I have a buddy I see occasionally at parties. Matt is a terrific guy, and generally great fun to talk to. There’s a problem, though: he’s into astrology. Massively. As in, frequent posts on Facebook like this: “Lots of intense energy right now. Feeling it?? There are FIVE PLANETS in Aries!” He speaks enthusiastically about the “implications” of upcoming lunar eclipses, and alerts his like-minded friends whenever celestial alignments will have huge impacts on all their lives.
I have very few buttons people can press that will elicit any sort of knee-jerk reaction. Actually, I only have one: Astrology. Whenever someone brings it up, I practically fall over laughing. “Wait, you actually believe this?” I want to screech at the hapless soothsayer. I never do, though — I just stay polite and look for the hors d’oeuvre tray. The subject strikes a nerve because my main avocation happens to be astronomy. You know, the actual science. I've made it a mission to preach the awesomeness of this lifelong enthusiasm to anyone who will listen. I drag my telescope out at Halloween for trick-or-treaters and camp out with it at public events, where lines for eyepiece views of Saturn and Jupiter routinely stretch 50 deep.
So when someone perverts — in my view — this mission with what I perceive to be boatloads of patent gibberish, it grates on me. “Nooo,” I feel like saying, “the solar eclipse I traveled all the way to Australia to see did not change my aura. It was a spectacular experience, but my aura is — wait, let me check, yep — totally unchanged. Thanks very much.”
As a result, when I bump into Matt, I go on full alert. I chat him up warily at first, waiting for him to mention some bit of astronomy news that he knows I’d follow so he could twist it to suit his own agenda of life-altering misinformation. But guess what? That never happens — he’s chill about it, and when he does mention something astronomy-related, it’s always in the context of science and my own potential interest. Even on Facebook, his posts are always directed only to those of his friends who are into astrology. He doesn't cram his interest down anybody’s throats. (Unlike, say, me ….)
But I know it’s there, and it colors my interactions with him. This is unfair, because it’s not his whole life — he’s as into art and cool books and movies as he is in the teachings of the Paramahansa Yogananda.
When I thought about it, I quickly realized that similar low-level intolerance crops up other places in my life, as well — though usually in weird, unpredictable places and not quite with the same eye-twitch-inducing intensity as the astrology thing. I cast my randomly judgmental glances upon everything from rabid sports superfans to dudes in jacked-up pickup trucks to trekkies.
So where do I get off being such a dismissive shit? “These are all part of the same thing,” says Mahzarin Banaji, Ph.D, the Richard Clarke Cabot Professor of Social Ethics at Harvard University and author of Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People. “Human beings are learning machines. They use one bit of information about a person’s belief in astrology, say, to predict other things about the person, like their competence or incompetence. Often such generalization lands us in the correct place, and often it leads to error.”
True, we use our low-level biases, annoyances, and perturbations with people to filter who we do and don’t want to associate with. It happens all the time in our lives. Banaji says that I’m perturbed by Matt’s interest in astrology — a relatively benign belief compared to many of the other actually destructive pseudosciences and anti-scientific “arguments” we keep hearing about these days—because wariness even at such a micro level is part of our self-preservation instinct. “We care about what people think and what they believe,” she explains. “And rightly so. What people believe tells us a lot about them. It predicts how they will behave, and how they will act towards us. The invisible thoughts in people’s heads are consequential for us. So yes, we pay a great deal of attention the even the nuances of people’s beliefs.”
While I don’t necessarily think astrologers will take over the world, I suppose deep down I do feel threatened that something I don’t consider to be legitimate science could influence the world I live in. After all, Nancy Reagan was heavily criticized for letting her astrologer’s advice impact President Reagan’s political schedule while in office. As for the logic behind my aversion to monster truck drivers and sports fanatics — well, would you want the country to be run by a bunch of boozy bubbas who spend their weekends installing lift kits beneath their F-150s and ironing their Ben Roethlisberger jerseys?
Okay, that’s stretching the point, and who am I to say what those folks are like, and what’s actually going on inside their heads? Besides, those monster-truck dudes are probably the ones who’ll lead us out of the darkness when the apocalypse gets here. And astrology, likewise, might have legitimacy that my ignorance and intolerance prevents me from seeing. Ultimately, the question for me right now is what I need to do about my friend Matt. Can we get along? Or more specifically, can I stop being such a nimrod about this? Banaji is very clear about my options: “You like your friend, but you hate his belief,” she says. “To resolve this conflict you must either give up your friendship or stop caring about the astrology part of him. Of course, you could also start believing in astrology — but I hope you don’t do that.”
So I need to confront my demon. I need to break bread with … the astrologer.
Matt and I meet up for lunch. My goal for this summit is simple: Find out what’s motivating this belief and see if it truly bothers me. I need to be open-minded, and, above all, not laugh at him.
Matt is of course well aware of my skepticism and is completely game for these peace talks. He arrives carrying a couple of books. He’s in his late thirties, single, smartly dressed, with curly brown hair and glasses. He has a degree in communications, works in the local library system by day and moonlights as a maître d’ in the evenings. We sit down, order drinks and appetizers, and I ambush him:
“So where’s this all coming from?” I demand to know.
He takes a sip of water. “It started in my early twenties,” he says patiently. “I was in a really bad place. Anxiety, depression — I just sat there listening to music constantly. Then one day I was in Barnes & Noble and I started reading this book about Zen Buddhism. The whole store just disappeared. I felt like I was coming home — everything in that book reflected how I think. It stabilized my mind and my emotions, and it helped me focus.”
He eventually migrated to Hinduism, which is where astrology entered the picture. The gist, according to Matt, is this: When you’re born, all the planets are aligned in such a way that’s completely unique to the moment — not just the day — that you arrive, and that, astrologers believe, predicts your life path. Knowing how you’re affected by these alignments allows you to make decisions and influence outcomes, whether it’s with your career, relationships, whatever. A good astrologer can draw up a chart outlining the blueprint for your life, which you can act on.
A blueprint for your whole life derived from the mere moment you were born? Not in my book. But the notion of planetary alignments influencing people is perhaps something I can get behind: Gravity affects everything in the universe. Maybe the rhythms of the solar system — its perpetual push and pull — actually do hold sway over our emotional lives on some deep, cellular level, and hardcore science just hasn’t come around to that yet.
“Take the planets,” he continues. “Planets rule you for a specific period of time.”
Not this guy, bub…
“Saturn has a reputation — it’s called a malefic, something evil,” Matt explains. “It’s big, it moves slowly. The idea is that it keeps you in a situation for a long time and makes you confront things, such as fear. You’re in Saturn for 17 years. Mercury is fast, and when Mercury is in your chart you learn things quickly, which can be either unpleasant or positive.”
He started to lose me again, but persisted — still very patiently — discussing the nuances of this system. It’s his map, really. We have souls that move from one life to the next, Matt says, and with the right information, you can improve your level of happiness. He says he’s as skeptical as the next guy, but people who he respects say things that make sense to him and make his life better.
“I want to be happy,” he says, shrugging his shoulders. “Astrology is just a tool for achieving that.”
Predictably, I start to feel like a bit of a tool myself. This is what Matt believes, and of course it doesn’t matter at all if I believe the same thing or not. Furthermore, his version is the developed and thoughtful variant, not hackneyed parody trotted out in most daily horoscopes. This makes my attitude all the more appalling. It’s the equivalent of dismissing entire religions, which just isn’t like me. I even suddenly feel like writing every pickup-truck driver, superfan, and trekkie I’ve ever snorted derisively at to apologize. If you’re happy, I’m happy.
So hey, I’m over it. Good for me and Matt. But evidently this sort of nuisance-level intolerance may be where we’re all headed — and the implications are significant. “Conscious racial and other discriminations are slowly fading,” Banaji says. “As modern, urban people move away from discriminating between ‘us and them’ along the usual dimensions of geography, religion, race, gender, sexuality, it’s the differences in what we believe that matter more and more. “
Call it an infinite loop of bigotry: Our low-level intolerances will expand to fill the space allotted for them. As a result, our focus on the details of peoples’ lives will generate still more prejudices. “If someone is biased against pickup-truck drivers, and if, for instance, a large group of pickup truck drivers are fundamentalist Christians, then prejudice against fundamentalists becomes sanctioned,” Banaji says. “From the brain’s point of view, it’s simply associative learning.”
Ominous stuff. Still, as Matt and I wrap up our lunch, I reload my pro-astronomy bias just long enough to invite him over after work to see maleficent ol’ Saturn through one of my telescopes. Have I converted? Not a chance — I just figure he’d appreciate it. People rarely get a close look at the planets first-hand, and it’s a truly special experience when you do.
He comes over after dark, we grab some beers, and I point the scope to the ringed planet. He takes a peek, and looks up. “Wow,” he says, a bit taken aback. He looks again, lingering longer. This is good — you have to give Saturn time. The Earth’s atmospheric turbulence makes the image swim, but if you focus long enough you’re rewarded with brilliant, often startling moments of crystalline clarity. Saturn becomes perfectly defined, with streaks of clouds on the surface and hairline divisions in the rings. It floats there as a real thing, not a picture in a book, or an idea.
We finish our drinks, and he heads home, but shoots me a note later: “Seeing Saturn was quite a moment, and it’s still sinking in. I feel I have a more definitive ‘face’ to it now. Sometimes I think about such a large body as a planet having power over me. But I don’t want to give that thought any more strength than I should. I want to see the other planets’ faces, as well.”
Of course, he totally ran with it precisely in the direction that would have irked me just a few days before. But good for him. As for me, well I’m a Capricorn — negative, suspicious, resentful, inhibited, pessimistic and obstinate, according to one reference.
Sounds just about right.
Eric Adams is a writer, editor, and photographer. He has contributed to Men’s Health, Popular Science, Gear Patrol, The New York Times, Wired, and many other publications. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @EricAdams321.