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from The Textbook Letter, September-October 1996

Reviewing a middle-school book in earth science

Prentice Hall Exploring Earth Science
1995. 833 pages. ISBN of the student's edition: 0-13-807595-6.
Prentice Hall, 1 Lake Street, Upper Saddle River, New Jersey 07458.
(Prentice Hall is a part of Simon & Schuster.)

Good Heavens! How Silly!

Lawrence S. Lerner
William J. Bennetta

In the United States alone there are more than twenty thousand practicing
astrologers casting horoscopes and taking the money of literally millions
of credulous believers. But there is probably no other major delusion that
is more easily examined and shown to be totally without any logical basis.

            James Randi in his book Flim-Flam! -- Psychics, ESP, Unicorns
            and Other Delusions,
published in 1982 by Prometheus Books

President Reagan and his wife, Nancy, are both deeply interested in astrology,
the White House spokesman, Marlin Fitzwater, said today, and two former
White House officials said Mrs. Reagan's [astrological] concerns had influenced
the scheduling of important events.

            news report in The New York Times for 4 May 1988

The disclosure that President Reagan and his wife believed in astrology and were being duped by an astrologer was widely reported in the press. This was a distressing episode, to be sure, because it reminded us that ancient superstitions continue to thrive among the ignorant. But it also had a bright side. The extensive coverage given to the foolishness of the presidential pair, coupled with the ridicule that soon was heaped upon them, showed that many Americans knew what they needed to know about astrology and astrologers: Astrology is rubbish, and astrologers are charlatans.

Astrology is a broad term that covers various kinds of magical divination, all based upon the notion that human affairs are correlated with the positions and movements of stars and other celestial bodies. That notion, in turn, rests on an ancient belief in mystical correspondences. Astrology holds that there is a correspondence between an individual human and the universe as a whole, so that the traits, actions and fortunes of each human -- or of groups of humans, such as tribes, corporations or states -- are connected to events throughout the cosmos.

Astrology thus reflects a view of humankind that was more or less ubiquitous until the Copernican revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries. According to that old view, the cosmos has been created for humans -- particularly the humans belonging to one's own tribe, community, or religious group. Humanity is regarded as the universe's centerpiece, with all the rest of the universe existing for humanity's benefit. From this it follows that the universe can be divided into two realms: the microcosm (meaning me, or us) and the macrocosm (meaning everything else). The macrocosm exists for the good of the microcosm, so every aspect of the macrocosm must have some direct, useful application to the microcosm.

In the West, some medieval and Renaissance thinkers went even further and asserted a one-to-one correspondence of parts: Each bit of the macrocosm, they said, corresponded to a specific bit of the microcosm. This gave rise to many mystical connections, including links between celestial objects and parts of the human body, or between celestial objects and aspects of human temperament. For example, one system of correlations was founded on the personalities of the mythical characters for whom the heavenly objects had been named. The planet Jupiter (bearing the name of an exuberant, pleasure-loving god) governed human joviality; Mars was linked to aggressiveness, Venus was associated with concupiscence, and so on.

Those fanciful connections between planets and temperament still play a role in astrology and in the exertions of today's astrologers. The astrologers assert that, by examining stars and planets, they can analyze personalities, elucidate destinies, and divine the future. Their "planets," incidentally, include the Sun and the Moon. While this seems peculiar to anyone who has had some education, it is entirely consistent with the Ptolemaic picture of the universe that prevailed in ancient days.

Typical astrologers offer predictions about how their dupes' lives will progress, and they may purport to identify days that will be favorable or unfavorable to the dupes' personal or commercial undertakings. Such services often overlap with the ones offered by "psychics" -- and indeed, some versatile practitioners bill themselves as "psychic astrologers." If this means anything, it means that the dupes get two swindles for the price of one.

Astrologers have never been able to adduce any evidence to support their claims, and scientific studies of astrology have repeatedly exposed its falsity and silliness. Yet some astrologers go so far as to present their craft in a "scientific" guise, complete with computers that chart the movements of heavenly bodies and concoct astrological revelations. When this is the case, astrology becomes a full-fledged pseudoscience.

We would expect, then, that any science textbook which purported to tell about astrology would consider it from a scientific standpoint, would tell how scientists have discredited it, and would convey the two essential points that we stated earlier: Astrology is rubbish, and astrologers are charlatans.

The people who write "science" books for Prentice Hall have a different idea. Their approach to astrology consists of promoting it -- by disguising it and confusing it with astronomy, while ignoring all that science knows about it. This approach is demonstrated in an article in the middle-school book which we are reviewing here: Prentice Hall Exploring Earth Science. We shall consider the article in some detail, but we shall say almost nothing about the rest of the book. The rest of the book, we contend, doesn't matter. All that educators need to know about this "science" book, we contend, is that it is the work of people who promote superstition and pointedly deny science.

They Never Tell Its Name

The article in question appears on page 57, in a chapter that nominally is given to the astronomy of stars and galaxies. In some ways the article is typical of the material that schoolbook- writers have used, in recent years, to dignify and promote various delusions, superstitions and swindles: The text is vague and equivocal, and the writers avoid providing any description of the thing that they supposedly are writing about. In the present case, the writers even avoid mentioning the thing's name. They never use the word astrology. Here is the article, in full:

Signs of the Zodiac

About 2000 years ago, astronomers wondered what the sky would look like if the stars could be seen during the day. Based on their observations of the night sky, some astronomers determined that during the daytime the sun would appear to move across the sky, entering a different constellation each month. These twelve constellations, one per month, came to be called the zodiac. Each constellation was called a sign of the zodiac. Many ancient people believed that the month a person was born in, and hence that person's sign, influenced the person's behavior, emotions, and even his or her fate. Even today, thousands of years later, some people still believe in the powers of the zodiac and read their horoscope daily. Most people read their horoscope for fun, however, not because they believe it to be true.

The illustration shows the original symbols for the twelve signs of the zodiac and the constellation each sign relates to. Many of these symbols may be familiar to you, as they are commonly used in jewelry. Under what sign were you born? Do you know how your emotions are supposed to be affected by your sign?

By failing to disclose that they are writing about astrology, and by explicitly attributing the signs of the zodiac to "astronomers," the Prentice Hall writers build the false impression that zodiacal beliefs form a part of astronomy. Not so. In earlier centuries, there were functional connections between astrology and the science that we now call astronomy, and the two endeavors often overlapped. Those functional connections dissolved long ago, however. If there is any substantive link between astrology and modern astronomy, it lies in the fact that some modern astronomers have been diligent in debunking the pretensions of the astrologers.

Phony "Facts"

The other pseudohistorical "facts" and implications in Prentice Hall's article are distortions or falsehoods. Astrology is at least 4,000 years old, not 2,000. The astrologers of antiquity - - belonging to various cultures, often isolated from each other - - did not devise a single zodiac comprising "twelve constellations, one per month"; they invented zodiacs of various kinds, which had different configurations and used different numbers of constellations. What "Many ancient people believed" was not merely that a person's life and fate depended on when he was born; some ancient forms of astrology also held that the nighttime sky was a kind of celestial news service -- that stars and planets rearranged themselves, or even appeared and disappeared, to publicize such events as the births or deaths of important persons. (This popular belief was incorporated, more than 1,900 years ago, into a story that still is famous: the New Testament story in which a miraculous star signals the birth of Jesus and enables two groups of local astrologers to find him.)

Prentice Hall's writers convey more falsity when they imply that the twelve-part zodiac, the zodiac that is used most widely by today's astrologers, neatly divides the celestial sphere into twelve equal sectors. It doesn't. Some of the zodiacal constellations bulge beyond the borders of their sectors, while others are too small to fill the spaces allotted to them, and this produces some amusing results. For example: The Sun takes about a month to traverse the sector assigned to Leo the lion, but during a part of that month the Sun actually passes through the constellation Cancer the crab. For obvious reasons, the astrologers and their boosters don't like to dwell on this embarrassing point.

There is another big source of embarrassment: The constellations, as seen from Earth, are very slowly sliding across the sky. In any one year, this movement is almost imperceptible; but over the millennia, each constellation slowly creeps into a new sector, displacing the constellation that was there before. (An astrologer may tell a dupe that the dupe's "birth sign" is Aries the ram; but a birth date that now falls under the spell of Aries used to belong to Taurus the bull.) As a result, the astrologers are divided into two major factions. According to one faction, astrological divination has to be based on the pretense that the zodiacal constellations are still where they were in ancient times. The other faction asserts that astrology must take account of where the constellations are today. Of course, neither faction can support its assertions with evidence, because astrology has no connection to reality.

Why doesn't Prentice Hall's article tell about these matters?

The concluding sentences in the article's first paragraph are plain attempts at equivocation -- especially the assertion that "Most people read their horoscope for fun, however, not because they believe it to be true." We suspect that the writers invented that claim because they wanted to soften the article's promotional tone and blur the article's purpose. But in fact, they have only compounded falsity with absurdity: These writers have no way of knowing why "most people" read horoscopes, and neither does anyone else.

Now consider the writers' attempt to convince students that people who "believe in the powers of the zodiac" are merely impelled to "read their horoscope daily." This is more falsity and evasion. The writers do not disclose that people who "believe in the powers of the zodiac" allow their lives to be governed by superstition, that such people are regularly relieved of their money by commercial star-gurus, and that the selling of horoscopic advice is a lucrative industry. Of the thousands of commercial astrologers who operate in this country, only a few support themselves by writing columns for newspapers. Most make their money by selling personal horoscopes and astrological "advice" to gullible individuals (who may receive these products in person, by telephone, or through computer links) and by selling books, periodicals and pamphlets devoted to astrological mumbo jumbo.

Why doesn't Prentice Hall's article tell about this?

The article concludes with two questions: "Under what sign were you born? Do you know how your emotions are supposed to be affected by your sign?" The questions are insults, and they will be taken as insults by every rational person. To print them in a "science" book is an outrage.

The illustration mentioned in the article deserves attention, not because it shows twelve symbols but because it occupies more than six square inches. In that space, the writers easily could have summarized the truth about astrology and could have warned students about astrological frauds. They have not done so, of course.

Though the writers' aims are clear, their motives are not. They surely could have written a middle-school earth-science book without saying anything about astrology; or if they wanted to raise the subject of astrology, they could have dealt with it in a scientific and truthful way. Instead, they decided to promote it (without mentioning its name), to ignore science, and to conceal the truth. Why? We can suggest two possible explanations.

One possibility is that Prentice Hall's writers are so ignorant and gullible that they themselves are enthralled by astrology and even believe it to be a science. Perhaps they have undertaken to employ Prentice Hall Exploring Earth Science for propagating some of their personal delusions, including false and starry-eyed notions about astrology's "history."

The other possible explanation rests on two conspicuous facts: Prentice Hall is a unit of Simon & Schuster, and Simon & Schuster is in the astrology business. By that we mean that other units of Simon & Schuster -- Fireside Books, Touchstone Books and Pocket Books -- publish and sell astrology books, with titles such as Love Planets, Black Sun Signs, The Mind of God, Power Astrology and Spiritual Astrology. Perhaps some officer of Simon & Schuster has instructed the Prentice Hall people to plug astrology to young students, in the hope that some of the students will eventually become customers for Simon & Schuster's books of superstition.

We should note that astrology isn't the only body of nonsense that receives favorable treatment in Prentice Hall Exploring Earth Science. Page 341 is given to a fatuous article about Chinese mysticism -- specifically the notion of yin and yang, which the writers attempt to promote by citing various dualities and phony pairs of "opposites." For instance, moths and orangutans are said to be "opposite" types of animals, because orangutans are vertebrates but moths aren't. The whole article is as foolish as every other attempt to make the real world conform to the daydreams of mystics.

How Textbooks Should Treat Superstitions

We hope that no one will interpret our remarks to mean that science textbooks should not discuss vulgar superstitions. Science texts certainly should discuss such things. They should show students that the overthrowing of superstitions has been a consistent theme in the history of science, and they should furnish students with knowledge that will help the students to evade the clutches of miracle-mongers.

Most of our schoolbooks do far too little of this, even though it pays big pedagogic dividends through its capacity to keep students interested and engaged. What can be more effective, for stimulating students, than an account of a scientific inquiry that discredited a hoax or exposed a fraud? What better way to inspire students than to tell how rationality can protect them from destructive delusions and magical rip-offs? And what is more engaging than a detective story? What student will not be fascinated to learn how scientific investigators have discredited such popular rubbish as biorhythms, "psychic surgery," faith healing, weeping statues, psychokinesis, the Bermuda Triangle, and the Shroud of Turin?

That is how superstition should be presented in science books. In Prentice Hall Exploring Earth Science, however, superstition is presented to the student in a context of falsity and misinformation. For this reason, no alert person would regard Prentice Hall Exploring Earth Science as a science book or would consider using it in any science course.


William J. Bennetta is a professional editor, a fellow of the California Academy of Sciences, the president of The Textbook League, and the editor of The Textbook Letter. He writes frequently about the propagation of quackery, false "science" and false "history" in schoolbooks.

Lawrence S. Lerner is a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at California State University, Long Beach. He served on the panel that wrote the current framework for science education in California's public schools, and he is a director of The Textbook League.

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