4. There's One Born Every Minute!

There are two kinds of astrologers – those who genuinely believe the gibberish they talk and write, and those who are simply charlatans, exploiting other people’s gullibility to make a fast buck. Most of those who write the columns in newspapers almost certainly belong to the latter category. ( I’ve read that a newspaper astrologer was once sacked, by means of a letter from his editor, which began, “As you will no doubt have foreseen...” ) But what both kinds have in common is that their “horoscopes” and “predictions” invariably consist of vague and unspecific waffle, such that those who want to believe it can read into it just about any meaning they like. In this respect, they are no different from so-called “clairvoyants” or “psychics”, who claim to predict the future or read people’s minds, and whose tricks are frequently replicated by stage illusionists.

4.1. Newspaper astrology

The simplest, and most pathetic, form of astrology today is that with which everyone in the western world is familiar – the “horoscope” columns in daily newspapers. ( As I mentioned earlier, these are very often, and very aptly, placed next to the comic strips. ) Bizarrely, these are commonly headed “Your Stars”, even though it’s the Moon and planets which are supposed to exert the “influence”. This is a hangover from the era in which astrology began, when people didn’t know what the planets were, and called them “wandering stars” – and indeed, the word “stars” was used to mean any event in the sky, of supposed astrological significance. This is another indication of how astrology is rooted in the archaic world view.
Each day, these columns simply consist of twelve “predictions”, one for each “star sign”. So they are based on the ludicrous assumption that the entire human population can be divided into twelve groups, and one in every twelve people in the world has the same kind of luck, or is affected by the same issues, every day! It stands to reason, therefore, that these “predictions” are usually masterpieces of vagueness, worded such that anyone can read something into them, if they want to. Two things which are “predictable” are that they don’t really predict anything, and that those in different papers, on the same date and for the same “sign”, are not likely to say the same. Check this out for yourself!
While writing this, I checked out the “Your Stars” columns in four different papers, for the same randomly chosen day. Even in their vague generalisations, there is hardly any consistency between them. Much of their “advice” simply says things which are common sense for anyone, any day; for example, one of them includes, for two different “signs”, “Call me to hear when you must carefully check items before you buy” ( saying nothing about any particular items ), and “Call me to hear when to avoid something important being misplaced” ( well, when would anyone want something important to be misplaced? ). The same astrologer advises two different sets of people to have “a quiet evening”. Well, surely most people usually do on weekdays, when they have to go to work the next day; presumably on Saturdays, she advises people to “go out and enjoy yourself”!
Of course, people who believe this rubbish, or want to believe it, will usually only bother to read it for their own “sign” – so the author can write variations of the same thing for several “signs”, and get away with it. Another of the columns I looked at includes, for every “sign”, some variation on the theme of “If you’re single, you will find new love”. And remember, these are supposed to be daily predictions. So every person in the UK who is single will “find new love” on the same day – er, right! The same column, for several “signs”, says something on the theme of either finding a new job or improving things at work – “At work, you are the first to spot opportunities”, “...a work door opens again...”, “At work, your mind opens to new ideas”, etc.
Naturally, all this stuff is designed to make the “believers” feel good about themselves; no-one wants to be told that they are going to have bad luck, do they?
Even when these columns appear to say something specific, they are simply relying on the laws of probability, and saying things which are bound to happen to a certain proportion of people. In one of those columns I looked at, there was one quite specific statement – “Travel plans grind to a halt; traffic slows your journey”. Well, in my country, on any given weekday, a significant proportion of the population are likely to be slowed down by traffic on their way to or from work, and not just those of one “star sign”! For those who live in or near London, the probability of it happening on any given day is probably better than evens. ( Note that “traffic slows your journey” could just mean that your journey is delayed by a few minutes. ) So it’s a certainty that that particular “prediction” will come true for a substantial number of people! Those who want to believe it will remember the few such “hits”, where something apparently comes true for them, and conveniently ignore all the stuff which doesn’t.
In my country, every one of these columns includes a phone line which you are supposed to call to “find out more”, at a cost of up to £1.50 per minute! And that’s really what it’s all about, isn’t it?

4.2. The more “personal” kind

The supposedly “serious” practitioners of astrology will agree that the newspaper variety is over-simplified. They claim that the exact date and time of a person’s birth is important, rather than just their “star sign”; some claim that their place of birth is also important. These people claim to cast unique personal “horoscopes” for each of their paying clients.
I admit to having no idea about what these people actually say or write; obviously, I’ve never consulted one, and never will! But I would bet any money that they employ the same sort of trickery as so-called “clairvoyants” or “psychics”, who claim to “foresee the future”, or who apparently deduce things about their clients, which they could not possibly know. All such apparent abilities depend very much on the technique of “cold reading” – manipulating a conversation so as to lead the subject to give away personal details, without realising that they are doing so. And once again, their “predictions” of the future are phrased in such deliberately vague terms that they can mean just about anything; you can find a meaning, if you want to believe it!
Again, those who want to “believe” will remember the occasional “predictions” which seem to come true, and forget all those which don’t.
Astrologers of this kind also claim to produce “personal profiles” for their clients, which are supposedly complete descriptions of people’s personalities, based on their time and place of birth. I have no idea how these are supposed to work – but not surprisingly, they are always written in the same sort of vague terms, such that their subjects can interpret them however they choose.
Some years ago, a couple of my work colleagues, who frequently tried to wind me up about astrology, presented me with a supposed “profile” of me, which they had downloaded from an astrology web site. After reading it, I said, “Well, if that doesn’t prove that astrology is garbage ( or words to that effect ), I don’t know what does!” If my friends had written this thing themselves as a joke, and deliberately made it as unlike me as possible, it wouldn’t have been much different!
There have been many studies performed, which indicate that astrology “believers” will believe just about anything, as long as they think it has been personally written for them. I’ll say more on that in Section 7.

4.3. The problem with “predictions”

As with so-called “clairvoyants”, and people who claim to have “premonitions” of future events, there’s an obvious problem with astrologers’ claims to predict the future; it’s a logical impossibility! I’ve written about this in more detail, in the “Miscellaneous Madness” area of this site.
Think about it. If you were somehow told in advance that something bad was going to happen to you, then you could, at least in theory, do something to prevent it happening. And then the predicted event wouldn’t happen – so how could it have been predicted?
This isn’t much of an issue today, as today’s astrologers rarely do predict anything bad; they say the sort of things which their paying customers want to hear! But centuries ago, when astrology was taken seriously, even by the intelligent, they would regularly predict doom and disaster. Even kings and politicians used to consult astrologers about affairs of state, as well as about their own personal affairs.
Suppose, as was quite a regular occurrence, a king was told by his astrologer that some particular rival was going to overthrow and kill him. Naturally, he would take pre-emptive action, and beat the rival to it! ( This sort of thing was probably the main reason why kings employed astrologers. ) Then the predicted event would never happen – so how could the astrologer have predicted it?
We can take this further. In ancient times, it was a common belief that people’s entire futures were “written in the stars”, and were somehow preordained and inevitable. But again, if a person of power, such as a king, was told of his future fate, such as his untimely death, then he could take the necessary steps to prevent it – thereby proving that it wasn’t preordained after all.
The converse also applies; there are some circumstances in which “predictions” or “prophesies” can actually be self-fulfilling. A famous case from history concerns Ulugh Beigh, a Fourteenth Century king of Samarkand in central Asia. His astrologer told him that his eldest son was “destined” to kill him – so he took pre-emptive action and sent his son into exile, telling him never to come back. The son was, understandably, pretty hacked off about this; years later, he returned with his own invading army, seized his father’s throne, and killed him, thereby fulfilling the “prophesy”. The point, of course, is that the son ended up killing Ulugh Beigh, precisely because his father had believed the astrologer and disowned him.
There is also an obvious question about today’s kind of astrologers. If they can predict the future, then why aren’t they all wealthy? Why can’t they predict the outcome of sporting events, and make fortunes from betting? Or predict events in the stock market, and make wise investments? The simple answer is, they can’t!

4.4. The trouble with twins

Over 2000 years ago, the Greek mathematician Pythagoras rejected astrology, by means of one very simple observation; why don’t twins have identical destinies?
Think about it. According to all the assertions of astrology, any two people who were born within minutes of each other and in the same place, should have identical personalities, and their lives should follow identical patterns. This is easy to verify, or otherwise, in the case of twins. You would expect it to especially apply to identical twins, who are, quite literally, exact copies of each other. ( Identical twins result from a single fertilised egg splitting in half, so their DNA is identical. )
There are some pairs of identical twins, who do indeed have very similar personalities, share the same interests, and almost think of themselves as two halves of a single person. But this is almost certainly a consequence of their upbringing, rather than anything inherent. When twins are young children, their parents might think it’s “cute” to dress them in identical clothes, and encourage them to go everywhere and do everything together – but psychologists say that’s the worst thing to do for them, and that it can cause them to become dependent upon each other. You should in fact do the opposite, and encourage them to develop their individual identities. So when twins do appear to lead identical lives, the cause is psychological, not astrological!
Even when twins do have similar personalities, their lives don’t follow parallel courses. According to astrology, you would expect every detail of their fortunes and misfortunes to be the same, every day – but of course, that never happens.
I can think of two examples from the history of my favourite sport, boxing. The best known and best loved British boxer of all time was the late Sir Henry Cooper, whose career spanned the late 1950s and ‘60s. Those who were around at the time he was fighting may remember that his twin brother George was also a boxer – but that was where the similarity ended. Henry fought at the highest levels, holding the British, Commonwealth and European heavyweight titles for years; while he never won the world title, he did come within a whisker of beating “The Greatest” himself, Cassius Clay ( before the latter became Muhammad Ali ). After his retirement, he remained a much-loved “celebrity” for the rest of his life, and was the only boxer ever to be knighted.
In contrast, George’s boxing career was decidedly ordinary and obscure. He never won any title, lost almost as many fights as he won, and the general public would never have even heard of him, had he not been Henry’s brother.
Then there were the Galaxy twins, Khaosai and Khaokor, from Thailand, who fought in the 1990s. ( Thai boxers have a strange custom of naming themselves after their gyms. ) They both won world championships – one of only two pairs of twins ever to do so – but again, the parallel stopped there. Khaosai held his title for seven years, lost only once in 50 fights, and was regarded as one of the greatest boxers of his generation. Khaokor, meanwhile, lost his title in his first defence; he later won the same title again, and again lost it in the first defence. Then his career was abruptly cut short; he was seriously injured in a car crash, and never fought again. I’ll bet any money that that was never predicted in his horoscope!

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