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It's crazy that astrology is still a thing
Earth is in retrograde
If scientists were to launch a Manhattan Project-style effort to design and produce the single least appealing piece of content to me, on every conceivable level, they could probably not do much better than Swipe Your Sign1.
Launched last Sunday on BBC Sounds and commissioned by Radio 1Xtra, it is a “Black, queer dating podcast” in which a professional astrologer matches participants based on their star sign. After getting a match, we hear snippets from the date, and the happy couple is asked questions in a similar style to the Guardian’s long running blind date feature.
Needless to say, I’m definitely not the target audience: I’m a boring, white, normie heterosexual who started watching Newsnight when I was 14. I’ve always been basically 50 years old, and just trapped in a much younger (but perhaps not much fitter) body. And more importantly, I’ve always correctly understood that astrology is total bollocks. This is very clearly not a show for me2.
And unsurprisingly, I’m not the only person outside the target audience. When the podcast was announced last week, the press release was quickly shared by the likes of Guido Fawkes and Julia Hartley-Brewer as a piece of culture war chum for their followers to rage on.
In both cases, their derisive tweets did some pretty good numbers. Though I suspect that at least some of the retweeters were more concerned about the “Black, queer” part of the description than the “astrology” part.
However, the reason I’m writing about this is that I am actually mad about the astrology part.
The “Black, queer” part of the premise, as far as I’m concerned, is good. The BBC is our national broadcaster, and it should be producing content that appeals to Black and queer audiences – not just a narrow audience of heterosexual, white boomers. In fact, fulfilling this bargain is core to the BBC’s universality.
But the astrology thing really does stick in my craw. As benign as the inclusion of star signs may appear to be on a stupid, disposable entertainment show, I still do not think it should be something a public service broadcaster lends any of its credibility to. The BBC is supposed to inform, educate and entertain – not just pick one.
But there is also a larger point here too. If we accept this sort of magical thinking when it comes to astrology, I think we’re leaving the gateway to more pernicious forms of sloppy, unrigorous thinking cracked open.
So at risk of being a tedious logic-bro, I think astrology is bad for our culture and our politics. And I really don’t think we should tolerate it.
Finally, someone is taking the astrologers down a peg or two! I bet they didn’t see this one coming.
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Because I am a serious investigative journalist, I actually sat down and listened to the first episode of Swipe Your Sign. It’s basically exactly what you expect: 40 punishing minutes of absolute dreck. But I told you, I’m not the target audience. And chances are if you’ve read this far into a Substack post, neither are you.
In terms of the astrology content, it is actually relatively light. Astrology is basically just a format point, and zodiac wheels and birth charts are quickly cast aside once the participants have been cosmically matched.
Aside from an absolutely excruciating five minute section about how Aquarians are “quirky” – a description that by definition needs to cover everyone from Amanda Holden to Kim Jong Il – you could make the same show with a random number generator as the date-matching gimmick instead3.
But the choice of astrology in the format I think is telling, as it is symptomatic of what feels like a frankly baffling resurgence of interest over the last few years. Though it is hard to put hard numbers on, astrology’s rise has been noted in countless trend pieces4. And it definitely feels like astrology has cultural momentum, in a way that it didn’t around a decade ago when the ‘skeptics’ were in the ascendence.
I think a key component of this apparent turnaround in fortunes has been the melding of astrology with two other powerful cultural phenomena: Therapy talk and ‘wokeness’. And because of the latter’s rejection of cold-hearted empiricism and its promotion of ‘lived experience’, it has given astrology and other ‘alternative’ (ie: false) beliefs a political valence that makes them awkward to question.
And given that astrology is bullshit I think this is bad.
The astrology to conspiracy theorist pipeline?
The obvious question to ask is “What’s the harm?”. So what if people believe in astrology? Why am I being such a dick about it, given its adherents are mostly completely well-meaning, normal and friendly people, who just happen to be laughably credulous?
On one level, it is simply because it is this obviously fake thing in the world, and that we should aspire to a world full of accurate information instead of a world full of bullshit.
But I also think there is a more consequential reason.
The reason I’m concerned about the casual normalisation of astrology is that there is actually evidence of a link between belief in new-age nonsense, and belief in conspiracy theories, which are obviously much more pernicious.
For example, as Rob Brotherton writes in his excellent 2015 book, Suspicious Minds:
“The more someone endorses conspiracy theories, the more likely he or she is to be wary of black cats, broken mirrors, and walking under ladders. […] Not only are conspiracy theorists more likely to accept pseudoscience such as astrology and alternative medicine, but they're more likely to reject mainstream science and its products, such as vaccines and genetically modified foods.”
Similarly, there are various academic papers like this one, which found “moderate to strong positive correlations” between beliefs in pseudoscience, the paranormal and conspiracies. And this one found that “The best predictor of belief in conspiracies was delusional ideation.”
To be absolutely clear, I’m not smart enough or versed in psychology enough to know exactly how robust these findings are5. Similarly, I don’t think we can draw any firm conclusions about whether the relationship between the two is causal (in either direction), or whether it is just a correlation, with both phenomenon downstream of something else.
But even if we can’t draw a firm causal line from pseudoscientific beliefs to conspiracy thinking, I think it is right to at least worry about it.
Why? Because there is definitely a compelling logic to how a belief in astrology, or some other new-age belief, could end in a conspiracy-tinged view of the world.
If you’re the sort of person who believes you’ve discovered some ‘hidden’ knowledge that isn’t a part of conventional science, like astrology, or alternative medicines, then of course that’s going to undermine your confidence in established institutions. And in turn, this surely primes you to reject other claims made by similar scientific authority figures.
As a case in point, we see this exact dynamic play-out constantly in politics. It’s not a coincidence that support for Donald Trump correlates with vaccine hesitancy, for instance.
And I would rather live in a world where fewer people believe that Hillary Clinton was involved in a child trafficking plot in the basement of a Washington DC pizzeria, or that Bill Gates is using vaccines to inject nano-bots into our bloodstream, or whatever.
So if we can reduce the odds of people falling into that way of thinking, then that seems like a good thing to me.
What do I actually want?
Though I have written about how much I hate astrology, in terms of my policy preferences, this is obviously not the most pressing issue. We all know what my real top priority is.
But that doesn’t mean that the inexplicable popularity of astrology isn’t an issue. Or that we shouldn’t complain about it.
Because if we have a less rigorous culture, where instead of challenging nonsense we accept these sort of beliefs as part of the intellectual furniture, then there’s a risk we might end up with, say, the actual World Health Organisation endorsing ‘traditional’ medicine.
(Yes, this was a real tweet posted this week.)
But this then raises the obvious question: What do I actually want to happen, then? Unfortunately there’s no lever the government can pull to reduce the levels of bullshit in the atmosphere.
I don’t want the government or the BBC to ban believers in astrology from the airwaves.
Free speech concerns aside, I don’t think it would be particularly easy to do. If you were to attempt to write a rule banning magical thinking from the BBC, you start to run into difficulties with Songs of Praise, and Lord Frost would never be interviewed on the Today Programme ever again.
But perhaps what I do want is for those of us the reality-enjoying community to try to nudge the world a little further towards not ‘enlightenment’, in the squishy spiritual sense – but towards, well, The Enlightenment6.
And as for the reason to pick on astrology in particular, that’s because it is actually killable.
Unlike other dumb things people believe, it isn’t closely wrapped up with religious beliefs, nor is it viewed as intrinsic to any particular group’s identity. It’s just this one stupid thing that exists mostly on its own.
So like a neoconservative Bush administration choosing to invade Iraq after 9/11 not because it was the most dangerous country, but because it was an achievable target… Or like a billionaire philanthropist spending his money on eradicating Polio instead of tackling other, more deeply intractable problems… Moving the cultural centre of gravity towards at atmosphere where we shun astrology seems like an achievable goal to me.
To do this, we need to be less afraid of being the asshole in the room. We should call out the nonsense and not just let it slide because it is easier or less controversial to do so. Because in aggregate, what might seem like crazy but benign beliefs can quickly add up to a much stupider political culture.
Phew! Take that, hippies! Here I am going all ‘skeptic’ like it’s 2010 again. But hey, if you enjoyed this, don’t forget to subscribe (for free) to get more takes direct into your inbox. And if you really value my writing, please consider pre-pledging a paid subscription to tell me that you’d like me to write more often.
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Apart from maybe the short-lived Channel 4 chat show Morgan & Platell.
Maybe on episode four they’ll finally get to discussing the restrictive licensing terms of public address data but I’m doubtful.
The other element of the show that did surprise me was how unexpectedly explicit bits of it were. Dating shows have clearly moved on from Cilla and mildly suggestive innuendo.
I can’t think of an obvious way to better measure empirically that astrology is experiencing a boom in popularity. Google Trends, for example, has mixed evidence of a resurgence.
Not to mention the replication crisis.
My pitch for a dating podcast is “Empirical Dating”, where a team of scientists essentially try to Moneyball the romantic lives of participants, by matching them with the most algorithmically compatible people. The show then forces them to marry and we observe their relationship to see if the results match up with the predictions to improve the model for next time around.