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Romancing ‘Failed Sciences’

In 1665, among the many residents of England’s plague-ridden cities who fled to the less-contagious countryside were two men of science, one escaping from Cambridge and the other from London. The former, the young Isaac Newton, we know and revere. The latter, the elderly William Lilly, we do not. Some 30 years earlier, Lilly had secured a six-week apprenticeship with a dissolute practitioner of the “black arts,” and soon after became England’s leading astrologer. He achieved prominence with a well-timed prediction of the Roundhead victory over King Charles I in the English Civil War, and made a profitable living composing star charts for flustered ladies who suspected their cuckolding husbands and for doting gentry who could not locate misplaced keys.

This is not exactly the stuff of the “Principia Mathematica.” Yet when, in his recent book, “The Secrets of the Vaulted Sky: Astrology and the Art of Prediction” (Harcourt), David Berlinski imagines the scene of the two men making their way along the muddy country roads, he seems torn over whose company he would prefer. If tempted to follow deferentially behind Newton, he is tempted as well to link arms with Lilly, and chat amicably about the stuff of life with a man who knew something of it. It’s a curious sort of ambivalence from a former mathematics professor who has written a best-selling history of calculus, and it’s this ambivalence that lies at the heart of — depending on whom you ask — Berlinski’s uninformed scientific posturing or his courageous iconoclasm.

In 1964, Berlinski entered a graduate program in philosophy at Princeton and after a few years, accepted a position at Stanford. But he was restless with the West Coast academic life and, turning down a tenure offer, moved to New York. He taught math, philosophy and biology at several eastern universities; he spent some time in Paris; he tried his hand at writing fiction (publishing several mystery novels featuring a politically incorrect San Francisco private investigator). And then he finally settled on his calling: elucidating complex mathematical and scientific issues and their cultural and philosophical implications in robust, waggish prose.

In a sense, it’s an avocation that makes the most of his familiarity with, but distance from, the world of academic science. It is likely this sense of an outsider’s status that encouraged him to examine the history of a “failed science,” as he terms astrology. In fact, “The Secrets of the Vaulted Sky” is very much a declension narrative, charting a tradition that began with the proud Babylonian stargazers, peaked with scientific luminaries such as astronomer Johannes Kepler, and then petered out rather pathetically in the sycophantic diviners who surrounded Adolf Hitler and in the scribblers who composed horoscopes for the London tabloids.

But if Berlinski approaches astrology as a failed science, he also insists upon the contingency of that failure. For much of human history, he reminds the reader, astronomy and astrology marched arm in arm, and it is only within the last few centuries that the latter has been banished from the mansion of the respectable sciences. He is therefore especially interested in the affinities and convergences between the two. Most importantly, both astronomy and astrology recognized that the heavens and the earth constituted a single unit, and each searched for laws that would explain their relationship. Each struggled to explain “action at a distance,” and while astronomers sought answers in intermediary forces — stellar rays in the ninth century, gravity in the 17th — astrologers vacillated between understanding the stars as signs, the twinkling characters of a divine script or as causal factors in the natural world, with their own distinct powers based on their placement in the heavens.

Berlinski also points out that for much of history, astrology — perhaps even more than astronomy — capably provided answers to man’s most pressing questions, unhesitatingly confronting the mysteries of human existence: Why is there war, famine, plague? Why do some fall in love? And where are those keys? Berlinski relishes pointing out that for all the quackery and lack of precision involved, astrologers often had the uncanny ability to guess right. It is only with the advent of Newtonian physics, with its startling predictive power, that astrology’s limitations became clear. Yet Berlinski cannot help but note that Newton did not banish superstition and mystery from scientific life — Berlinski considers the idea of “force” ultimately a type of magic — yet merely placed this magical thinking “under the control of powerful intellectual constraints.” Indeed, writes Berlinski, “the fact remains that the system of intellectual impulses that made astrology possible have by no means perished; and having for so long sustained the astrologers, these impulses are now sustaining others.”

For instance, he suggests, take today’s sociobiologists. Berlinski first earned public notoriety for taking on what he calls “the Darwinian establishment.” “He seems to relish the position of being an iconoclast,” explained Brown University biologist Kenneth Miller, a frequent critic of Berlinski. “He looks around for icons to break, and Darwin’s as good a one as any.” The opening salvo in this assault was a 1996 article in Commentary magazine, “The Deniable Darwin,” in which Berlinski posited that modern evolutionary theory relied on a series of inferential leaps, inconclusive experimentation and scientific “just-so stories.” Berlinski alleged that the clubbish scientific community refused to acknowledge these deficiencies, a failing that in a more recent article he termed “a scientific scandal.” He seemed especially resistant to evolutionary theory’s reliance on random mutation to provide the material upon which natural selection works. The complexity of natural life could not have emerged from a process based on “sheer dumb luck,” he insisted. As an alternative, he came close to endorsing Intelligent Design, a theory that works backward from that complexity to posit the existence of a deliberate, if undefined, designer. “An act of intelligence is required to bring even a thimble into being; why should the artifacts of life be different?” he wrote.

Berlinski’s article provoked a firestorm of criticism. Commentary devoted a 35-page special section in a later issue to the responses. He had plenty of defenders, who applauded his courage and clarity, but the majority of the letters were from his detractors who, with varying degrees of patience and contempt, all seemed to agree that his presentation of the scientific evidence was shoddy at best, deceitful at worst. Several prominent biologists argued that

Berlinksi seemed to be trotting out stale arguments first presented by “young-earthers” decades ago — practically the Paleolithic era in evolutionary research — which had been repeatedly and exhaustively refuted in scores of scientific journals. They dismissed Berlinski as a “Luddite,” likened him to a “flat-earther,” a “goat-entrails reader,” and labeled him a creationist.

“Goat-entrails reader” no doubt stung, but it was the creationist charge that has been the most difficult for Berlinski to shake. In part, this is because for the last several years he has been a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based think tank that has been the leading proponent of Intelligent Design theory, and which has received considerable funding from advocates of creationism. Yet in his writing on the subject since that first Commentary piece, he has explicitly and unequivocally denied the accusation. Although many of his allies in the effort to discredit contemporary evolutionary theory are motivated by a desire to counter what they perceive as the excesses of a devoutly secular culture, Berlinksi claims that he has “no religious principles besides to have a good time.” In fact, in a recent article in Commentary, “Has Darwin Met His Match?” Berlinski backpedaled from his advocacy of Intelligent Design, pointing out the fallacy of extrapolating from complex human artifacts to complex biological structures. But instead of edging toward the evolutionist camp, as the title’s double meaning implies he simply assigns both Darwinism and Design the same tragic flaw: a reliance on a “fantastic extrapolation.”

Nor is Berlinski willing to repudiate creationism as an intellectual position. “The distinction between scientific doctrine and creationism seems entirely spurious,” he insisted in the article, seeming to gloss over the divergent attitudes toward revealed and discovered knowledge within the two camps. As he wrote in an email to the Forward, “The great virtue of creationism, whatever its defects, is that it reduces the number of mysteries in biology (or physics, for that matter), substituting one central mystery for the innumerable mysteries we now face.”

But does Berlinksi really want to rid the world of mystery? After all, in “Has Darwin Met His Match?” he admits the “fruitlessness” of attempting to explain what he calls the “ineffable inimitable” with the tools of physical science. And he appears to admire the ancient astrologers less for banishing mystery than for integrating it into daily life. In his own writing, he seems to call for both more science and less science; he is a ceaseless asker of questions who does not want them all answered, and does not think they could be, anyway. This is Berlinski’s peculiar combination of rationalism and mysticism, and it helps to explain his nostalgia for a time when the two forces were more easily reconciled in the charts of the stargazer.

Berlinski rejects the idea that he must pitch his tent either with the evolutionists or creationists, preferring to march alone under the banner of what he calls “intellectual dissatisfaction.” It’s an interesting catchword, suggesting at once a general skepticism toward tightly guarded orthodoxies and a recognition of the limits of the intellect itself. Yet might it not also intimate Berlinski’s own restlessness with his professional status? Berlinski acknowledges that the views he has espoused have earned him countless enemies, without earning him a stable salary. And looking back on the development of his career — which, ironically enough, he describes as involving “a lot of happenstance” and “chance,” the unsatisfying language of evolutionary biology — he admits he sometimes wonders about the academic road not taken.

And so the romance of the failed science is a personal one for Berlinski, the affinity for William Lilly and the ill-fated, forgotten astrologers real. “For the most part, the astrologers were not academics,” Berlinski explained. “They were giving aid and comfort to people who were suffering. They knew deep down how frail the instruments were at their disposal, but they wanted to help, they used what they had, and they did their best.”


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