In March, as a result of well-informed complaints from astrologers, the BBC amended an article on its website about the ‘Thirteenth Sign’. This supposedly educational webpage was for Stargazing Live, the BBC’s astronomy show hosted by Brian Cox and Dara O’Briain, which contained the usual, predictable (tee-hee) distortions and half-informed commentary. The amended sentence stated: "the astronomical phenomenon of precession was not known at the time that the zodiac was first devised." Wrong, precession was known, yet despite the correction, the premise of the BBC's article still implies that astrology is in error.
In short: there is a distinction between between a constellation and a sign. A small part of Ophiuchus cuts into the Sun’s path, between Scorpio and Sagittarius, but this constellation has never been considered a zodiacal sign. This is not news, not a revelation, and not an argument against astrology. Along with zodiacal precession (the phenomenon that will lead to the so-called Age of Aquarius), the learned Scientific Community assumes naïve astrologers don’t know these things. Yet the shoe is now on the other foot, with astrologers calling astronomers on their technical, cultural and historic knowledge. Not to mention their integrity.
The mini lobbying campaign, orchestrated by Deborah Houlding of the excellent Skyscript website proved it’s possible to take back the initiative. Many people say they don’t believe in astrology - may be vehemently opposed to it - but ask them for reasons and you usually get a purely emotional reaction. Alan Leo, famed Theosophical astrologer wrote in 1904: ‘‘If [astrologers] are questioned by anyone who has made a little study of astronomy, they are easily made to look foolish; not, perhaps, because they really know less than their questioner, but they are not in the habit of thinking clearly what they mean by the terms they use”. Very true, but the ‘Thirteenth Sign’ red herring is a perfect example of astronomers not thinking clearly about their terms, or wilfully misrepresenting them.
Anti-astrology animus is not solely a British issue, far from it. India is perceived to be a very spiritual culture, but the scientific-materialist faction make their presence felt there too, as the (unscuccessful) 2001 legal challenge to teaching Jyotish in their Universities showed. Astrology is taught in some UK universities, but in the context of the humanities - history and comparative religion - not as a technical craft. Our relatively liberal attitude towards astrology exists, sadly, because most people treat it as an entertainment, but take astrology seriously, demonstrate it at work, and powerful opposing forces are aroused.
Though the BBC's retraction has not gone far enough, it's still a small victory. Between this and the likes of David Tredinnick MP, who sits on both the Health Select Committee and the Science and Technology Select Committee, speaking out in favour of astrology, are we seeing an important change? Maybe. (The MP for Bosworth was re-elected in May with an increased majority, and several astrologers not at all of a Tory persuasion, were very pleased.) Please feel free to add your voice to the complaints about the BBC's treatment of this subject.