Polly Toynbee

Polly Toynbee

Reproduced from the RT Logo

It's in the stars.Or so people throughout the ages have imagined,looking upwards at the heavens in search of some great meaning in that terrifying void.Everyman (BBC1) [Video:BB24,N24/5 &HotM N2,JB8] this Sunday charts the history of astrology from the earliest times -and leaves a surprisingly ambiguous message at the end:it's up to you,believe it if you want.
When frightened,people have always sought to personalise the impersonal,to find some human traits in the harsh physical universe around us.Someone or something out there must know about us,care about us,influence us.We can't be all alone,can we? Of course,the magical movement of the stars has attracted attention from the start.they are so beautiful, they must have been put there to tell us something, if only we could understand their message.So we found a meaning and clung to it.We now live in a time when the majority of people think their is something in astrology. The more science tells us about these empty planets and stars,the more we pursue the barmy belief in their mystical meaning.
"No,no - I don't believe in astrology,"people often say when asked,but then add,"Funny thing,though I'm an absolutely classic Taurus".Maybe it's because I'm a Capricorn,the horrible old goat-cold, rational, sensible,calculating,mercenary [Spooky,Polly.So am I.There must be something in it if two of us conform eh?-LB]an altogether unattractive star sign - that I have always rejected this utter tosh.
Also I have non-identical twin brothers,born within minutes of one another,yet as different as both could be,so how is Pisces supposed to represent them both?
This programme shows how often astrology has been interwoven with Christianity. After all,what were the magi up to,following their star? Astonishingly,the Church of England produced a report a couple of years ago,Search for Faith,which more or less endorsed astrology,so long as it was used to reinforce Christ and his message.Surely not? But yes,they really did.The programme also features one Liberal Catholic,The Rev Pamela Crane,who has devoted her life to showing how Christianity can be found in the stars, through astrological charts.
At this point the poor old church really seems to have lost its last remaining marbles.If its doctrine is about anything,it must be about free will.Each of us can make ourselves better or worse,our destiny is in our own hands.Only a few Calvinist sects ever believed you were saved or damned already at birth,one of the chosen few or not,without having to do any good to earn salvation.How desperate can the church be,how broad and woolly,if it can encompass the notion that our characters and fate can be pre-ordained?
Believing that the stars influence us and set the course of our lives is supposed to make us feel linked to the universe,a comforting unity to bolster any feeling of insignificance we may have when gazing up at all that space.But astrology seems to have the opposite effect,removing our individuality by making us pawns in an unseen game.Better to face up to the fact that we are alone,here for a short time,in control of our own small destiny to make of it the best we can.
Superstition always seems to get the upper hand.Science should be driving it back,but the more incomprehensible physics becomes to the layman - those mysterious black holes,the theory of relativity- the more people are inclined to say,"You see,it's all far more bizarre than we thought". Because a few of us can understand physics,we tend to treat its mysteries like any superstitious mumbo-jumbo - all part of the great unknown.The truth is out there,but if you didn't do physics A level, forget it.[Good job I did then isn't it?-LB]
Astrology is a clever trick.It has survived because it follows real starcharts and in early times there was no distinction between it and astronomy.Its predictions are so cunningly Delphic you can read into them what you will.It's hard not to find something to apply to your own life among the banal generalities in horoscopes.Why do people read them so avidly?
We could still be living in the Dark Ages.Can people really think that the movements of rocks and gases millions of miles away shape our little human lives? How can what Saturn is doing to Jupiter on the day a baby is born predict its character? And what exactly is so special about the moment of birth, [Especially given Einstein's Theory of Relativity-LB],in these days when a baby might be weeks premature or late induced? We are more educated than ever,yet sometimes we seem just as silly as we were at the dawn of time.

Letters to Radio Times

Reading Polly Toynbee's piece about horoscopes (RT 24-30 May), I was horrified to see that,once again,an uninformed and one-sided view on the topic is in print.True,many magazine horoscopes can be interpreted to fit some aspect of everyone's life and many people do not fit the category of star sign under which they were born.But really,the "writer of the year" should adopt a wider perspective.
 Surely if Ms Toynbee proffers a critique on this topic she should do the reader the courtesy of thorough research.May I advise Ms Toynbee not to view astrology solely through the eyes of the Mystic Megs of this world?
 Astrology is more than just tabloid star signs.Differing personalities of twin brothers can be explained by differing ascendant signs.These change within ten -minute periods - and twins need not be born in the same ten minutes.This is what is "so special about the actual moment of birth". The moment of birth doesn't determine life's blueprint,but rather influences personality which contributes to the decisions made throughout life.

Rachel Pinder
Stockton -on -Tees,Cleveland

... As a contributor to Everyman's documentary on the history of astrology (25 May, BBC1) I'd like to correct Polly Toynbee's misapprehensions.
 No astrologer believes that lumps of rock or gas in the sky exert an influence on life on earth,with the exceptions of the sun and moon.Astrology is best understood as the study of the relationship between different patterns,chiefly planetary cycles and events on earth.
the basic assumption is that different times have different qualities,and the rationale for the use of the planets to understand these is found in Plato's belief that the planets are the "keepers" or "markers" of time; in other words,the clock on the mantelpiece doesn't cause time to move on but it does mark out the key moments of our lives.

Nicholas Campion
President,The Astrological Association,London N1

My Letter to N.Campion

Dear Mr Campion,
 With Respect to your letter in the Radio Times,you say that,"No astrologer believes that lumps of rock or gas exert influence on life on earth,with the obvious exceptions of the sun and moon".
 The moon is a lump of rock,and the sun is a ball of gas,both of which exert influence over the earth.How can you make obvious exceptions of these two? If these do,then so do all the other planets in the same way. This is typical of the illogical and ignorant view of astrology and mysticism in general. You cannot make exceptions of the moon and sun just because they exert the greatest influence. What Polly Toynbee is seeking to address is that solar system bodies do not literally guide our feelings and motivations.There is no "rationale" to astrology,it is an ancient and out of date methodology used in Medieval times to explain things that they did not understand.If it is so rational,then why does it always use scientific arguments to justify itself?
 Time is more complicated than you will ever know,it is not just marked out by simple planetary movements,but integrated into the very fabric of space via the space time continuum.The simplistic explanations put forward by Mystics/Astrologers is because they cannot handle the more complicated position of Science. In their quest to explain events in a non-scientific way they have to allude to scientific methodologies merely because Science is based on what is seen to be true. As evidence,I recently bought an issue of "Predictions" subtitled "Nature's Patterns".In it astrologers are advocating the use of computers to create astrological maps,complete with two inherent "interpretations",either the world is one way or it is another,one cannot interpret it how one wishes to. Why do these people make use of computers in this way when computers were born out of a mathematical/physical understanding of the universe? Likewise one author seeks to utilise the science of "Chaos Theory" and "Fractals" to show what is wrong with scientific understanding. Why would he do this and then go on to say that mystics should "embrace" fractals as they are a symbol of science being defeated by nature? Science invented/created fractals,they are not a conundrum,but a greater understanding.Mystics did not invent computers or fractals,but they try to integrate both into their pseudo-scientific belief.
 To show you how psychic I am,I am going to make a prediction - In the years hence there will be a metaphysical battle between rational thought and mysticism (in fact I foresaw this years ago),probably ending in the death of rationalism, because the majority of people are ill-educated in scientific methodologies,and see the explanations as boring or hum-drum.They need a universe with values,and a need for "something greater" or more human in its relationship with physical things. I can see this without looking at the planetary aspect of Jupiter with respect to Mars!
 Polly Toynbee is correct in asserting that "The truth is out there,but if you didn't do A-level Physics,forget it",and that "Superstition always seems to get the upper hand". I did do A-level physics and Maths and Computer Science.I am here to tell you that the reason superstition holds the upper hand is because more people believe it,not out of its validity,but because the mass of people are simple and need simple explanations,so they refer back to the middle ages when things were simpler.The rest of us who do understand what is happening are laughing at the simplicity of your explanations and the way you try to pinch bits of physics in order to lend credence to your ridiculous way of seeing things. You are in exactly the same position as a religious person who says the eye is too complicated to be explained by evolution.Why pick the eye? It is a cellular structure just like every other living part.The question is stupid,because it shows the ignorance of the questioner.
 Planetary cycles and events on earth are already understood in terms of emergent behaviour and chaos theory and Newton,Maxwell and Lorenz's theories,as well as countless others. The scientific methodology is an integrated approach that covers all aspects of endeavour. There is no rational explanation for astrology,other than as a vestigial hangover from a previous era in human thinking,as such it is naive,simple,and well past its sell by date.Mystics/astrologers should grow up,and read some other material other than "cosmic forces affect my station in life" type scenarios,that can easily be logically undermined by someone with more than two brain cells. Numerology,for example can easily be shown to be impractical in its assertions,but still utilises the idea of number as a representational form,and as such is based on primitive mathematical assertions.Science was born from the inadequacies of mysticism and that's why we have TV,video,radio,lasers,phones,aeroplanes,computers and interplanetary probes.Mystics could never have achieved these things because their world view is just plain wrong,what's more it is dangerous,as it promulgates ignorance.
 The way that we feel on any particular day is not due to a conjunction or a planet in a particular house,it is due to the quantum-mechanical operation of the biochemical constituents of the brain.But then how would you know,have you ever checked? No,because you can't understand such things.I am currently in the midst of checking out mysticism/astrology because,if I didn't it would be unscientific of me to dismiss it.In the words of the other contributor to RT, I am doing them "the courtesy of thorough research".The more I research it,the more stupid it becomes,and the more of my time I waste.
 The planets are the subject of the N-body problem put forward by Poincare,no astrologer ever makes reference to this,as a historic fact.Why? Because they have either never heard of it or they don't know what it means, because it requires an understanding of non-linear mathematics.But astrologers cannot understand that,so they ignore it,or try to subsume the parts they can grasp into their explanations
 On hearing of the 13th constellation of Ophiuchus,astrologers were put into a quandary as to what to say,in regard to the fact that they had only taken into account 12 constellations,they,of course were unaware of the astronomical idea of precession,if they were,then they would have told the public that the 13th constellation needed to be taken into account.BUT THEY DIDN'T.An astronomer made this public,as only he had the knowledge to do so.
 What was the reaction of the astrologers - They panicked.Their reactions varied,some said it didn't exist,some said they knew of it,some said it wasn't important.It threw all their ideas into turmoil,because their ideas are WRONG. There was no co-ordinated rebuttal from astrologers,because there couldn't have been one.With all their powers to see the future,not single one of them knew that a 13th constellation would throw their nonsense into disrepute.
 There have been various subsequent rebuttals,AFTER THE FACT,when astrologers have had time to think,and plan how to cope with a 13 constellation.Some blame astronomers for moving the goalposts,others blame Ptolemy or Copernicus.Still others try to suggest that it is completely consistent with their ideas. Then why is there no 13th sign in the newspapers? Because the public would be confused.Is it 12 or 13? You have to keep it simple,so keep 12,if you tell them 13,you would have to explain why,astrology can't do that because it doesn't know how.
Rachel Pinder,the other contributor explains that personality is affected by the time of one's birth.How does she know this? She doesn't.She just believes it.It can't be proved.When has any correlative experiments ever been done to show definitively that there is any such connection? A few,have shown some "statistically significant corellation".But I know enough about statistics to know that they can show anything one wants,if one is dexterous enough.
 Anyhow,why does the astrological community even accept that there should be a proven statistical correlation? Some do.Some don't.That's just my point,they don't have an integrated viewpoint.They can't,because it's interpretive,and cannot lead to a consistent view.
The only correlation between people and planetary bodies is given by the physical description containing gravity, electromagnetism and nuclear forces,if you need any more then I suggest you read "The Emperor's New Mind" by Roger Penrose.But you won't,because you need A-level mathematics to understand it.Sorry,but if you are simple,you are simple,if you want to know what is,you must look at what actually happens as opposed to what you believe or want to happen.
Astrology is a belief,as much as religion is a belief,and as such can never be proved,that's why it holds such sway,anybody having to defend themselves astrologically,does not need evidence,they just say that it is due to the "cosmic influence".What is this? How does one prove its existence? Astrologers do not have to define what their terms are to the masses,and that's why the masses believe them.It's easy.No hard maths involved.No abstract contortions of space-time.No evidence needed.You just have to believe.
 Astrology also invokes fatalism in a belief system.Old arguments such as Freewill vs Determinism are left on the shelf or for philosophers/ mathematicians/ physicists to sort out.But fatalism is inherently inconsistent with the facts,this is not shown to the general public as it would prove what a farce astrology is,should the public be intelligent enough to know what fatalism is.But they don't,and astrology takes advantage of this,by promulgating the idea that the future can be known.It can't even in principle,so how do they do it? They don't explain,because they don't have to.
Astrology is nothing more than "Barnum statements" correlated with the movement of planets leftover from Medieval attempts at astronomy.People WANT to believe that the heavens govern their actions,and so,they do believe it. They cannot accept responsibility for their own lives.So they use astrology to say "the reason I was angry at you was because Mars was in the ascendant".It's delusion created by simple people for simple people,it can never be anything else.
Hopefully,in this, I am "driving it back" as Polly Toynbee suggests should be done.
Yours etc....

Needless to say,no reply was forthcoming.  

Stars in their brains

Witness on horoscopes (18 June, C4) was scary, not just for the fact that people really believe this stuff, but that some even run their businesses by it, and even scarier, it would appear, that a certain US president, via his wife, ran his government by it.
A couple of quotations come to mind - one, I think, attributable to Patrick Moore: "The only thing that astrology proves is that there's one born every minute," and the other (I'm not sure who said it): "When people stop believing in God, they don't believe in nothing, they believe in anything."
So, far from giving me any spiritual comfort, I'm afraid it all makes me very sad and concerned. And before anyone asks: no, I don't know my star sign, and that doesn't worry me at all!

R Wood Taunton, Somerset

Radio Times 8-14 July 2000

Signs of utter disbelief

Why has it taken so long to debunk astrology? (News,August 17).Anyone with a modicum of intelligence knows that it is complete bunkum and that astrologers are charlatans,taking advantage of illogical,self-centred people.
How can planets millions of miles away have any breaing on the lives of people on Earth? On average,half a billion people share each birth sign.So,according to tabloid astrologer,one horoscope report true for each one of them,whether that person is a Hollywood star or a starving Third World child.
Lyn Jenkins

Congratulations on your article debunking astrology.Doubtless you will have vituperation heaped on you from all angles by gullible True Believers.In your defence I offer the opinion of Sir Patrick Moore,that redoubtable expert on the cosmos,who said : "Astrology proves only one thing,namely that there is one born every minute!"
RW Smith

[ Sunday Telegraph 24Aug 2003]





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