Tuesday, September 9, 2008

A New Study on Astrology and Health

Most American scientists have a particular attitude toward research that can be problematic when studying certain types of phenomena, especially anything related to alleged paranormal events. Before they expend any effort at all on researching a specific subject, they want irrefutable scientific proof that it is "real." This mindset is efficient when examining easily reproducible effects, but for lower probability events it can wind up missing important information about the world.

In some other countries science is conducted differently. In Russia, for example, scientists start with the report of a phenomenon and investigate it in order to figure out what it is and how it works. This is why the Soviet Union was doing psychic research long before most Americans, though Joseph Banks Rhine at Duke University was a notable exception. I've always been of the opinion that this is a better way to do research because the concept of "real" as a lot of Americans see it is problematic in terms of how people experience the world. Psychological or neural effects are not "fake" just because they are unrelated to an external physically observable condition.

For example, it would be just as scientifically valuable to demonstrate concisely that something weird like, say, alien abduction experiences are the result of some specific neural firing pattern as it would be to show that there really are alien spacecraft with transporter technology. In either case, we understand the phenomenon where we didn't before, and when people report we know what is going on. If it's psychological, we can identify the neural pathways involved and develop some sort of drug therapy to help patients manage what are often terrifying nightmares. If it's physical, well, we could go ahead and set up traps for the aliens and maybe try to capture and reverse-engineer their ship.

Research on such a phenomenon is therefore a win either way, but so long as scientists dismiss the reports no solution that has any potential to help those experiencing the events in question will be found. With alien abductions in particular, Canadian neuroscientist Michael Persinger has been studying them for years, which would likely have not been possible in the United States. He believes that the experiences are at least in part due to electromagnetic fields affecting the brain and has built a machine to test it, the so-called "God Helmet." While the machine has yet to yield anything practical in the way of consumer technology, the findings from Persinger's research are still interesting and shed light on other areas such as how the brain works under the influence of a "religious experience."

In a roundabout way, this brings me to the topic of this article. In recent years there have been few scientific studies of astrology. At the beginning of the last century there was a lot of interest in finding some sort of scientific model that would explain how the practice works, but in many cases the researchers were not well-trained as scientists and made use of questionable statistical methods. One of the first researchers to go about studying the subject in a rigorous way was Michel Gauquelin, a French statistician.

Gauquelin's most significant finding was the "Mars Effect" in which he determined that the placement of the planet Mars in the birth chart seemed to correllate to high athletic ability if the planet was well aspected. Gauquelin himself was actually fairly skeptical of astrology in general, but the Mars Effect was highly statistically significant. He nonetheless regarded the effect as genuine and hypothesized that astrological effects were related to biological rhythms and time of birth rather than any sort of invisible planetary influence.

Gauquelin's theoretical model is actually a good one. There likely are personality differences between people depending on when they are born, though this has not been a well-researched are of study. For example, it is a known fact that more professional athletes are born in the sign of Leo (late July and most of August) in the United States. Leo is ruled by the Sun and probably is the sign that is closest to the stereotypical "jock," healthy and outgoing but also sometimes arrogant and grandiose. There's no magick to the timing itself - the American school year starts at the beginning of September and as a result kids born in August are slightly older and therefore more likely to excel in athletics than their peers.

It is nonetheless interesting that Leo is described as it is since astrology predates the school year and intramural sports by millenia. It may be that something similar was in place due to the harvest season. Early European societies tended to work all summer, harvest crops in the fall, and then hunker down for the winter. It may have been that children born in August got more individual attention for a longer period of time because they were born at the very end of the summer and their parents could hole up with them all winter instead of having their attention taken up by farming. The school year does start in September because traditionally children needed the summers off to help with their family farms.

A new study from India has found that there is a 75% correllation between planetary positions throughout the course of one's life and times at which health problems arise. The study was done with over 1000 patients, so there are no issues with the sample size, though without the exact methodology it is hard to say what other statistical problems might present in the data. If accurate, this study goes beyond Gauquelin's contention of birth time being the sole determining factor in personality and ability because the study tracked people over time and took into account the positions of various planets in the chart.

I actually am not a big believer in the "invisible influence" model and subscribe more to something like a biorhythm model. According to this hypothesus, over time astrologers observed various processes in human physiology and psychology and noted particular cycles of different average lengths. The planets were then given their attributions on the basis of which cycle length was closest to their orbital period and this is how the traits associated with each planet were determined in the first place. This is consistent with the kind of organic proto-science that existed during the period in which astrology arose, in which a kind of sifting process slowly eliminates concepts that don't work and leaves only those that seem to be in harmony with the working data.

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