by day
and night. But there are other bright objects, the visible planets, of which the
most brilliant are Venus, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter and Saturn. They vary in
brightness and move about the sky. The ancient Greek fathers of astrology called
them 'wanderers', a name we preserve today in the Anglicised name of planet.
How potent these heavenly objects must have seemed to
The Sun when it was beating down could easily affect their
lives. They got hot, they sweated, their skin burned, they couldn't doubt its
power. Then, when the Sun withdrew behind the clouds they become cold and their
world was beset by storms.
They might have noticed the Moon affected the fertility of
their womenfolk. When it shone full in the night sky, many of the women of the
tribe would trickle menstrual blood at the same time. When the Moon was new the
sea came further up the seashore and drew out further to give them access to
beds of shellfish they could not usually reach. Surely the Moon-god was showing
an interest in their affairs and favouring their welfare.
At certain times Venus is so bright it also casts a
shadow. If our imaginary ancient people went out under dark clear moonless night
skies when Venus was a bright evening star, they could not have avoided seeing
their Venus shadow. Any one of the three brightest sky lights can cast a shadow,
and how magic is that?
When you move your shadow moves with you. If you dance it
will follow every movement no matter how quick. If you try to run away it will
run as fast as you can. Such displays of power, and interaction with people,
could have planted the idea that these animated bright lights in the sky were
either gods, or signs given by gods.
But it was a study of statistics which first made me
wonder if there might be some truth in the claims for astrological effects on
Professor David McClelland of Harvard University studied
the life cycles of high achieving societies in history. Many of the periods of
history where he found achieving societies coincided with pre-dawn conjunctions
of the planets Venus and Mercury.6
Mercury and Venus can both be very bright objects and when they appear in the
same part of the sky they look like a single very bright star. Every few hundred
years they come together in a series of pre-dawn conjunctions. When this happens
they form a bright morning star which rises just before the Sun.
Five out of six societies McClelland looked at, grew up
when Venus and Mercury were rising close together just before dawn. I ran a
statistical check to see what the odds were of these conjunctions occurring at
exactly the same time as high achieving societies arose. There is less than one
chance in a thousand of the two events happening at the same time by chance.
This suggests that something real was happening. Perhaps the people living in
these societies saw the bright morning star and thought God was about to help
them and so helped themselves. It could be the McClelland recorded a
motivational effect for the societies which were growing at the time these
brilliant astronomical events were happening in the dawn sky. Or might there be
Two other statistical studies, which I discuss in Turning
the Solomon Key, suggest a sort of reality behind astrology. These surveys both
found different patterns of human conduct, when the Sun and planets are in
specific parts of the sky. These statistical hints are disturbing but they only
show that movements of the stars happen when humans do interesting things. They
offer no reason to believe that the stars cause the human effects.
This book describes my quest to look more closely at the
hints to be found in these statistical ripples. The writings and actions of
George Washington inspired my search for a principle of astrology acceptable to
science, as he seemed to have been inspired by it in some of his greatest works.
In trying to understand Brother George Washington I was forced to consider
if there was a reality which supported peoples' continuing faith in arcane
If I could find a reason for the statistical oddities that
had built up around astrology then perhaps I might have to believe in it. If
I couldn't, then I would have had to dismiss the unease that these
statistics caused in my mind.
When all is said and done I, I reasoned with myself, I
might only have been experiencing a romantic urge to hunt for a
non-existent purpose in a chaotic universe.
But as it turned out there was a real scientific secret
hidden in the ritual lore of Masonic Astrology. Turning the Solomon Key
describes what I found.