Simanaitis Says

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MY FAVORITE ASTROLOGICAL predictions are the specific ones: “Tomorrow, Libras are going to step upon Virgos’ umbrella tips.” And, so it seems, Alexander Boxer shares this view in his book A Scheme of Heaven: Astrology and the Birth of Science. Also likely sharing my skepticism is Claire Hall in her “Favourably Arranged,” a review of this book in London Review of Books, May 20, 2021.

A Scheme of Heaven: The History of Astrology and the Search for our Destiny in Data (the book’s North American title), by Alexander Boxer, W.W. Norton, 2020. 

Alexander Boxer is a data scientist, with a Ph.D. in physics and degrees in the history of science and classics. LRB reviewer Claire Hall lectures on ancient Greek science at Oxford. Here are tidbits gleaned from her article.

Astrology’s Origins. Hall notes, “Human beings have made observations of the heavens for tens of thousands of years: The oldest known lunar calendars date from the Palaeolithic era. But the highly stylised astrology of the birth horoscopes familiar to anglophone readers has its origins in Classical Greece.” 

Even then, astrology didn’t distinguish between specific prediction (stepping upon another’s umbrella tip) and astronomical prediction (a total eclipse, say).

Hall writes, “In the middle of the second century CE, Ptolemy did make the distinction, separating prognostication by the stars into two categories. The prediction of the positions and movements of stars and planets was a science with a high degree of certainty, and the subject of Ptolemy’s largest work, the Almagest. The subsequent prediction of the stars’ influences on Earth (what we call astrology), was, according to Ptolemy, conjectural and more like medical prognosis.” .

Two Women with the Signs of Libra and Scorpio, by Marcantonio Raimondi, 15th century.. This and other images from Wikipedia.

Astrology and Believability. Hall notes, “The academic study of historical astrology was hamstrung for much of the 20th century by worries about legitimacy.” She claims  these worries are uncalled for: “No one writing about the Greek gods feels the need to declare she doesn’t believe in Zeus…. Boxer’s work is far from a rehabilitation of the ‘wretched science.’ He takes it for granted that, in a strict and contemporary sense, astrology is bullshit.” 

Astrological “Methodology”. Hall says of the zodiac system, “Based on their relative positions, planets are said to be in ‘aspect’—or looking at each other. The range of aspects begins with the more intuitive: ‘conjunction’, where two planets are in the same sign of the zodiac, and ‘opposition’, where they are in directly opposite signs.”

Astrological Signs of the the Zodiac.

She continues, “Other geometrical relationships are considered: a quarter of the way round the zodiac (‘square’); a third of the way round (‘trine’); or a sixth (‘sextile’). Some of the aspects were thought favourable, others unfavourable….”

There’s also a house system producing “an additional layer of nuance. Each house was thought to govern a particular aspect of a person’s life…. Planets are said to ‘rule’ a house….”  

An astrologer casting a horoscope, Robert Fludd, 1617.

Astrology and Data Mining. Despite this er… bullshit, Hall says, “Astrology has a claim to be called the first great science. Unlike many other disciplines of antiquity, it dealt in repeatable, quantifiable data—and, importantly, in vast amounts of it.”

Boxer calls ancient astrologists “the quants and data scientists of their day.” What’s more, Hall says, “Whether he is recreating ancient star charts or performing statistical tests on astrological claims, he does it because it’s fun.”

Bonatti and the Dow. Boxer applies the techniques of 13th-century astrologer Guido Bonatti to an imaginary equities portfolio. By the way, Bonatti was condemned to Dante’s Inferno, so don’t get your hopes up. For instance, Bonatti avoids purchases when the Moon is in conjunction, square, or in opposition with Saturn. 

Guido Bonatti, famed 13th-century astrologer.

It turns out Bonatti significantly underperforms a Dow Jones index tracker fund, and Hall observes “… so do many real-life fund managers.”

Furthermore, Hall notes, “given enough data sets, a strong correlation can usually be found somewhere—you’ll find one, for example, between the number of civil engineering Ph.D.s awarded per year in the U.S. and the annual consumption of mozzarella cheese.”

Or, I suspect, of Libras stepping on Virgos’ umbrella tips. ds 

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2021 


  1. MIke B
    July 7, 2021

    The perils of Big Data … you can find all sorts of things in it. Often, that yields useful information. Sometimes (even more often?) it yields virtual meadow muffins. The really smart people (and AIs) can sometimes tell the difference. Of course, if your field of study is scatological …

    Caveat investigator.

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