Sunday, October 08, 2006

Red stars and bad stars

A two days trip to Rome, touch-and-go lecturing, and then back to the UK, after a stopover in central Europe to talk to a couple of students. The usual life on the run. A high speed train cruising along the stretched out Italian peninsula flashes by castles and medieval towns in the Tuscan countryside, then across the corn fields and the industrial settlements of the tedious northern planes. The lady sitting in front of me commutes between Naples, where her family lives, and a small town near Turin where she works. She splits her lunch evenly and offers me a share. I am glad to see at least these habits have not changed since the time when I traveled these lands in earlier days. I will not refuse. In the face of both my Hindu and Jewish affinity, there I am eating a thick slice of bread with meat and cheese. Well, that's the story of my life. I do have principles to live by, but rigorously observant I never was able to be. Principles crumble in front of a random act of human kindness performed by a stranger on a train. Night in the airport in Milan, a flight three hours late. No dinner. Night in northern Germany. Nights of England one day later.

While in Rome, browsing some bookstore (it's been a long time since I last was in this part of the country) I happened upon a very strange book. It is called "Red stars" (Stelle Rosse) authored by Giorgio Galli, whom I don't know but I am told by some locals is a well known political commentator. The point of the book (my Italian is still good enough that I am sure I did not misunderstand it) is to blame the Italian Left and in particular the Italian Communist Party and its successors of having neglected if not actively suppressed astrology. Yes, you got me right, Astrology!

I am ready to accept that Communism can be blamed for many things (including the fall of the same), but of all accusations one can lay against it, that of "neglecting astrology" is the last one that would come to mind. I personally have very fond memories of the Italian Communist Party from the time I spent in the country in the mid eighties.

It seems to me that if there was anyone at all in that country who defended and valued science it was the people of the PCI. In those days I remember, if you wanted a good scientific book in Italy your only choice was to step into the nearest office of the Italy-USSR cultural association (there was one in every town) and get hold of some good Russian editions (international publisher MIR). That was the way to get research level books in mathematics and physics, a subject no bookstore (save for very few university bookstores) would sell. Unlike the role of "pseudoconcept" to which the Neoidelist philosphy of Croce and Gentile relegated it, science played the foremost crucial role in Marxist philosophy, hence the big divide in Italian culture: on the one hand the right wing ideology, stemming from a mixture of neo-idealism and religious conservatism, which exhibited indifference if not despise for science; on the other side the Communist thinkers who became the main promoters of science and secularism. Things are not as clear cut as with the years neo-idealism influenced left wing culture more than marxism ever impressed itself on the other side, so that overall the position of science in Italian culture appears to have been always extremely weak.

Defending and valuing science also implies, most importantly, being able to distinguish between science and pseudoscience, being able to understand that what does not stand a rigorous scrutiny, questioning and careful testing with the highest standards of intellectual integrity is not science but mere fraud.

Astrology failed repeatedly and without exception every conceivable kind of scientific testing. Astrology is bullshit, period. Come on, Italian readers, your have perhaps decided to get rid of the PCI and its culture, but don't throw away science just because they were the only ones who cared about it! A culture without science is simply a dead culture.

I have of course nothing against the studying of astrology as a cultural phenomenon. It can feed legions of anthropologists, ethnologists, psychologists and generate a wealth of PhD theses in various kinds of cultural studies. It is very interesting to study the role of astrological images in the iconography of both western and easter figurative art, its appearance in literature and poetry (Virgil lists the zodiac signs in two hexameters of the Enead), and so on. All this is fine if all along one keeps in mind clear the fact that astrology per se is pure nonsense. If we lose the capacity to make the distinction between science and nonsense we are ready to lose human civilization.