Planetary Prophecies Part 2: The Key to My Innermost Soul

When evaluating the plausibility of astrology, it seemed to me that there was no good reason (based on existing scientific knowledge) to expect the claims of astrology to be true. Given this, I thought to evaluate its prophetic claims, but the predictions that were readily available (such as the regular horoscopes printed in most newspapers) were too generic to be testable. Considering that each of these predictions could generally be applied to 1/12th of the Earth’s population, they tended to be too generic to have any predictive power at all. In the end it seemed to me that the only way in which I could properly evaluate the predictive power of astrology was to obtain a more personal prophecy.

For this purpose I purchased a comprehensive personalised astrology report from the Australian company Astrologic Answers. The report would apparently be “calculated” from the data of my birth and emailed to me after a few days, along with a complimentary ebook entitled The Art of Astrology. See the end of my previous post on astrology for the details of the data I provided and the insight I was promised in this report.

Since receiving it, I’ve read through the report a few times, and I found more or less exactly what I’d expect to find if astrology were not true: All statements were fairly generic, and whereas some seemed rather accurate there were many others that didn’t describe me at all. I also saw several ways in which someone unaware of their own biases might be convinced of the power of astrology by this report. I’ve made the full personalised report available as an attachment if you’d like to read it: Astrological Birth Chart

Sun

Perhaps the first thing that struck me as suspicious when reading the report was a disclaimer in its introduction:

When using these interpretations, please bear in mind that, inevitably, every chart will contain some contradictory influences, and as a result certain interpretations of different items in the same chart may seem difficult to reconcile. However, this may still be an accurate reflection of your chart, as it is likely that you do experience conflicting desires, events and circumstances in your life.

At first I decided to award them the benefit of the doubt; perhaps for the particular contradictions they had in mind their excuse was appropriate. However, as I read the report I noticed some contradictions that I felt could not be reasonably justified by this. For example, within the “Life Goals” section under “The Sun is in Gemini”, the report essentially seemed to be talking about how much of an extrovert I am (although I’m really not). Later, however, several statements seemed to more accurately describe me as an introvert.

For example, here is a statement describing me as extrovertive:

You’ve a tendency to liven up even the quietest environment, sometimes even introducing a chaotic element. Life is never dull around you.

Here is a contrasting statement from later in the report describing me as introvertive:

Your home needs to be your haven from the world because at times you feel overwhelmed by the harsh realities of the world, and you need to shut away.

Although these claims are not directly opposed to one another, they do describe certain personality aspects (extrovertism and introvertism) that are fairly diametrically opposed to one another. Of these two examples, I consider the first to be very inaccurate that second to be very accurate.

It occurred to me that, when combined with the disclaimer, these different statements could be seen to have accurately predicted any combination of extrovertism and introvertism. In this case, the disclaimer dismisses the description of my extrovertism as a minor quality, as the description of my introvertism is obviously more important. However, were I more extroverted, the opposite could be said to be the case. It seems the astrologer cannot lose, which essentially means that these statements have no predictive power.

Various statements in the report are qualified in a similar way to this one:

Depending on other aspects in your birth chart, you simply can’t relax in dirty or untidy surroundings, and become quite agitated until something is done.

Such statements seem to offer a perfectly legitimate excuse for false predictions, while also allowing correct predictions to count as positive evidence for astrology. In this case, I find that I can quite easily relax in untidy surroundings (as the state of my bedroom can attest), so obviously the other aspects in my birth chart meant this prediction doesn’t, in fact, apply to me. However, if this prediction were true, then it would surely be counted as a success attributable to the powers of astrology.

Again, given that it seems impossible to interpret this statement in such a way that shows the astrologer to be wrong, it cannot be seen to have any predictive power.

The astrologer also hedges their bets in this report by qualifying some of their statements with words like “maybe” and “perhaps”. For example:

One of your parents, perhaps your mother, was a strict and severe influence

In this case, if my father was a strict and severe influence but my mother was not, then it is not to be counted against the astrologer as they were not certain that they should be talking about my mother. However, if they were correct about my mother, then of course I should count this suggestion as prophetic.

As before, this “no lose” scenario for the prediction robs it of any utility. It is more an enforcer of confirmation bias than a potentially useful (and testable) prediction.

All of these excuses that have been readied by the astrologers, to be used immediately but only if necessary, remind me very strongly of the backfire effect. It is remarkably uncommon for an incorrect prediction to lead to the abandonment of a belief.

For example, in the 17th century William Miller predicted that Christianity’s long-awaited “Second Coming” would finally come to pass in the year of 1844, which was later narrowed down to the 22nd of October. Of course, this prophecy failed, but that didn’t result in all of Miller’s followers simply abandoning this superstition. Instead, many of them simply decided that the prophecy was correct in all but a few details, and it actually predicted another event on that date (which was conveniently undetectable). This is how the Christian denomination of the Seventh Day Adventists started – by refusing to accept that a prophecy had failed *.

More benign superstitions will show the same phenomenon. If nothing bad happens to you on Friday the 13th it’s not because there’s nothing special about the date, but because you were “lucky”. Likewise, if no evidence can be found to support a conspiracy theory, the very lack of supporting evidence itself is seen as evidence of a cover-up.

Overall, I felt that the astrology report was very hit-and-miss. Some of its predictions, while still very general, seemed relatively accurate, whereas others didn’t seem to describe me in the lease.

In order to illustrate how the claims made in this report could be made to apply to anyone, I recommend you try what I did after reading through it a couple of times: Read through the report, keeping in mind that it was written to describe not me, but Batman. I think you’ll find it to be surprisingly accurate… Indeed, I found it seemed to describe Batman better than it described me, overall.


* I haven’t done the narrative of the Millerite movement justice with my brief description of it here, and I highly recommend you read more about it. It’s certainly a fascinating case.

Planetary Prophecies Part 1: The Plausibility of Astrology

You don’t have to look very far to find references to astrology in modern culture. Despite the fact that the pseudoscience has been out of date for centuries, ask just about anyone and they’ll be able to tell you their astrological sign. Magazines and newspapers worldwide regularly print horoscopes, which claim to be able to predict the future and offer advice based on the time of year in which you were born. Although it may be true that few people take such things seriously, the fact that these publications can print these things without losing all credibility implies that fewer people still ever seriously question this superstition.

The claims made by astrologers can be boiled down to this:

The arrangement of the planets, Moon, and Sun in the sky relative to the time and place of your birth largely determine your personality and the events of your life.

On the face of it, this might seem mildly plausible. We already know that the position of the Sun changes with the length of day and night, and the Moon controls the tides, so it might seem plausible that such bodies could somehow be related to our lives in other ways. If you’ve ever read a horoscope aimed at you or a description of people with your “starsign”, you’ve probably been able to draw parallels between the claims made therein and actual facts about your life and personality. Astrology can be an easy trap to fall into, if you don’t know any better.

Like most superstitions, the claims of astrology can seem plausible at first glance, when intuition tells us that they might be analogous to things we already know to be true. However, just like most superstitions, when you stop to think about astrology it becomes clear that it is implausible, and that its apparent results are entirely consistent with a universe in which astrology is not true.

The main claim of astrology is that, from the arrangement of the solar system at the time of a person’s birth, it is possible to make accurate predictions about that person’s personality. In order for this to be true, some sort of information from these celestial bodies must reach us here on Earth, manifested in some sort of biologically useful way.

If this signal can affect our lives in such a significant way, it seems reasonable to assume that we are somehow able to detect it. The ways in which we can currently detect planets, the Sun, and the Moon from Earth are by observing their gravity and electromagnetic radiation (e.g. visible light) either emitted or reflected by them. If none of these signals are responsible for the effects claimed by astrologers, then there would need to be some very strong evidence that astrology has any predictive power. Like any other claim, if no known mechanism can support it then the evidence needed to show that such a phenomenon exists in the first place must be extraordinary.

The fact that the Moon controls the tides on Earth is often used as an example when trying to make the idea of such objects affecting us personally seem more plausible. You’ve probably heard, for example, of “lunacy” – more extreme behaviour becoming more common during a full moon. These ideas are similar to the ideas behind astrology, that the worlds in the sky can affect our lives on the ground. In order to understand why the Moon’s control over the tides does not mean that it also has control over us, we need to understand exactly what it is that gives the Moon any influence over the tides in the first place.

The answer to that is, of course, gravity. This is usually also given as an example of how the Moon might affect us too – if the Moon can affect the water in the sea could it not also affect the blood in our bodies? While this question is an interesting one, the answer to it is “no”. Why is that the answer? The short answer is because we are too small.

The long answer is because the tides are caused by what is known as the “tidal force”. This is caused by the fact that the gravitational influence of an object decreases with distance. This means that the gravitational influence of the Moon on the Earth is stronger on the side closer to the Moon than it is on the side farther from the Moon, and it is this difference which causes the tides. The water closest to the Moon is pulled more strongly, whereas the water farthest from the Moon is pulled comparatively weakly, causing the “bulge” that we experience as the tides.

The caveat to this effect is that it does not apply to objects that are very far away, or to objects that are not very large. This is because, for such objects, the distance between their proximal and distal ends is very small in comparison to the distance between the objects themselves. So, whereas the Moon does have a gravitational influence on all of us, it is not comparable to the tidal force.

When thinking about the gravitational influence of such large and distant things as the Sun and Moon (hell, even the Earth), for all intents and purposes human beings can be treated as single points. What I mean by this is that the gravitational effects of these objects acting upon us is pretty much exactly constant at each point on our bodies. This means that any small contribution from a distant planet (like Mars, for example) would be negligible next to, say, a change in altitude here on Earth. So, if the Sun, the Moon, and the planets do affect our lives and personalities, it seems it cannot be through their gravity.

Aside from gravity, what other information from the rest of our solar system reaches Earth? Well, we can see the planets in the sky just like we can see the more distant stars, which happens because they reflect some of the Sun’s light back at us. Could this light, perhaps, effect people’s personalities? Considering that light varies much more depending on more local circumstances (location, time of day, artificial lights, etc.) than it does depending on the positions of the planets, it seems very unlikely that their light could have any noticeable effect. The same concept applies to other types of electromagnetic radiation; there simply isn’t a strong enough signal from any of the planets to be considered biologically important, especially when compared with background levels.

As far as I can tell, neither of these signals could plausibly affect us secondarily either (for example by affecting the Earth, which then affects us). It seems, then, that in order for astrology to be true there must be some currently undetected biologically useful signal that can reach us here on Earth while we are being born (as it is the circumstances of birth that astrologers use to make their predictions) that comes from the planets, Moon, and Sun. Given that such a signal has not been detected, and there seems to be no other reason to expect one to exist, surely the evidence behind astrology must be overwhelming, right?

The most easily accessible astrological predictions are the horoscopes printed in various newspapers and magazines. It’s generally well known that these are exceedingly generic, which is justified by the fact that each of them must be applicable to 1/12 of the entire population of the Earth.

Looking at some examples on the New Zealand Herald site they all seem far too generic and non-committal to be suitable for testing. The flip side of this, of course, is that they are also far too generic and non-committal to be useful for prediction. If it’s impossible to test whether or not a prediction was correct, then how could the prediction have been useful?

Looking at other sources, such as www.horoscope.com, the predictions given seem to lend themselves to becoming self-fulfilling prophecies. For example, from their horoscope for Aries on the 14th of August, 2012:

Your imagination should be flying high today, Aries, and your creative juices flowing freely. Exceptional ideas for projects involving writing, music, or painting could pop into your head during the day. Start on one and list the others so you can refer to them later. Don’t be surprised if you find your intuition increasing as well. Make the most of it all, and have fun.

It’s fairly easy to see how reading (and believing) such a prediction at the beginning of the day will make it more likely to come true. In the same way as the prediction “you will think of purple elephants” will inevitably lead to purple elephants forcing their way into your thoughts.

I reasoned that, if I wanted to properly test the predictive powers of astrology, I’d have to find a more specific prediction. Instead of looking at predictions that supposedly apply to over half a billion people, I thought I’d try to get one that was tailored specifically to me. I purchased a personalised astrology report from the Australian company Astrologic Answers. Here is the information they used to create this personalised report:

  • My first name – Mark
  • My date of birth – 11th June 1989
  • My hour of birth – 0600, or 6am
  • My minute of birth, which I approximated at 30 after asking my mother about it. They claim that this is only required “if known”, so presumably the report should still be accurate if I am a few minutes off the mark.
  • My city of birth – Auckland
  • My country of birth – New Zealand
  • Whether or not this report is meant for a child (no), and my gender (male)

Technically they also had my email address, which is at this domain, so they could have also looked at this blog. As far as I’ve been able to tell from the statistics reported by WordPress, though, they didn’t do this.

From these data, they could supposedly “calculate” a report about 20 pages long about my:

  1. Life Goals
  2. Home
  3. Education and Communication
  4. Relationships
  5. Motivation
  6. Career
  7. Creativity and Originality
  8. Challenges
  9. Purpose and Joy

They also provided two examples of what the final report might look like: David Helfgott and Gillian Helfgott. The formatting of the report for Gillian Helfgott appears more similar to my own, so I presume it’s the more recent of these examples.

After a couple of days, I received my personalised report in my inbox, along with the “Art of Astrology” ebook included in that particular deal, each page of which seems to contain enough false statements to warrant a blog post all of its own. I’ll discuss the content of my personalised report, and its implications about the accuracy and usefulness of astrological predictions, in my next post.