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The Gauquelin Controversy

January 9, 2011

By John Anthony West (As summarized by Maria Mateus from The Case For Astrology)   

The Character Traits Studies

In the 1970s, Gauquelin then ran character trait analyses studies which grouped the 4 previously studied professions according to personality traits – collected from the biographical data – which comprised a profile for each profession. The results correlated the profiles with the same planets in the same sectors. The atypical profiles also correlated negatively with the significant sectors. In 1980, this study was replicated in America, yielding identically positive results.
Gauquelin vs. The Belgian Para Committee (1965)

Five years after having addressed the Belgian Committee’s ridiculous demographic objection to his original profession studies and subsequently being ignored by them, Gauquelin again proposed replications of his Mars effect on sports champions study by both he and the Committee. The procedural details were agreed upon and each side conducted their own tests, The results for both sides exactly matched the findings of Gauquelin’s original experiments. The Committee refrained from publishing their findings until Gauquelin decided to publish his own. Although they could not identify any problems with the methodology they had agreed to, the Committee nonetheless explained away the results as a product of a demographic error which they did not identify or show evidence for.

The Gauquelin controversy reached the U.S. in 1975 when a manifesto attacking astrology and signed by 186 eminent scientists appeared in The Humanist magazine. Gauquelin found his work ignorantly attacked and was forced to defend it through his own reply to the scientific publication. A professor of statistical science at Harvard and member of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP hereafter) by the name of Marvin Zelen got involved in the debate and proposed his own study to test the “demographic error” argued by the Belgian Committee. The Zelen test, as it became known, examined the charts of average individuals born on the same day and general location as the Mars sports champions in the Gauquelin study. The idea was that if the effect was due to demographics and not the planets, the same effect would show up with ordinary citizens. The results not only vindicated Gauquelin, but also served to demolish the demographics argument once and for all. Not wanting to publish findings supportive of astrological effects, CSICOP changed the rules and re-spun the study of non-champions into a re-examination of the Mars effect on sports champions. Knowing that the group of 303 would show an effect, the test group was broken down into smaller sub-samples so as to water down the effect into meaninglessness. Even so, the KZA (Kurtz, Zelen, Abel*) report could not hide the smell of nonscientific conduct.

The American Replication (1979-80)

Knowing how badly the Zelen test made them look, the KZA report concluded that an American replication with someone other than Gauquelin collecting the data was needed, Gauquelin happily accepted and provided CSICOP the exact procedures he had followed in his Mars Effect studies. These stipulations required that the sample only include eminent sports champions since the effect was not present in non-eminent professionals. Paul Kurtz (Chairman of CSICOP) collected the data and astronomer Dennis Rawlins conducted the statistical analysis. As Kurtz sent Rawlins the data (and unsolicited cash) he asked Rawlins to give him confidential periodic advanced looks at the results. As the batches of names came in, the sample for percentages for Mars in the key sectors kept mysteriously declining. What was initially an expected effect of 22% for the first batch of names, incrementally dropped not only to the 16% expected by chance, but it ended at 13% (below what chance would indicate p=.02) with the submission of 82 late inclusions that Kurtz had “accidentally forgotten” to send. Naturally, the doctored findings published in the Skeptical Enquirer did not confirm Gauquelin’s work
Dennis Rawlins and sTARBABY (1981)

We would have been none the wiser to the behind-the-scenes shenanigans exhibited by CSICOP and might have found the American findings of both the Zelen test and the Mars replication perfectly legitimate were it not for the excommunication of one of their involved members, Dennis Rawlins. The acrimony between Rawlins and CSICOP began with the Zelen test and continued through the replication study even while he himself was conducting the statistics. Rawlins’ own account of the events that transpired during the Gauquelin investigations provides testimonial evidence that KZA knew they were in trouble and not only deliberately butchered the Zelen test, but doctored the data in the replication study as well.

The Aftermath

Gauquelin challenged the study in a series of voluminous correspondence that was selectively published and edited in the Skeptical Inquirer. Rawlins was not permitted by the magazine to voice his dissent (hence, the sTARBABY publication in the 1981 issue of Fate magazine). Subsequent objective investigations by historian Patrick Curry concluded that the U.S. study was not a legitimate replication of the Gauquelin study, which prompted Gauquelin to propose a new European replication with written down rules and an airtight verification treaty. When he did not get a reply, Gauquelin carried out the study himself with the usual expected results he and others had obtained countless times before. Suddenly CSCOP came alive only to attack the methodology after the fact. In “A Reappraisal” published in the Skeptical Inquirer, KZA admits to varying degrees of carelessness in handling of the U.S. studies and in neglecting to mention that the Zelen test actually confirmed the chance level calculations in the non-professional samples, but evade Rawlings’ published charges of academic dishonesty and fraud.

The Ertel Report

While CSICOP was still insisting that there was some as yet undetected bias in Gauquelin’s selection criteria for the Mars samples, they did nothing to try to detect it. Instead, an unaffiliated psychology professor from Gottingen University by the name of Suitbert Ertel set about establishing a more rigorous and consistent way of defining eminence, hoping in the process that this might be the flaw that accounted for the extraordinary correlations. Thus, when the athletes were separated out into groups with varying degrees of eminence, Ertel found that the results precisely indicated what Gauquelin himself had found – that the more eminent the athlete the stronger the effect.

Furthermore, when Ertel corrected for Gauquelin’s inconsistencies in methodology from one study to the next, the Mars effect was enhanced, not diminished. Ertel’s study not only put to rest the notion that there was a selection bias – either unconscious or deliberate – in Gauquelin’s methodology, it also vindicated his findings. The Skeptical Inquirer refused to publish Ertel’s report claiming that the language was too technical, despite the fact that it boasts among its readership some of the most brilliant scientists and academics. The work was published instead in The Journal for Scientific Exploration.


* George Abel was a Professor of Astronomy at UCLA and an early warrior in CSICOP’s war on astrology.

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About the author

With Jan Gerhard Toonder, historian John Anthony West authored The Case for Astrology, a definitive history of astrology from ancient times to the modern era. He also has written books and documentaries on ancient Egypt, including the Serpent in the Sky and The Travelers’ Key to Ancient Egypt.

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