The 80 Percent Rule

(excerpted from the revised and expanded edition of
Pronoia Is the Antidote for Paranoia)

Readers of my horoscope column "Free Will Astrology" are sometimes surprised when I say I only believe in astrology about 80 percent. "You're a quack?!" they cry. Not at all, I explain. I've been a passionate student of the ancient art for years. About the time my over-educated young brain was on the verge of desertification, crazy wisdom showed up in the guise of astrology, moistening my soul just in time to save it.

"But what about the other 20 percent?" they press on. "Are you saying your horoscopes are only partially true?"

I assure them that my doubt proves my love. By cultivating a tender, cheerful skepticism, I inoculate myself against the virus of fanaticism. This ensures that astrology will be a supple tool in my hands, an adaptable art form, and not a rigid, explain-it-all dogma that over-literalizes and distorts the mysteries it seeks to illuminate.


During the question-and-answer segment of one of my performances, an audience member got hostile. "Why do you diss science so much?" he complained. "Science is the source of a lot of pronoia, so I would think you'd love it."

My accuser obviously hadn't read much of my work. Otherwise he'd have gathered many clues that belied his theory. In my column, for instance, I often quote reverently from peer-reviewed scientific journals like Nature and Scientific American. And I regularly extol the virtues of the scientific method. "Some of my best friends are scientists," I teased the heckler.

The fact is, I critique science no more than I do all of the systems of thought I respect and use. I believe in science about 80 percent -- the same as I do in astrology, psychology, feminism, Qabala, Buddhism, left-wing political philosophy, and 23 others.

I do think science has the greatest need of loving skepticism, though. As the dominant ideology of our age, it has a magisterial reputation comparable to the infallibility accorded to the medieval Church. Its priestly promoters sell it as the ultimate arbiter of truth, as an approach to gathering and evaluating information that trumps all others.

Here's another problem: Though science is an elegant method of understanding the world, only a minority of its practitioners live up to its high standards. The field is dominated by men motivated as much by careerism and egotism as by a rigorous quest for excellence. This is common behavior in all spheres, of course, but it's a special problem for a creed that the intellectual elite promotes as the premier method for knowing the truth.

There's a further complication: Scientists are no less likely to harbor irrational biases and emotional fixations than the rest of us. They purport to do just the opposite, of course. But in fact they simply hide their unconscious motivations better, aided by the way the scientific establishment relentlessly promotes the myth that its practitioners are in pure service to objective truth. This discrepancy between the cover story and the actual state of things is, again, a universal tendency, not confined to science. But it's particularly toxic in a discipline that presents itself as the very embodiment of dispassionate investigation.

There are many scientists who, upon reading these words, might discharge a blast of emotionally charged, non-scientific derision in my direction. Like true believers everywhere, they can't accept half-hearted converts. If I won't buy their whole package, then I must be a superstitious, fuzzy-brained, New Age goofball.

To which I'd respond: I love the scientific approach to understanding the world. I aspire to appraise everything I experience with the relaxed yet eager curiosity and the skeptical yet open-minded lucidity characteristic of a true scientist.