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Hoodwink'd By Faery Fancy

by Professor Richard Dawkins,
New College, Oxford


Astrology is neither harmless nor fun, and we should see it as an enemy of truth, says Richard Dawkins, author of ‘The Selfish Gene’. Why, he asks, do so many of us indulge in these pre-Copernican dabblings which are nothing short of wicked fraud?
We should take astrology seriously. No, I don’t mean we should believe in it. I am talking about fighting it seriously instead of humouring it as a piece of harmless fun.

On a moonless night when the only clouds to be seen are the Magellanic Clouds of the Milky Way, go out to a place far from street light pollution, lie on the grass and gaze out at the stars. What are you seeing? Superficially you notice constellations, but a constellation is of no more significance than a patch of curiously shaped damp on the bathroom ceiling. Note, accordingly, how little it means to say something like “Uranus moves into Aquarius”. Aquarius is a miscellaneous set of stars all at different distances from us, which have no connection with each other except that they constitute a (meaningless) pattern when seen from a certain (not particularly special) place in the galaxy (here).

The American conjurer James Randi recounts in his book Flim Flam how as a young man he briefly got the astrology job on a Montreal newspaper, making up the horoscopes under the name Zo-ran. His method was to cut out the forecasts from old astrology magazines, shuffle them in a hat, distribute them at random among the 12 zodiacal signs and print the results. This was very successful of course (because all astrology works on the “Barnum principle” of saying things so vague and general that all readers think it applies to them.) He describes how he overheard in a cafe a pair of office workers eagerly scanning Zo-ran’s column in the paper. “They squealed with delight on seeing their future so well laid out, and in response to my query said that Zo-ran had been ‘right smack on’ last week. I did not identify myself as Zo-ran..

Reproduced, with permission, from the book “Unweaving the Rainbow”© 1997, by Professor Richard Dawkins. (Penguin Books)

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