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Astrological Research and the Concept of "Similarity"
by Dr. Peter Niehenke

Ed. N.: Lecture held at the 10th International Research Conference on Astrology by The Astrological Association & Urania Trust, London (9th and 10th November 1996). This article is published on the website of Peter Niehenke, the Freiburger Ausbildungszentrum des Deutschen Astrologen-Verbandes. My thanks to Peter for his permission to publish it here.

    The process of research into astrology is stagnating: as astrologers appear to fail even when they have had considerable influence on the design of a study as was the case in Rob Nanning's recent "Astro-Test". Most of the numerous master theses and dissertation papers dealing with an empirical investigation of astrological claims, again and again lead to the same result: no support for the astrological hypothesis. The monument called Mars effect as discovered by the Gauquelins became cracked, even begins to rock.

    But something remains the same: In our daily work as counselling astrologers we continue to be successful. Our clients confirm, often to their dismay, that the chart reveals deep insights into their soul or psyche.

    For more than ten years now I have been preoccupied with the question how it fits that we, in the counselling session, are able to impress our clients again and again, that again an again I get this deep feeling of proof when reading a chart, but that nearly every test to objectively prove the correctness of chart interpretations in scientific studies failed in the end. My very own dissertation ten years ago was such a "grandiose" failure. Please excuse the word "grandiose" but, after all, I had mailed out 12,000 questionnaires of sixteen pages each with more than five-hundred items and my study was one of the biggest studies ever done at the psychological institute of the university of Freiburg/Germany (by the way, it also needed the largest allocation of CPU-time ever needed for a psychological study at the computer centre of the university). But, I did not succeed in showing that people with Aries or Taurus dominant, feel themselves as they should feel as Aries or Taurus -- at least, they had not responded this way.

    Colleague [astrologers] very quickly had some explanations ready as they also have today for the continued failure of new studies: scientific methods in general and statistical methods in particular, actually are inappropriate to prove the truth of astrology. These colleagues seemingly do not recognize the inconsistencies they get involved in this way, for in their next basic lessons about astrology they probably will again explain that water people tend to be more emotional than air people. They probably do not recognize that with this explanation they state something about frequencies because they say that among water people you will find more emotional people than you will find among air people. And this is a statistical statement which is either true or not true. If one decides to enter the playground of statistics with this kind of statements one has to accept and stand by its rules!

    In other words, it could well be that scientific methods in general, and statistical methods in particular, are not appropriate to prove astrology as a whole but they are in fact appropriate to prove the statements made in astrological textbooks and announced in astrology courses. It is not very helpful to explain these facts away or to deny their existence. We all too often try to wriggle ourselves out of our problems with various justifications, downplaying our failure, finding thousands of explanations after the event -- instead of getting a deeper knowledge of astrology by taking up these facts.

    The problem is that many astrologers in spite of their protests, approach astrology with similar prejudices as do scientists when criticising astrology. The crucial point is, what kind of information one can acquire by using astrological methods. Even most astrologers unconditionally accept the logical rule of the "tertium non datur" to be always true: Either a statement is true or it is not true. There is no third possibility. But for rules in astrological textbooks it is true that they are neither true nor false. Actually, they are also not partly true, as this statement could be misunderstood. They are true if they are adequately understood. This statement needs explanation.

    On the basis of a naive sense of reality and an outdated view of science, scientists as well as astrologers normally share the notion of the term "truth" in a way that has become obsolete even in natural sciences.The development of systems theory clearly shows that when describing complex self-organising systems, we have to deal with definitions located far away from the mathematical and scientific ideal of unambiguousness. The "system-laws" as found by the biologist Bertalanffy, the founder of systems theory, at any rate share more with analogies than with the differential equations of physics. Due to this fact the scientific ideal of objectivity becomes more and more obsolete itself.

    We are not yet able in science to deal with the dimension "similarity" just as we are equally unable to deal with the dimension of "meaning". Meaning is not something of a symbol has (be it either in a linguistic or in a general sense) but meaning is something a living being attributes to a symbol, a situation or an action. Therefore, there is no possibility to objectively measure the meaning of information. Of course, we are able to find out that most of all road users stop when the traffic light is red but in an objective sense this does not mean that red light has something to do with the action of stopping.

    Let me explain by an example, what all this has to do with astrology and with scientific proof of astrological rules: If I look at the clouds in the sky and suddenly see an animal in one particular cloud there is no possibility whatsoever to prove that the similarity of the form of the cloud with the form of a certain animal (objectively) exists. If you want to prove something you need equality (identity); a proof means that something is unequivocally true. But this very equality is not true in the case of similarity.

    If dealing with visual forms, with the development of computers it would now be possible to calculate a kind of a coefficient of similarity between the shape of the cloud and the shape of an animal on the basis of photographs. But the decision what minimum coefficient is necessary in order to legitimately speak of "similarity" is a matter of taste.

    So I cannot force someone else who is watching the clouds with me, to accept the similarity with a certain animal as I could do in the case of proof (for instance by a scientific experiment). The fellow at my side must be willing to accept my view, to look through my glasses so to speak if he wants to be able the see the similarity. In fact, he actually has to be sort of "uncritical" if he wants to see what I can see. In spite of that, the similarity is not only illusion: think of the coefficient of similarity that could be calculated by a computer

    But if we leave the sphere of visual forms: What about similarity between pieces of music, building styles or cultures? We do not even have a notion how similarity in these cases could be measured. And even if we had: Similarity gradually increases and decreases. There is no way of saying that something is similar to something else or not, because it is always a matter of degree. In this world all things are similar to a certain degree be this similarity only the very fact that they all belong to this same world.

    Also, in the counselling session as well as in the case of a client (who is willing to understand!) reading a blind test, we face a similar situation as in the case of two people watching the clouds and seeing an animal. The evidence the client might feel is not conclusive as it would be in case of a logical conclusion or in the case of a proof of an experiment as naive astrologers believe, nor is it arbitrary, random or pure illusion as the psychologically trained critics of astrology try to make people believe.

    Hence, to see similarities you need empathy and willingness. For this reason the interpretation of a chart does not produce "reliable information" as most astrologers believe; it does not tell something about facts that could be proven objectively. If I see an animal in a cloud someone else could see the similarity, too, but just as well he might not see it. If he will see it depends, besides the degrees of similarity between cloud and shape of the animal, on his past experiences, his fantasy and his willingness [to see]. Objectively proven could be only the fact that there is a cloud with a certain form.

    And in the case of an astrologically based description of personality traits (the question is of course applicable to every description of personality traits), what about the concept of similarity in this field?

    The similarity between a cloud and the shape of a certain animal relates to the visual form. What then is the similarity between the description of a person's traits and the respective person based on personality traits (for instance being emotional) are of course not directly conceivable as is the physical shape. We infer the existence of those traits from certain behaviour. That's why we call them psychological constructs. If in a study "emotionality" is intended to be a variable we not only have to be able to measure this variable (that is, we have to able to assign a number to every person representing the what degree this person is emotional), if we want to know about the validity of our findings we have to know what this variable actually means. But in fact, our knowledge of the meaning of the term "emotional" is rather diffuse. That is the reason why psychologists do not explain or explicitly define what they mean when they speaking of emotionality, but are content with a so-called "operational definition"; that is, they tell us how this variable will be measured in the context of a special study. For instance, they define a person is emotional if at least 75% of all her friends and acquaintances characterize her as such.

    Of course, they cannot tell whether their measurement is adequate in grasping the meaning of the term "emotional" because they do not even know whether such a trait really exists (because they do not know what that could mean, a trait exists). All the secrets of the nature of human characteristics, all the ambiguities regarding the ontological state of these characteristics (is a trait really something similar to the colour of the skin, the weight or other physical attributes, can we deal with them in the same way?) remain hidden behind the curtain called "operational definition". Psychologists do not clearly resolve these questions, they do not solve the problem of the relation between a certain operational definition and the real meaning of the corresponding term - they define the problem away. In every study they more or less appeal to the reader that the way they measure the variable somehow relates to the meaning of the term.

    For many years all this has been well-known among psychologists. And it is true that from a pragmatic point of view these problems could be put aside (similar to physicists who delete certain terms in an equation that are negligible in a special context because the amount they represent might be smaller than the measurement error). Psychological methods have proved to be successful in many areas of life. From a practical point of view this is a justification for the applied methods. But as in physics, where the relativistic term in most equations normally could be omitted so that Newton's formulas apply: if we want to make a decision about the existence or non-existence of a phenomenon, it is pointless to argue that a certain method has proved to be "practical". In such a situation we have to go back to the roots of the methods applied and have to ask basic questions.

    Back to astrology and astrological research: We astrologers state that a certain constellation of planets in the sky is related to something called a human trait, which we can not explain of what it actually is. We relate constellations to psychological constructs and so all the uncertainties related to the use and definitions of these constructs slip into the results of our study. How could we prove something like a relativistic theory when the effects we are searching for, are smaller than the signal-noise-ratio of our experimental conditions?

    To avoid having to answer the question what dimensions of our lives the chart actually is related to, many researchers in the field of astrology just correlate a clearly definable attribute of people (for instance their affiliation to a certain profession) with the position of certain planets in the sky. If we would try to prove in this way that a cloud in the sky is similar to an animal, we of course would fail because nowhere in such a design the concept of similarity occurs.

    The only support left for our conviction that astrology works is our success in the counselling situation, as I pointed out at the beginning of this lecture. As long as the processes characterizing this counselling situation are not fully understood, research in astrology will continue to stagnate. My chief interest as a researcher therefore actually is to solve the problem what the so-called evidence (in German: Evidenz-Erlebnis) when reading a chart actually is and what the factors are it is based on. A very important question in this respect will be whether this evidence is stronger when using the correct birth data in contrast to using arbitrarily chosen birth data.

    Because the ability to "see" similarity depends on empathy or willingness only real counselling situations should be taken, for: If someone knows participating in a study his approach to the situation is completely different from a real counselling situation. He will for instance be more "critical" handling the interpretations and most probably will not really let himself in for the process. In other words: It is not possible to learn about the processes going on in a real counselling situation by investigating artificial situations. This necessity of real counselling situations of course evokes serious ethical problems: If I want to find out whether wrong birth dates yield the same evidence as correct birth dates neither the astrologer nor the client should know whether the chart in question is based upon the correct or the false birth time. For the time being I have no idea how this ethical problem can be solved.

    In this short lecture I only wanted to outline the idea that the failure of astrological research might partly be due to a misunderstanding of the kind of information a chart reveals. At the beginning of this lecture I stated that the rules in astrological textbooks are neither right nor wrong - that they are correct if adequately understood. What does this mean? Of course you all have heard of "fuzzy logic". In fuzzy logic a rule not simply does apply or does not apply but it applies to a certain degree and, what is even more important, rules that are contradictory in terms of aristotelian logic can to some extent apply at the same time. Although I do not think that fuzzy logic will solve all our problems, the concepts behind fuzzy logic are at any rate a better analogy to the way astrological rules work than statistics. And the very success of fuzzy logic in daily life shows that our notion of natural laws or, in a more general sense, of how nature functions has to be altered.

    Regarding rules in textbooks: The only effect they should have is to remind me of certain themes in our lives, to evoke certain emotions, to guide our intuition in a certain direction by evoking certain associations. We do not actually know how these rules are related to the evidence we feel when reading a chart. We have to find that out first.

To cite this page:
Dr. Peter Niehenke: Astrological Research and the Concept of Similarity
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