If you asked your friends whether they believe in astrology, they may say: “Well, we know of at least two heavenly bodies that do affect us (no silly cracks about Brad Pitt please!) - the moon, which causes the tides, and the sun, since without it we would all soon die; so perhaps the idea is not as far-fetched as it seems.” According to a survey a few years ago almost a third of the people in Britain and about half in the United States believe that the positions of the sun, moon, planets and other heavenly bodies, thousands of billions of miles away, have an influence on events here on earth.

They believe that these positions can be used to make predictions about our lives, our personalities and even about world events. Nancy Reagan, wife of the former American president, revealed that she sometimes consulted her astrologer before making some decisions, and leaders in India and other countries have traditionally done the same. Prince Charles, heir to the throne in Britain, is thought to be a believer and has had his astrological sign (Scorpio) put on his crown.

Horoscopes and Signs of the Zodiac
Millions of people in Britain read their horoscopes in the daily papers - mostly for fun and entertainment, but sometimes to look for advice and guidance. Some will consult a professional astrologer. A horoscope is a kind of map of the heavens. The astrologer will map out where the moon, sun and planets are at a particular time, for example when you were born, and tell you what he or she thinks it means. The astrologer believes that the sun’s path in the sky during the year is of central importance. The sun takes a year to move through the 12 constellations of the zodiac. (A constellation is a group of stars, or what appear to be stars, such as Taurus the bull or Cancer the crab; and the zodiac is an imaginary belt in the heavens which forms the background to the motions of the sun, moon and planets.) Your sun-sign depends upon where in the zodiac the sun was when you were born. For example in June/July the sun was over Cancer, so if you were born in late June or early July, your sign is Cancer.

In 1989 the new science of ‘Jetology’ was described in the magazine ‘Sky & Telescope’.

According to this the positions of all the world’s jumbo jets in the air at the moment you were born affects your personality and destiny.

A professional Jetologer will of course be required to provide a Jetological reading...

...oh dear, this looks familiar!

(If you think it’s a wind-up, check Jetology on the web.)

Some history
Astrology has been around for at least 4,000 years. Different societies such as ancient Greece, Mexico, China and India have all developed their own systems and their own interpretations of the night sky, all different from each other.

Astrology is well established in India, with its roots in ancient Vedic principles. When two people are considering marriage, some Hindus follow the custom of matching their two horoscopes. This will reveal information, it is believed, about the couple’s financial prosperity, children, mutual love, sexual compatibility and so on. The position of Mars is particularly important - you may find that you are a ‘Mangalik’, which means that you must marry another Mangalik. If you don’t, disease and misfortune may result.

How the beliefs took root
The people in ancient times were aware of changes in the stars and planets throughout the year, and would have noticed that the seasons would always follow or accompany the same changes in the stars. Thus the star positions appeared to predict the seasons. So perhaps they could be forgiven for imagining that these changes in the stars could also predict all sorts of other events. They believed that there was a magical link between the stars and events on earth. (Most modern astrologers, however, do not make such magical claims, but argue instead that their beliefs have a scientific basis. They do not claim to know exactly what that scientific basis is.)
What fantastic giant of a creature with an enormous round head with long hair streaming behind, which likes to pay us a visit from time to time, bringing trouble in its wake, lives in the sky?
  A comet
    Pre-scientific peoples did not understand them and believed that they always brought disasters. Not surprisingly astrologers predicted disaster as soon as they saw a comet. Inevitably some calamity would occur, even if only a few years later, and the astrologers gained credibility. Plagues, the Battle of Hastings in 1066, the fire of London in 1666, the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD, the outbreak of wars, the death of kings and so on, have all, it was thought, been heralded by comets.
    Comets are beautiful, silent travellers across the night sky. Halley’s Comet, here, visits us every 76 years or so. Comet West, however, is believed to take about 500,000 years between visits.
Distances in Space
Astronomy has made remarkable advances in modern times. If a match could be struck on the moon (which it probably couldn’t, for lack of oxygen!), astronomers on earth could spot the flare. From the tiniest throbs, wobbles or flickers of radiation from distant stars they can work out the size and character of planets so far away it would take us half a million years in a spaceship to get there. Our own ‘tiny’ Solar System is vast enough. You’d never get a map of it to scale on the classroom wall. Imagine the earth the size of a pea: Jupiter would be over 300 metres away, and Pluto (recently ‘demoted’ into a ‘dwarf-planet’) two and a half kilometres away, and so small as to be invisible to the naked eye. Even if you shrank Jupiter down to the size of a full stop, Pluto would still be 10 metres away. On the same scale our nearest friendly neighbourhood star, Proxima Centauri would be 16 kilometres away, a short hop in galactic terms, but still 100,000,000 times further away than the moon. To reach it by spaceship would take 25,000 years. (2)
  There is a 1 in 10,000 chance that the comet Swift-Tuttle will collide with our earth when it returns in the year 2126. (1) Scientists will probably use nuclear warheads to try to break it apart if it does come our way. A popular theory is that such a collision killed off the dinosaurs about 66 million years ago.
A dangerous career!
Being a court astrologer in olden times could be a very risky business. In some countries, such as China, astrologers who made false predictions were sometimes executed. So they learned to express their predictions as vaguely and as ambiguously as possible to minimise the risks - a trick which modern astrologers have developed to a fine art.
One cunning astrologer in the court of the French king Louis XI, managed to cheat death on one occasion by telling the king...   ‘I shall die three days before your majesty’.
Harmless fun or a cause for concern?
The more ‘serious’ astrologers are dismissive of the daily horoscopes as harmless fun, and mostly they are. I occasionally read mine too. It becomes a cause for concern only if we begin to think that our lives really are controlled by the stars, and if we start to rely on our horoscopes to make important decisions. We could make a bad decision! Also, it may become a substitute for thinking. We should certainly seek advice but should never give up thinking for ourselves. Some astrologers provide private consultations, including a detailed look at the client’s birth chart and the complex interaction of many factors. They might argue that they are providing a useful counselling service which would cost far more if given by a psychiatrist. This might be true, but do any of their scientific claims hold water?
Fact or Fiction? A closer look at the arguments of astrology

(a) Although astrologers claim that their work is based on scientific principles, they do not claim to know how it works. Suggestions such as gravity, electro-magnetic and tidal forces have all been made; but sceptics argue that such forces would be too weak to have even a minor influence on human behaviour, especially given the vast distances involved. (See box ‘distances in space’)

(b) Constellations such as Taurus or Aquarius have no meaning as heavenly bodies. They are not real or objective groupings of stars. They only look as though they are groups. Virgo for example is made up not just of stars and star clusters, but even of distant galaxies, all at vastly different distances from each other and from us. (An entire galaxy, even a cluster of galaxies, can look like a single star because of its great distance from us.) Also within Virgo is the nearest quasar to us, an estimated 3 billion light years away.

Thus for an astrologer to say that Saturn or Jupiter (planets) are ‘moving into Aquarius’ has about as much meaning as one cloud in the sky merging into another. Aquarius only appears to have shape when seen from this part of the galaxy. In a million years time it will look very different. We already know how it will look then. It is the kind of prediction which astronomers but not astrologers can make; and unlike the latter they will be correct. (3)

(c) Over the last 2,000 years the positions of the stars have changed and all the traditional star signs are now one place out in the sky. People who thought they were born under Aries are in fact under Pisces. Virgos are really Leos, Cancers are Geminis, and so on.. The Royal Astronomical Society confirmed this with an announcement in 1995. Astrologers claim that this doesn’t matter, and carry on as before. But some people did begin to wonder how it was that one’s personality and future could be affected by random ‘collections’ of heavenly bodies billions and billions of miles away, and in a quite different place from where they are supposed to be!

(d) Many studies (see below) have found that astrological predictions do not come true any more often than would be expected by chance.


Author Tim Yule has posed the following questions to ponder:

  • If astrologers can predict the future, why don’t they agree on who will win the next election, or who will win the World Cup?
  • Why aren’t they all rich, and why are countries that use astrology such as India, not richer than countries that don’t?
  • Are all the horoscopes that were done before the discovery of the three outer planets wrong?
  • Why don’t casinos ban astrologers from making bets?
  • How come astrologers have accidents about as often as anyone else? (4)

(the same applies to psychics)

A brief survey of some of the evidence
The prominent French astrologer Andre Barbault predicted the end of the Algerian war 11 times before he was ‘successful’, as well as making many other incorrect predictions about political events. (Yes there do exist the odd geeks who make it their business to sit and count up the number of right and wrong prophesies made by psychics, fortune-tellers and the like!) Yet Barbault continued to impress, and remained popular.
How did he do it?
Barbault managed to stay ahead of the game by using the same tricks and techniques as the psychics and clairvoyants. (See chapter 7 on psychics for ‘cold readings’, the Barnum Effect etc.) To mention a few: by depending upon our remembering the ‘hits’ and forgetting about the ‘misses’; by making a great many predictions (some are bound to come true) and by wording some of them as vaguely and ambiguously as they can. Culver and Ianna (1984) reviewed a large number of predictions made in astrology magazines and found that only 11% were correct. They put the majority of these down to shrewd guesses, vagueness, inside information and of course chance. Their study confirmed the point that if enough predictions are made, some will come true, and it’s usually only these which receive media attention. (5) This could be called the ‘scatter-gun’ technique.
The Amazing Randi
Another story which illustrates the hollowness of some of astrology’s claims is told by James Randi, who was a professional conjuror (The Amazing Randi). He took a job as an astrologer for a Canadian newspaper, using the name ‘Zo-ran’. He would find old astrology magazines, cut out their forecasts, mix them around and paste them at random under the 12 star signs, then put them in his column as his own forecasts. Zo-ran of course quickly became a successful and popular astrologer. (6)
Petula Clark or Charles Manson?
Much the same point was made when Geoffrey Dean sent a large number of astrologers a birth chart which, he told them, belonged to the singer Petula Clark. They quickly came up with descriptions which matched her bubbly and sociable personality. The chart was in fact for the mass murderer Charles Manson. If only the stars could predict natural disasters such as the Tsunami of December 2004, hurricane Katrina, or the Haiti earthquake in 2010. Despite this inability to make useful predictions, astrology is as popular as ever. It is a good example of a pseudoscience at work. It is perhaps comforting to think that someone somewhere is in control, and that there is some unseen force that makes sense of everything. However, if everything that will happen to us is already known somewhere, somehow, by some force, how much free choice does this give us? Relying on the supernatural can raise more questions than it answers.