Do Astrologers Wibble?
Let me be blunt: many people who read this are going to be offended. I don't mean to do that, but I have found that many, many people are very passionate about their beliefs (which is good) and get defensive about them (which is bad). When someone tells me I am wrong, it stings. There's no nice way to do that. In fact, I probably wouldn't be doing this except for a curious problem.
A number of my friends sneer at religion. "How can that person be so deluded?" "Why don't they acknowledge the beliefs of others?" "If there was a God, would we be experiencing suffering like this?"
Without even the slightest apparent sense of the irony involved, they ask me my sign. Many of these same people who are ready to rip a Christian a new one if he tries to proselytize have no qualms whatsoever about trying to convince me that astrology is real. Excuse me? If you believe God influences my fate, you can't talk about it; If you think the planets influence my fate, you can. What's up with that?
At least with many religions, there is a claim that good behavior in this life will affect our afterlife. That's not something we can independently verify so it falls into the realm of faith. Either you have it or you don't. Astrology, however, tends to make concrete claims about what sort of person you are, so we can check to see if these predictions are real. Why don't people do this? Anecdotal evidence is not evidence (hey, Bob said his horoscope told him to look for a job today and he found one!). Lightning strikes, but we don't make predictions based upon it.
Because I've had quite a number of people accuse me of having a closed mind because I don't believe astrology (again, many of them would be furious with a Christian using a similar argument), I've felt the need to write at length about this topic. I'm going to focus on "sun sign" astrology because that is what appears to be most prevalent in the US.
Astrology as generally practiced in the Western world has its roots in ancient Mesopotamia but is frequently attributed to the ancient Greeks due to Ptolemy of Alexandria writing the first known books on the subject, the Algamest and Tetrabiblios, in the second century CE.
Curiously, while the outer planets of Neptune, Uranus and Pluto were unknown at that time, one would imagine that their supposed influence upon behavior would show up as anomalies on astrological charts. However, astronomers discovered these planets, not astrologers, but astrologers still decided to include them in their predictions.
Belief in astrology died down (or was suppressed) during the Middle Ages, but arose again with the Renaissance. By the 19th century, astrology was flourishing in the US and today is widely accepted. Ignored during this time, though, were competing astrological systems. While many people I have encountered follow Western astrology, they often reject other forms of Western thought. They also reject, or are unaware, of other astrological systems. For example, little consideration is given to Chinese or Aztec astrology. Let us consider my Aztec Natal Horoscope. I had to guess as to my time of birth as I don't know it, but I am reasonably certain I was born before sunrise. I've not edited the text, except for adding some markup. Typos are the in the original.
Aztec Natal Horoscope for 20 Jun 1967
The day is 13 Cuetzpallin - Lizard
The sign of Cuetzpallin is the lizard, who symbolises water, fertility and the irresponsible behaviour which is encourage by sex.
The presiding deity is Huehuecoyotl, The Venerable Old Coyote, a back biter and trickster. Although he stood for mischief making, he was regarded as a likeable old god, and in this aspect he is also a god of gaiety and dancing.
People born on this day are of an irresponsible nature, prone to make fools of themselves, particularly over romantic encounters. They are also very crafty by nature, with a fertile imagination, but not the kind of person to trust too much with confidential information concerning personal matters. Their nature will assist them in securing success through business enterprises, however, and they are the sort to turn a bad situation into their favour.
The week is 1 Malinalli - Grass
The presiding deity is Mayahuel, the goddess of the intoxicating pulque drink obtained from the Maguey plant.
This is an unlucky time to be born. Children can look forward to a happy time during childhood, or even into early adulthood, but they will be overtaken by bad luck sooner or later. Many of these children will die in adolescence and those who do not would probably become drunken and quarrelsome.
You probably won't be surprised to hear me say that this bears as little relevance to my actual life as Western astrology (though I can see people saying "you are quarrelsome, just read what you wrote!"). On the other hand, at least it's not the Pollyanna pablum that I so frequently read in the papers.
Given that there are different forms of astrology that do not agree with one another, I can't help but wonder why so many people just uncritically believe that "their" astrology is right? What about the others which contradict them? Why are they wrong?
Bad Day to Take Risks
I don't want to use her real name, so I'll call her Alice. Several years ago, Alice was looking for work. She was sitting in my apartment mentioning that she had found an ad for a dream job. I asked if she had sent her resume in yet.
"I'm not going to."
Ovid scratches his head, puzzled. "Why not?"
"Because my horoscope told me that today was not a day to take risks," she replied.
Aack! What the hell? We're not even talking about some personalized horoscope that she had done for her. We're talking about a horoscope that she read in the paper. To be fair, many serious astrologers will admit that the horoscopes in the daily paper are useless, but we still have people believing these things have merit! While I personally don't care one way or another what another person believes so long as that belief doesn't affect me, I care very strongly about what I believe and if someone tells me that I should change my mind, I no problem digging in.
So digging in, here are my personal daily horoscopes, chosen from the first few results that http://www.google.com/ returned for the search "daily horoscope".
My horoscopes for Sunday, March 23, 2003:
It's hard to make plans when no one is committing. Someone thwarts your current angle of attack. Move on for now, and come back to this point when actual progress is possible again.
Be aware of any deception on the part of those you deal with. Children's needs could be more costly than you anticipated. You will find that joint ventures could easily turn out to be dead end projects.
You may reach a new level of understanding with a love tie today. You may also make plans to visit distant friends or relatives. Go to places you know well and relax. Keep your fingers crossed so you don't get into too much trouble tied up in knots.
Don't let your fickle side lead you astray today. Love is mounting. Choose wisely and enjoy your good fortune.
A trip by air could be very much on your mind today. Perhaps you are planning a vacation with your family or with a romantic partner. You could well be caught up in the excitement that seems to be the driving emotion today. Friends may offer advice, dear Gemini, but you're not in the space to accept it, as your self-confidence level is high. Expect to spend the evening in the congenial company of friends.
If all of the above is true, then clearly I'm going to be a busy boy today. However, someone reading through these more critically might notice common themes. There are references to travel, personal expectations, love, personal ambitions, etc. Why would so many touch on such similar topics?
A friend of mine, Bob", used to work as a professional psychic (though he doesn't believe in psychic phenomenon) and he let me peruse a copy of a book entitled "T.H.E. S.C.A.M.". This book can sometimes be found at magic shops and it covers a few of the basic areas that any psychic should touch on:
You might be inclined to ask "why"? Anyone familiar with Maslow's Heirachy of Needs is aware that humans tend to have certain basic needs in common. These needs fall into the realm of physical (air, food, water), safety (don't kill me, please), love (most feel the need to be accepted), esteem (hey, look what I can do!) and self-actualization (look what I am becoming). As we tend to have so many needs in common, it's not surprising that many of our concerns can be lumped into general categories, though not everyone responds the same way.
Bob learned that, when working a room, he would take a personal item from someone (their keys, for example), to give the other person something to focus on (and thus distract them). He would then ask their name. By using a method he had ready, he would use each person's name as a key to touch on the seven areas of THESCAM. Not everything will resonate with everyone, but as they were being distracted with the keys and gently probed, they would be more likely to give a "tell" whenever Bob would touch on an area of concern for them. Bob would then follow this up and generally did a good job of giving generic readings, though frequently people would respond to his health probing with exclamations like "Oh my god! Great Aunt Gertrude is sick!". They later walk away thinking that Bob had known about Getrude.
Mind you, I'm not disparaging psychics in general. Perhaps there are some people with unusual abilities out there that are not easy to explain or dismiss. I've seen some strange things in my time and I hardly claim to know the truth about this. However, this information is quite relevant to newspaper astrology.
Those columns typically touch on the seven areas of THESCAM. They are vague (they have to be when potentially millions of people have the same warning to not let their fickle side lead them astray) and frequently have no relation to what's going on in our life. When they touch directly on your problems, though, look out! Such things remind me of a study that I read regarding lunar influences. The study found no correlation between lunar phases and increased criminal activity, yet police officers who believed that there was a correlation had higher arrest rates during a full moon.
Why Should I Care?
You may be thinking, if astrology is meaningless to me, why should I even bother to write this? Why don't I just blow it off and not write something that may make many of my friends feel uncomfortable or challenged? Frankly, if something affects you, that's OK, it's your choice. When it affects me, then I think it's perfectly reasonable for me to inquire about it. I wasn't happy to hear that, due to what she read in a newspaper horoscope, Alice didn't apply for a job that she wanted, but that's her choice. However, astrology has intruded on my life on a number of occasions. Rather than belabor those, I'll discuss the most significant. It's not the only time that astrology has had an impact on my life, but rather than repeat several personal anecdotes, I'll stick with this one.
I was dating a woman that I'll call Charlotte. When we first started going out, we would sometimes get rather frisky. Though she was frequently the person initiating things, she always stopped, telling me that the time "wasn't right". That's perfectly fine and it's important to respect that, but I found it a bit strange that she had set a date for "the big moment". As the weeks went by, she was more and more excited about the big day. We were sleeping together constantly and she would talk about how wonderful our first time was going to be. When the day finally came, she had rented a beach house, planned a picnic dinner and we drove to the beach.
And nothing happened. I felt so much pressure about this entire situation that she had controlled down to the last detail that when the appointed hour arrived, I said 'no'. Now I was the one who wasn't ready. Sex, for me, isn't something to carefully script and plan. I was beginning to feel like I was being called upon to perform, and I didn't feel comfortable. She later told me what was really going on: the stars weren't right. She had two previous relationships end when the certain astrological events had occurred at the beginning of the relationship and I was the third relationship for which this was true. As a result, she wanted to delay sex until the signs had passed.
In short, these beliefs have impacted my life, so I want to know what the hell is going on. I keep hearing people telling me that astrology (their particular brand, of course) is true, but how can I know this?
On one hand, we can just have "faith". Well, I just "believe" astrology. Is this reasonable? I think "faith" in God is fine, but what about faith in the boiling point of water? What is the boiling point? Is it 212 degrees? I can measure a pot of boiling water and discover that the boiling point is considerably lower. Oops! Turns out I was measuring in Celcius. If I'm in the Andes, I might find out that the boiling point is even lower than 100 degrees Celcius -- that's because the boiling point is dependant on the atmospheric pressure at which the water is boiled. It also depends upon whether or not we're talking about pure water.
Well, so what? I heat the water, I cook my macaroni and nobody gives a damn.
I give a damn if I'm a chemist. In that case, knowing exactly how to determine the boiling point of water means the difference between cooking macaroni and having the career I want to pursue.
With astrology, it's a similar thing. The particulars of astrology don't mean much to most people, but if you're going to make decisions about your life (or mine, damn it!) based upon astrology, then you had better get those particulars right. But how can you know if you're getting it right? The obvious method is to take a look at the predictions and see if they come true.
If you tell me that wibbling my frobonitz will cause me to become rich and I start wibbling, I might expect to become rich. What if I don't? Then I have to ask some questions. How soon will I become rich? How did you define "rich". Am I wibbling it right? Do I know what a frobonitz is? What if I convince 100 people to start wibbling away and none of them become rich? I might reasonably conclude that wibbling one's frobonitz does not, in fact, lead one to become rich.
So, let's take a look at some studies.
Many of us have heard that there are three types of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics. The study of statistics actually involves very simple math, but it's a subject that bores most people, so I'll keep it simple. Suffice it to say that many are happy to quote statistics without question, so long as those statistics back up their personal viewpoint. To be quite honest, I have a habit of doing this because if something seems to be "common sense", I'm less critical of it.
Let's consider a study that uses "statistics" to demonstrate that properly prepared natal charts are accurate representations of people's personality. The study in question has the impressive title of Self Selection of Astrologically Derived Personality Descriptions: An Empirical Test of the Relationship Between Astrology and Psychology."
Wow! It's an empirical test! It must be good. In fact, here are its conclusions:
All six of the subjects tested selected the profile that matched their individual astrological factors, rejecting the two that matched the other members of three-subject set. However, one of these subjects was disqualified because it was discovered her birth information was incorrect.
The 100 percent correct profile selected by all five qualified subjects contrasts with the 33-1/3 percent that would expected by chance. The binomial probability that all five subjects would by chance select the correct profile is .004.
Update: The probability is .4 percent, not .004 percent. Whoops! That should make the result even less impressive.
With only a .4 percent chance that these results would occur by chance, they look pretty impressive. However, ignoring some of the other issues that I have with how the study was conducted, I just want to take a moment to see how they arrived at this number.
First, the binomial probability of a given outcome is determined by the following formula:
|P(k out of N) =||
For a given event, 'X':
- N is the number of times that X can occur.
- k is the number of times that X is purported to occur.
- p is the probability that X will occur for a given attempt.
- q is the probability that X will not occur for a given attempt.
Plugging in the number, we discover that the binomial probability is ~ .4%, exactly what was stated. However, we have a problem. We had six events, with one tossed for inaccurate information regarding the time of birth, which reduces N to 5. That seems like an awfully low number.
It is an awfully low number. Any statistician who looks at this result is going to shake his or her head in dismay that people would attach significance to it. In order for a binomial probability to have meaning, you have to ensure that the binomial distribution is normal in shape. Otherwise, the results don't have much meaning. Basically this means that the following must hold true:
- pN > 10
- qN > 10
In this study, pN is only ~ 1.67 and qN is only ~ 3.33. Those numbers are a far cry from 10. To achieve normal distribution, you would have to have six times the number of participants. Even if this was done, you'd have to look at how the study was conducted. Why were only females chosen? Why were they chosen from a particular age range? Even if the astrologers were blind in this study (as the article indicates), how were the tests administered and were those administering the tests blind? Once we have this information, how do we correct for it?
A great example of the idiocy of statistics occurred during the Presidential election of 2000. Much ado was made over the "fact" that it was statistically unlikely that Buchanan picked up the number of votes that he did in certain Palm Beach counties. I wrote a quick program to test these results and found that, in reality, Gore's votes were greater than two standard deviations away from the mean. As there is less than a two percent chance for this to occur, one might conclude that somehow Gore supporters had rigged the voting.
Of course, that's poppycock. It doesn't take into account the demographics of the areas, the voting methods used or the methods to tally the votes. Most people are simply incapable of judging this information accurately. Statistics are important, but you have to be able to understand them.
To be able to judge whether a particular claim has merit, it must have replicable results. In other words, as astrology tends to make claims about the sort of personality people have based upon when they were born, we can assess if this is true. However, it's not easy to do. Participants and researchers in the study must be "blind". That means, for example, that if researchers are administering placebos and experimental medication to people, neither the researchers nor the participants can know who is getting the placebo and who is getting the experimental medication. Many studies have later turned out to be flawed because of foreknowledge leading to unconscious bias in analyzing results. A researcher administering a personality test might furrow his brow if someone makes an incorrect answer. Perhaps no one even picks up on this at them time, but subconscious cues like this can still give the game away.
One double-blind study published in the December 5, 1985 issue of Nature magazine had an interesting approach to the practice of astrology. Quite frequently, when a study of astrology contradicts astrologer's claims, the astrologers assert that the researchers don't understand astrology well enough to conduct a proper study. To deal with this objection, 30 American and European astrologers who were well-respected by their peers were invited to help develop the methodology. After they agreed with how the study would be conducted and subsequently participated, the results showed that their predictions were no greater than random chance. Shawn Carlson, the researcher behind the study later reported that the American Federation of Astrologers published much criticism of the study in their newsletter. Unfortunately, the criticism was largely lacking in basic understanding of how the study worked and consisted primarily of ad hominem attacks.
Mind you, one study hardly makes a case against astrology, but it's hardly the case that there is only one study. I would be inclined to start listing them here and going through what they do, but the problem is pretty basic: nobody cares. It's like the Christian dogma of "God said it, I believe, and that settles it." They see what they want to believe. If it's for entertainment purposes only, I can see that, but don't follow it up with "I don't get along with Pisces".
I'll finish this with a study performed by C. R. Snyder of the University of Kansas. He and his fellow researchers took descriptions of personality characteristics that most people believed they possessed and a personality profile was drawn up based upon these descriptions and shown to three groups of people who were asked to rate, on a scale of 1 to 5 (with 5 being highest), how accurately the profile described them.
The first group was told that the profile was a universal personality profile and the average rating was 3.2. The second group was asked for the month they were born and told that the profile was a horoscope for their sign. The rating rose to 3.76. The last group was asked for the day they were born and told that the profile was their personal horoscope. The average rating for that group jumped to a whopping 4.38.
People, for whatever reason, want to believe. Personally, I don't understand this. The world is so absolutely fascinating and wonderful that I find plenty of amazing things to believe without needing to resort such things as astrology. Sometimes, I even find out that the things that I believe are wrong. That's okay. When that happens, it's time for me to admit it and move on.
This is going to be read as an attack on astrology and, perhaps, on those who practice astrology. It should not be read as such. I've hardly cited enough evidence to disprove astrology. I've done a lot of reading on this subject and I've arrived at my own conclusions. While it would be nice if others would do the same research, I don't think they will. That's fine.
I don't mind discussing this topic with anyone, but I do not want people accusing me of being close-minded about the topic. I researched it, I considered it and I found that the evidence is not there. In fact, because astrology makes predictions that it does not appear to live up to, I am pretty confident that it's simply not true.
Frankly, I don't think I should have to defend my lack of belief in this matter, but I'm tired of the withering comments I have received from people who are upset that I might want to actually think about this topic. I'm not the one making the fantastic claim here. If someone wants to convince me that a giant ball of gas hanging in outer space has some effect on my dating life, they're the one's on whom the burden of proof falls. If they want to prove it to me, then they should offer some evidence. I don't want to hear anecdotal evidence ("well, it works for me!"). That means it works for you and has no bearing on me. I want to hear about reproducible results. Astrologers claim their predictions are accurate; they had better not get upset when I lift the curtain and looks behind the scenes.