Is Astrology Science or Pseudoscience?
Aspects of astrology are rooted in the science of astronomy and the academic tradition, but today astrology is considered a pseudoscience. The same is true for other outdated theories like alchemy, which today we know as chemistry.
Astrology was once considered academic along with alchemy and element theory. Coming out of the dark ages Europeans re-adopted the concepts of elements, alchemy, mythology, astrology, astronomy, and other arts and sciences passed down throughout the ages. Once the Renaissance was in full swing, science began moving away from theories like astrology. Despite this, astrology has continuously found a place in pop-culture and with mystics since science abandoned it for better theories.
Astrology tracks the planets and stars like astronomy, but its fortune telling aspects, and its roots in classic element theory and mythology, are well outside the bounds of modern science. So when we say astrology is based in science, we only mean that it is rooted in the academic tradition.
Today we don’t use mysticism to understand the stars; we use physics. Today we don’t use mysticism to understand people; we use psychology. We don’t use divination to predict the future; we use statistical analysis and big data.
Astrology can’t predict the future (although this can’t be confirmed by science), but its historical merits and potential uses in the social sciences make astrology worth a deeper look.
Below we take at a quick history of astrology and then discuss the science of astrology versus the pseudoscience.
TIP: Check out our reference guide to western astrology for a break down exactly how astrology works so you can draw your conclusions (and impress guests a dinner parties).
Astronomy – Ch. 4: History of Astronomy (1 of 16) Key Astronomical Events. If you want to understand why astrology is important, you have to study human history as it relates to theology, technology, astronomy, and the physical sciences. This series is a good place to start examining the inter-relationships. The lecture series in the next section also gives an excellent overview.
TIP: See this breakdown of “is astrology scientific” from Berkeley for more details.
A Quick History of Astrology as a Science
In the times when mythology was theology, and the study of the classical elements, known as alchemy, was chemistry and medicine, every event was seen as being influenced by the gods and fate. Astrology, meteorology, and astronomy were all ways of studying of the heavens. The disciplines were re-named and defined in modern terms during the European Age of Enlightenment in the 1500s but started much earlier.
The Greeks and Romans studied the stars and adopted deities and mathematics from the cultures before them such as Babylon and Egypt and made advances with works like Ptolemy’s Almagest, one of the greatest texts of all time. They developed correlations between the Gods, elements, and original mathematics. Most Western astrology today comes from this era.
When the Greek and Roman empires fell, Islam adopted much of their culture (carrying and improving intellectualism, history, and the Almagest from the 8th century to the 13th century while Europe fell into the Dark Ages). This period is called the Golden Age of Islam.
When things changed again, and the Europeans finally came out of the dark ages, they adopted the ancient knowledge (including the Almagest), added that to knowledge that had been preserved and acquired during the dark ages, and quickly got to work on to what we become the modern science of today.
With the rediscovering of astronomy came the old gods and elements. Early western astronomers like Tycho Brahe were eager for funding and more than happy to play up the mystic angle for the aristocracy. The aristocrats who had the money to be patrons were much more likely to fund mystic fortune telling than astronomy, which was at that point seen as unrelated to their lives. This was true from the time of Tycho Brahe until the time of Nancy Reagan, and can be said to be true today.
Looking back at ancient texts, and devices like the Antikythera Mechanism, it’s clear that physics and mathematics have always determined the movement of the planets. It’s unlikely that Copernicus, Galileo, Ptolemy, or any of the other great astronomers fully believed in the “newspaper astrology” of their day. For most of history, it has been unwise to vocalize positions counter to the majority opinion publicly. “I don’t think the gods have anything to do with the planets or weather,” was not an optimal view to have when fundraising. “I’m pretty sure Earth is revolving around the Sun” was a scandalous position to hold for many centuries. Even if they wanted to, there was more money in keeping scientific pursuits a little mysterious.
Over time scientists analyzed an increasing number of phenomenon thanks to discoveries made by Copernicus, Galileo’s telescopes, and others. The classical elements and gods began to have less of a role in scientist’s studies. Several factors caused this change. Beliefs such as freedom of religion in America began to allow a less religion-based view of the world. New information came to light. Fields like physics, astronomy, meteorology, etc. began to replace astrology, alchemy, and mythology.
With this in mind, let’s clarify the difference between astronomy and astrology as we understand them today.
Ancient Astronomy, Astrology & Sun Worship Documentary.
TIP: This lecture series on the technology throughout history by Derek de Solla Price from Yale 1976 talks about how ancient man went from hunter and gatherer to astrologer and astronomer. Specifically the following lectures discuss the history of astronomy, astrology, and alchemy from the perspective of a scientist, physicist, and historian. Lecture #7, Lecture #8, Lecture #9, Lecture #10. It costs about $70,000 to take a semester at Yale today, so consider downloading this free lecture series, putting them in iTunes, and listening during your daily commute.
The Difference Between Astrology and Astronomy Today
Astronomy and astrology split during the 17th century, and science never looked back. Not only did they become separate studies, but as our understanding of astrology grew, we realized that we were way off on our calculations for the planets and constellations. This was mainly because everything has drifted substantially since the Almagest was written in the 2nd-century.
Today the difference between astronomy and astrology as we know them today, as confirmed by the American Astronomical Society is:
- Astronomy is a science that tracks the movement of celestial bodies. Astronomy is best described as a discipline rooted in physics and mathematics.
- Astrology is the belief that the positioning of the stars and planets affect the way events occur on earth. Astrology is perhaps best described as a metaphysics-based discipline with psychological and spiritual application.
Difference Between Astrology & Astronomy : Space & Astronomy. This video points out some of the big discrepancies between astrology and astronomy.
If you watched the above video, you probably have questions like, “how could astrology possibly have any application if it’s off by a whole month, a sign, and more?” It’s a great question to which there is no simple answer. We address it below.
TIP: To learn more about astronomy (the actual science) check out our page on astrology versus astronomy.
How Does Astrology Work?
Before we can understand how modern astronomy proves or disproves astrology, we have to understand what astrology is and isn’t.
- Astrology is a system of fortune telling that assigns symbolic meaning to the movement of celestial bodies such as stars and planets and their relative positions. It assigns meaning to physical events.
- Astrology isn’t an attempt to accurately track the position of celestial bodies for scientific purpose; that is astronomy.
Astrology assigns aspects of the human condition to symbols and assigns symbols to the stars to create a bank of fortune telling and cold reading information. As the planets shift, the symbols shift, as the symbols shift they take on new relative meanings.
Why Do Astrological Readings Seem to Work?
Astrological readings work for a few different logical reasons. Importantly, each symbol in astrology relates back to a specific fundamental aspect of the human experience. A person will almost always find that any reading loosely applies to them. On this level astrology is simply a system for cold reading. The concepts of social science, cognitive bias, and intuition can usually explain this aspect. If we overlay the human condition upon the system of astrology, we unsurprisingly get a useful metaphysics-based model.
- One can argue that the planets affect us, as gravity and electromagnetic energy have an infinite range, and bodies like the sun and moon have a real effect on the earth and our 70%-water-based biology.
- Or, one can argue that the symbols we use in astrology are arbitrary representations of the universe’s energy, and the reason astrology is so off-base is because the system was developed before we understood modern astronomy.
- Or, of course, one could argue, that astrology is just “hogwash” with no value outside its historical context.
Is the Tracking of Planets Accurate in Astrology?
On a scientific level, the accuracy of the astrology can be called into question due to the difference between the way in which astrology tracks the movement of the stars and the way astronomy does. We might see astrology as a relative system of measurement for the purposes of divination and understanding the human condition.
Regardless of our views, we have to face the fact that around the 17th century the way we tracked planets with astronomy started diverging from methods used for astrology. Today astrology is off by almost a whole sign as the signs have moved almost a full month to the west over time. Most people who think they are Aries are actually now Pisces, etc. Also there are now known to be 13, not 12 constellations. Read More.
The Elephant in the Room (Precession and the 13th Constellation)
The elephant in the room of astrology is “the earths wobble” AKA precession and the 13 constellations (not 12). This doesn’t prove or disprove astrology; it just points out that the symbols used in astrology do not match up with what is actually happening to the planets and stars. 
The debate about the accuracy of tracking planets aside, one can easily argue that astrology isn’t a science in the first place. Who cares if we say ‘the sun in Scorpio’, or, ‘the sun in Ophiuchus’ or if the proper terminology would be ‘the sun in Libra.’
The astrological wheel is human-made tool. It uses ancient symbols to derive meaning from the relative positions of the stars. Does it need to line up with the constellations or Western science to be useful? That is a question you can answer for yourself. We won’t get caught up in that debate here.
Instead, if you are still interested in the old theories pertaining to astrology, I strongly suggest you go to how astrology works so you can better judge its merits for yourself.