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Sun sign columns
History, validity, and an armchair invitation

Geoffrey Dean and Arthur Mather

An expanded version of the authors' "Sun Sign Columns: An Armchair Invitation", Astrological Journal 38(3), 143-155, May-June 1996. A slightly expanded version appeared in FAA Journal [Australia] 26(4), 40-58, December 1996. An abridged version appeared in Indian Skeptic 9(9), 5-12, January 1997. See also their follow-up article Sun Sign Columns: Response to an Armchair Invitation ("Dead End") on this website under Sun Signs.

Abstract -- Sun sign columns are either forecasts such as "Virgo -- romance improves after the 16th", or delineations such as "Taureans are stubborn" or "Geminis and Librans make beautiful music together". Sun signs are the most visible form of astrology in Western countries, simply because they are easy to commercialise (usually only a birth date is required), so what matters is not validity but whether it sells. Typically half the astrology titles on display in New Age bookshops are on sun signs. According to opinion polls typically one-half of the population reads sun sign columns at least sometimes, but only five per cent take them seriously, so they are mostly seen as entertainment. Nevertheless one per cent read them often and take them very seriously, like horoscope junkies unable to exist without their daily fix. Astrologers disagree violently about the merits of sun sign forecasts -- some see them as valid and good publicity, others see them as nonsense and exploitation. How can astrology be taken seriously when astrologers cannot even agree on such a major topic? Sun sign delineations are less controversial because, unlike forecasts, they reflect astrological tradition. They also tend to be our first contact with astrology. We hear or read what our sun sign is supposed to mean, and to our surprise we find that it seems to fit. But look at the meaning of each sun sign from Aries through Pisces -- assertive, possessive, versatile, sensitive, creative, critical, harmonious, secretive, adventurous, prudent, detached, impressionable. The traits are universal. Everyone behaves in each of these ways at various times. No matter what our sign is, it cannot help but fit. Sun signs are a confidence trick, an excellent example of the consider-only-confirming-cases artifact (see articles on this website under Problem Areas). The authors look at the history of sun sign columns (a modern idea that began in the 1930s), their popularity (about 1250 of the 1500 newspapers in the USA have daily sun sign columns), how they are calculated (several methods including pure invention), the disagreement between astrologers (four decades of quotes), attacks by scientists (including Richard Dawkins in 1995), problems of testing (many pitfalls), and actual tests including prize competitions (none successful). Sun signs emerge as the most tested and most disconfirmed idea in astrology. Astrologers dismiss the tests as inappropriate, but only if the tests are negative -- positive tests are welcome no matter how flawed. But how can sun signs be difficult to test when astrologers are so readily convinced that they work? Can better tests be devised? To find out, the authors invited several thousand astrologers and two dozen interested scientists to devise better tests. The outcome is described in the next article. The present article ends with abridged examples of sun sign forecasts and delineations.

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