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Sun sign columns
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.
"As the Sun Sign is generally a major factor in any chart ... surely it is the very best introduction to Astrology?" Letter, Astrological Journal, July 1991:262
"Balderdash. I said balderdash. Piffle. Rubbish. Tosh and gibberish. Also twaddle, trash, fudge, flapdoodle, drivel and flummery. I wrote it [a sun sign forecast], so I ought to know. But just because I've put this verbiage in print somebody will believe it." Sir William Connor (Cassandra of the Daily Mirror) 1909-1967
Sun sign columns can be based on techniques such as sign symbolism, planetary aspects judged by sign or by house (where first house coincides with the sun sign), and moon transits. Or they can be pure invention, for example the journalist Jan Moir reveals how "my very first job in journalism was writing horoscopes for a stable of women's magazines. It was the office task always given to the newest recruit because it was so stupid and so easy that even a wet-eared geek like me could do it" (Guardian, London 6 October 1994). This explains why many statements have no discernible relation to astrology, as in "the letter E is important this week" and those quoted next.
Sun sign columns are therefore perhaps one part astrology and nine parts style. Thus much of the appeal of the late Patric Walker's columns was due to their humility and their uplifting thoughts worthy of Kahlil Gibran, eg "It is time to live by this principle: peace and tranquillity are worth a thousand pieces of gold" and "Remember that true love, respect and friendship cannot be bought." So columns may attract readers more by style than by astrology. Or as the anti-sunsign astrologer Dennis Elwell puts it, by their capacity for "conveying vagueness with such sincerity that ... followers read their own message into it." (Astrological Journal 1996, 38(2), 108)
Nevertheless sun sign columns (forecasts and delineations) are easily the most visible form of astrology in Western countries. They are read by typically half the population, yet among astrologers they remain controversial -- some astrologers see them as valid and good publicity, others see them as nonsense and exploitation. But how can astrology be taken seriously when astrologers show such a major division of opinion over such a basic issue? What follows is a contribution towards its resolution.
The start of sun sign forecasts in newspapers
Newspaper astrology columns began in August 1930 in the London Sunday Express, just after the birth of Princess Margaret. The editor wanted a story on her birth but with a new angle, so Cheiro (then the biggest name in astrology) was asked to do her horoscope. Cheiro was unavailable, so the job went to R H Naylor, one of his assistants. The result was "What the stars foretell for the new princess" (24 August 1930 page 11). It gave her birth chart and described what certain individual factors indicated, namely her Leo sun sign ("The Princess will share certain basic characteristics common to all people born in the present month"), and her angular Uranus, Saturn and Venus ("these three planets will greatly modify the basic characteristics"), but diplomatically not her close Mercury-Mars square nor her close Venus-Jupiter-Uranus T-square, ending with a general forecast (eg health will be "fairly good", life will be "eventful"). More importantly, under the general heading "And a few hints on the happenings of this week", an equal amount of space was devoted to mundane forecasts (eg "a sudden outbreak of revolutionary activities may be expected in Germany"), and forecasts for each birthday in the coming week (eg "August 27 ... you will find life romantic and intereting", "August 29 ... family difficulties are settled").
A week later, under the heading "Were you born in September?" (31 August 1930 page 7), the Sunday Express reported that Naylor's article had aroused "enormous interest" with "many requests" for further forecasts. It then gave Naylor's forecasts for each birthday in September (eg "September 24 ... Lucky for investments", "September 30 ... False pride leads to mistakes"), plus a brief mundane forecast (eg "unemployment may decrease slightly"). This was followed a month later by the corresponding "Were you born in October" (5 October 1930 page 21), then a week later by a new weekly article "What the stars foretell for this week" (12 October 1930 page 19), which was introduced by the editor as follows:
"The Sunday Express has received so many letters from readers concerning the recent extraordinary predictions of Mr R.H.Naylor that arrangements have now been made for him to contribute an exclusive weekly article. This article will interpret the astrological portents likely to influence national and world affairs each week. He will give warning advice to City men, racing men, and politicians, and will, in addition, tell you what fate may have in store for you if your birthday should fall during the week."
Thus began a weekly column on "What the stars foretell" that lasted until the 1940s. It generally occupied about a sixth of a page in a 24-page newspaper, with 20-25% devoted to mundane forecasts, and the rest to birthday forecasts (and a brief general forecast) for each weekday, including the best days for buying, selling, entertaining, and playing sports and games. Naylor's forecasts were by birth date, not by sun sign, and the only reference to readers' sun signs began in 1935, when brief delineations of the current sun sign (occupying roughly 10% of the column) were introduced each month under the heading "Astrological Who's Who". So although his was the first newspaper astrology column it was not really a sun sign column. Nor was he the first to produce birthday forecasts, for example each year since at least 1850 Raphael's Prophetic Almanac has given birthday forecasts for every day (eg 9 September 1889 "Great troubles await thee, thy business will fail") including the fate of the newborn ("a child born on this day will be unfortunate").
"Naylor and his horoscopes became a power in the land. If he said that Monday was a bad day for buying, then the buyers of more than one West End store waited for the stars to become more propitious. Gradually, of course, every paper published a horoscope and you paid your money and bought or sold from Monday to Friday according to which prophet you followed." (Arthur Christiansen, Headlines all my life, Heinemann, London 1961 page 65. Christiansen was then editor of the entertainment section and was responsible for first hiring Naylor.)
More newspapers, then magazines, then books
"If you believe that the planets exercise an influence on your destiny -- well, here's all about it, by an astrologer. He may be able to help you. But don't forget that man is master of his fate. Whatever the planets may say, it is you yourself who control the course of your life, even if you do feel inclined to take a hint from the planets. In short The People doesn't believe that planets or fate or anything of the sort can take the place of man's own power to work out his own salvation. But still, here's what the planets say." (1 October 1933 page 13 and 8 October 1933 page 14).
Until the middle of 1935 Lyndoe's "Plan with the Planets" seldom exceeded an eighth of a page in a 20-page (later 24-page) newspaper, after which it slowly increased, peaking at half a page in the middle of 1939. It was divided roughly equally into political forecasts, forecasts for those born on each day that week, and forecasts for each sun sign (described by date not by name), which format was later generally adopted by others. So here was a precursor of sun sign columns proper. Interestingly, Lyndoe began to include sun sign names in May 1935, but he dropped them soon afterwards, which suggests that his readers were not ready for such technicalities.
By 1940 an astrology column with personal forecasts was appearing in every mass-circulation Sunday newspaper, in most women's magazines, and in some daily newspapers such as the Daily Mail whose "Fortune Forecasts" column consisted of one-liners like those familiar today, eg "By evening you will have settled your difficulties." Sun sign names were now acceptable, for example Gypsy Petulengro's "Your Fate in the Stars" in the Sunday Chronicle and Adrienne Arden's "The Stars and You" in the News of the World had personal forecasts labelled by both sign and date, eg "Aries (March 21 to April 20)." In short, astrology columns and sun sign forecasts had became a runaway success.
The success did not immediately flow over into books. From 1932 through the 1950s there was an average of one new sun sign book per year, or half this during the austerities of the 1940s, mostly Naylor's What the Stars Foretell. During the 1960s and 1970s the average was still only two if 12-volume works are excluded. The first 12-volume work was Your day-by-day horoscope and character analysis published by Atlas in 1960. By 1970 12-volume works had become firmly established. The first issue of Horoscope magazine (also published by Atlas) appeared in 1954.
In the USA the first astrology column appeared in 1931 in the now-defunct Boston Record, and the first forecasts for each sun sign began in 1936 in the New York Post (Penelope McMillan, "Horoscopes: Fans Bask in Sun Signs", Los Angeles Times 5 July 1985 pages 1, 3, 18). By 1941 about 20% of the US newspapers on file in public libraries carried astrology columns, and the average newstand carried at least four or five astrology magazines (Bok and Mayall, "Scientists look at astrology", Scientific Monthly 1941, 52, 233-244). By 1945 about 150 newspapers had astrology columns, which numbers increased rapidly as astrology became more and more popular, until by 1975 about 1250 of the 1500 newspapers in the USA had daily astrology columns (Paul Kurtz, "Astrology and Gullibility", The Humanist 1975, 35, 20).
Popularity of early sun sign forecasts
On levels of belief: "The DEPTH of belief ranges all the way from occasional humorous interest to fanaticism. But after studying hundreds of comments and conversations, it is impossible to doubt that astrology is now a very considerable influence in determining the minor decisions of many private lives, and is an appreciable contributory factor in influencing attitudes to wider, international events."
On the effort required: "Anyone, however apathetic or ignorant, can be in some degree interested, without becoming engrossed, and without taking any permanent, definite or outward stand about anything. And there is no service, even on Sunday."
On the effect of wrong forecasts: "The degree of disillusion ... does not correspond to the frequent errors made. This is largely because people want to believe something good, and get pleasure from expecting something good, even if it doesn't happen." (More on errors later)
The good news: "Our detailed investigations show (statistically) that astrology asserts a temporary steadying influence. The immediate effect is favourable to morale. Women who believe in astrology tend to be appreciably more cheerful, confident and calm than those who do not."
The bad news: "But the long-term effect is to stress fantasy confidences rather than real ones, and to emphasise the personal interest rather than the common interest. ... At present, the filling of certain psychological needs is being left to the initiative of enterprising journalists and enthusiastic mystics, who are not necessarily concerned with the long-term interests or the spiritual health of the community at large." (all from The New Statesman 16 August 1941 page 153).
Later, in a letter to The Times 11 June 1942, the pollster added "The numerous errors in astrological prediction do not diminish the confidence of the faithful. ... The astrologer, though generally sincere, is not tied by any of the traditional, ethical responsibilities of the editor, parson, or politician. He may influence, even if only in small ways, millions of people, without having to take responsibility for the result, and up till now without much fear of contradiction or criticism. The revival of such ancient beliefs, and their growth into mass interests among the British public, is symptomatic of the wide decline in spirituality over the past decades. Surely the symptoms need to be diagnosed and dealt with? They cannot much longer be ignored."
The start of sun sign delineations
But historically the emphasis in astrology books has been on planets rather than signs. Furthermore, signs with planets in them (of which the sun sign was only one) were less important than the rising sign or horoskopos, from the Greek for "watcher of the hour." In A Student's Textbook of Astrology, compiled in 1922, the British astrologer Vivian Robson explains the difference: "The rising sign describes the native's outlook on the world and the side of his character that is most in evidence", ie our behaviour, whereas the sun sign shows "the deeper and inner side of his character", ie how we see ourselves. However a more crucial difference lies in their calculation -- rising signs and planetary signs in general need full birth data (time, date, place) and appropriate tables, whereas sun signs need only the birth date. This of course makes sun signs perfectly suited to popularisation and commercial exploitation. Given the interest in astrology sparked by newspaper columns, the rise of sun sign delineations was inevitable.
Nevertheless they were late in achieving their current popularity, for example in 1945 only two out of ten US monthly astrology guides gave sun sign delineations, and then only briefly. Without scanning many decades of newspapers and magazines it is difficult to be certain, but it seems reasonable to suppose that in the UK sun sign delineations did not really arrive until the 1950s or 1960s. In Old Moore's Almanack they did not appear before 1961. Twelve-volume works (ie one per sign) always included delineations, the first being Your day-by-day horoscope and character analysis published by Atlas in 1960. By 1970 twelve-volume works had become firmly established.
Today sun sign delineation books heavily outnumber other astrology books in the New Age section of bookstores except when sun sign forecast books are in season. Even in specialist New Age bookstores they can account for one fifth of the astrology titles, with titles currently including Sun Signs, Star Signs, Success Signs, Baby Signs, Cat Signs, Love Signs, Money Signs, Sex Signs, Seduction by the Stars, Sex Stars and Seduction it's all in the Stars. (Do cat signs reveal the "inner cat" or only "as others see them"? And how would we know anyway?)
Indeed signs generally have taken over even in astrology textbooks. Thus in the 19th century the page ratio for planets:signs averaged about 3:1 whereas today it is more like 1:3. When astrologers talk about planets they now tend to use sign-based psychological characteristics, for example Pluto might be characterised by "Scorpionic intensity." Even the role of rising signs seems to be slowly diminishing, for example in his authoritative Horoscope Symbols, written in 1981, Rob Hand says nothing about rising signs, whereas fifty years earlier this would have been unthinkable.
The disagreement among astrologers begins
Later, in the early 1970s, a famous controversy about sun sign columns arose within the UK Astrological Association (AA), much of it centred on Roger Elliot, then the AA's Promotions Director, who was also the astrologer for the TV Times sun sign columns. In Elliot's own words:
"A number of leading Association figures ... silently hated the thought that the TV Times astrologer was apt to be the public mouthpiece of the Association. So I retreated and no longer play a significant role in Association matters." (Town v. Gown, Astrological Journal Autumn 1973, 21-23)
In his defence, Elliot felt that no firm line could be drawn between popular and serious astrology. The former "supplies an inadequate service which is better than nothing. There is always the hope that it will lead to better things." But Charles Harvey, the AA President, pointed out that the controversy was about sun sign forecasts, not sun sign delineations, which distinction had been ignored by Elliot. Harvey stressed that:
"Sun sign [delineation] astrology ... has a valid and valuable function. Clearly stating its limitations, it sets out to give a popular account of basic astrological principles which no astrologer would deny. ... it is written for a wide non-specialist market but its content though simplified is not essentially different from its specialist counterpart. No-one would deny that such literature has a useful role to play in spreading astrological ideas to a wider public. On the other hand, the daily and weekly sun sign forecast `horoscopes' which appear in the press have no relation to any kind of astrological fact or tradition. ... They may offer a choice of 12 thoughts for the day but as astrology they are an offence to the intelligence of even the most modestly endowed. ... To couple and underpin such nonsense with astrology is not only a pernicious encouragement of superstition and neurosis but also a corruption and denial of astrology's great power to increase individual awareness and liberate the human spirit from arbitrary values, pressures and exploitation." (Astrological Journal Winter 1973-74, 38-40)
These views were endorsed by Julia Parker, President of the Faculty for Astrological Studies who was later to become famous for her best-selling books on sun sign delineations, who felt that:
"Predictive columns ... should all have what might be called a Government Health Warning, telling the readers that this is for entertainment only, and warning them not to take the paragraphs seriously, and certainly on no account to make any decision of the slightest importance on the strength of any statement in an astrological column." (Astrological Journal Spring 1974, 15-18)
Certain eminent US astrologers agreed. For example "newspaper or sun-sign astrology is nonsense" and "astrology in the newspapers is pure drivel", from respectively Henry Weingarten and Noel Tyl in The Humanist November-December 1975, 25-26. But other US astrologers equally eminent disagreed. For example, in a defence of popular astrology, Charles Jayne argued:
"Those who have written such material [sun sign forecasts] aside from my wife and myself [include] Sidney Omarr, Dane Rudhyar, Grant Lewi, Carl Payne Toby, Margaret Morrell, Pauline Messina, Al Morrison, etc. ... It would not be too much to say that the above group is as eminent and respectable as their critics: this suggests that one or both sides must be partially wrong. ... I suggest that our critics come forward with some hard evidence that this type of material is actually the rubbish they allege it to be." (Astrological Journal Spring 1976, 18-19)
But the critics did not come forward with hard evidence. For example, in the same issue the editor Zach Matthews merely commented:
"Can a presentation of it [astrology] to the general public as naively simple to the point of laughable absurdity accomplish anything worthwhile for the public, professional astrologers or for astrology?" (Editorial, Astrological Journal Spring 1976, 2)
Even ace investigator John Addey did little better:
"I have not seriously considered ... the possibility that there may actually be a significant amount of truth in the predictions given. ... they have a "grain" of truth in them but it seems to me that the grain is so small that it must normally be lost in a sea of unknowns. ... based as they are upon two or three factors among the hundreds which are available to anyone with the full natal chart." (Astrological Journal Spring 1976, 23)
At which point we leave history to consider validity.
Enter empiricism: Our prize competitions
"Signs are astrology's most popular and universal concept. They fill the pages of serious textbooks and popular magazines alike. And for over 2000 years astrologers have been largely in agreement about what each sign means. It follows that signs are widely seen to be valid. But if they are valid they can be shown to be valid. And if the popularity of signs is any guide, their validation should be easy. Furthermore if signs are empirically based, as is generally implied, they automatically lend themselves to empirical testing. In other words, it should be easy to demonstrate that signs actually work in the way they are said to work. During our literature searches ... we were therefore confident of finding such a demonstration. But although we had searched well over a thousand books and many hundreds of journals, and had written to hundreds of astrologers around the world, we had not found anybody who had demonstrated the validity of signs -- and many had tried." (Astrological Journal Summer 1981, 162-166)
Accordingly, our prize was offered to anyone who could demonstrate the validity of signs as traditionally conceived. Details were circulated to over 10,000 astrologers and students via astrological journals in the UK, USA, Australia and NZ. When our offer closed at the end of 1980, six entries had been received, none of them successful. Along the way we discovered that some people wanted more time, or more money, or a more definite hypothesis to test. So we then offered an even bigger prize of $US2000 to anyone who could validate the tropical sign hypothesis given in Margaret Hone's Modern Textbook of Astrology (1951, 37), which says that each sign is different, and that people will be very like any sign that is prominent in their chart. When our offer closed 18 months later at the end of 1982, four entries had been received, none of them successful, see Astrological Journal Summer 1983, 203-210.
With the help of sponsors including the AA we then offered a new superprize of $US5000 for convincing evidence that the accuracy of chart interpretations (including signs) cannot be explained by non-astrological factors, for example statistical artifacts and human judgement biasses. When our offer closed 18 months later at the end of 1984, 34 entries from seven countries had been received, of which 16 did not address the required topic and 3 had produced only negative results. Of the remaining 15 entries (two involved signs), only one was successful, but this was a fake study entered to test the allegation by Dennis Elwell that the prize was unwinnable because appropriate tests could not be designed and the panel of eight judges was not impartial. Nevertheless, as a consolation prize, the six best entries each received $200. See Astrological Journal Winter 1985, 23-30, April 1986, 92-96, November 1986, 274-275, March 1987, 86-90, and May 1987, 143-147.
Ironically, in certain quarters in the USA the response to our superprize was nothing so simple as an entry. Instead there was sustained ridicule, ad hominem attacks, and the publicising of "The Alternative Geoffrey Dean PhD Space Age Bonanza Super-Duper Prize(s)." This consisted of an unspecified amount ($10 was implied) offered for the validation or invalidation of "some significant component" of language such as "verbs, nouns, adjectives" and so on, which reflected the view that astrology was a language and was therefore free speech protected by the US Constitution. Improbably, this generated an entry "Astrology as poetic text" from a British astrologer cum semioticist who argued that "proving the validity of language in general amounts to the same as proving astrology, hence I take the contest seriously." See CAO Times 1984-1985 Volumes 5(4) through 6(4).
In short, despite massive literature searches, letter writings, and cash inducements, we had still not found anybody who had demonstrated the validity of signs or sun sign columns under controlled conditions. Opinions yes, demonstrations no.
Accuracy of sun sign forecasts: Early studies
"Mr Naylor, who has a world-wide reputation as a seer, has been uncannily and extraordinarily accurate in the few articles already published in the Sunday Express. He forecast, among other things, the Stock Exchange boom in September and the Hitler upheaval in Germany. And last week ... the R101 disaster."
In fact the first forecast, which read "values on [the Stock Exchange] and otherwise will appreciate after Thursday morning", resulted in the following letter to the editor:
"Sir, -- I note, with great interest, that shares have appreciated on the Stock Exchange, which is in accordance with the prophecy given in the article on astrology in the Sunday Express last Sunday. Few of us in business believed such a thing possible under present conditions, but it shows that the action of the planets can be taken into account with some confidence. Fordyce Jones." (31 August 1930 page 7)
The forecast about the R101, Britain's great passenger airship, read "British aircraft will be in danger about the same date (October 8 to 15)" (5 October 1930 page 21). On 5 October the R101 was wrecked in a storm near Paris. She was flying low, weighed down by heavy rain, when gale force winds blew her into a hilltop. There were 46 dead and 8 survivors. Naylor himself commented:
"My prediction last week was based on a very simple observation. It can
be proved that, whenever the new moon or full moon falls at a certain
angle to the planet Uranus, aircraft accidents, electrical storms, and
sometimes earthquakes follow. Now ... the configuration referred to
occurred as on October 7; the destruction of the R101, therefore,
prematurely fulfilled the indication." (12 October 1930 page 19)
Less ambiguous were Naylor's repeated forecasts of no war: "In this column, for years, I have constantly laboured these points: Hitler's horoscope is not a war-horoscope ... there will be no war over Danzig (27 August 1939). But despite the obvious realities, Naylor persisted with his views, which in the issue of 26 May 1940 led to the following editorial comment: "We are living in tense, grave days. The Sunday Express believes that the light, popular entertainment of normal times is out of place now. For that reason it has decided to discontinue the weekly article of astrological predictions."
Ironically Edward Lyndoe also saw no world war, eg "I see absolutely no signs of a Great War during 1939" (The People 1 January 1939 page 11), "The Nazis attacking Britain? Don't make me laugh! Not a sign in my charts" (25 June page 6), "Hitler will not do it!" (27 August page 6). Then, ingeniously, after war was declared, "A madman against the stars!" (3 September page 6). But unlike Naylor he did not get the sack.
In 1941 the hard-hitting investigative London magazine Picture Post [no relation to Australia's Picture Post] tested the accuracy of the top five UK newspaper astrologers (Lyndoe, Naylor, Old Moore, Arden, Petulengro) against nine outstanding events during 1939-1941, most of them involving the invasion by Germany of various European countries. Each prediction was rated on a six-point scale of 0 (totally wrong) through 2 (slightly correct) to 5 (totally correct). Out of a possible total of 45 they scored 9, 12, 4, 4 and 13 respectively, an average of barely 1 per forecast ("What DID the stars foretell?", Picture Post 6 September 1941 pages 17-21). The issue of 20 September 1941 noted that "Seldom has any article provoked so much interest" (page 22), and then gave a selection of readers' letters, of which the following is typical:
"Congratulations to the brains responsible for expressing so decisively the fallacies of astrology. My only criticism is that your markings were far too generous, and that negative marks should have been awarded for "reversed" forecasts. By this system it is doubtful whether any of the professors would have had a credit balance."
The issue of 27 September 1941 contained a letter from the astrologer and AA member P.J.Harwood, which said:
"Like other astrologers, I have made my mistakes ... but, on the other hand, a large number of very close hits have been scored. I am sending you a copy of my booklet, When the War Will End, and if you are really interested in it I should be obliged if you could give it some publicity." (page 3)
To which the editor replied:
"Readers would be wise not to make their plans for peace celebrations too definite. Mr Harwood's booklet foretold invasion in May 1941, a separate peace with Italy in July 1941, and considered Russia unlikely to "be implicated seriously" in war. [All dead wrong]"
Accuracy of sun sign forecasts: Later studies
For example Fichten and Sunerton used 366 Montreal college students to test daily and monthly forecasts by Sydney Omarr and Jeanne Dixon and found them to be neither valid nor in agreement. When the sign was not known, forecasts for own signs were judged no more valid than forecasts for other signs. But when the sign was known, forecasts for own signs were judged the best, suggesting that prior knowledge is important for acceptance (Journal of Psychology 1983, 114, 123-134). Similar studies reported by us in our follow-up article (Response to our Armchair Invitation) all confirm the same outcome -- forecasts for own signs are judged no more valid than forecasts for other signs.
Furthermore, a content analysis of sun sign columns in US women's magazines showed that the readers' social class was a far better predictor of the advice offered than was their sun sign (Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, 1996, 73, 389-400).
In effect the same test is made whenever the column happens to appear on the wrong day, eg due to a filing error or because old columns were being recycled to save money, or when the column is pure invention (as quoted for Jan Moir in our first section) or assembled at random from previous columns (as per James Randi in Flim-Flam!, Prometheus 1987 page 61). But readers never notice. In Randi's case "two office workers ... eagerly scanned my fake columns for their individual prognostications. They squealed with delight on seeing their future so well laid out, and in response to my query said [their columns were] 'right smack on'."
John Johansen, who for 18 years worked for the tabloid West Australian, comments "Many years ago we also printed a tabloid called the Daily News [which] had horoscopes every day, until one day something happened, no horoscope had been delivered. What to do? Some smart-aleck suggested that they put old ones in the paper, and so, for two years the horoscopes used were many years old, but no one complained." He notes that the cost of newsprint alone for the West Australian (which also has horoscopes) is twice the selling price, so the paper's real customers are the advertisers, not the readers. Hence if the advertisers want the horoscope column to stay because it adds to the paper's appeal (and thus the chance of their ads being read), "you would be a brave editor to drop it, and if you did, the CEO would soon, via the shareholders' wishes, bring it back in" (the [Australian] Skeptic, 24(3), 61, 2004).
Many studies begin by comparing what different columns say, and the most common finding is that columns disagree. For example on 30 May 1985 the five most widely-read US columnists made the following forecasts for Gemini. Their own sun sign and syndication are given in ( ):Bernice Bede Osol (Scorpio, 500 papers). "Regardless of how well you conduct yourself today you will still be judged by the company you keep. Avoid people of questionable repute. Know where to look for romance and you'll find it."
Jeane Dixon (Capricorn, 300 papers, less syndicated than Osol but the most widely read of the top five columnists with a total circulation of over 8 million). "Employment affairs are on a more productive course now. Take advantage of a friend's offer to help out in an emergency. A new pal adds glamour to your social life."
Sydney Omarr (Leo, 200 papers). "It's wonderful! But remember to protect self in those emotional cliches. Define terms, refuse to give up something of value for a mere whispered promise. Young person could become valuable ally."
Carroll Righter (Aquarius, 150 papers). "You want to have a good time so go along with the ideas of buddies you like and be happy."
Joyce Jillson (Libra, 60 papers). "Working at home is most successful. Routine jobs can be cleared away at last. Go through your residence and start cleaning closets and drawers. Recycle possessions."
The above are from Penelope McMillan (op cit). Apart from the general positive tone, the main themes -- respectively take care socially, employment situation is improving, with precautions all is wonderful, act on welcome ideas and be happy, do routine home jobs -- show noticeable disagreement.
The same disagreement was found by Sperling ("Newspaper horoscope columns", Bay Area Skeptics Information Sheet 1992, no page numbers) for six widely-read US columnists for the week of 13-19 October 1991.
On the other hand, forecasts for longer periods can show the agreement expected when the same long-term indicators are used, for example the forecasts by UK columnists for Cancerian love life in 1996 were "superb" (Archie Dunlop), "remarkable opportunities" (Debbie Frank), "togetherness rules" (Russell Grant), "golden time" (Mystic Meg), and "lot of promise" (June Penn), all reflecting the year-long presence of Jupiter in Capricorn.
Nevertheless for weekly forecasts the disagreement between columns can be dramatic, for example in Australia on 28 August 1983 the Sydney Sunday Telegraph told Leos "you will have luck on your side ... love life will be bright ... extra money is coming your way ... you will look good and feel good", whereas the Melbourne Sunday Independent (now defunct) told the same Leos "you will be glad when this week is over ... [with its] accidents ... upsets ... gossip ... tensions."
The same applies to daily forecasts. For example on 3 December 1990 the Sydney Daily Telegraph had two sun sign columns. For Scorpios, one said it was "One of those days when ... just about everything that can go wrong, does" the other said "Everything should be running well with you". For Cancerians, one said it was "a good day to stay as far as possible in the background", the other said "be prepared to man the action stations."
While astrologers continue to argue over whether this sort of thing helps their image, others have been more decisive. Thus in the USA in 1984 the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal began a campaign against sun sign columns, urging US newspapers and magazines to label their columns with a disclaimer saying they were for entertainment only (ironically the same as proposed by Julia Parker) and had no basis in fact. The response by the 1200 US newspapers with sun sign columns was slow but steady -- by 1986 0.5% had adopted a disclaimer, rising to 5% by 1994. Ironically some editors refused on the grounds that no educated person takes sun signs seriously, so no disclaimer was needed.
The susceptibility of sun signs to a non-serious attitude is illustrated by a contest held by the US Saturday Review (June 1982). The contest called for readers to send in an imaginary weekly column. Among the winners was this one:Gemini. Put your affairs in order. If you are not a church goer, start. If you are, go more often. Sell your Krugerrands.
Cancer. Same goes for you.
Rest. Sorry gang. Sun goes supernova July 22.
Some writers merely use the format as a vehicle for humour, as in these examples from Steven Harrison's weekly column from Sydney Australia featuring "a mix of ancient wisdom and modern nonsense":Aries. Plant a tree. Reafforestation is a growth industry.
Cancer. Get out more at night. Nocturnal bird spotting is a real hoot.
Leo. Forget keeping up with the Joneses. Bring them down to your level instead.
Scorpio. A suntan is terrific if you get a kick from third degree burns.
Sagittarius. If you feel listless, make a list.
Pisces. Avoid bathrooms at full moons. Werewolves are a shaving nightmare.
Accuracy of sun sign delineations
The usual approach is to compare the distribution of births (of bakers, bankers, extraverts, and so on) across sun signs with that expected by chance. Unfortunately the latter is affected by astronomical and demographic variables to such an extent that the expected distribution can vary a great deal from country to country, from year to year, from place to place within the same country, and from one social group to another. When these variations are not controlled (as usually happens even in recent studies such as Sachs's The Astrology File 1998, see the three critiques on this website under Sun Signs) they can easily seem like sun sign effects. But when they are properly controlled no evidence for sun signs has been found.
For example, in 1980 Michel Gauquelin compared the biographical details of famous people with their Sun, Moon and Ascending signs. He searched thousands of biographies to find people who had the qualities attributed to Aries, to Taurus, and so on. The result was 2548 people for Aries, 857 for Taurus, and so on. These samples are so large that even a small effect should easily show up. But there was not even a small tendency in favour of signs. People described in their biographies as having the trait associated with sign X showed no tendency for their Sun, Moon or Ascendant to be in X rather than in any other sign. In fact of the 36 results, 21 were in the wrong direction. In other words this rigorous and sensitive test found no evidence whatsoever that signs are valid.
Interestingly, a weak but statistically significant link between sun sign delineations and extraversion scores was reported in 1978 by Mayo, White and Eysenck (Social Psychology 105, 229-236), advance notice of which was hailed by astrologers as "possibly the most important development for astrology in this century" (Phenomena 1977, 1.1, 1). The effect disappeared when people unfamilar with sun signs were tested, so it had a simple explanation -- prior knowledge of astrology. Ask Sagittarians (who are supposedly sociable and outgoing) whether they like going to parties, and their answer might be tipped by astrology in favour of yes rather than no. The bias may be unconscious and very slight but in large samples it can attain impressive significance, as suggested by the original 1978 study where p = 0.000005 for N = 2324. When combined with the results of national opinion polls the results suggest that roughly 1 person in 4 not only believes in astrology but also believes in it sufficiently to measurably shift their self-image in the corresponding direction.
In 1984, after surveying published studies and making his own tests using data collected with the help of AA members, the psychologist Michael Startup reached this firm conclusion:
"Since the number of studies [of sun signs] that have been conducted is now quite large, the predictions [delineations] that have been tested are varied, and the data that have been sampled are voluminous, and yet the evidence is so poor, it is probably time for all to agree that enough is enough; the sun-sign idea is simply not valid" (The Validity of Astrological Theory, PhD Thesis, London University, March 1984, 246)
Subsequent studies have amply supported this conclusion, for example see Suitbert Ertel's illuminating study in Sachs's Astrology File on this website under Sun Signs. Sun signs (whether delineations or forecasts) are now the most highly disconfirmed claim in astrology. The British astrologer Judith Bennett overcomes this problem rather ingeniously by telling people whose sun sign does not fit to simply choose another that does (Sex Signs 1981 page xxv). But most astrologers seem unable to admit that sun signs are invalid.
The disagreement among astrologers continues
"Despite the lack of hard experimental evidence to date ... I am personally still convinced that, given more sensitive and imaginative tests, confirmation of the reality of sun-sign typologies, and the signs generally, will be obtained." (Foreword to The Astrology of Time Twins, Pentland Press 1994)
Which is equivalent to saying "trust me." Unfortunately there is enough history of wrongly trusting things like perpetual motion or phrenology or Nazi racial analyses to show that personal conviction unsupported by hard evidence is not a reliable guide to validity. For example, consider this sobering US view of testimonials in medicine:
"Our experience of more than thirty years in the enforcement of the Food and Drugs Act has demonstrated that testimonials may be obtained for practically any article labeled as a treatment for practically any disease." (Campbell to Ford, 4 March 1941, interstate office seizure 16224-E, FDA records, Washington DC)
Testimonials about sun signs are no different. That half the population of Western countries reads sun sign columns at least sometimes, but only 5% of the population take them seriously, shows how problematic sun signs are in the minds of readers. Nevertheless 1% of the population read them often and take them very seriously, like horoscope junkies unable to operate without their daily fix. (These statistics are from UK and US surveys reported at the 1992 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, for a summary see Skeptical Inquirer 1992, 16, 344-347). We have of course already seen how problematic sun signs are in the minds of astrologers. And no wonder, when a single forecast in a newspaper can influence more people than can a lifetime of counselling practice.
By 1980 the Faculty of Astrological Studies had added to its code of ethics the following anti-forecasting clause: "I undertake not to use my Diploma qualification [DFAstrolS] in connection with Sunsign forecasting for the media." The Mayo School of Astrology [DMSAstrol] had the following related clause: "Before using any new theories in my astrological work I will always endeavour to test their validity -- if possible by accepted statistical methods." (Because sun sign columns date only from the 1930s, they presumably qualify as a "new theory").
But despite these band-aids from the bastions of astrological education, in 1991 in the Astrological Journal the sun sign controversy flared up again, repeating exactly the same issues that had been debated twenty years previously. Dennis Elwell summarised the situation as follows, ending with an eloquent plea for action:
"When the Astrological Association came into being [in 1958], I urged that it was the moment for serious astrologers to declare loudly and insistently their opposition to the rubbish in the tabloids and women's magazines. The response was "Live and let live." I thought that was an opportunity lost, and I am even more convinced of it now. Can you imagine the medical profession being indifferent to quacks in its midst? It would have been appropriate if the recently formed association for professional astrologers had grasped this nettle, but alas. It is time to fight astrology's corner. ... The failure to be vigilant has made astrology an easy target for hijacking by various vested interests, and the failure to represent its unique vision of reality with sufficient force and understanding has offered a soft underbelly to its enemies." (Astrological Journal January 1991, 6-16)
Subsequent letters (Astrological Journal May through November 1991) confirmed that nothing had changed in twenty years. Over sun sign forecasts and delineations there was the same violent disagreement, even the same call for a Government Health Warning, but this time it was made worse by an evident blind eye for research results. Elwell's plea for action was ignored. Some examples:
"Any claims for its education value are spurious. We need less sun-sign astrology, not more." (Astrological Journal May 1991, 202)
"It is a valid aspect of astrology" clashed with "I have never felt kindly disposed towards sun sign astrology" (Astrological Journal July 1991, 260-262)
"I should like to see all such columns appended with a kind of Government Health Warning." (Astrological Journal November 1991, 379)
In fact the same violent disagreement becomes evident everywhere the matter is raised. For example, three years later, in response to the 1994 AFAN forum "that sun-sign astrology provides helpful information to the general public", one astrologer in Hawaii felt that:
"my weekly sun-sign columns ... is a good service to the general public. ... The feedback I get is that everybody reads my columnms and finds them to be quite accurate." (see reference below)
But Dr Glenn Perry, President of the Association for Astrological Psychology, referring to both forecasts and delineations, asked:
"Why debase it [astrology] by supporting the simplistic, fatalistic, overly generalized pap typical of sun sign books and newspaper horoscopes? If we want astrology and astrologers to be respected, we have to stop peddling these half-baked, half-truth fortune cookies to an increasingly skeptical public. We cannot have it both ways." (AFAN Newsletter April 1994,6-7)
Where we came in: More disagreement in the AJ
"The obvious retort is why can't astrologers be responsible? ... is this royal art, this divine science, to continue to be represented as a tawdry sideshow without anyone objecting? It is difficult to see, at this late stage, how the damage can be undone. There is a crying need to make the general public more astrologically literate ... but as long as genuine astrology suffers guilt by association this is hardly likely to happen." (Astrological Journal 1996, 38, 106-108)
In the next issue, Michael Harding (a former AA Chairman) supported Elwell:
"By adopting the rich language of signs in order to make a series of banal statements that cannot for a moment be substantiated, the sun-sign astrologers already divide the community. ... [The rest of us] have to carry the can for those who have hi-jacked the language for purely commercial purposes. ... We are ready to complain when science trivializes and misrepresents us, but are strangely silent when the trivialization and misrepresentation comes from within our own ranks." (Astrological Journal 1996, 38, 170-171)
Others in the same issue supported Elwell. Veteran astrologer Sheila Geddes feels that those who "lend their names to sun sign columns are prostituting astrology" (page 177). Valerie Jeffery says "as long as astrologers (who should know better) keep churning out these columns, we will have to put up with misrepresentation" (page 181).
But others disagreed with Elwell. Mavis Klein says that "a very good case can be made for the primacy of sun signs in categorizing people ... newspaper columns penned by hacks are rubbish ... [but when] written by astrologers ... many millions of (not entirely gullible) people attest to their general validity" (page 176). Anthonly Owen says that "to attack sun sign astrology is in fact to attack all astrology, as it is based on exactly the same principles" (page 180). Paul Mayo says that the boost to astrology's popularity due to sun signs was a huge plus, so Elwell's letter "still leaves me with the feeling that our attention is inadvertently being misdirected. ... surely the correct question to ask is not how can we dissociate ourselves from astrological journalism, but rather how can we improve the status of mainstream astrology so that it stands four-square on its own merits against all comers" (page 173). But apart from agreeing with Elwell after all, Mayo presented no suggestions on how this miracle might be achieved.
Later, guest editor Prudence Jones raised the same questions about validity as we had in the 1980s, pointing out that signs remain a particularly sticky problem for astrologers, let alone for outsiders:
"How in heaven do twelve 30-degree sectors of the ecliptic, measured from the vernal equinox but named after now-far-distant constellations, impart any qualities at all to the planets, houses, parts and nodes which we view against their background? Do they do so in fact, or is this wishful thinking? Some astrologers justify the signs (taking, usually without explanation, the Sun in the signs as their exemplar) as shorthand for seasonal characteristics. But this implies that their order should be reversed in the southern hemisphere, which seldom happens. And what, in any case, of horoscopes for equatorial latitudes, whereseasonal change is minimal, but where, of course, astrology was invented?" (Astrological Journal 1996, 38, 282)
But perhaps the most radical and thought-provoking view came from Bernard Eccles, President of the Astrological Lodge of London and also a newspaper astrologer, who pointed out that (1) the sun-as-character concept did not exist before the 1890s, (2) it was introduced in the 1890s by Alan Leo, and (3) it has been accepted ever since by every astrology textbook:
"The Sun-sign philosophy is an enormous departure from what went before it. It completely disregards the world-view which held from classical times through until the seventeenth century, which was that Man stood on top of the Earth but below the stars, while God was above all. Instead, it suggests that Man is at the centre of all things ... it rejects fatalism and predestination, and it celebrates freedom and the qualities of the individual. ... The Sun-sign philosophy of Alan Leo has given astrology what it needed to survive and to grow through the twentieth century. ...[it] took astrology away from a privileged elite and gave it genuine mass appeal. ...for those who still think that real astrology excludes such trivial nonsense as newspaper horoscopes, then let me say this: Sun-sign astrology doesn't just predict the future. As astrologers and astrology enter the new millenium, it IS the future." (Astrological Journal 1996, 38, 306-310)
Such a view may or may not be right, but the absolute disagreement among astrologers clearly remains. In short, a quarter-century of debate has achieved absolutely nothing. Cynics might see this as par for the course.
Richard Dawkins's 1995 attack on astrology
The points made by Richard Dawkins can be summarised as follows. Nearly all are relevant to sun signs:- Astrologers are glitzy con-artists, charlatans, phoney, quacks.
- A constellation is 3D, not the kind of thing that anything could "move into". Shape is no more significant than a patch of bathroom mould.
- Planets cannot affect us.
- If stars did affect us then precession should make a difference. But it doesn't, so they don't.
- If astrological methods are valid, they are of signal importance for science, but all indications agree there is no validity anywhere.
- Also there is no reason to even suppose astrology could work.
- Astrology's 12 dumpbins encourage lonely people to deliberately reject ll/12ths of the available population.
- Why are astrologers not prosecuted under the Trades Description Act for making false claims for their products?
Dawkins's article led to a flood of letters to the Independent, which in many ways are more interesting. The flood began on the following Sunday (7 January 1996 page 18). The editor of the Independent introduced them as follows: "Astrology: fact or fraud? When Professor Richard Dawkins attacked astrology as an "aesthetic affront" [page 17 rightmost column near top] and an "enemy of truth" [page 18 second column from end] in these pages last week he provoked one of our biggest postbags. Readers wrote in large numbers to challenge his arguments and his evidence -- and his conclusion that professional astrologers should be jailed for fraud. [In fact this was not Dawkins's conclusion, he merely asked why they were not jailed for fraud.] A smaller number wished to congratulate him."
The points raised by each letter provide an interesting cross-section of views from an educated British public, and can be summarised as follows (one line per letter). Most of them are relevant to sun signs, and most of them find fault with Dawkins's arguments (but this might of course merely reflect the editor's selection bias):- His arguments are unconvincing and based on false assumptions, period.
- Astrological effects are easily seen in our character traits.
- If he actually studied it he might find it beautiful and meaningful.
- Signs have nothing to do with constellations.
- The Moon affects tides, so why not people (90% water).
- Reality is much more beautiful than astrology.
- Check my predictions!
- Why not accept astrology as harmless entertainment?
- Media is at fault for trivialising astrology.
- Astrology obviously doesn't work, insults both science and aesthetics.
- One of the best articles you have ever published.
- Good professional astrologers do not give advice.
- His patronising attitude shows the same prejudice that he condemns.
- Should we now jail inaccurate weather forecasters?
- The subsequent two pages (Archie Dunlop) proves the point.*
- But relations between eg Sun/Moon and life are indisputable.
- To what criminal proceedings should dissenting physicists be subjected?
- His brusque tone gives science as bad a name as astrologers do.
- His comments also apply to religion -- are they foolish superstitions?
- Why waste two pages (Archie Dunlop) on astro rubbish?
- Science has ruined more lives than astrology ever did.
- How can he dismiss astrology if he has no evidence against it?
- He has missed relevant research, eg Gauquelin, Nelson, Dean.
- It is insulting to rank astrologers as equal to educated people.
- Why doesn't RD himself prosecute an astrologer under the TD Act?
* This refers to astrologer Archie Dunlop's sun sign forecasts for the year ahead in the same issue (pages 6-7). Much of it reads like satire, eg "Taurus -- wear loud tasteless colours, and buy a venomous pet such as a rattlesnake", "Virgo -- investments are likely to sink without trace especially if your stock-broker is Aries, Gemini or Pisces".
The flood of letters continued but the next issue (14 January 1996) had room for only two, albeit perhaps the most insightful two of all. The first asked how supposedly rational people can become so upset by such trivia. Will reports of babies starving by the thousand prompt "a similar surge of purple-faced spluttering public outrage? Sadly, I doubt that it will." The second noted that most replies were sympathetic to astrology and took offense at Dawkins's attack; they were also rhetorical, evasive or irrelevant, and showed the irrational defence mechanisms that Dawkins predicted his piece would provoke. Such as "The hoary old advice that you should not reject astrology until you can prove it is false (the same goes for Father Christmas), that it is close-minded to take a firm negative stance (but open-minded to take an equally firm positive stance), or that it is rude and intolerant to take issue with people's convictions, however absurd -- all these predictable, yet depressing, responses say something about the intellectual climate in which we live." To him the real problem is a pervasive indifference to critical thinking.
As we shall see, our armchair invitation was in effect designed to inspire proper open-mindedness and critical thinking.
The bottom line
"But we whine because the public trivializes our profession. Of course they do, because we've trivialized it for them already. But we keep on doing those columns. Why? Because they pay ... If we want to be seen as credible, maybe we have to quit displaying our work in incredible places." (AFAN Newsletter October 1995, 12-13)
Which is easy to say. According to Penelope McMillan (op cit), US newspapers in 1985 paid a syndicate fee of between $5 and $200 a week, with the writer usually getting half, so top columnists might earn between $500 and $1500 a week. In 1992 Sperling (op cit) counted 11 syndicated daily columns, 22 weekly and 6 monthly sun sign columns in English-speaking North America. In 1995 the New York Times Syndicate offered its Patric Walker weekly sun sign column free to any newspaper that generated enough calls on the associated phone-in lines, for which the newspaper would get 15c per minute for recorded readings (costing 99c per minute), and 45c per minute for live readings from a network of astrologers (costing $2.99 per minute), see Skeptical Inquirer 1996, 20(1), 15. The return to the Syndicate was probably the same, so it had an easy zero-risk way of making money for virtually no work.
Similarly in the UK. Today the return to astrologers from a newspaper column-plus-phone-line can corrupt absolutely. According to various reports (summarised in Astrology 1992, 62(2), 9-10), over 800,000 calls a year are logged by Sydney Omarr's phoneline in the USA, and over 400,000 calls a year by Mystic Meg's in the UK. Alternatively, if each phone line is busy for 2 hours a day at 49p per minute and 10 hours a day at 39p per minute, of which one third goes to the astrologer, then each line brings in about £100 per day or £35,000 per year. If each sign needs up to say 20 lines to cope with demand, then these figures can be multiplied by 200 or more. (In 1996, at the then exchange rates for the $US, dial-a-horoscope phone lines at the cheapest rate cost per minute about 78c in the UK, 65c in the USA, 60c in Australia, and 55c in Malaysia.)
Alternatively, if 1% of the UK adult population (ie the 1% estimated to be horoscope junkies) each make one 3-minute call each week, this earns astrologers collectively a total of £10 million per year. Either way, the reputed annual income of half a million pounds each for top column astrologers Russell Grant, Jonathan Cainer and Shelley von Strunkel seems plausible (Sara Villiers, "Born with stars in their eyes", Scotland on Sunday, 21 January 1996, page 9). For such sums maybe you too would happily sell astrology down the river.
And even if not, the newspaper (which takes a similar cut) surely will. The Sunday Times for 29 December 1991 page 8 carried a league table of the most successful newspaper promotions during 1991. The top ten included a sun sign supplement by The Mail on Sunday, which added 228,000 to the circulation, and a twin feature on astrology and on diet in the Sunday Express, which added 191,000. The easy money to be made makes one thing certain -- if the demand exists then someone will meet it. Sun sign columns and their minders are not going to go away.
Consequently it seems inappropriate to complain, as Nicholas Campion does, about "the general unthinking hostility to astrology from the liberal, educated establishment as witnessed in the quality papers", by which he means Dawkins-like attacks (Transit [Astrological Association Newsletter], March 1995 page 5), when astrologers have only themselves to blame. An educated person does not have to be unthinking to be hostile to perceived nonsense. To be sure, in the UK the view of astrology as nonsense is reinforced by the Radio Authority broadcasting guidelines on horoscopes, which state "Horoscopes and other forms of divination should neither be presented in a serious manner nor purport to give listeners important or essential advice regarding the future" (paragraph 1.9). On which point Campion comments:
"This is nothing less than the most astonishingly crude piece of censorship. ... [and is] a symptom of the unquestioned assumption that astrology is not only a matter of belief but is also dangerous and misleading. ... Experience shows that, under present circumstances, astrology can never be presented on television on its own terms, unless as sun sign astrology, and then the assumption is that it is entertainment" (ibid page 6).
Given that Campion is not only President of the Astrological Association but also a sun sign columnist with phone-lines (which in itself represents a dramatic U-turn since the days of Roger Elliot), he could hardly take any other view. But when astrologers make no attempt to correct their own self-trivialisation, or to pay attention to the results of controlled studies, it could be argued that such "censorship" is entirely justified. It all comes back to sun sign columns.
In other words, from the astrologers' point of view, if this "unthinking hostility" is to be overcome, if astrology's "soft underbelly" is to be defended, if this "tawdry sideshow" and "trivialisation by astrologers" are to be accepted, and if this "censorship" is to be removed, then their first priority is to decide what they have repeatedly failed to decide, namely whether the statements made in sun sign books and columns are valid or just nonsense. (Either way, this does not deny Eccles' view that they are the future.) Accordingly, in response to Elwell's call for action, but without taking sides, we extend the following archair invitation [made in 1996 and no longer open] to all readers:
Our sun sign armchair invitation
Our invitation to readers is not to prove or disprove pet ideas about sun signs, but merely to devise a test that will show whether those ideas are right or wrong. If, as Charles Harvey claims, "sensitive and imaginative tests" will confirm the reality of sun signs, then what are those tests? If, as John Addey claimed, sun signs are an "elegant fiction", then what tests will demonstrate it? If, as Nicholas Campion implies, there is something in dial-a-horoscopes, then what tests would confirm or refute it? These are honest questions that demand honest answers. It is time to stand and be counted. So, without asking anyone (whether for or against) to take sides, our invitation to you is:
- To devise a way of testing the validity of sun sign forecasts.
Our invitation is to devise tests, not to perform tests, so nobody need leave their armchair. It is not another prize contest, so there are no winners and no losers. Our aim is merely to generate acceptable tests. We have of course invited ourselves to respond to our own invitation.
(1) Sun sign forecasts are sufficiently valid for ethical use.
You are welcome to use your own definitions of "valid" and "ethical." Test description. Your tests should cover all twelve signs, and should include enough detail to allow anyone to carry them out without further instructions. Your tests should of course be feasible, eg they should not involve samples too huge to be reasonably collected. Safeguard. To make sure your tests are not misinterpreted, please specify the results you would accept as disconfirming the hypothesis. Example targets. Appended are examples of the sort of sun sign material that your tests should be aimed at.Deadline and Length. The deadline for replies is 31 January 1997. Length is up to you but we prefer no more than two pages.
Where to send your reply
We want your ideas
Examples (abridged) of sun sign forecasts and delineations
Taurus. Demanding but productive trends present you with a challenge in February. Be prepared for a power struggle.
Sagittarius. For some time, money has been a rather confused area in your life, and subject to fluctuation. This trend continues.
Pisces. July brings fun, romance and some unexpected treats. Finances are emphasised in April and October.
Weekly forecasts by Patric Walker (UK Mail 1 July 1995):Aries. A clash between Mercury and your ruler Mars will force you to explore new ways of overcoming old grudges and grievances.
Cancer. After Venus joins the Sun in your birth sign on Wednesday, you should begin to appreciate the true value of your talents.
Scorpio. After Saturn changes direction on Thursday you will feel less inclined to lead the parade.
Aquarius. The planets in their courses are urging you to make whatever changes are necessary to improve the working pattern of your life.
Delineations from Aries 1987 Super Horoscope (Arrow Books pp 37-61):Leo. Often make good leaders. Usually quite popular. Generous most of the time. Can be arrogant and conceited, so can be unpopular.
Virgo. A good planner, practical, dependable, sensitive to others. Sometimes too critical. Can be tactless, mean, and emotionless.
Libra. Loves harmony. Generally kind and sympathetic. Many are artistically inclined. Some are insincere, vain and materialistic.
Scorpio. Determined, sincere, with high principles. Often tender and loving inside. Sometimes devious, ruthless, and revengeful.
Message to all signs (Shelley von Strunckel Sunday Times October 1995):The sun may be in diplomatic Libra but adverse aspects suggest all signs will face obstacles this week. The challenge is to transform them into something positive.
Your best features for seduction from Cosmopolitan (January 1988):Aries. Expressive flirty eyes, perfect teeth.
Taurus. Swanlike neck, regally elegant posture.
Gemini. Softly sexy voice, contagious laugh.
Libra. Small waist, curvy hips.
Sagittarius. Slim pretty knees, high forehead.
Capricorn. Sculpted cheekbones, dark curving eyebrows.
Pisces. Wide flashing smile, infectious laugh.
(Disagreeing on) Compatibility. Russell Grant (Sunday Mirror magazine, listed first), whose "guide to love lust and emotional disasters reveals all", vs Mystic Meg (News of the World magazine, listed second in italics), who helps you find "love, compatibility, passion", both 7 January 1996:Gemini-Virgo. Merry chatter but sexual incompatibility. Your sex style matches perfectly.
Virgo-Aries. Ardour? Forget it -- your personalities are clashing. Get to your white-hot sexy side. Then magic emerges!
Virgo-Pisces. You were so obviously meant for one another. Don't expect too much sense ... minds don't meet.
Libra-Libra. Act now or you'll never get anything off the ground. An unforgettable fling that can last forever!
Aquarius-Libra. When it comes to amour we are talking tricky. Sexy minds in overdrive! ... builds into marriage.
What magazines do, books can do better. Compatibility by Linda Goodman in Love Signs (Macmillan 1979), which runs to nearly 1200 pagesAries-Taurus. A romantic involvement with a Taurus man is sure to be an educational experience for the Aries female. She shoves, he sits. She pushes, he pouts. She demands, he digs in. Then look out. The next step could be: she weeps, he walks. Away, that is, for keeps.
Cancer-Cancer. Only a Cancerian can find the right words and manner to calm another. Crab #1: There you go, diving into one of your inky moods again. Crab #2: I had a sad childhood, nobody cares. Crab #1: But you refuse to talk about it. Crab #2: People are cold and cruel. Crab #1: My mother ignored me. Crab #2: Don't cry, do you want your hanky back?
Aquarius-Pisces. In nature, water softens air, creating a moist fog, the right atmosphere for the mysterious alchemy capable of transmuting dreams into rainbow-streaked realities. There's no end to the wonders and marvels they might conceive and create together.
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