Every five years or so (see 2007 and 2011), I write a blog post about the 13rd zodiac sign, the Serpentarius (the Greek name Ophiuchus is preferred by many these days but not by me) – the wearer of the snakes – in which I was born, much like everyone whose birthday is between November 29th and December 17th or so (more dates).
Fall 2016 just began and it was inevitable that someone makes sure that this insight shocks millions of people, especially women. And it's here. See the recent Ophiuchus articles on Google News.
An astrology-believing individual discovered an article which wasn't even a new one – an article recently updated in January 2016 – on a NASA website. The article was titled Constellations and the Calendar. "First Things First: Astrology is not Astronomy," the subtitle added.
NASA explained that the Babylonians already divided the sky in such a way that there were 13 constellations on the path of the Sun. They just arbitrarily omitted the Serpentarius. Moreover, the signs have shifted by one whole sign because of the precession of Earth's axis – just to be sure, the word "precession" wasn't used in the article.
Dozens of media articles had to be written that were claiming – or denying – that NASA has changed or hasn't changed the zodiac, will add or won't add Serpentarius right now or from 2017, and so on. And you may be sure that the reaction of many ordinary people – well, predominantly women – was much more violent still. As the Indian Express observed, people are furious.
Serpentarius as drawn by Johannes Kepler. I am still amazed how good an artist the astronomer was.
You should check the recent tweets about Ophiuchus (live). You are unlikely to convince me that it's a coincidence that an overwhelming majority of the popular tweets about the constellation were written by women. Women of a certain kind are the main target group of astrology. For example, 2 days ago, in a tweet retweeted 437 times and liked 813 times, Danielle Norman complained:
Disconcerted to learn that my life has been a lie: I'm no longer a Sagittarius, apparently I'm an OphiuchusBailey Grimnes was thrown into a full-fledged identity crisis, too:
Yesterday I was a Sagittarius, today I am a Ophiuchus, I don't even know who I am anymore.These women who have been assured for tens of years that they were Sagittarius (and Penny is one of them, too) are basically screwed – well, they are screwed from a new direction they're not familiar with yet. ;-) For a better example, Lilly's Unicorn has boldly embraced her new 13-constellation-based identity. ;-) A tweet full of excessive exclamation marks makes you sure that it will be harder to sell Ophiuchus to Lisa Rose. What does the word even mean? Susan Goff is calm: Ophiuchus is a 5-year-old hoax, she believes! :-) And, as clever Ms Lucas Damiani points out, imagine the reaction of the dumbass girls with zodiac tattoos.
Sagittarius Serpentarius, or the Secretary Bird. This species' name contains both the actual constellation into which people like me were born, and the pseudoscientific "zodiac sign" that is often associated with these dates.
Did NASA change the zodiac? Has Danielle's life been based upon a lie? Well, it depends. NASA surely has the tools to establish the insights that many people were capable of establishing without NASA – insights relevant for all those who care at least about some "flavor of reality" in their knowledge. Indeed, there are thirteen constellations on the Sun's path. So if you're interested in anything you may call "astrology" that actually has some relationship with the stars ("astras") and their constellations and their Sun, well, then you should better accept the fact that you will need 13 signs.
Now, even the way how the stars are clumped into constellations is an overwhelmingly social construct. The stars that are close enough to each other should "naturally" be parts of the same constellations. However, this "close enough" condition isn't really rigorously well-defined and there's some freedom and uncertainty about the right application of it. Moreover, there are stars that are "borderline invisible" to the naked eyes and you don't know whether you should see them and classify them at all.
And I don't even mention that the stars that "look close" are close just on the \((\theta,\varphi)\) two-sphere. But because their distances \(r_i\) from the Solar System (us) are typically very different, they are not close in the three-dimensional space. So the extraterrestrial aliens at a distant star in this galaxy are dividing the stars into constellations totally differently than we are. After all, they also include other stars (close enough to them) to their "visible enough star list".
For an example of the uncertainty about the right clumping, Ursa Major (the Great Bear) is an official constellation recognized by astronomers. However, it's often incorrectly called "Big Dipper". A more correct fact is that "Big Dipper" is just a subgroup of 7 stars (asterism) inside Ursa Major – a subconstellation, if you wish.
OK, Danielle's life has been based on lies. There are indeed 13 constellations in the Sun's path. Moreover, even for the 12 "well-known" zodiac signs, the dates are wrong by a whole month in average. When she was born, the constellation behind the Sun was Serpentarius, not Sagittarius. However, Danielle and millions of other women's lives have been based on some much more important lies, too.
We may mention the lie that the constellations determine the people's character according to the well-known superstitions that are often creatively and arbitrarily modified by modern writers. No such influence exists, at least not to the extent for it to be statistically significant or helpful. But this is still not the greatest lie or the most fundamental lie underlying Danielle's life. And neither is the lie that the division of the sky to constellations is fundamental in any way.
A much bigger, more general lie is the lie that you want to take other women's – and generic enough men's – assertions about stars seriously. You know, if you do so, you are almost certain to rebuild your life on lies. I could enumerate several women who actually know the basic facts about stars, constellations, and the irrelevance of the zodiac signs, among other things. But it's still true that the percentage of women who "know" something about stars that is absolutely ludicrously untrue is significantly higher than the corresponding percentage of men.
You know, if there's something important to be learned about stars or even their consequences, it's a very subtle thing and one needs to be really smart and really careful about this research in order to avoid nonsensical conclusions.
Let me return to a cute question that has divided the media: Has NASA officially changed the zodiac or the zodiac signs? That's a very subtle and funny question. NASA may surely and "authoritatively" confirm that there are thirteen recognized constellations on Sun's path. When the women are asking NASA, "please tell us what the zodiac really is", it's just like when a group of young rabbis asked Feynman "is electricity fire?". The rabbis needed to know whether they could use the elevator when the Talmud forbids fire on Saturdays. Feynman wasn't happy about the kind of their interest:
It really was a disappointment. Here they are, slowly coming to life, only to better interpret the Talmud. Imagine! In modern times like this, guys are studying to go into society and do something—to be a rabbi—and the only way they think that science might be interesting is because their ancient, provincial, medieval problems are being confounded slightly by some new phenomena."NASA, please tell us the right zodiac" is just like "is electricity fire". Ancient superstitions about constellations have been slightly confounded by new maps of the sky and the precession of the Earth's axis – something that the astrology fans could never otherwise encounter or be interested in. Again, let us ask: But has NASA the authority to "change the zodiac"?
Well, it depends on how you define "authority" and "zodiac" and "change" and most other words, too. ;-) Most importantly, what is "authority"? How does someone acquire the authority to be trusted when he makes similar claims? You know, this is probably too innovative and abstract a question for Danielle who has never asked it. How did the person who "taught her" that she was Sagittarius and it had certain implications acquire the authority that made Danielle believe this stuff?
Of course, the person has probably gained this authority at the moment when Danielle was born :-) with a gullible brain that is ready to peck all these seeds of nonsense. And she was pecking and pecking – and I am sure she is pecking horoscopes every day these days, too – and that's the actual reason why she trusts this self-evident pseudoscientific junk and why her life is based upon lies.
You know, the person who taught her about horoscopes was either a prankster or a crook or a gullible moron herself or himself. Do I have the authority to make this assertion? Again, the answer may be ill-defined. In the Middle Ages, people were burned at stake for making analogous, heretical points. But in the modern era, I have the freedom to point out this thing. And I also think that I have the moral duty to do so. And everybody who has a brain knows that I am right.
But whether the constellations or zodiac signs have the advertised implications isn't a matter of any predetermined authority. For any person who at least slightly avoids prejudices, to really find out whether I am right or the champions of astrology are right requires some independent judges, such as the scientific evidence and the wisdoms and principles that have been shown compatible with this evidence.
I think that the people who believe things like astrology are lacking any desire to think deeper about things. In other words, they (almost) never ask the question "why?" or "really?". They never doubt. They tend to peck whatever seeds that are thrown at them – by any people whose seeds they got used to pecking.
When presented with a detailed theory involving 12 zodiac signs and human fates and characters, people who are a bit careful what they are pecking – a bit skeptical people – unavoidably ask: Why are there 12 signs and not 20 or 48? What is the evidence that 12 is the right number? What is the evidence that the Sagittarius folks are [one mentioned characteristics] rather than [another possible characteristic]? Why do all the 12 periods end up being almost equally long (30-31 days)? (The periods defined by the constellations obviously won't be equally long.) In other words, you know, there are hundreds of reasons that must make a rational person certain that astrology is a pile of cr*p.
Consumers of astrology – but not only astrology, even less extremely stupid things – are just mindlessly pecking, pecking, and pecking. Their attitude to the truth and learning is absolutely different from the scientific one. I have a pretty good empathy but in most of these cases, I still can't internalize or instinctively predict what such people will tend to trust. I can learn the full list of sources they are almost guaranteed to trust. But I couldn't predict how they would react in a new environment with new sources of information. Well, I guess that they wouldn't know, either.
They must have encountered some "differing opinions", right? The consumers of astrology have picked the astrologers as the credible folks and astrophysicists as the "incredible" ones. Or is it conceivable that these people have never met anyone who would tell them that astrology was nonsense? I don't know really why but it must have something to do with the taste of the seeds that they were pecking. But even outside "self-evident and undisputed" pseudoscience such as astrology, I am still not getting the logic that dictates who is the "authority" for all such questions.
Sometimes, it seems that the authority has something to do with the "number of people that a given information source is capable of influencing". I think that scientifically illiterate people tend to trust newspapers and magazines with a high circulation – which is obviously an irrational method to choose trustworthy sources as well, but at least it's a rule one may describe (and it's a good strategy to maximize the knowledge of "truth" if the "truth" is defined as something "known" by the majority). But this rule surely breaks down for some consumers of astrology etc. because I think that these people must realize that astrology is a "secret knowledge" that is dismissed or ignored by a majority.
Now, the "easy" recipe would be just to tell all these people: Think rationally, be critical and skeptical, try to verify the information you are getting etc. It's too much to ask, of course. Most people will be using their own, utterly unscientific methods to pick their trustworthy sources – and they will tend to continue in their "trust or don't trust" habits uncritically because even to change or challenge such a habit is too much intellectual work. Sometimes, it could be helpful to learn about the irrational algorithms they are using.
This knowledge could be needed to manipulate the people in a better direction than the directions in which they are being manipulated most of the time.