Astrology and the Apathetic Academic

There’s been a slew of commentaries on the Government’s White Paper on Higher Education that was announced in the Queen’s Speech this week. I’m sure there will be plenty of time to chew over the fat of that, and I’ll write about it in the future. But, instead, this week I thought I’d muse on what I see as apathy across much of academia about the changes. Sure there has been a lot of tweeting about a two tier HE system (like we don’t already have at least two tiers?!) and a UCU work-to-rule. But while in many countries across the world academics are seen as an important societal foil to reactionary, unintelligent regimes, there’s only a whimper of discontent in many UK universities. There’s disgruntlement, but not action.

HE Queens speech

If the piecemeal dismantling of one of the country’s most successful sectors (both in terms of finance and reputation) is not enough to inspire, perhaps it is worth appealing to academics’ self-interest. Even the apathetic academic needs to make some decisions. Will the hours spent slaving away over that meta-analysis return to haunt you when the department decides a robust “restructuring exercise” is the measured response to a dismal TEF outcome? Is it wise to forego the research for a while to develop a new module or to flip your classroom? In such uncertain times academics need some sort of guide to work out what to do.

Coincidentally this week I read a couple of new articles on the psychology of astrology. Of course, we know there is no truth in astrology. But plenty of people still believe. It’s a topic that has been surprisingly neglected given its ubiquity. (Check “What’s the Harm in Astrology” for a few really staggering examples of the damage beliefs in astrology has done.)

Psychologists attribute astrology’s appeal to the Barnum or Forer effect: we read what we want to read into vague statements. It gives meaning to uncertainty and that reassures us. Psychologists love this kind of research – work that shows how bad we are at rational decision-making. Irrational, but good business. Around 20% of people in the UK read their horoscope every day. That’s about 13 million people (unlucky, or maybe lucky, for some).

But, also from a psychological perspective, astrology does something else: it absolves us of responsibility for our actions and from making decisions because everything is, after all, written in the stars. On the face of it, then, it’s the ideal decision-making heuristic for the apathetic academic in these uncertain times. And, really, are academics any less superstitious than anyone else? How many of us haven’t metaphorically crossed our fingers before submitting a manuscript, hoping reviewer C won’t be taking out a bad day on the typos?


Of course, astrology is folly. Sometimes its dangerous folly. Nancy Reagan used astrology to “guide” decisions made by her husband Ronald when he was US President for 8 years. A bad lunar opposition to a retrograde Mercury should have had the Soviet’s shifting missiles to high alert. Although sometimes it seems to be quite accurate. Alexander the Great is believed to have used astrology to plan his military campaigns. And they worked… kind of. Julius Caesar ignored an astrologer and look what happened to him. (Well, strictly it was a haruspex not an astrologer, but he was bang on with the dates).

Who’s to know that Jo Johnson isn’t developing the government’s Higher Education policy alongside a well-thumbed ephemeris? After all, it is prudent to check all possibilities before you make policy – typical Capricorn! Perhaps the stars allow us at least to anticipate his decisions, then we can make our own decisions based on that (and of course our own). Seems like a plan.

So what is the appropriate reaction from academics to the White Paper? For many, the answer seems to be to ignore it. The apathetic academic needs to attend to more urgent matters anyway.  And its undoubtedly helpful to have something to tell you what to do if, as an Pisces, you are destined to struggle to decide whether to tackle that pile of essays today or tomorrow, or whether Saturn’s impending conjunction with Venus makes it possible to wander off-piste with the generic marking criteria. In an uncertain world astrology gets you off the hook: it’s a way of avoiding engagement and action against those impending changes in the White Paper. At least for a while…