Dr. Peter Niehenke:
Astrological Research and the Concept of "Similarity"
Lecture held at the 10TH INTERNATIONAL RESEARCH CONFERENCE ON ASTROLOGY
by: The Astrological Association & URANIA TRUST, London (9th and 10th November 1996)
The process of research into astrology is stagnating:
as astrologers appear to fail even when they have had
considerable influence on the design of a study as
was the case in Rob Nanning's recent "Astro-Test".
of the numerous master theses and dissertation papers
dealing with an empirical investigation of astrological
claims, again and again lead to the same result: no
support for the astrological hypothesis. The monument
called Mars effect as discovered by the Gauquelins
became cracked, even begins to rock.
But something remains the same: In our daily work as
counselling astrologers we continue to be successful.
Our clients confirm, often to their dismay, that the
chart reveals deep insights into their soul or psyche.
For more than ten years now I have been preoccupied
with the question how it fits that we, in the counselling
session, are able to impress our clients again and
again, that again an again I get this deep feeling
of proof when reading a chart, but that nearly every
test to objectively prove the correctness of chart
interpretations in scientific studies failed in the
end. My very own dissertation ten years ago was such
a "grandiose" failure. Please excuse the
word "grandiose" but, after all, I had mailed
out 12,000 questionnaires of sixteen pages each with
more than five-hundred items and my study was one of
the biggest studies ever done at the psychological
institute of the university of Freiburg/Germany (by
the way, it also needed the largest allocation of CPU-time
ever needed for a psychological study at the computer
centre of the university). But, I did not succeed
in showing that people with Aries or Taurus dominant,
feel themselves as they should feel as Aries or Taurus
-- at least, they had not responded this way.
Colleague [astrologers] very quickly had some explanations
ready as they also have today for the continued failure
of new studies: scientific methods in general and statistical
methods in particular, actually are inappropriate to
prove the truth of astrology. These colleagues seemingly
do not recognize the inconsistencies they get involved
in this way, for in their next basic lessons about
astrology they probably will again explain that water
people tend to be more emotional than air people. They
probably do not recognize that with this explanation
they state something about frequencies because they
say that among water people you will find more emotional
people than you will find among air people. And this
is a statistical statement which is either true or
not true. If one decides to enter the playground of
statistics with this kind of statements one has to
accept and stand by its rules!
In other words, it could well be that scientific methods
in general, and statistical methods in particular,
are not appropriate to prove astrology as a whole but
they are in fact appropriate to prove the statements
made in astrological textbooks and announced in astrology
courses. It is not very helpful to explain these facts
away or to deny their existence. We all too often try
to wriggle ourselves out of our problems with various
justifications, downplaying our failure, finding thousands
of explanations after the event -- instead of getting
a deeper knowledge of astrology by taking up these
The problem is that many astrologers in spite of their
protests, approach astrology with similar prejudices
as do scientists when criticising astrology. The crucial
point is, what kind of information one can acquire
by using astrological methods. Even most astrologers
unconditionally accept the logical rule of the "tertium
non datur" to be always true: Either a statement
is true or it is not true. There is no third possibility.
But for rules in astrological textbooks it is true
that they are neither true nor false. Actually, they
are also not partly true, as this statement could be
misunderstood. They are true if they are adequately
understood. This statement needs explanation.
On the basis of a naive sense of reality and an outdated
view of science, scientists as well as astrologers
normally share the notion of the term "truth"
in a way that has become obsolete even in natural sciences.The
development of systems theory clearly shows that when
describing complex self-organising systems, we have
to deal with definitions located far away from the
mathematical and scientific ideal of unambiguousness.
The "system-laws" as found by the biologist
Bertalanfy, the founder of systems theory, at any rate
share more with analogies than with the differential
equations of physics. Due to this fact the scientific
ideal of objectivity becomes more and more obsolete
We are not yet able in science to deal with the dimension
"similarity" just as we are equally unable
to deal with the dimension of "meaning".
Meaning is not something of a symbol has (be it either
in a linguistic or in a general sense) but meaning
is something a living being attributes to a symbol,
a situation or an action. Therefore, there is no possibility
to objectively measure the meaning of information.
Of course, we are able to find out that most of all
road users stop when the traffic light is red but in
an objective sense this does not mean that red light
has something to do with the action of stopping.
Let me explain by an example, what all this has to do
with astrology and with scientific proof of astrological
rules: If I look at the clouds in the sky and suddenly
see an animal in one particular cloud there is no possibility
whatsoever to prove that the similarity of the form
of the cloud with the form of a certain animal (objectively)
exists. If you want to prove something you need equality
(identity); a proof means that something is unequivocally
true. But this very equality is not true in the case
If dealing with visual forms, with the development of
computers it would now be possible to calculate a kind
of a coefficient of similarity between the shape of
the cloud and the shape of an animal on the basis of
photographs. But the decision what minimum coefficient
is necessary in order to legitimately speak of "similarity"
is a matter of taste.
So I cannot force someone else who is watching the clouds with me,
to accept the similarity with a certain animal as I could
do in the case of proof (for instance by a scientific experiment).
The fellow at my side must be willing to accept my view, to
look through my glasses so to speak if he wants to be able
the see the similarity. In fact, he actually has to be sort of
"uncritical" if he wants to see what I can see. In spite of that,
the similarity is not only illusion: think of the coefficient of
similarity that could be calculated by a computer
But if we leave the sphere of visual forms: What about
similarity between pieces of music, building styles
or cultures? We do not even have a notion how similarity
in these cases could be measured. And even if we had:
Similarity gradually increases and decreases. There
is no way of saying that something is similar to something
else or not, because it is always a matter of degree.
In this world all things are similar to a certain degree
be this similarity only the very fact that they all
belong to this same world.
Also, in the counselling session as well as in the case
of a client (who is willing to understand!) reading
a blind test, we face a similar situation as in the
case of two people watching the clouds and seeing an
animal. The evidence the client might feel is not conclusive
as it would be in case of a logical conclusion or in
the case of a proof of an experiment as naive astrologers
believe, nor is it arbitrary, random or pure illusion
as the psychologically trained critics of astrology
try to make people believe.
Hence, to see similarities you need empathy and willingness.
For this reason the interpretation of a chart does not
produce "reliable information" as most astrologers
believe; it does not tell something about facts that
could be proven objectively. If I see an animal in
a cloud someone else could see the similarity, too,
but just as well he might not see it. If he will see
it depends, besides the degrees of similarity between
cloud and shape of the animal, on his past experiences,
his fantasy and his willingness [to see]. Objectively
proven could be only the fact that there is a cloud
with a certain form.
And in the case of an astrologically based description
of personality traits (the question is of course applicable
to every description of personality traits), what about
the concept of similarity in this field?
The similarity between a cloud and the shape of a certain
animal relates to the visual form. What then is the
similarity between the description of a person's traits
and the respective person based on personality traits
(for instance being emotional) are of course not directly
conceivable as is the physical shape. We infer the
existence of those traits from certain behaviour. That's
why we call them psychological constructs. If in a
study "emotionality" is intended to be a
variable we not only have to be able to measure this
variable (that is, we have to able to assign a number
to every person representing the what degree this person
is emotional), if we want to know about the validity
of our findings we have to know what this variable
actually means. But in fact, our knowledge of the meaning
of the term "emotional" is rather diffuse.
That is the reason why psychologists do not explain
or explicitly define what they mean when they speaking
of emotionality, but are content with a so-called "operational
definition"; that is, they tell us how this variable
will be measured in the context of a special study.
For instance, they define a person is emotional if
at least 75% of all her friends and acquaintances characterize
her as such.
Of course, they cannot tell whether their measurement
is adequate in grasping the meaning of the term "emotional"
because they do not even know whether such a trait
really exists (because they do not know what that could
mean, a trait exists). All the secrets of the nature
of human characteristics, all the ambiguities regarding
the ontological state of these characteristics (is
a trait really something similar to the colour of the
skin, the weight or other physical attributes, can
we deal with them in the same way?) remain hidden behind
the curtain called "operational definition".
Psychologists do not clearly resolve these questions,
they do not solve the problem of the relation between
a certain operational definition and the real meaning
of the corresponding term - they define the problem
away. In every study they more or less appeal to the
reader that the way they measure the variable somehow
relates to the meaning of the term.
for many years all this has been well-known among psychologists.
And it is true that from a pragmatic point of view
these problems could be put aside (similar to physicists
who delete certain terms in an equation that are negligible
in a special context because the amount they represent
might be smaller than the measurement error). Psychological
methods have proved to be successful in many areas
of life. From a practical point of view this is a justification
for the applied methods. But as in physics, where
the relativistic term in most equations normally could
be omitted so that Newton's formulas apply: if we want
to make a decision about the existence or non-existence
of a phenomenon, it is pointless to argue that a certain
method has proved to be "practical". In such
a situation we have to go back to the roots of the
methods applied and have to ask basic questions.
Back to astrology and astrological research: We astrologers
state that a certain constellation of planets in the
sky is related to something called a human trait, which
we can not explain of what it actually is. We relate
constellations to psychological constructs and so all
the uncertainties related to the use and definitions
of these constructs slip into the results of our study.
How could we prove something like a relativistic theory
when the effects we are searching for, are smaller
than the signal-noise-ratio of our experimental conditions?
To avoid having to answer the question what dimensions
of our lives the chart actually is related to, many
researchers in the field of astrology just correlate
a clearly definable attribute of people (for instance
their affiliation to a certain profession) with the
position of certain planets in the sky. If we would
try to prove in this way that a cloud in the sky is
similar to an animal, we of course would fail because
nowhere in such a design the concept of similarity
The only support left for our conviction that astrology
works is our success in the counselling situation,
as I pointed out at the beginning of this lecture.
As long as the processes characterizing this counselling
situation are not fully understood, research in astrology
will continue to stagnate. My chief interest as a researcher
therefore actually is to solve the problem what the
so-called evidence (in German: Evidenz-Erlebnis) when
reading a chart actually is and what the factors are
it is based on. A very important question in this respect
will be whether this evidence is stronger when using
the correct birth data in contrast to using arbitrarily
chosen birth data.
Because the ability to "see" similarity depends
on empathy or willingness only real counselling situations
should be taken, for: If someone knows participating
in a study his approach to the situation is completely
different from a real counselling situation. He will
for instance be more "critical" handling
the interpretations and most probably will not really
let himself in for the process. In other words: It
is not possible to learn about the processes going
on in a real counselling situation by investigating
artificial situations. This necessity of real counselling
situations of course evokes serious ethical problems:
If I want to find out whether wrong birth dates yield
the same evidence as correct birth dates neither the
astrologer nor the client should know whether the chart
in question is based upon the correct or the false
birth time. For the time being I have no idea how this
ethical problem can be solved.
In this short lecture I only wanted to outline the idea
that the failure of astrological research might partly
be due to a misunderstanding of the kind of information
a chart reveals. At the beginning of this lecture I
stated that the rules in astrological textbooks are
neither right nor wrong - that they are correct if
adequately understood. What does this mean? Of course
you all have heard of "fuzzy logic". In fuzzy
logic a rule not simply does apply or does not apply
but it applies to a certain degree and, what is even
more important, rules that are contradictory in terms
of aristotelian logic can to some extent apply at the
same time. Although I do not think that fuzzy logic
will solve all our problems, the concepts behind fuzzy
logic are at any rate a better analogy to the way astrological
rules work than statistics. And the very success of
fuzzy logic in daily life shows that our notion of
natural laws or, in a more general sense, of how nature
functions has to be altered.
Regarding rules in textbooks: The only effect they should
have is to remind me of certain themes in our lives,
to evoke certain emotions, to guide our intuition in
a certain direction by evoking certain associations.
We do not actually know how these rules are related
to the evidence we feel when reading a chart. We have
to find that out first.