Life is really not in the stars

Don't depend on astrology, the `planets' to plan your future

Special to the Observer

September 26,2006

Pluto demoted! Astronomical news always makes the headlines and telling this astronomical icon "You're fired!" drew great interest and ire from some astronomers as well as the general public. Equally perturbed were the astrologers. As I drove between domes at our observatory late that night the BBC (via WFAE), told a story of one astrologer's laments, and mentioned that his Web site gets 20 million hits a month.

A few years ago syndicated astrologer Sydney Omar died and the Observer decided to start carrying Linda Black's competing column. She promised to "point out the days that are good for making serious decisions."

Illusionist and bad science

She'll point out the good days? That reminds me of a story told by James Randi over a piece of pie and cup of coffee one night. Randi, formerly the magician "The Amazing Randi," had come to Appalachian State to give a talk on pseudoscience. Having hung up his robe and rabbits years ago, he had turned his illusionist insights to fighting claims of the paranormal. His Educational Foundation has a bonded $1 million challenge to anyone who in a controlled environment can convincingly demonstrate any kind of paranormal phenomenon. His offer still stands unclaimed after many years.After this show we settled into Murphy's in downtown Boone for some stories. He told of how he had once worked for a newspaper and was assigned the task of writing the daily horoscope column. Just make something up -- who would know or care?

Then, one morning he was having breakfast at a restaurant when he discovered who cared. His waitress suddenly stopped serving him and ran out to get the paper. She excitedly explained that she had to read her horoscope to see how to plan her day.

Randi refused to write another forecast.

Hooked on astrology

But surely, you say, there is no harm to today's educated newspaper readers, right? Think again. Every year as we discuss astrology and pseudoscience, I do a little demonstration with my Intro Astronomy students. I hand out a sheet of paper with 12 simple two-sentence descriptions of astrological signs. These are sort of "industry standard" descriptions of the personalities of Pisceans, traits of Taureans, characteristics of Capricornians. They are in a random order and do not start with January. The actual sign names do not appear on the page.

The students read the descriptions and try to identify themselves as one of the listed types. I collect the papers and find out how they did at singling out their signs. Usually, their results are quite random. Since there are 12 choices any student has a random chance of picking their sign as one out of 12, so in a class of 48 we should expect about 4 to get the answer by pure random guess. There is, however a sampling error that goes as about the square root of the sample, leading to a possible random error on the order of 7. So, maybe nobody gets it right, or 11 do -- anywhere in there means it was likely random.

But one year a few years ago something happened. There were 17 correct choices, a bit larger than the expected range. What happened?

We could conclude that astrology "works" and the results are valid. However, astrology does not work. There have been a number of carefully controlled scientific studies that have showed no special ability of astrology to predict anything. By Occams Razor we must accept the simplest solution to this apparent paradox. In this case, one explanation occurred to me as well as some of my students, when I presented the results and asked for their thoughts.

They already knew not only their astrological signs but also what their sign meant they should be. They had not identified their personalities but what their personalities should be.

This result should be disturbing to anyone. It is one thing to base your life on some good, moral behaviors prescribed by your religious faith and/or learned by study of many good people who have gone before us or who are current inspirations. But to base life decisions on pseudoscience is dangerous and cavalier. And, by "knowing what you should be like" these decisions may not even be made consciously.

I've not had a such a deviation from randomness occur again and I only hope that the one anomalous year was just there to fill in the "tail" of the bell curve. But their own admitted self-knowledge remains disturbing.

Will your day be great? That is up to you, not Pluto, the "real" planets, or the stars. Make it a great day.

Daniel B.Caton

Observer community columnist Daniel B. Caton is observatory director and astronomy professor at Appalachian State University. Write him at the Department of Physics and Astronomy, Appalachian State University, Boone, NC 28608, or by e-mail at

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