An article from the now defunct Kansas City Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. The article was originally titled "Astrology on Death Row!" and was reprinted in the Indian Skeptic 1989, Vol 1 (11). The results of three similar studies have been added in Appendix 1, and the results of orthodox studies in Appendix 2.
Abstract -- In the late 1980s a skeptic in Kansas City went to five professional astrologers giving as his own the birth data and computer-calculated birth chart of John Gacy, one of the worst convicted serial killers in American history. They described him as having a "well rounded personality", that he could "offer a good role model" and that he would "be excellent for working around young people" (which is precisely the group that Gacy specialised in murdering). Students who had been told the readings were of their own chart rated them as accurate. Appendix 1 presents similar results using the birth data of mass murderers Edward Kemper III and Marcel Petiot. Obviously perceived accuracy means little. Appendix 2 reviews orthodox predictors of psychopathy and murder that are well-established and make sense. Nobody with the relevant information could possibly agree with the astrologers' statements. Until astrology can improve, which given the results to date seems unlikely, this is an area from which astrology should be firmly excluded.
How accurate is astrology? To find out, a member of the Kansas City Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (KCCSI) went to five astrologers posing as a man interested in working with young people. He gave each astrologers the birth date, birth time and place of John Gacy instead of his own, plus a computerized natal chart from a company internationally recognized for accuracy (Neil F.Michelsen), and asked them for their advice. The astrologers unanimously encouraged him to pursue youth work and none could see any problem with this.
(John Gacy was born in Chicago on 17 March 1942 at 00:49 CST, or 05:49 GMT, CST being the time required by Illinois for birth registration even though War Time was then in effect. Some hospitals did not follow this rule, so the actual birth time might have been an hour later at 06:49 GMT. Both times give a Sagittarius ascendant.)
At the time, the real John Gacy was being held on death row at Menard Correctional Center in Chicago. He received 12 death sentences and 21 life terms for the brutal torture and murder of 33 young men and boys. He was executed by lethal injection on 10 May 1994.
Gacy was selected for the test because his chart should portray a clear picture of a sadistic sexually motivated killer. If astrologers are able to spot personality traits and destinies in any chart, then this is one they should have no trouble with.
The way in which Gacy murdered his victims was particularly repulsive. They were usually teenage boys whom he lured into his home and overpowered. He had a pair of trick hand cuffs, which he would demonstrate that he could slip out of. After immobilizing them by persuading them to put on the hand cuffs, he repeatedly raped and tortured them. Finally, after they begged for their own deaths, he would strangle them, often by shoving their own underwear down their throats. Each astrologer was asked to examine the computerized chart for as long as they wanted before giving their reading.
Advice given by the astrologers
Local astrological talent, Randy Goodman, was reported by the Kansas City Star (April 10, 1985) to have investigated "mysterious flying hotdogs" at the Radisson Hotel Muehlebach. He told our substitute Gacy that he was "really born to serve people." He stated that "In the past you have used your energies very well, so therefore in this life you have a lot to contribute, and ... your life will be very, very positive."
Another local astrological celebrity, Norma Knight, was also given an opportunity to analyze the chart. She described him as "a very, very sensitive person." When asked whether a youth ministry would provide suitable employment, she replied "I think that you can be very good with kids and that it might be a good medium for you to learn to be more trusting in the giving and receiving."
Beverly Farrel lays claim to being an "internationally recognized author, lecturer and teacher of religion, metaphysics, astrology and psychic awareness" with "30 years experience in the field of (the) paranormal." She also encouraged the man behind the chart to go into youth work, because "when you're working with young people you're not gonna have a lot of heavy-duty problems."
The results seemed to indicate that astrologers cannot read a persons character from the positions of the planets at the moment of birth, nor can they see into anyone's past or future, nor do they seem to possess any insights other than the ability to impress their clientele.
How well did the readings fit anyone?
When the results were tabulated it was discovered that those students who believed in astrology showed a significant tendency to grade the readings as more accurate than did those students who did not believe. This supports the premise that the popularity of astrology is due to the predisposition of the believers to exaggerate its accuracy and thus make it appear to work. Also this would explain the persistence of many people to assert that astrology really works despite evidence to the contrary.
What the astrologers said about mass murderer Gacy
"... just your presence would be of a beneficial nature to other people, a real calming kind of effect ... In the past you have used your energies well: so therefore, in this life you have a lot to contribute and you will have some problems but basically your life will be very, very positive."
"... a fairly well-rounded personality ... you can offer a good role model ... when you're working with young people you're not gonna have a lot of heavy-duty problems."
"Helpful, understanding of the needs of others. At times a sucker for anyone who needs help ... Kind, gentle, considerate of others' needs."
"At your best, you are very impressionable and radiate the unconditional love of a happy infant ... You have an instinctive awareness and your uninhibited response to life can refresh and gladden whomever you encounter."
Appendix 1. Three similar tests using mass murderers
The first is from Gary F Posner, Skeptically Speaking March 1993, with further information from a videotape of the Stossel TV show mentioned by him. The second and third are from Michel Gauquelin.
Joyce Jillson, whose column is carried by the Tampa Tribune and who is Hollywood astrologer to the stars, unwittingly allowed ABC-TV reporter John Stossel an opportunity to demonstrate for his millions of Good Morning America viewers in November 1988 just how well astrology works in spite of it appearing not to be real.
Jillson (who normally charges $200 per chart) first prepared a detailed reading for a person unknown to her, whose birth information (which is all she requested) was supplied to her by Stossel. Stossel then distributed a copy of the completed horoscope to each of 20 students in an adult education class. Each student had given Stossel their own birth information one week earlier.
The students, thinking they were each reading their own personalized horoscopes, marveled at how Jillson knew things about them that no one else could possibly know. Typical responses were "very accurate", "I am amazed", "hits points that nobody knows." Stossel asked one student "is it you?" (yes) "but is it different from other people?" (yes it is). But the students, male or female, were reading the same horoscope, that of someone described by Jillson as "enormously bright ... [with] sexual charisma ... great charm ... a sense of moral propriety ... [who] may know celebrities ..." Jillson's reading, supposedly unique, was clearly a one-size-fits-all unisex reading.
Stossel felt that Jillson may have incorrectly assumed the birth information to have been his own. In fact it was that of mass murderer Edward Kemper III, who in addition to many other "charming" deeds had cut off his mother's head and used it as a dartboard. Ironically one statement fitted the authentic subject quite aptly, namely "takes life seriously." Concluded Stossel, confronting Jillson on camera with the facts, "I just think this shows it's a hustle, and you make money by writing general things that everybody believes is about them."
All this had no noticeable effect on Jillson's popularity. In 2003 she suffered what the Skeptical Inquirer Nov/Dec 2003 page 9 called "the ultimate embarrassment for an astrologer." In her syndicated column of 12 September 2003, Jillson had given a glowing horoscope of TV star John Ritter "having a Virgo sun sign helps keep his career ticking", even though he had died the day before.
A more elaborate test was carried out in the 1960s by Michel Gauquelin. In his book Astrology and Science (Mayflower 1972), which is an English translation of his book l'Astrologie devant la science (Planete 1966), he describes this test as follows:
"But do astrologers know enough at least to distinguish between the horoscopes of people whose lives are completely opposed -- between, for instance, a criminal who dies on the scaffold and someone who spends his whole life quietly? Let us give an astrologer twenty dates of birth without the names, in which ten murderers are mixed up with ten dull lives, and ask him to separate one group from the other. Of course, he will not be expected to identify all the death-house names but at least to detect a number sufficient to make one reasonably believe that his choice has not been made at random.
"We have asked many astrologers to give us this demonstration of their knowledge, but only a few have agreed. Some claimed that did not have the time, and others that this would teach them nothing; or else they proclaimed more ingeniously that inside every honest man there hides a killer and therefore their science could not hope to distinguish between real criminals and would-be criminals. But then what if anything can they find out from a birth chart, if everyone is potentially anything, by definition? [In fact the ingenious proclaiming is simply wrong, see Appendix 2.]
"However, there were some astrologers brave enough to participate in the experiment. The results were conclusive: they chose law-abiding people as murderers in a manner which was quite indiscriminate and entirely in accordance with chance. Those prophets of the stars who were acting in good faith were completely taken by surprise, and there was even one astrologer who drew the inevitable conclusion that astrology is incapable of making a distinction, even when the final effect of a man's life is presented, between the birth chart of a criminal who will end up on the scaffold, and that of a decent honorable family man." (pp.137-138)
Later, much the same thing happened when Michel Gauquelin sent 500 people a 10-page computer interpretation of supposedly their own birth chart but which was actually that of the notorious mass murderer Marcel Petiot. He asked for comments. Of the first 150 replies, 90% found the accuracy to be confirmed by their family and friends, and 94% found it to accurately describe their character, their personal problems, and the cycle of events in their life. It produced responses like "the work done by this machine is marvellous", and "on the whole, everyone who knows me found it accurate, especially my wife" (from Aquarian Agent May 1970).
In his 1972 book, Gauquelin concluded "Confronted with science, modern and traditional astrology are seen to be imaginary doctrines. To predict the future by consulting the stars is to delude the world, or at least to delude oneself." (p.138)
In other words, perceived accuracy means little. Studies like these have shown again and again that people find astrology's insights just as convincing when, unknown to them, the wrong birth data are used. So where does that leave astrology? (For a worked example using Petiot's chart see Effect sizes under Doing Scientific Research.)
Appendix 2. Orthodox correlates of murder
We can start by looking at psychopaths, which is the official name for the worst antisocial criminals. Studies have found that about one fifteenth of the criminals in prison have committed two-thirds of all the crimes and are diagnosed psychopaths. Or as the Bible says in another context, many are called but few are chosen.
What makes the psychopath dangerous? There is wide agreement that the psychopath (who is almost always male) is notably without love and guilt. What makes them dangerous is that many appear quite normal. Their capacity to hurt and destroy can be hidden under a veneer of charm and honesty. They stand on what criminologists call the mad/bad line -- they know what they are doing and care nothing for those they hurt.
Two examples are the serial killers John Gacy and Theodore Bundy. As already noted, Gacy was a well-respected volunteer in community affairs, yet he tortured and murdered at least 33 young men and boys before burying them in his basement. His veneer of respectability kept the police off his back despite complaints from victims who had escaped. Not once did Gacy express remorse or guilt for his crimes.
Ted Bundy had a similar mask of respectability. He was a cleancut law student, and put his charm and smile to good use at a crisis hotline center. He confessed to raping and murdering 28 girls and women and may have murdered a hundred more. He showed no remorse or pity until his last few days, doubtless a last-ditch attempt to delay his execution. He was a psychopath to the end.
The traits that define psychopathy (impulsiveness, violence, lack of guilt, and so on) are on a continuum. At one end are the Gacys and Bundys whose psychopathy is total and violently destructive. At the other end are those whose similar but nondestructive traits manifest as arrogance, nonconformity, and often creative genius, such as the composer Richard Wagner (called a monster by one of his biographers).
For our purpose the important thing is that psychopathy exhibits various physiological correlates, so if we know the correlates we can predict the psychopathy. For example psychopathy is linked to abnormally low levels of activity in the autonomic nervous system (normal or high levels make a person conditionable and mindful of criticism or punishment, low levels have the opposite effect), so a highly stressful situation has no effect on the psychopath. Other links include different sex hormonal levels, which increase the probability of violence, and low verbal IQ, which leads to poor impulse control -- criminal psychopaths with low verbal IQs are invariably violent and dangerous.
Another important predictor of psychopathy is severe love deprivation in childhood. Thus among juvenile delinquents the greater the deprivation the more the psychopathy and violence. Serial killers have nearly always been beaten or abused as children, and to have family members addicted to drugs or alcohol -- all clear indicators of love deprivation. For example Hitler's father in drunken rages often beat him and his mother, and at 15 he himself beat his mother. John Gacy had an alcoholic father who physically abused his wife and verbally assaulted his children. Ted Bundy was born of an unwed mother who married when he was four. He never bonded with his step-father and felt abandoned and rejected. The rapist and serial killer Carl Panzram, perhaps America's most violent prison inmate, was deserted by his father and beaten by his mother. The multiple killer Jack Abbott had an abusive alcoholic father and a prostitute mother who divorced when he was four, leaving him to abusive foster homes. Albert DeSalvo the Boston Strangler was brutally tortured by his alcoholic father. Charles Manson was illegitimate, his 15-year-old mother was sent to prison shortly after, and he was sent to a succession of foster homes. In each case the effects of love deprivation later exploded into terrible violence.
In short, there are predictors of psychopathy and murder that are well-established and make sense. Nobody with the relevant information could possibly conclude that Gacy had a "lack of aggression", was "born to serve people", was "very, very sensitive", and was well-suited to youth work, yet the astrologers did exactly that. Clearly, until astrology can improve, which given the results to date seems unlikely, this is an area from which astrology should be firmly excluded.
Most of the above information on serial killers, psychopathy and its correlates is from Dr Anthony Walsh's The Science of Love: Understanding love and its effects on mind and body, Prometheus Books, Amherst NY 1991, pages 140-152.