Astrology 3: The Mars Effect
So in yesterday’s article I touched briefly on the frankly mental idea that any astrological “science” could be regarded as in any way valid citing a theory known colloquially as The Mars Effect.
The study itself is… Controversial. L’influence des astres (the influence of the stars), carried out in 1955 by French psychologist and statistician Michel Gauquelin was the first realistic sortie into a serious study of the viability of astrology. Since it was published back in the 50s, and given its remarkable findings the paper has received criticism and scepticism which, frankly, it utterly deserves.
The study itself is, in a word, long. As such I shall do my best to summarise what pertinent information can be found within its pages, as well as pointing out the holes poked in it by the scientific community in the last sixty years.
“The Mars Effect” itself refers to the apparent statistical link between the movement of Mars in the heavens and the birth of prominent athletes; an incredible finding and quite plainly observable in the graph above. The noticeable peaks outside the circle surrounding the twelve ‘sectors’, which represent the planes of Mars’ orbit show that those born with extreme athletic prowess were, in general, born at times where Mars was ‘rising’, or ‘culminating’.
Needless to say, it was a pretty revolutionary claim.
So, what caused the athletes’ apparent prowess? Well, much has been claimed but very little is truly understood. Was it interstellar radiation, kooky Martian magic or just plain astrological influence? Nobody particularly knew, and nobody took particular issue with the results at first; people just nodded quietly to themselves, and figured that their staunch faith had been validated. The study was even accepted and acknowledged by the renowned statistician and fellow psychologist Hans Eysenck, which is saying a lot.
It was, however, a short-lived acceptance.
The scientific community’s greatest asset is its inherent design by which older, inaccurate information is constantly revised and replaced by newer theory. It is this ability to go back and redact the studies which turn out to be lies which make it so much more reliable as a belief system than a religion, as rather than attempting to justify incorrect clauses it simply replaces them and says: “We were wrong. We now know this.”
This is precisely what happened when The Mars Effect was cross-examined by other scientists at a later date. The “beef” these individuals had with the study was that it allegedly deviated from proper operating procedure in both the procurement and compilation of its data. To fully explain these discrepancies it is important to understand the way in which L’influence des astres was carried out, and we’ll be looking at that right bloody now.
Gauquelin first looked at the births of prominent athletes both in France and abroad, and charted their birth on a fairly simple chart. He then mapped this data against a curvature which indicated a correlation between athletic success (and therefore ability) and the movements of Mars. Sounds simple enough, right? That’s because it is simple, as most things which turn out to be right are.
He then published the findings, and defended them three years later in 1956 by inviting a team of Belgian athletes- the Comité Para- where he repeated the test and found once more the correlation known as The Mars Effect! Two independent studies, even by the same person, are considered conclusive, however since these experiments concerned the (largely despised) ‘psuedoscience’ of astrology it had far more sceptics and disbelievers than your average foray into the unknown.
So, now that we have a basic understanding of L’influence des astres‘ methodology we can pretty much predict the allegations that were levied against it: Gauquelin must have fudged the numbers, right?
It was claimed by many (and later ‘proven’ in further investigations) that the study performed by Michel Gauquelin had used a despicable and unspeakable technique, of which any statistician would be ashamed. Apparently the data he collected had been done selectively rather than indiscriminately- in simpler terms, he disregarded anything which refuted his objective. Other contemporary athletes were deemed viable by Gauquelin’s counterparts and critics, while the man himself had claimed that they were “extraneous anomalies”.
It seemed that Gauquelin also had a clear motive for falsifying his data, as following the publication of the study he became quite famous, as well as a good deal richer. Well, a lot richer- if you can ‘prove’ that a popular pastime is valid then you can make a bunch of money in books, self-help and even pseudo-religion simply by selling your bullshit worldwide (see Kathara for further examples).
So, was this whole study a fraud planned by a balding Frenchman in an effort to placate the kind of morons who believe that someone calling themselves “The Great And Powerful Mystic Marta” and thereby profit hugely? Well… Perhaps, quite frankly. I can’t honestly give you any proof either way!
The fact is that the only person who really knows whether or not L’influence des astres was a legitimate scientific investigation is Gauquelin himself, and given the amount he has been discredited and scorned he’s not likely to talk. That and he’s dead. Whether or not you believe in the study is up to you, but given the harsh critique against him I think it’s prudent to mention that he had ardent defenders as well.
“Gauquelin adequately allowed for demographic and astronomical factors in predicting the expected distribution of Mars sectors for birth times in the general population,” said the biostatisticians Abell, Kurtz and Zellen in 1985.
The ‘errors’, deliberate or not were the primary criticism of Gauquelin’s work, and according to the men close to him he had accounted for these errors in his findings. These were men with no reason to lie, short of personal loyalty- and given that ten years elapsed between his shunning and this reappraisal of his findings it seems like a true statement.
Indeed, I personally find it more than plausible that the wider scientific community rejected Gauquelin’s findings on principle alone. Astrology has always been looked down upon, so any validity lent to it would betray the open-minded image that science had always adopted. It would have been, undeniably, a nightmare. People would have started planning pregnancies according to the stars, and that would be embarrassing for everyone.
Another defence that is commonly overlooked is that The Mars Effect wasn’t the only relevant statistical finding of L’influence des astres. It also found that many other professions had astrological factors, which flew in the face of other statistical analysis of astrology’s significance, which applied largely to another ‘soft’ science: Psychology.
In 1975, Paul Kantz published an article in his journal The Humanist criticizing Gauquelin. Naturally Michel didn’t take kindly to this, and he and his wife rose to the challenge and replicated the results of the original study; something nobody thought possible. This test was observed at every level, had a sizeable control group of “non-champions”, and was considered definitive proof that The Mars Effect specifically (as it was a study that focused on athletes due to the popularity of the initial findings) existed.
There were, however, events which transpired following what became known as The Zelen Test which obfuscated these findings: Elaborate post-test diversions were employed, including the ejection of a member of CSICOP, a man named Rawlins who had allegedly tried to fake elements of the test, casting doubt on the entire test’s legitimacy. Because of this spectacle, nothing like the Zelen test has ever been seriously attempted since.
Utterly bizarre, right? That the human race could have progressed due to a relevant finding which was shot down because it clashed with widely held beliefs? Sounds almost like science was, in its way, suppressing the truth as much as religions have done for centuries. Either way, there is reasonable doubt cast against the theory that Gauquelin was a liar. In fact, if anything it makes his findings- including The Mars Effect– appear more valid.
Guess astrology is at least partially valid. Huh.
Crash and burn.