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.