Astrology my passion
Rudolf H. Smit
A slightly expanded version of an article (in German) in a German
anthology, to which has been incorporated an earlier article (in Dutch)
Moment Supreme: Why astrologers keep believing in astrology
Abstract -- Rudolf Smit, founder of this website, describes how, as a teenager, he was an ardent amateur astronomer with many technical books on astronomy in his library. Nearly all of them stressed that astrology had no scientific validity, which led him to believe that astrology was nonsense. Later, in his first job, he argued with his boss about astrology, and was told that he should first study astrology before opening his mouth. So he read about his sun sign and was astonished to find how accurate it was. He then had his birth chart read, not once but twice, and in each case was astonished to find how well it fitted his character and circumstances. From then on astrology became his passion. He taught himself how to read charts for his friends (everything fitted perfectly), formed the first society of professional astrologers in the Netherlands (this was in 1977), and set up as a part-time professional astrologer (he soon had many clients and the future looked rosy). But one day he accidentally used the wrong chart for a client, who was nevertheless happy with the reading. Two years later it happened again. Very puzzling -- weren't horoscopes supposed to be unique? Later, with a computer, he spent several years testing the statements made in astrology books, especially statements about events, and found to his horror that almost all could not be confirmed. But he had many happy clients so why worry? Then in 1984 came the crunch. He became aware of the many ways in which clients could be convinced that astrology was true even if it wasn't. And all of them were used by him. Just being warm and caring would do the trick. Worse, any chart would do, hence also the wrong chart. So his happy world of astrology collapsed. He closed his practice and fell into a clinical depression that lasted three years. Without astrology his life had lost its meaning. Afterwards he regained his interest and became editor of the research journal Correlation for six years, trying to find out which statements of astrology were true. Then in 2000 he set up this website for those who wish to know more about scientific findings in astrology, but always remaining sympathetic to its beauty and appeal. This is a true story that anyone interested in astrology should read.
Astronomy has been part of my life since I was a boy of nine growing up in several towns and cities in the Netherlands. In our living room there was a big bookcase, and since my parents were not so fond of novels, it contained above all popular scientific works. One of these books was titled Mijn Sterrenwacht [My Observatory]. It was a lucid account by P.G.Meesters, one of the well-known Dutch amateur astronomers of that time (I am talking about the 1930s and 1940s).
Thanks to his enthusiastic writings I became an ardent amateur astronomer. I began asking my parents not to give me toys for my birthdays but, instead, books on astronomy. When I was 12 years of age, I had already about 20 books on astronomy and quite a few of them contained pretty heavy stuff.
Anyway, virtually all of those books had one thing in common: They told readers that although astrology was once an offshoot of astronomy, in our modern times it has no basis in scientific fact, therefore its practitioners are, at best, gullible but well-meaning people or, at worst, hopeless and dangerous charlatans.
Since I was only 12 or so I was quite willing to believe what all those illustrious authors had written, so I sincerely believed that astrology was hogwash and astrologers were dangerous charlatans. And if anybody at the time would have said "mark my words, you will soon be an astrologer yourself, and an ardent defender of astrology at that", no doubt I would have thought "you must be nuts".
But although nobody had ever pronounced such a prophecy, it did happen anyway. This is the story of how it all began, how it unfolded, and how it ended in disaster.
My story begins
But one day, this same man said something that made my stomach turn in disgust. The director of our publishing company had come into our office, apparently with the only purpose to blow off steam -- he was grappling with a problem, but could not decide what to do, and so on, and so on. When he had left, my boss said: "See, a typical Libra, finds it hard to make decisions". I could not believe my ears and was horrified. My boss, an academic of some standing, was daring to say such silly things! So I pulled out all the stops and argued that this was all nonsense, because the stars were too far away to exert any physical influence whatsoever on human lives, and so on, and so on.
My boss listened to me patiently and then asked: "have you ever studied the subject?" I was utterly astounded: "Of course not, why would I waste my time with such silly stuff?!" His answer was: "If I were you, I would devote some of your time to astrology, because only then can you start to judge it properly."
I discover that my Sun sign fits me
So, in the end I overcame my disgust and bought myself a booklet about my Sun sign. It was from a series of twelve booklets written by the well-known French astrologer Andre Barbault. And yes, I have to admit that much of what I read did for a great deal pertain to me. I was truly astonished. Inspired by this unexpected positive outcome, I made the relatively simple calculation for the Ascending Sign, which as a matter of fact seemed to be right on the cusp between two signs. I bought Barbault's description for these two signs, and yes, it was "me" again! (Actually the consecutive sign seemed to fit me better, and a year or so later I found out that it was in fact my Moon sign. So there you are!)
But at that point some skepticism crept in. What if I would buy all the other nine star sign booklets? I took a personal bet that after reading those booklets I would discover in each of them descriptions that would fit me. And indeed, so it occurred, although I had to admit that the fitting descriptions were not equally divided over all twelve signs. That is, some signs fitted me much better than others. In any case, it was reason enough to shelve the lot for a while. This all happened in the late 1960s.
And so does my horoscope
But I was still not fully convinced. So I did something else: I sent my birth data to a well-known astrologer and asked him to write an analysis purely based on those data, hence without ever seeing me. Six weeks later I received his nicely structured, six-page description which fitted me miraculously well. I was elated and the die was cast: from now on astrology had me firmly in its grip! This was the beginning of an exciting time.
In those years astrology text books were fairly hard to come by, but after some searching in shops for secondhand books I found a few and also an ephemeris. Next I taught myself the casting of horoscopes, and of course the first thing I did was casting my own. Again, there was that wonderful feeling which I called the Moment Supreme of having encountered a miracle.
The elation of seeing astrology work
It went further and further. During 1975 and 1976 I even wrote articles on astrology for the popular magazine Aarde & Kosmos [Earth & Cosmos], which were re-published in November 1976 in a book called De Planeten Spreken [The Planets Speak]. It included what I thought at the time was good evidence for planetary influences such as the findings of Gauquelin, and had over 300 pages.
To cut the story short, I had sought contact with the few astrologers that, at the time, were active in the Netherlands, and found out that in particular one of them was making predictions of the worst kind and with dire consequences, namely that his clients got upset and so terrified with fear that they had to seek help elsewhere. I felt that this was highly unethical, and I decided to mobilise the few good professional astrologers I had met, and asked them to help me set up what was to become the NGPA, the first Society of Practising Astrologers in the Netherlands. In other countries such as Britain and the USA, similar societies concerned with ethics had been existing for many years, but until now in the Netherlands there had been little concern.
I become founding editor of an astrological magazine
A wonderful time followed. Everybody was full of optimism and felt that it would be only a matter of a few years before astrology was fully accepted by society. As for my own astrological endeavours, I had set up practice as a part-time professional astrologer and was receiving many clients, so the future looked rosy.
It turned out greatly different, of which more later.
I meet interesting people
Believe me, the life's path of an astrologer is not strewn with roses. He (more often a she) seldom earns a good living with astrology, and is somewhat of a social outcast, being tolerated rather than respected by a society that is is expected to be tolerant. But certainly for skeptics this tolerance is often accompanied by a gnashing of teeth, for they tend to see astrologers as weird people who do weird things.
Arguments for astrology
2. Astrology is found in many cultures (so is belief in a flat earth).
3. Many great scholars have believed in it (many others have not).
4. Astrology is based on observation (its complexity defies observation).
5. Extraterrestrial influences exist (none are relevant to astrology).
6. Astrology has been proved by research (not true).
7. Non-astrologers are not qualified to judge (so who judges murder?).
8. Astrology is not science but art/philosophy (not a reason for belief).
9. Astrology works (the evidence suggests otherwise).
From Kelly IW, Culver R & Loptson PJ, Arguments of the astrologers: a critical examination. In SK Biswas, DCV Malik and CV Vishveshwara (eds). Cosmic Perspectives. Cambridge University Press, New York 1989. 45 references.
Astrologers know most of these arguments only from hearsay and have not thoroughly thought them through. But the most important argument is the last: Astrology works! Because it is here where personal experience comes in, which for the average astrologer is a thousand times more persuasive than the results of scientific studies into astrology.
Why do astrologers believe?
It is not that simple. Astrology for astrologers can hardly be compared to a business in, say, making clothing buttons where you could stop overnight. For them, as it was for me, astrology is an ideology, a philosophy of life. And believe me, to relinguish astrology is about the same as losing one's purpose in life. So when the facts forced me to do a U-turn, I was overwhelmed by a mental crisis that took a long time to overcome. But at least I can discuss this matter with some justification.
Answer: Moment Supreme
So strong is the experience that, sooner or later, astrologers let go of any critical sense. For them astrology has become an inexhaustible source of knowledge and of great personal support. Just like devout Catholics who derive their security of existence from their religious beliefs, so do astrologers derive their security of existence from astrology. They feel how their lives and those of others are governed by the planets in their personal horoscopes, wherein simply everything is written -- their character, relationships, destiny, everything.
Feeling part of a greater whole
Since astrology is said to govern everything, the horoscope does not limit itself to people. As long as one knows a precise time and the place where it happens, then one can cast a horoscope of any thing, animal, or event. For example the birth of your dog, your cat, the signing of the deeds of your house, the setting up of a shop, or the inauguration of a president of the United States. As for the last, thousands of astrologers will duly use a stopwatch to exactly time the moment of "so help me God" on which they will then base the horoscope of the goverment period of this new president.
But the horoscope does more. For many astrologers, in particular for the more esoterically inclined, astrology is the embodiment of the principle that "all is one and one is all". Such astrologers feel part of a greater whole, the all. Believe me, it is a wonderful feeling. For skeptics it may be easy to dismiss this all-ness, this feeling, but then they most likely have not had that feeling. And they most likely forget that even great and critical minds have fallen for astrology, albeit after some hesitation and after, for those times, critical scrutiny.
Being right with the wrong charts
Truly, I have forgotten how I got myself out of this most embarrassing terrible mess, but apparently I had managed the situation pretty well, because she went away a happy client.
After seeing her out I sat in my study, confused thoughts racing through my mind. How is it possible to do a correct reading based on a wrong chart? Did not all textbooks tell us that a horoscope is unique, that is, only fitting its native and no one else? If so, how on earth could I have made correct delineations based on a totally wrong chart? I was completely puzzled. In the end I let the matter rest, but from now on I was on the alert! And not without reason, because a few years later a similar mistake occurred to me, but then I noticed it in time.
My dormant skepticism reawakens
As a matter of fact, my whole attitude towards astrology was gradually changing to the extent that I was becoming a pain in the neck for my fellow astrologers. I was now critical of the "anything goes" attitude of so many of them, and of how they tended to believe anything that prominent astrological authors had written, be they ancients or from more recent times. For example, whenever I questioned a particular astrological statement, their response tended to be: "It is so, because (famous author) says so." (Note the present tense: says so, not said so, even when the famous author had been dead for many years!) If I asked: "how does he know?", they replied "well, er, by experience". If I then asked: "Experience, based on what? On empirical research?", their eyes usually went blank."
In my naivity I had believed that my fellow astrologers would wholeheartedly endorse critical research into astrology. After all, how else could the quality of astrology be improved? But their endorsement didn't happen. Instead I encountered indifference and passive, later even active, resistance to my proposal. It was asserted loud and clear that astrology and science are a bad match. It was also asserted that astrology does not need to be proven scientifically because it proves itself over and over again on a daily basis. So why all my fuss about critical research?
Inconsistencies? No problem
When I pointed out that these strategies did nothing to resolve the original inconsistencies, my fellow astrologers usually viewed me with glassy eyes -- and that was that. Except they were beginning to consider me an unruly guy. They cherished their own ideas and were quite happy with them; what they found confusing were the facts I confronted them with. So they preferred to stick their heads in the sand. There was cognitive dissonance between their belief that astrology is perfect and its evident inconsistencies, but this dissonance was ignored or explained away. Of course this is not a condition occurring only amongst astrologers, but they do seem to be especially prone to it. A telling example is given by David Hamblin (1982), an astrologer who later became chairman of the UK Astrological Association:If I find a very meek and unaggressive person with five planets in Aries, this does not cause me to doubt that Aries means aggression. I may be able to point to his Pisces Ascendant, or to his Sun conjunct Saturn, or to his ruler in the twelfth house; and, if none of these alibis are available, I can simply say that he has not yet fulfilled his Aries potential. Or I can argue (as I have heard argued) that, if a person has an excess of planets in a particular sign, he will tend to suppress the characteristics of that sign because he is scared that, if he reveals them, he will carry them to excess. But if on the next day I meet a very aggressive person who also has five planets in Aries, I will change my tune: I will say that he had to be like that because of his planets in Aries. (From Astrological Journal, 24(3), 152-157, Summer 1982.)
Hamblin complains that this makes astrology nonfalsifiable. It gives astrologers an inexhaustible reserve of easy explanations for even the most difficult of inconsistencies. And this is indeed how things go. Astrologers are masters at making persons fit their horoscopes. Because astrology cannot be untrue, it has to be true, hence they make it true. Just like Procrustes, the mythological innkeeper, who made sure his guests would exactly fit their beds by either stretching them or chopping off their legs. Since astrology has to be true at all times, astrologers find it necessary to ignore unwelcome facts, even if those are produced by their own kind. Facts that were made even more unwelcome by the advent of home computers.
Enter the home computer
I focused on astrological prediction techniques and discovered, much to my chagrin, that most of the claims in astrological textbooks had virtually no substance whatsoever. I remember a sample of 72 people who had died in traffic accidents, which I tested using four different predictive techniques. With one fairly unknown technique the results were highly significant statistically (later I was to suspect that this was caused by biased data sampling); the rest gave only chance results.
Now, let me call this Technique A; the other three I call B, C and D. When I announced my results before a large group of astrologers, thus shattering their three beloved predictive techniques, their reaction was perplexing to say the least. The advocates of method B immediately claimed that they always hit the mark but not with methods C and D. But the advocates of method C claimed they always hit the mark, but not with methods B and D! When I pointed out to them that maybe now and then they had indeed hit the mark, but like most people they tended to remember only the hits and forget the misses. This apparently kicked a sore leg. So among my fellow-astrologers I was soon considered a dissident.
Nevertheless, thanks to my Commodore PET and its software, I continued to test a multitude of horoscopes on a great variety of astrological statements found in astrological text books. It took me a number of years to carry out these projects. I succeeded, but to my great chagrin the test results were contrary to all hopeful expectations. One did not have to be a professional statistician to discover that many, if not all, statements in astrological text books, fell flat when tested on a great number of horoscopes. By then my views on astrology had sobered down somewhat. Yet, I was still a believer, simply because I had happy clients, who tended to come back. So why complain!? In this precarious way I remained a believer until the day when the penny dropped.
I meet Geoffrey Dean
Anyway, we both had been invited to lecture at the yearly conference of the Federation of Australian Astrologers, and I took the opportunity to ask him to stay at my home. (Since 1980 I was living near Melbourne, where I took on the agency for Matrix software until 1985.) We had many inspiring discussions and during those he showed me a fairly thick packet of paper; in fact, a long draft article on astrological counselling that he was circulating for comment. In it he had brought together much relevant information taken from orthodox sources (it had 87 references) that was almost never found in astrology books. It also incorporated comments on two previous versions from about a dozen astrologers and psychologists
He asked me whether I was willing to give it a thorough read and then forward my comments. Of course I agreed. Accordingly, shortly after Dean had left for his home town Perth in Western Australia, I began reading this paper. As usual his writings were highly informative. One chapter though gave me that terrible sinking feeling again.
Not because he had written something wrong, but because there was the sense of immediate awareness that he was so right! And that was the moment when the penny dropped. The sudden realisation how I had been doing my readings and why I had been so successful. And that was not thanks to astrology, but instead thanks to various things that I seemed to be pretty good at. Let me explain.
The art of "Cold Reading"
"The intuitive astrologer will attend to client reactions automatically, which helps to explain why many astrologers claim that intuition is important for maximising accuracy.
"The key points of cold reading are as follows:
1. Watch the eyes and hands for signs that they say yes and no.
"Of course an astrologer may be using cold reading without knowing it. Neher [here there is a reference to The Psychology of Transcendence, McGraw-Hill 1980] concluded from observations of astrology/palmistry/tarot/etc readers that they were often 'astute, sensitive individuals who pick up subtle clues leaked by the client. Usually neither the reader nor the client is consciously aware of this communication process, which therefore can result in a reading that seems mysteriously perceptive.'
"The point is that a skilled cold reader can produce a totally convincing reading very similar to a chart reading (and probably more accurate) but without using a chart. In which case it cannot be claimed that astrology plays an essential part in the reading process."
So far Dean et al.
The penny drops
Now it also became devastatingly clear why I had had excellent sessions based on the totally wrong chart. Sympathy, cold reading, and the nice astrological symbolism had done the trick, not astrology itself. Conclusion: A warm, caring, perceptive reader can work with any chart, hence also the wrong chart. Thus, in reality, I had been dealing with a beautiful and perfect illusion. Yes, perfect and grandiose, but an illusion, no matter how beautiful, remains an illusion.
My happy world of astrology collapses
This was the beginning of a terrible time. First of all, due to this awful new knowledge that it all had been an illusion I felt compelled to close my astrology-practice. After all, I had been dealing in illusions, and hence felt it unethical to continue selling such illusions.
If that had been all, it would not have been so bad. But since astrology had been my great passion, which now all of a sudden had turned into a great disappointment, it was as if I had fallen into a big black hole. When trying to look forward, I saw no horizon, no future. I had invested my whole existence on the rosy promises of astrology, and on its certainty that one's life has a definite meaning and is inseparably linked with the universe. But now I saw only a terrible never-ending blackness. A clinical depression ensued which would last for some years and which, for one thing, cost me my marriage.
Only after I had returned to the Netherlands in 1987 and had to find a way to begin a new life (I found a new wife and a good job) did my sorrow about the loss of astrology slowly fade away.
I was not alone
Then in 1980 he found to his amazement that clients were just as happy with a reading that was the opposite of the authentic reading. Like me he had discovered that any chart would do provided the astrologer is sensitive and caring. And like me he immediately stopped reading charts for money. Later I discovered that one or two other astrologers had abandoned their astrological practice for the same reason as I had (for example David Hamblin, a former Chairman of the AA, see Astrology as Religion under Philosophy). So I was not alone.
A new beginning
My answer is that Moment Supreme, where astrologers go on believing because the apparent match between horoscope and client is so persuasive. Therefore it is easy for them to ignore every evidence against astrology -- as indeed it seems they have always done.
Other factors may also apply depending on the astrologer. Thus astrology has undeniable appeal, and satifies the longing of many people to be part of an all-encompassing whole, to feel part of the universe as a living entity, and to know that one's life has a definite meaning since it is part of that living entity. For is this not exactly the Big Question for most people -- has my life meaning, why am I here, where am I going? For many, and that included me, astrology seems to provide an answer. My devastation when I discovered that this answer was a Grand Illusion should therefore not come as a surprise.
I set up www.astrology-and-science.com
The pleasures of astrology re-visited
All of my new "clients" agreed to this in advance. Amazingly, there was still a Moment Supreme, and they went away quite happy! This might have been because my reading was free of charge. Or because they kept a secret belief in cosmic correspondences. Or because, even when told the scientific facts, they did not care. Or simply because the interaction with a caring person was helpful and rewarding, if only because both of us focussed on the meaningful statements and ignored the rest,
To me the last reason seems the most plausible. It seems no different from the way any reasonable person might act in a similar exchange with a neighbour or priest. In this sense astrology hardly enters the picture -- what matters is the counsellor. So astrology itself effectively disappears. If it is helpful, it is not because astrology itself is helpful, but because astrology sets a scene that helps me to be helpful.