“We’ve got something for everyone!” – P.T. Barnum
One of my best-friends will speak about things happening in her life – something fantastic, like landing a new network gig, or something not-so-great, like a bunion – and will tack on an epilogue that includes, “…I should have known, my horoscope was so right this month.”
Before you start thinking that this friend is a Nag Champa huffing woo-peddler, allow for me to tell you that she sat next to me at college graduation, talked me out of staying with my ex after things got violent, and has gotten into bar fights for me. She’s as down-to-earth on the surface as they come, with a streak of angry-crazy that every female friend should have, with the ability to cite great literature and pop culture in the same sentence. She’s been my companion at hospitals, funerals, and first dates, and I trust her implicitly. She also believes in astrology.
I like the idea of horoscopes. A paragraph-long cheat sheet for the day or the month, based on something fundamentally out of our control, with professionals able to gaze into the sky and predict whether it’s the right time to embark on a journey, sign a contract, stop using birth control…what’s not to love about a little interstellar guidance? I’ve always been intrigued by the occult, which is probably why I’m a tried-and-true skeptic. The universe is huge, and galaxies frighten me; my father can attest to the fact that he had to carry me, fireman-style, over his shoulder out of the theater when we went to see 2001: A Space Odyssey at the movies when I was a child.
I’ve never done well when reminded of my insignificance and space, with all of its dark blackness and pinpricks of gaseous light. The night sky is the most regular reminder that my little cellular mistake of a life means less than nothing. It seems almost sensible to believe that there are some predictive qualities to be gleaned from the great above. After all, horoscopes are published in newspapers, and have a rich history attached to ‘em, even if they’re just as closely linked to swindling as they are to space.
In 450 BC the twelve-sign zodiac was concocted by the Babylonians, and by the time the Greeks did battle with the Romans what we consider astrology today was already pretty solidified. Of course, leave it to a Pope to condemn it and make it taboo, by the 1600s it was considered verboten to partake in stellar divination as a Christian. That said, its efficacy was never really proven. I’m not even going to attempt to address the Chinese zodiac, or other pseudoscientific attributions of the heavens to destiny.
The zodiac of Western “sun sign” astrology is based on is a map of twelve zones, with each zone named after the constellation that originally fell within based on the time of one’s birth. Because of equinoxes and solstices, the precise points of the signs have moved roughly 30 degrees in the past 2,000 years, meaning that the traditional constellations of the zodiac don’t exactly correspond to the original star signs, and that there should probably be 13 signs, not 12. But who cares! Run the forecast in the papers! Mars opposes Jupiter during the Aries moon, all decisions are fortuitous according to Uranus!
Subjective validation, the Forer effect, and confirmation bias can all be considered the foundations of astrology, scientific reasoning isn’t even in the same area code. Philosophers including Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn have remarked on the idea as being a simple manifestation of cognitive bias, lukewarm generalizations, with a smattering of wishful thinking. Kuhn postulated that non-empirical beliefs of pseudoscience are what can strip astrology down to its glittery unicorn of falsehood, while Popper stated that, “it appeals to observation and experiment, nevertheless does not come up to scientific standards.” Meaning that its even devoid of the experimentation that most of these hogwash woo ideas disregard as biased means of poisoning the public. Astrology, as it is, hasn’t even really been able to be tested as bunk, mainly because of the selective thinking that can force nearly any occurrence into the cubbyhole of being caused by your sign and the position of the stars.
I’m not going to go through each sign (sorry, but if you’re interested, this seems like a decent resource, maybe you can pick up some snake oil to lube up for the Tooth Fairy through one of their click-through links…) but I will show you mine.
I was born August 7th, in a year that shall remain undisclosed. I share the same birthday as Mata Hari and David Duchovny, and the date of my birth is the approximate midpoint of the summer. This means I am a Leo, the fifth sign in astrology, measured from the 120-150th degree of the Tropical zodiac, celestial longitude between 125.25 and 152.75, respectively. The lion was chosen for the Nemean lion of Greek mythology, whose hide, like my sense of sarcasm, is impervious.
Let’s start with the most obvious. Some characteristics of Leos include “great judgement,” “strong leadership,” “knowledge of self-worth”…c’mon, keep the sweet talk coming! After all, who doesn’t want to be lauded with compliments from strangers?
Sadly, these are not true. I’m a recovering alcoholic massage therapist with an inbred chihuahua who is single at an age where everyone is having their second kids: good judgement is not the leading skill that I would put on my resume.
“Strong leader.” No. I am shy, incapable of confrontation, and did you see the part about my judgment? I will find the highest bridge to ask you to jump off of with me.
“Knows self-worth.” Sure. The way that fat kids know vegetables.
How about some other defining marks for those who share my sign? “Very generous and loving,” “intuitive,” “dynamic, with an inherent sense of right and wrong.”
Again, who doesn’t want to be called these things? Let’s look a little closer at a particular systematic deviation from rational thought: cognitive bias.
The cognitive bias of personal validation and inductive reasoning are the sort of thing nobody really wants to pick apart…that’s kind of their definition. Every human being wants to feel both that they are good and that they are right. Keeping things general allows for astrologers to say loads of stuff that a lot of easily duped people will read as, “Oh, wow, that’s really me!” mainly because they want to believe that they really possess whatever glowing and general character traits are described.
In 1948 a psychologist named Bertrand Forer performed an experiment on some of his psych students that demonstrated cognitive bias in a mock personality test that later became known as The Forer Effect. This is another example of what’s been labeled the Barnum Effect. (Yes, named after the circus Barnum, whose chicanery and bamboozlement is the stuff of well-documented legend.)
Forer administered a personality test to his pupils, but intentionally ignored their answers. He privately gave each student the same personality profile as a “result” of their tests, it read as follows:
You have a need for other people to like and admire you, and yet you tend to be critical of yourself. While you have some personality weaknesses you are generally able to compensate for them. You have considerable unused capacity that you have not turned to your advantage. Disciplined and self-controlled on the outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure on the inside. At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing. You prefer a certain amount of change and variety and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations. You also pride yourself as an independent thinker; and do not accept others’ statements without satisfactory proof. But you have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others. At times you are extroverted, affable, and sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, and reserved. Some of your aspirations tend to be rather unrealistic.
Forer then asked each student to evaluate their phony ‘profile’ on a scale of 0-5, with 5 being “excellent” and 4 being “good.” The average evaluation of the profile from the students was 4.26. This experiment has been replicated endlessly since the first run in 1948, and seems to conclude that most of us will accept ambiguous and broad descriptions of ourselves as unique to our individual character.
Using this as the basis of reasoning, one can assume that most descriptions of most astrology signs could be applied to just about anyone.
I’m having sex with someone whose sign is labeled as “penetrating,” which is quite possibly the only accurate assessment a star sign has ever given me. But other than universally applicable traits, what about the actual predictions? Can a horoscope’s efficacy be proven or disproven? To take a look, I searched Susan Miller, one of the more prominent astrologer’s out there, and the one that my best-friend leans so heavily on for unsolicited advice.
“The full moon lunar eclipse of April 4 brings some sort of shocking truth to the surface. Watch court actions, legal maneuvers, matters happening on foreign shores and at a distance, or news emanating from the media reporting on you.”
That was, what? The Friday-into-Saturday before Easter? The Islanders played the Sabres, but I don’t really remember anything else happening. I certainly didn’t go to court, or talk to anyone in a different country (even New Jersey) and “news emanating from the media reporting on you” sounds waaay too tinfoil hat for me to even concern myself with. “Breaking news! Girl pets her chihuahua! Tune in for our follow-up story, girl eats a yogurt in five minutes!”
Most horoscope devotees would dismiss this sort of whiff as the part of the prediction that doesn’t relate to them, while glomming onto the parts that can be applied. In my case, “The new moon April 18 will bring in lots of exciting opportunities” is about the closest thing that I can hope to being truth, as I can only assume it means the Islanders will win at home and maybe I’ll score a seat at that Playoff game.
Other than that, all of the noun defining articles probably apply to me, right? I’m no graduate of space camp.
Look, if you believe that the power to tell the future can be found simply by looking up at the same sky we share, more power to you. But with six billion people on this magnetic spinning orb, with three people arriving each and every second, don’t you think that there would be a large, large number of folks sharing the very same destiny based on their birth date and time?
And, if you think about it, gross generalizations about people’s characteristics based on arbitrary information sounds an awful lot like prejudice to me…