The recent discovery that there was a mistake in the Babylonian astrological calendar and that all the stars signs should now be adjusted accordingly has not gone down well with the astrological fraternity. In the blog comments that followed the News Feed article, there was a despairing: “My whole life has been founded on a lie!” There was also a photo of a large tattoo of a scorpion on someone’s back, with the person, possibly the owner, asking plaintively if anyone knew a way of turning it into a Virgo. Yet I get the feeling that since astrological beliefs are held at an emotional and mystical level that no amount of evidence would convince some of the believers to shift from a commitment which is held by some with religious fervour.

My own experiences as a science teacher tend to reinforce my feeling of helplessness in shifting opinion. As my year ten students seemed to consult the stars signs regularly I once, using an astrological textbook listed the characteristics of the star sign carriers on the board and asked the class to assign twelve class members for whom they could identify characters but did not already know their birthdays to the appropriate birthday grouping. The results were worse than chance. No-one however seemed inclined to forgo checking their stars each week as a result.

The Magician and arch-sceptic James Randi went one better. He went into a class of students and issued to each an astrology chart describing character, and the appropriate predictions. He then asked if each student had received the right chart. They all said yes, the charts were accurate. At that point he asked them to compare charts, whereupon they discovered they were all the same. People will believe what they want to believe.
A few years ago I had a hobby occupation of writing a fortnightly science column for a daily newspaper in Auckland New Zealand. In one end of year article I listed the predictions of the Auckland School of Astrology which had been made at the beginning of the year and showed quite simply that they all failed. Prince Charles and Diana had not in fact had their third child, World War three had not broken out in November and indeed none of the expected events showed the slightest signs of coming to fruition. For good measure I showed with examples that some famous people with radically different personalities and moral attitudes were born on the same day. I confess I failed to mention another unfortunate fact. One day I had been in at the newspaper office and happened to get chatting with the man who wrote the stars column. How I wanted to know, did he calculate what sort of week each star sign would face. “ Oh I just make them up!” he said airily. Well I could hardly print that particularly since the newspaper was paying me for the column.
I also heard from a Tamil friend that a Sikh newspaper owner in India, finding his newspaper was in financial difficulties dismissed the resident astrologer, and for the next twelve years, with absolutely no knowledge of astrology, wrote the detailed astrology column for the newspaper – to apparently the total satisfaction of the readers.
That does raise a question for me however. While there is no shortage of literature in which complicated predictions are firmly stated – yet nowhere thus far – have I been able to locate anyone who can tell me how they know what to predict and how they establish the success of the prediction. In 1988, astrologer John McCall, who claimed an 80 per cent success rate in guessing a subject’s star sign during an interview, had his claim tested at the University of Virginia. Mr McCall only scored 7 successes out of 28 subjects during the trial which is hardly dramatic proof of an 80% success rate.
As it happens in the aftermath of my newspaper column I had to deal with a number of upset astrologers. One was a woman who did marriage guidance counselling by astrology. She too claimed an 80% success rate. Having some familiarity with statistics I offered to check her figures but unfortunately she then said – Oh I don’t have any actual figures – but I do feel I have 80% success. She became distressingly vague when I asked her what she meant by success.
The first problem with the star signs is that they were established many years ago but the view from the Earth has since shifted accordingly. The solstice and equinox points in the sky have shifted westward approximately 30 degrees in the past 2000 years. This regrettably changes the the zodiac signs position. So the time you were born on a certain day 2000 years ago would place you under a different sign to the one you would be born under on the same day of the year today.
There are some other puzzles too. If for example we take a mass disaster which visits extreme misfortune on a whole group eg the Hiroshima Atom bomb explosion, while such an event should be expected to be significant enough to matter as a future event of significance, it seems extremely unlikely that all the victims thus incinerated shared the same time and date of birth. There is also the puzzle if the star signs were consistent over 2000 years, why would the position of the sun, moon, planets etc at the time of birth determine our personalities and future events of our lives? Since all radiation waves through the electromagnetic spectrum diminish in effect from the point of radiation according to the inverse square law it is hardly likely that distant stars are going to have more effect than our Sun – and gravity wise, the moon has a far greater pull on the earth than the distant planets, so if there is some other force doing the task, how come it has never been measured or even detected.

Those who profess to believe in astrology are presumably promoting some version of the philosophy of determinism or fatalism. While I can see a case could be made for saying that if we knew enough about an individual situation we might see that whatever choices and actions resulted, each action or choice must be the result of some combination of all the possible forces acting together. What I don’t see is how we can be certain that the only necessary information to determine what will happen is somehow distilled from what seems to me to be arcane and incomplete. I am also puzzled why if the astrologers really do know all about an individual why they insist on asking for your email address. Surely all they need is your time of birth!
If there is something I need to know to sort out these confusions, please share it.

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  1. I may not exactly be a mathematician, but isn’t a chance of guessing even a single sign by chance 8,3 periodical percent? You know, one in twelve? 25% percent success rate seems to me a tad above that. It may not be as dramatic as 80%, and it may still be on the edge of statistical error margin for the sample of this size, but well, it’s exactly on the upper edge. Shame they didn’t continue for at least 28 more.

  2. And since you are asking, and I am an astrologist who studied social science and its methodology thoroughly, and still believes astrology does overall work, well, you get what you asked for:


    Certainly not how people see the accuracy of their own descriptions. That is quite unreliable, at least on statistically relevant mass scales. Individual astrologists can find a few benchmark test subjects for their purposses that seem to be more aware and critical of themselves than most people. Not sufficient for replicable large study though (as in the case of most of the qualitative case studies in social sciences, however).

    Certainly not predicting objective events, because astrological claims are by they nature subjective, Any astrologist’s objective conjectures will be only as good as the astrologist’s judgment and reasoning are. And there are not many really bright astrologists, sadly. Most of those doing objective, easily testable (and falsifiable) predictions, are just plain kidding themselves.

    One way is by subjective evidence of and to the one’s own self, and I don’t mean the stupid religious “find out for yourself that Jesus really loves you” kind of nonsense. If you make sure you did everything to cleanse yourself from your own bias, you can observe nearly perfectly who you are, what really happens to you and how you react. You also need to learn how to evade statistical misconceptions. Then you can prove that a description of you or prediction for you is either correct or incorrect. However the weakness of this popular mystic proving method (best developed in zen-buddhism) is obvious – you cannot share the results with others, noone else can really see what you saw inside your mind. And you will either end up still wrong and/or right but ridiculed. Not great, but it is the usual mystical starting point for smarter people.

    Other than that, it has to be the same as in social science research – little precisely defined things looked for and compared through a large amount of people of all kinds, ideally with doing something with the same function placebo control group tests have every once in a while. But of course while not ignoring the misses. That is how one over time acquires real astrological experience, that shapes and evolves in time the understanding of how it works or can be done.

    But I imagine you need specifics, because what I just wrote seems too reasonable to be true. Here are some examples from my experience. They may seem anecdotal individually, but as a whole (without occurences that would cast doubt on them happening nearly as often), they seem to be pretty powerful indication for me that something is indeed up.

    – I do not guess signs when I’m asked, because it is misguided, sun sign is not the only influence and doesn’t have to be the strongest one or even visible at all. That is what I tell people, who ask me to do that. BUT, several times I guessed the sign immediately out loud instead of telling this excuse, when the person seemed absolutely typical. We’re talking five cases, when I actually tried to guess, I was succesful every time. In the best case, someone came to me during an international debate event, pretty critical crowd, and it was a smart kid. Turned out to be the best individual debater of all of the people there in the end. He came to me on his own, when it leaked that I do astrology. He said outright in a confrontational tone “Guess what sign I am.” From his expression it was clear, that he considers me to be a fraud, also absolutely sure, that he is so mysterious, that noone can see through him. Which is a dead giveaway, that he is a scorpio. As am I. He was so like me in attitude, that I said in a split second, without thinking any further, that he is a scorpio. And he was (quite shocked too). But that’s not the best part. A long time later, I got to read a book from Linda Goodman, really great astrologist. And there it was: if you want to impress a group with your astrological prowess, say that you do astrology. The first one to come up to you and challenge you by guessing his sign, without thinking you can possibly do that, will be a scorpio. You will quite shake him up. I swear I’m not making any of this up. But five is not a big enough sample, I know. I might be just incredibly lucky. Maybe. I also remember five other times when I almost said it. I was also correct in all those cases, but that cannot be corroborated, naturally.

    – I like the idea of associating mythical figures or characters from famous artworks to signs or planets (or planets in signs) as archetypes. When I got a book specifically about this, the best of its kind, I read which gods from all the bigger mythologies are supposed to match my planets in signs (I also looked at those that are not supposed to match me, I do that always for cross-reference, the control group thing). I was astounded – all of those related to my planets were my mythological favourites by far (minus those about three of ten who I didn’t even know before, those however immediately got on my favourite list). Those included king Arthur, Shiva the Destroyer and Khali-ma, Zeus and others. Of course, you might think that I was just affected by the book to select them as my favourites and retroactively reinvent my memories. But years before that, I was naming my computer game avatars Shiva or something from the Arthurian legends (while loving every Camelot movie, always identifying with Arthur), so for me, that was shockingly accurate. While I never cared about 95% of the mythical figures not assigned to my planets. Also spooky stuff happens to me all the time like saying to a girl that she has a smile like a Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland, only to find out, that she totally loves the Cheshire Cat and is a gemini, and to a girl in gemini, Linda Goodman in her book assignes guess which Alice in Wonderland character – yes, the Cheshire Cat, of course. As I’ve read way after I said that about the girl. Random hits do occur, sure, but this is so preposterously intricate, that it does shake up my suspension of disbelief in randomness.

    Wow, I didn’t intend for it to be this long, sorry… But it still only scratches the surface. As I said, it’s tons and tons of shockingly detailed and accurate little things, most of which are unfortunately personal and thus make sense only to me or the people involved, and so only these involved people can appreciate how much they prove.

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