Astrology vs String Theory

dragon.gifThe scientific method requires good scientific theories to build theories based on observations/experiments that make specific predictions about the outcomes of future observations/experiments. It’s okay if we don’t currently have the technology to make an observation. Theories are perfectly capable of sitting on shelves waiting to be proven right or wrong. What matters – what makes the theory science – is that the theory is eventually provable (or disprovable).

For instance, what makes astrology not science is that it doesn’t make specific predictions that are testable. For instance, for my 12/12 birthday I find the following horoscopes for the day that has already transpired:

From Horoscope.com

The ability to be thankful for our position in life is a rare gift, but a valuable one. Today you will feel particularly aware of all the small things that may not be much on their own but add to make you the person that you are. This will give you a wonderful boost of optimism to help with any difficulties that appear today.

From Astrology.com

Pursue your goals with fierce determination. Distractions have no place in your life at this moment; all you can think about is the desired outcome. With that kind of attitude, success is pretty much assured.

From MSNBC.com

Today there are many areas that you can shine in, dear Sagittarius. You need only be yourself to win over the hearts of others. There is a graciousness about your manner that draws people close to you, whether you’ve ever noticed it before or not. Realize this, and know that it is not a fluke. You need not take much action; everything you need today will come to you.

What was today actually like? Well, I slept in late, stayed home, putzed online, and recorded Astronomy Cast. I then went out for Chinese and to an art opening with close friends. I don’t see the science of Astrology specifically predicted any of this.

A favorite student activity I’ve seen people do with students is to hand out a bunch of horoscopes and have them guess which is their horoscope. There is a 1/12 chance they will get the right one, and indeed, about 8% of the students get a match. But, if astrology was predictive, we’d expect something other than a random match. After all, hindsight is 20/20. And, if you go back to horoscopes for 9-11-01, death wasn’t predicted for a large section of New York City. “Stay home from work – it will be good for your health” would have been a valuable command to anyone reading the papers that day. But, that command wasn’t there. (For a skeptic discussion on 9-11 and astrology, see this article at Skeptico.

So, it is easy for me to, as a scientist, say that astrology does not meet the standards required of a science. It is a theory, but it does not make specific predictions, and it doesn’t match specific past observations. Q.E.D.

But, lurking in physics departments are people called string theorists who write theories on string theory that are published in peer-reviewed physics journals. These theories do match past observations/experiments. Unfortunately, while they make predictions, to my knowledge they do not all make testable predictions (although some do make predictions in particle physics).

Now, I have to admit that I am not smart enough to understand the differences between flavors of string theory. I do not understand the details of their mathematics, and I have to rely on the translation of others. But, as near as I can tell from my reading, string theory is not always predictive.

So, is it science?

Lurking in physics department there are also people who work on things like inflationary multiverses and the cosmic landscapes. Again, these are theories that require brilliance to understand, that match the current universe, but don’t make predictions.

Is this science?

I don’t know. Logically – no. They aren’t. I used to think of them as pretty mathematical art work, but I’m told by people who do theoretical math that they aren’t even that. They are just math.

And this leaves me in an uncomfortable place. I work really really hard to teach my students what makes good science. Do I teach them these are not science and thus fall in the same bin as astrology? Or…?

Until I understand more, I’m going to simply say, “here be dragons” and wait and hope for predictions to be made.

Image credit: Hoover Archives

24 Comments

  1. Stuart January 13, 2007 at 12:55 pm #

    The current lack of testable predictions is why I don’t like to call string theories “science”. This is an aspect that they currently share with ID as well as astrology. As a result, I’ve taken to calling string theories “proto-science” as the theory folks are at least trying to find testable predictions to subject them to.

  2. Dianne Eppler Adams January 14, 2007 at 11:56 am #

    I appreciate you search to understand what is scientifically verifiable. Unfortunately, your understanding of Astrology is even more shallow that string theory. That is unfortunately the result of readong Sun Sign horoscopes as if they were what Astrology has to offer. They are like listening to a meteorologist report a sunny day on the continent of North America. Well, somewhere it’s sunny but now where I live.

    From my view Astrology’s purpose is not to predict what you will do today. That’s a function of freewill. Wouldn’t you find more value in information that could tell you what the energies might be today – frustrating, joyful, or boring – which could allow you to plan what would be your best course of action.

    You really ought to get a REAL astrological information by consulting a Certified Professional Astrologer before you debunk it. And as far as it being a science, well, it is based on accurate astrolomical data, but goes beyond that to an understanding of the synchronicity created when planets form geometric angles to one another. It then becomes an art.

    Would you call the field of psychology a science? It is little more provable than Astrology, but somehow has gained recognition as an important contribution to modern living. Legitimate certified professional Astrologers seek the same regard as psychology has as a tool for modern living. Why do I know? I am one.

  3. Pamela January 14, 2007 at 12:20 pm #

    Dianne, I am arguing simply that astrology is not a precise science that can make specific predictions. I have actually taken a class on astrology to see what the background was and had complete readings done to see what astrology had to offer so that I could be fair. What I learned is that no matter how much information an astrologer is provided, they can not offer predictions that when sealed in an envelope to be openned after a day has passed, can be seen to precisely narrate any aspect of the day in question.

    There are many things that offer people hope and guidance that are beyond the realm of science. The human mind is not a 100% rational-logical thing. There is, for some people, an interplay between astrology and their life that helps them. But, that does not make astrology science.

  4. Zach in Israel January 16, 2007 at 9:01 am #

    If you are going to read a horoscope, read the ones in the Onion It won’t be any less random than from any other source, but it will at least be funny.

    I have always thought that a good argument against astrology and other forms of fortune telling is this…

    Let us assume that you can use astrology (or other method) to predict the future with some degree of accuracy that is better than other methods. If that was true then some wiz-kid on Wall St would have figured out how to use that fact to make a lot of money. If this was true then you could open up the Wall St Journal and find adds for fortune tellers, but you can’t…

    QED

    As for string theory when I was an undergrad in physics I had a professor who used to call it “Quantum theology”. And while I can’t understand much of it, he was a particle physics type, so I assume he could.

    PS I love astronomy cast!

  5. Wolverine January 16, 2007 at 1:46 pm #

    “You really ought to get a REAL astrological information by consulting a Certified Professional Astrologer before you debunk it.”

    For $150 or more? Thanks for the suggestion, but I’ll pass. It doesn’t cost a dime to learn specifically why astrological claims are untenable.

  6. Kayzad January 17, 2007 at 5:55 am #

    Sorry to interrupt. I searched for String theory and I found this blog.
    I just want to say that I always liked physics. You know way? ’cause any thing seems undefeatable today maybe challenged and turn to be wrong tomorrow. This is improvement and I like it.
    About astrology, I have no idea.

  7. Clair January 19, 2007 at 3:02 pm #

    I came across this today after reading this entry regarding string theory. I thought you might enjoy this. ;-)

    There are all kinds of math and science jokes on that site. Hopefully, your WP install won’t mind the two URLS.

  8. Clair January 19, 2007 at 3:02 pm #

    Oops, I didn’t close the tag!

  9. Kevin January 24, 2007 at 8:51 am #

    Hey Pamela.

    I just came across this press release this morning, and thought you’d like to know about it…

    Physicists Develop Test for ‘String Theory’

    Who knows whether it will settle anything, but at least they are trying.

  10. davidvogt February 3, 2007 at 5:57 pm #

    Your article is very informative and helped me further.

    Thanks, David

  11. A.K. February 16, 2007 at 8:06 am #

    Theoretically there are some ideas about basis of astrology… etc… at http://geocities.com/akxyz/

    Predictions for dow jones and links to other predictions by the author at http://akxyz.blogspot.com

    Regards !

  12. John M Hansen August 10, 2007 at 10:38 pm #

    Magazine comments are not astrology. Unless you understand astrology, you should not comment on it. Newton rebuked scoffers by saying that he had studied the subject while they had not.
    Being born on December 12th of an unknown year says nothing that is predictable, via astrology or through any other art.

  13. Derek Hordle September 3, 2007 at 8:01 am #

    By knowing astrology, you presumably mean having studied it to the point of at least practising it. I strongly disagree. Astrology makes incredible claims which cannot be connected to any evidence based science. It continually fails all tests when the scientific method is applied to it. It is up to astrologers to provide clear proofs that it can predict anything to a standard that can be published in main stream scientific journals. Science has moved on since Newton, great as he was, by application of the scientific method which showed Einstein’s theories to better fit the data. Belief environments including astronomy show no such progress, conveniently ignoring new facts as they become known.

  14. Gilbert December 14, 2007 at 4:12 pm #

    Such huge topics to try and prove or debunk with such a small space to write in and lack of knowledge on either subject. Both demand high ability to comprehend the abstract and calculate outcomes with so many variable that you’d probably blow a fuse just thinking about it. If I spent my whole conscious life working on astrology or string theory I would “probably” still be confused.

  15. Jean January 31, 2008 at 10:16 pm #

    Well, astrology readings should be viewed as mere guides, not directing forces in one’s life.

  16. Spartan May 12, 2008 at 5:48 pm #

    The future is inherently unpredicable. If it is predictable, we become nothing more than cogs in the machine that is the universe. A predicatable universe means that free will cannot exist.

    I consider myself to be a religious person in that I believe in the essence of my faith. However, I generate a lot of frustration with other religious people when I state that God cannot predict the future. That particular statement generates intense emotion in people. Most consider it to be blasphemy and reject it out of hand.

    This is where their frustration comes in. Here we go….

    If God can predict where I will wind up (Heaven or Hell), then I have no choice but to wind up there. To wind up in a place not predicted means that God’s prediction was wrong and therefore God is fallible. On the other hand, if God is not fallible, then his predictions will always be correct and I have no choice but to wind up where he predicted I would, in which case, what choice did I really have?

    It does not matter how you phrase God’s knowledge of my future. I have heard it all. Bottom line, if it can be predicted, then my fate is sealed. I have no choice. All possible paths must lead to the predicted endpoint. I may be free to choose the path, but this is only an illusion of choice since the outcome is certain regardless of the path.

    Don’t try the “You are free to choose, but God knows what choice your going to make” argument either. You can’t dance around it. If God knows what choice I am going to make, then that is the same as prediction and the same argument applies.

    The frustrating part for most people is that a predicatable universe implies no free will, and an unpredicatable one implies that God’s power is limited. Both are unpalatable to most people.

    I choose to look at it this way. God created a universe that was inherently unpredictable at its core so that we could make the choice to come to him of our own free will.

    The best physics theory we have is Quantum Mechanics. It does not try to predict anything specific. It only predicts the probability that an observation O applied to a system in a state S, will result in the system being put into state S’. It does not matter why this happens, only that it does.

    If, someday, we discover that there is an unerlying mechanism that, in principle, can be predicted, then we are reduced to the level of cogs in the machine. We are nothing more than part of an evolving system that we are powerless to change. Cogs in the machine.

    Even if you are an athiest, is it not disturbing to you have no free will?

    For my part, I am comforted by quantum mechanics. It reinforces the notion that I have free will. Thank you Werner Hiesneberg. Thank you Alain Aspect for doing that beautiful experiment.

    Note that I am not saying that we should bury our heads in the sand and stop looking for the rules underlying the system. I am just saying that I hope the universe turns out like quantum mechanics and not like general relativity.

  17. Freiddie August 30, 2008 at 3:42 pm #

    First of all, heads up: the comment before this one is most definitely link spam. It just copied what you said and links to another astrology site.

    Secondly: Many kinds of astrology has evolved to the point that they are not predictive at all. They have become like “fortune cookies” and, like “fortune cookies”, they are just a mere advisory note that is so generic that it applies to over 80% of the people (and I am probably quoting this partly from Dexter’s Laboratory).

    The last time I read some astrological note on TV was years ago. They were talking vague and meaningless gibberish. I can’t believe I wasted my time on that.

    Still, while string theory is not “verified” science, it is still an ongoing research area in physics, and their starting point was quantum mechanics itself. And it’s also far more rigorous than ID or astrology. (Do you think an astrologist would know what Calabi-Yau topology is?)

    Just my 2 cents.

  18. pamela August 30, 2008 at 10:53 pm #

    Thanks Freddie. Got rid of it :-)

  19. Sci-Fi Si October 6, 2008 at 6:51 am #

    [EDIT: At request of poster, replaced bad typo comment with non-typoed comment. -P ]

    Of Astrology, I can say only this: Every reading I have ever had, which is only about 3, have been either so vague that it could apply to anyone, anywhere, or when they have been specific – totally wrong.

    My situation, though I imagine not entirely unique, I should admit that I do however come from more than one camp.

    I studied Astrophysics at Sussex University in the UK, it’s a truly fascinating subject and I love science. Conversely I am also a man of prayer, and a practising Catholic. One day many years ago I woke up with a feeling of dread that a friend of mine I had not seen or heard from in quite a while was going to die that day.

    I got dressed and travelled the 40 miles to the town where my friend lived, I tried phoning her and I called round to the house.

    In exasperation I went to visit another friend of the same first name in the same town who was in hospital with cancer. After spending some hours with her I returned home. The second I walked through the door my phone rang, it was a call to tell me that the friend I had first tried to contact had been found dead – She had thrown herself in front of a train.

    Science cannot explain how I could possibly have ’seen’ this. This is hopefully not a repeatable experiment. I have my own views on time and how ‘visions’ of the future might be, I know I cannot control ‘when’ or ‘what’ I see, just that all ‘visions’ relate to people I know or am particularly close to and I know all my life it has been this way.

    On the pages of my lecture notes, I scribbled some ideas on time travel as far as I could see it scientifically and I believe that time paradoxes are not possible. Though my Math’s is still short as this stage; I see all the matter in the Universe like a surfboard riding on the sea of time.

    If I were to jump off my surfboard to travel to the past or future I could do so, but there would be no ’surfboard’ to meet me there, there would just be the sea.

    To put it briefly another way, if time were reversed, I would get younger to the point of my non-existence, ‘time’ would just be re-playing itself. To be a ‘proper’ time-traveller I would need to isolate myself and retain all my memories, then I would need to rewind the entire Universe around myself.

    My notes include a story about “The man who lived one second in front of everybody else” which although a thought experiment, debunks the possibility for any violations or paradoxes in time, but does allow on a quantum level ‘travel’ to the beginning and end of time. If anyone is interested in these papers, drop me a line.

    All the best Pamela
    Keep rockin’ beautiful.

  20. Alexandre Girardot September 25, 2009 at 5:45 am #

    Hello Pamela, and hello to all,
    to begin, I would like to you demandr pardon my English detestable. I am french and i poor studied your language at the school.
    Of the blow, i use a translator automatic and I believe that I have some difficulties to correct it.
    This being said, I have just browse your article, Pamela (I do not have the time to read completely) and I wish react about two points.
    The first concerns the question of the astronogie as an equal scientific or not. The second concerns the thongs theories and their status of scientific theories.
    As you say, a scientific theory, to have this status, to be rebuttable by experience and/or by the obsrvation. In addition, it is better that it is as simple as possible. The idea of strings subatomic whose vibration modes in a space almost discontinuous and multidimensional is very simple at first. But as soon as it is to find the string theory which will describe our universe, the means mathematics we lack.
    This theory, if not I am wrong, made a prediction which will soon confirmed or ruled out. I think I remember that it has provided a map very precise the polarisaton photons cmb and that the probe Planck and its precision will be able to say if the string theory was mistaken or not. This approach is not, seems to me becomes it, that of the theory of quantum loop gravitatio.
    It has done little or bow the same prediction but has not provided its method of calculation, or at least, the latter was incomplete. It is not less than both are, in the eyes of the whole world, scientific theories.
    When A. Einstein published about the theory of relativity and later, the general relativity, the community scientific had not yet the technical means to confirm or deny his theories.
    Of course, there was the experiences of thought, but is this not enough. This is only when was verified with precision the precession of the orbit of Mercury in 1929 by the observatory of Mount Wilson that this theory acqui the first solid platform on which support to continue to exist.
    The astrology is said to be a scientific theory.
    Why not.
    As it also made predictions, and even much more and more often than do astrophysicists and physicists current.
    It gives to everyone more way to be confirmed or ruled out. In addition, its methodology is very easy and very simple to implement. It therefore seems fill all the criteria for access to the status of scientific theory. It is on this basis that was created in France a chair of astrology at the University of the Sorbonne.
    However, there are several points that help to refute it.
    To begin, the configuration of stars at the time where the astrology was created (approximately 5000 years AD) was not the same that currently. However, the methods used by the latter have virtually not changed since then.
    Then, in the current state of our knowledge, the only force that can be exercised on long-distance is the gravitational force, and we all know that the planets of solar systems are not enough relatives and enough by massive report to the land for that this influence can have a significant effect on the personality of someone at the time of its birth. It is St Augustin, who gave an example to refute the appropriateness of astrological predictions. Someone in his entourage had two twins born in few minutes of intervals. One became patrician and the other slave. Outside, their themes Astrologic their predicted the same glorious fate.
    I believe that studying astrology in the goal to learn in hollow what is a scientific theory is a good thing.
    But to say that the astrology is would that a pseudo science is go a little quickly.
    The theory of the memory of water is a pseudo science. Not the astrology.
    It is true that i door here a biased judgments. But in France, the chair of astrology at the Sorbonne has created a controversy in the scientific world, especially as it is held by a women (which doesn’t fix things in an environment rather male), astrologer rich and highly publicized, whose predictions television annual fall almost always side.
    That is just a few reflections quickly done.
    I hope that the text translatebot will not have been too painful to read.
    Alexandre

  21. Eric barnes January 16, 2010 at 2:25 am #

    Not that history has shown us we can learn from it I still think its kinda funny that people are insecure enough with ideas these days that they have to quote something from someone once greater than they are now to the point it feels like the only reason its done is to reinforce the idea or thought they revealed.its like if you are having to use the greatest minds to back you up then there is a definate state of being unsure or you wouldn’t need a defensive tackle to make sure the other person knows you are in league with the person you are saying your not.wich really says there are smarter people who can explain what the heck I’m talking about a lot better than I ever could.if you are not sure(wich makes one wonder)then ask someone more qualified.haha,wich mostly seam to be dead if you are trying newton,etc.,the quotable ones.put all ideas together and hold each others conflicting views and be conservative enough to lay down your own quotes in stone so it doesn’t sound so unsure.I think if you want to tap into the subconscious mind your just going to have faith in self.when I wake up in the morning its dark in my room but through experience I know its most likely through odds light outside.that leads to the idea everybody that faith comes before truth or together.how do u know if there is a mountain with a deep cavern with streaming water that’s so peacefull that you must see for yourself.mabie and I think most would agree that there is a time where you have to give into faith before the outcome because that’s what I did.I believed a friend who could of been full of it.and in taking that leap of faith I did find the truth he spoke.all I’m saying now is that astrology is there and the string theory may be carved into its very existence.and its time for people to take a strong enough leap of faith to realize that 90% of the subconscious we have trouble understanding would be better served at times if we just let go and give it a chance through faith and action.I will hippocritically leave this page with a quote,haha,its funny.this is from musicians from the now of the ebb and flow of time.truth comes in actions.he never spoke a word.or mabie I lay down the phone.so I could be heard.in my words getting ahead is done more through actions not the time I’m wasting on computers daily(not that there is nothing wrong with them I just seem to learn through experience and live conversation.wich is my way.)So I’m trying to say if there is proof to a string theory mabie being on the computer right now would not be as rewarding as going out and connecting with your mind more and faith that there’s a higher power we can tap into through elevating the mind.because we learned a lot in the last 100 years and something seems to be missing.we all feel that I think at times.mabie its the fact that technology is one direction when the answer could lie in a part of the mind we haven’t even began to understand because we don’t know there are muscles(like mind creating mass)we don’t know exist to even start working out to even get them stimulated enough to work a little let alone fully charged.faith in what we haven’t been doing I think answers lie just because there’s no other place to go for me.ha.I find more truth through spontaneous improvisation about life and the way I should live it and be.that’s what are great fathers of thought were aware of.it was a far more interesting universe with an unlimited array of thought and ideas being looked at with that conflicting point of view.without that there’s no mystery.I wish people would just sit for hours and listen and see not hear and stare.I’m a thinking machine and have many theories I would love to share with anybody anytime.I’m not afraid to quote ideas I feel confident enough to back.but I will agree on one thing.math!!it comes to me but I have that feeling like I want to leave a place I can’t like work but still do it anyway.I’m still trying to find my spark for the subject since I was pretty good at it in school.all other subjects are addictions for me so I tend to over analyze to the point I see colors when I hear music or see codes without understanding why.its definately a strang world and time.I feel the world is on the verge of a mass change in conscious or well you know.anyway sorry I ramble on and thanks for letting me quote myself.haha.eric barnes

  22. Ken McRitchie March 30, 2010 at 10:38 pm #

    I searched “theory of astrology” to see who would show up besides myself and this blog came up because of its recent activity. It’s encouraging to me to see some critical thought given to comparisons between astrology and some of the more rarified areas in science. I would like to ask readers to ponder whether they would agree that the question “is astrology a science?” is a red herring, that is, is it not just diverting attention away from the real issues?

    Perhaps I can explain. One could say that chemistry is what happens between substances as they combine and interact in different ways (even if we don’t know what is happening at the molecular level). Is chemistry a science? Or is the study to understand these interactions what we mean by the science? Are bird call dialects a science, or is the study of these dialects what we mean by the science? Science studies a huge array of things these days in nearly every area of life, but the things and processes themselves are not the science. Science is the disciplined inquiry, which includes theory. Whether or not a theory is implemented, it nevertheless contributes to the discipline and that is what is important in science. So, let’s get to the real issue then, can science study astrology? Why not?

    Surely one has to ask why would anyone NOT want to study astrology scientifically? That is the real question and the great mystery for me. Astrology is extremely ancient but also well adapted to modern life, it’s global, it embodies much of the human condition, and it’s absolutely fascinating. But then again we have these lovely words bandied about that are akin to the burning question “is astrology a science?” which are “pseudoscience,” “occult,” and remnants of the “dim past.” Perish the thought that scientists should study anything that has any connection to the dim past. Are these not all red herrings, staw men, rationalized devices that poison the well?

    There is an appalling ignorance abroad that there is plenty of scientific evidence against astrology. There is not. There is certainly a plethora of very bad, very ignorant science (pseudoscience?) that has issued from both the pro and anti astrology camps but there are scarcely any good studies at all that take full account of both astrology and scientific scrutiny. There are only a handful of key studies and these key studies are hotly debated among a very small community of informed people. That is the hotbed of the science.

    Unfortunately, because of the red herrings, astrology research is a painful area of study, apart from the problems of getting any serious study published in a serious journal. First of all, astrology does not reduce to binary functions, either absolutely in or absolutely out, black or white. Knowing that astrology is about life, emotions, and desires, how can anyone sanely think that astrology is simple binary proposition? The best one can do is to study astrology statistically. The study of astrology requires remarkable insight and sophisticated analysis to tease it apart. There’s a glorious amount of technology and implementation of astrology, but nicely stated theory is hard to find.

    Secondly, until some good way is found to gather just what people know locally from their own detailed lore of life (using the practical approaches by which astrology grew and still thrives), it is very difficult to build up a database of accurately timed events where the best data are of the extreme, exaggerated, rare and definitive events of specific sorts. Data gathering is a staggering challenge, but it’s the only way available to today’s science.

    By the way, just to come down on another myth, astrology is not particularly predictive (apart from whether the tools work, which is a separate and different question). Astrology is enormously complex, so how can it be precisely predictive? Doesn’t anyone reflect for a moment on this? It may be fun to speculate on the future, but that’s not what’s important or relevant, and is certainly not a test of astrology.

    For nearly everyone who has an interest in astrology, it’s about now. What is happening now, who is influencing who, and what can be done to improve things? Astrology is mainly about drilling down into the present as deep as one can go. People are quite willing to accept, as they always have, that if they can get a good handle on what’s eating them in the present, which is the immediate need, then they will be okay in the future. People like their futures to be foggy and only sketchily defined. What else would you expect?

  23. Ken McRitchie March 30, 2010 at 11:17 pm #

    Just to clarify, the timed data of “extreme, exaggerated, rare, and definitive events of specific sorts” are those that are believed to signal what researchers call “eminence.”

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