1. Sledge, George W. Jr. MD

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Recently our Hematology/Oncology group held its annual retreat at Asilomar. Asilomar is a California state park and conference center on the Pacific coast, and a delightful place to hold a meeting. We've been going there for a quarter century or so, and it is a great place for professionals to meet away from the hurly-burly of daily existence.

Figure. GEORGE W. SL... - Click to enlarge in new windowFigure. GEORGE W. SLEDGE JR., MD, is Professor of Medicine and Chief of the Division of Oncology at Stanford University.His

Faculty, fellows, and post-docs mix in a pleasant environment, learn from each other, and create new collaborations. We also take long walks on the beach watching the sun set over the Pacific, or we play golf at the nearby public links during our mandatory afternoon break.


We were not the only professional group there that week. Because everyone eats in a common dining hall, one gets to mingle with folks from other organizations. That weekend we were one of four groups, including the IRLSSG, the CCRH, and the OPA. If you are not up on your organizational acronyms, the CCRH is the California Coalition for Rural Housing. The IRLSSG is the International Restless Leg Syndrome Study Group, busy holding its Science Summit. "I certainly hope none of them is upstairs from me," said one of my colleagues. "Those guys will keep you awake with all that tapping."


The OPA, it turned out, is the Organization for Professional Astrology. They looked quite a bit different from the other groups. The women wore long, flamboyant scarves and multi-colored coats, and the men tended towards equally flamboyant facial hair. Our group was full of post-docs wearing blue jeans and T-shirts, and let me tell you, we looked pretty shabby by comparison.


I so wanted to crash their party. But duty prevailed, and I hung around with my Onco-homies instead, learning about circulating tumor DNA and novel organoid culture methods and oncogene addiction's effects on the immune system. All very interesting, of course, but nothing to match the astrologers' agenda for sheer pizzazz.


I found that agenda online at the OPA website (, in case you are interested). Day one was devoted to the theme of "Transition from the Cardinal Cross to the Mutable Cross." I do not have a clue what this means, but then I suspect they might find oncogene addiction's effects on the immune system equally mysterious. We are all fairly ignorant outside our specialties.


The breakout sessions were fascinating, and included "The Astrology of Twins," "Astrology and Kabbalah," "The Death Chart," and "Unaspected Planets." A planet is unaspected when it isn't connected to other planets by a major aspect (Conjunction, Square, Opposition, Trine, or Sextile, as my readers will immediately recognize). Astrologers really dig astronomy. They hug it like a lamprey hugs a sturgeon, sucking it dry of meaning.


The Astrology of Twins breakout forthrightly faced a problem area for astrologists. If you seriously believe (and I have not a clue whether most astrologers are frauds or merely seriously delusional) that the location of the planets at the moment of one's birth determines your fate-who you marry, your financial success, the date of your death-then identical twins pose a problem. They are born with the same star chart, yet demonstrably differ in terms of marital, financial, and actuarial success. They represent, one would think, a pretty telling prima facie argument against accepting astrology.


Astrologers have thought mightily about this problem. They have decided that it is not really a problem after all. First, the few minutes between one birth and the next is all you need, apparently, to affect your astrologic destiny. Plus, the astrologers say, our astrologic charts map potential, and I may choose to act out one part of my chart's potential while my feckless twin Fred (that scoundrel) acts out another part of the chart. They believe in free will of a sort. And that explains why Fred and I marry differently and die differently.


Karl Popper

If this all sounds like absolute nonsense, well, then, that's because it is. Karl Popper's definition of science comes to mind: real science doesn't prove, it falsifies. That is to say, it sets up crucial tests of a hypothesis, and if the tests fail you move on. Popper was skeptical of Freudian psychiatry for exactly this reason: it could explain everything. There was never any serious attempt at falsification. Astrology is Freudian psychiatry on speed.


Here's a Popperian falsification experiment, carried out in England and reported in 2003 in the Journal of Consciousness Studies (of whose existence I was previously unconscious-way too many scientific journals out there). Take 2000 Brits born in March of 1958, many within minutes of each other (so-called "time twins"). Follow them a long time, and measure over 100 characteristics, including "occupation, anxiety levels, marital status, aggressiveness, sociability, IQ levels, and ability in art, sports, mathematics, and reading."


The hypothesis would be that "time twins" should be more alike than those born further apart, under different star charts.


Surprise! No correlation. Absolute falsification. But you knew that already. The President of the Astrological Association of Great Britain, asked to comment, said the work should be treated with "extreme caution" and accused the authors of attempting to "discredit astrology." As if that was even possible.


The OPA had a session devoted to this issue as well, entitled "Predictive Astrology." I quote from the precis for this session: "Astrology is very good at predicting the types of experiences you will have in a lifetime but the actual events can be more difficult to pinpoint. In this workshop we will synthesize five major factors in determining experiences/events in a person's life. The five factors are the natal promise, secondary progressions, solar arc progressions, transits, and eclipses. It may seem confusing and complicated to put all of these factors together in a birth chart but in this workshop we will breakdown each factor and look at it individually and as part of the collective whole."


Well, OK, who doesn't want to know more about their natal promise, and who hasn't stayed up all night worrying about their solar arc progression? It gives me the heebie-jeebies whenever I think about it, but somehow I manage to cope.


I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall at another session. The conference organizers gave the same solar chart to four different astrologers, had them cast their charts independently, and then presented them. Howlingly entertaining, I suspect, but I was stuck learning about boring science-y stuff.


Johannes Kepler

Astrology once was science-y. Johannes Kepler, in addition to his great contributions to astronomy, was imperial mathematician for the Holy Roman Emperor, and made his salary composing star charts for the Emperor Rudolf II. What's more, he actually appears to have believed it. He wrote a friend: "Regard this as certain, Mars never crosses my path without involving me in disputes and putting me myself in a quarrelsome mood." I can relate: that happens to all of us. Here's a series of Jupiter-Saturn conjunctions from his De Stella Nova:


But science moved on, in part because Kepler and others were ultimately unable to reconcile astrology and astronomy. The astrologers, though, love to reference Kepler, and there is even a Kepler College, which supplies online education in pursuit of its "mission of offering the best astrological education available online."



It's easy to laugh about the OPA. It is so nonsensical, so farcical, so divorced from reality that one cannot think of OPA and Kepler College without breaking into a smile. But just as the OPA and the Stanford Heme-Onc Retreat coexisted peacefully at Asilomar, so do we coexist in the wider society. And not always so peacefully.


Each of those folks has the same number of votes as those of us who exist in the reality-based universe. In living memory, a President and his First Lady (the Reagans) invited an astrologer to the White House-and indeed kept her on a monthly retainer.


Who knows, maybe the astrologer gave the President better advice than the Secretary of State or the National Security Advisor. But still, it gives you pause. Donald Regan, the President's Chief of Staff, wrote in his memoirs that the astrologer chose the dates for summit meetings, presidential debates, and (here my oncology antennae perk up) the date for the President's 1985 cancer surgery.


The astrologer, Miss Joan Quigley of San Francisco, titled her memoir What Does Joan Say?-supposedly Ronald Reagan's habitual question to Nancy whenever the fate of the world was at stake.


That Americans are shamefully ignorant of modern science-and not just ignorant, but on occasion actively opposed to its teachings-is pretty obvious, and pretty scary. Scary, too, because scientists are now being viewed by parts of our political class as just another special interest group, to be ignored when our findings differ from the biases and interests of larger voting populations. I worry about the future of a country whose leaders glory in their ignorance.

Figure. No caption a... - Click to enlarge in new windowFigure. No caption available.

Anyways, enough griping by an old fuss-budget scientist and physician. Our meeting broke up on Friday, but the OPA hung around another day. Saturday night, according to their website, they had a celebration, with music, a raffle with "incredible" prizes (Astrology software, which I suspect made "incredible" factually correct), free readings, and "a trip to Neptune... and much more!"


Never been to Neptune, other than with NASA's New Horizons' interplanetary probe. The trip isn't in my division's budget. And "much more"-what was that? They did look like they knew how to party. Maybe I should have hung around.