If you’re following sites like this one, you’ve no doubt heard of the shock court ruling in India a week ago that astrology is an ancient and respected system which follows strict rules based on observation, and therefore is to be treated as a science. As you read the story, you find the horrifying statement that scientists will just have to accept that “astrologers are officially their colleagues”. It was the end of the world, the anti-scientists were winning and we might as well just throw away civilisation and go back to burning each other at the stake.
Problem is that it’s all a load of hooey. Like another recent incident, one newspaper printed a story with a tenuous relation to the facts, presumably on a slow news day, with all the right scary buzzwords to get the maximum attention. Other papers picked up the story and reprinted it, and thousands of professional skeptics fell from grace as they swallowed the story with nary a skeptical thought entering their heads. “Oh No, the sky is falling” they thundered as they hammered out angry diatribes about the triumph of superstition without once checking their facts or questioning the reliability of the original source. It seems that calling yourself a skeptic is no guarantee of actual critical thinking. Or investigative ability.
So what was the real story? According to The Register, the actual ruling of the Bombay High Court was merely that the Drugs and Magical Remedies Act of 1954 doesn’t apply to astrologers. Which makes perfect sense, since the astrology has nothing to do with the dispensing or formulation of drugs, medicines, potions, etc. At one point in the proceedings, one Dr Ramakrishna (a government deputy drug controller) apparently stated in an affidavit that “The Act does not cover astrology and related sciences. Astrology is a trusted science and is being practised for over 4000 years.”
That’s it. A bureaucrat stated something that should not have surprised anybody – astrology is ancient, and people trust it. His conclusions were false, but they were his and not the courts.
So what’s the lesson? The forces of ignorance are not out there, where the stupid people live. They’re right here in our own brains – We all fell for the story since it was something we wanted to believe. It reinforced our own prejudices about backwards ignorant people in far-off countries. And every time one of us got sucked in and added to the despairing chorus, we just threw more and more weight behind the story. We made the world a little bit more dumb. Let’s not do that again.
With thanks to The Register for being (as far as I’ve seen) the only News source to bother checking their facts, and inspiring this article.