Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Skeptic's Horoscope

Previously in this blog I have dismissed Astrology as bunk – Astrology remains one of the most thoroughly discredited of the pseudo-sciences. However, I was recently presented with a rare opportunity to have my own personal horoscope crafted for me. I needed only provide my precise date and time of birth and the specific location (latitude and longitude). It was an offer I couldn’t refuse!

The person who graciously agreed to run my horoscope is a follower of Astrology and suggests it reveals unique personal characteristics based on the positions of the stars, planets and other celestial bodies at the time and place of birth. The reading was created using a computer program commonly used by Astrology practitioners. The individual doing this horoscope asked that I not reveal their identity or source of the information.

Upon supplying my true specific time and location of birth, I received in the mail a ten-page report categorizing aspects of my personality by my “outlook”, “emotions”, “intellect”, “romance” and several other headings. Each section included a set of statements describing various aspects of my personality and behavior.

Upon my initial read of my horoscope I found myself nodding in agreement that, overall, it appeared to be a fairly familiar assessment about me. Yet this was no surprise as I happen to be party as to how the illusion is accomplished.

After scanning the document using Optical Character Recognition (OCR) I edited out all text that did not directly describe specific characteristics regarding my personality. For example, removing supposedly explanatory statements such as; “Your Moon is Trine to Jupiter with an Orb of 4 degrees”. What remained were the specific sentences describing my personality.

The remaining personality-descriptive sentences were then copied to an Excel spreadsheet, one sentence per line. Each sentence was then evaluated for whether it was “true”, “false”, “ambiguous”, “mutually-exclusive” or “universal” meaning applicable to a broad range of other personality types. Examples of universal statements would be: “This generation faces the stresses of changing social and moral standards”, or “Experiences in your life help you to grow.” With rare exception, who among us would not regard these statements to be true?

To minimize the likelihood of my own confirmation bias influencing the results, I also asked my wife to complete a duplicate analysis spreadsheet as well. She was not permitted to read the original horoscope prior to her analysis of the descriptive sentences.

The tabulations completed separately by my wife and I each judged 37% and 33% of the statements to be true, 29% and 26% to be false. We also determined 22% and 24% to be universal statements which most anyone might regard as true about themselves. 7% and 6% were ambiguous and 5% and 2% mutually-exclusive or contradictory, meaning neither true nor false.

The statements produced for this horoscope used familiar techniques well known to science and psychology, primarily “Cold Reading” whereby many of statements are tossed into the mix - statistically several may be true and others equally false. The reaction of someone untrained in this subject, their psychological propensity toward “Conformation Bias” and “Subjective Valuation” subtly causes them to weight highly statements which confirm their self assessment and to disproportionally under-weigh those statements which do not. The inclusion of additional broad general statements which may apply widely to many different people unconsciously adds into the mix of “hits”. This suggests to the recipient that an accurate portrayal of their personality has been divined from the creation of their horoscope.

Astrology has been around for over 4,000 years. Yet in all that time no hypothesis has ever been suggested regarding its mechanism – how it works. Adherents have only the claim that the results alone provide validity of its accuracy. However the results can actually be shown to be nothing more than a set of generic statements which horoscope recipients subjectively unwittingly accept. This acceptance is termed “Fallacy of Composition”, whereby a conclusion is drawn though there are insufficient reliable facts to justify the inference. The methodology used to create horoscopes parallels closely with similar techniques of psychics, palm or Tarot card readers or any practice which routinely employ this stratagem.

All of which begs the question: of what use is Astrology? Science in recent years has been far more successful in explaining how physical, bio-chemical and genetic factors influence our behavior and personality. In addition, one needs to consider an individual’s development, societal and cultural environment as well. These factors are far more tangible influences in shaping our behavior and personality than through unexplained inferences from objects far out in space.

Astrology, like performance magic, appears to be something it is not. But unless one has made the effort to understand how the trick is structured and performed, the uninformed will remain gullible into believing that unseen "powers" are divining their lives from the stars.
  • You are invited to view my actual personal horoscope, analysis spreadsheets and final report to the astrologer, along with two scientific studies of Astrology, on my web site at:


Jayne said...

Ok, so astrology is bunk, but I think Regina read the Tarot cards perfectly at the Tea Room. She said my old boyfriend was a rat, that I'd marry a sweet man whose first name would start with an M and would contain seven letters, and that I would have two children. And she was absolutely correct. ;)

Robert the Skeptic said...

Jayne So the Stars indicate that your husband's name is Michael. Are the stars correct?

Jerry said...

An interesting and enjoyable analysis. I cannot fathom anyone taking astrology seriously. No one has been able to explain to me how the location of planets and stars influence anything. All I get is some mumbling about gravitational effects, which explains nothing.

I enjoyed and appreciated this.

Cognitive Dissenter said...

I'm so relieved to read this. Today my love horoscope looked promising (something about living in the moment something something). But the more general horoscope was a bit dicey.

(Just kidding)

Excellent post, Robert. And very telling that both you and your wife came up with similar numbers.

Paul said...

Robert I know people who will knock my religion yet follow astrology as if it were their religion. Astrology is psuedo science.

DJan said...

Well, I was just a little freaked out when I saw the word "horoscope" along with "Robert the Skeptic." Now I am relieved that all is right with the world! I enjoyed this analysis thoroughly.

Who cares if it works or not? People will always find something to play with, it's in our nature. :-)

Robert the Skeptic said...

Jerry Indeed, ancient astrologers didn't even know what the stars were or that they were very large objects far away. Modern astrologers don't recognize that the stars are not fixed, they are moving at incredible speeds. The constellations are changing; The Big Dipper, for example, will be unrecognizable in millions of years.

Dissenter My mother followed her horoscope, she bought a little book each month with a horoscope for he for each day. Of course we know today that her little book was "inaccurate" as it was not divined from her exact specific time and location of birth. Poor Mom.

Paul I guess I would just say that I share one less belief system than you.

DJan If "used for entertainment purposes only" I guess there is little harm. But we had a president (Reagan) who made decisions of national importance based on his wife's consultation with an astrologer. That is pretty frightening.

Sightings said...

I too am impressed with your analysis. I've always figured that astrology is a bunch of hooey; so this confirms my belief. (Uh, oh, am I only looking for evidence that confirms what I already believe?)

I don't see the harm in astrology as a parlor game or just to pass the time. What I don't understand is why newspapers (which supposedly exist to give us the facts and the truth) typically feature an astrology section next to the crossword puzzle -- thus giving astrology some measure of validation it doesn't deserve, and perhaps undermining the newspaper's own credibility.

billy pilgrim said...

i think the secret to astrology's success is it basically appeals to everyone's vanity. it tells them how smart and wonderful they are. even negative traits are given a positive spin.

on the plus side, the astrologer becky vesant, helped save valentine micheal smith's bacon. and of course nancy and ronald reagan would have been lost without astrology.

Paul said...

Robert each of us (in my opinion) should be free to believe as we choose. However, I know people who believe in off the wall things who never miss a chance to hammer Christianity specifically while giving other religions a pass. In your case, I respect your intellect and your reasons for believing as you do. :-)

Robert the Skeptic said...

Sitings I agree with your puzzlement about newspaper astrology, but then I don't know why they continue to run the "Peanuts" cartoon after Charles Schulz personally asked that the series not continue after his death.

Billy It does appeal to vanity, doesn't it. Ronald and Nancy Reagan were pretty lost even WITH their astrologer.

Paul Thanks, Paul.

Antares Cryptos said...

It reminds me of a program I watched some time ago, where a group of volunteers were given horoscopes based on their signs.

They were all amazed how well it described them. They were then asked to read the cards out loud. Turns out that they had each gotten the same "text".

And then there are psychics...

Jon said...

The only thing about astrology that makes any sense at all is the effect of the moon. Humans are about 60% water. You can see what the moon does to the oceans, but what does it do to us. That said, I believe gravity has gotten stronger in the last few decades. That would explain so much of what has physically happened to me. I hope age has nothing to do with it!.

wv: sperg. What my stomach sounds like before lunch.

Nance said...

Absolutely brilliant!

Most of all, I think astrology plays into the nearly universal wish to believe in our individual specialness. That belief services the will to live and strive, which adds up to value and benefit to the society (and to the species, up to a point which we've long since passed) in the final analysis. But all that doesn't make the wish come true.

And, I pout, does this mean that the FACT that I'm a certified Aries with Aries rising and my moon in Virgo is irrelevant? Moi? Honey, say you don't mean it.

The Mother said...

There was a famous experiment where the prof handed every student a horoscope and had them rate them for how well it fit their personality. Everyone rated it fairly high--until they discovered that they had all been given exactly the same horoscope!

Robert the Skeptic said...

Cryptos and Dr. Mom The experiment of which you both refer was done by the one and only James "Amazing" Randi. You can watch the actual 1.5 minute video here.

Jon There were several studies to determine if the myth that emergency rooms experience more activity during a full moon. Turns out it is indeed a myth, no such happening. If the moon were to have an effect on our watery constitution, I would expect it to effect us equally.

Nance Well actually with the earth "precession" you are no longer an Aries but a Tarus now, I believe.

GutsyWriter said...

Robert, how long this did this analysis take you? Excellent and thorough analysis as usual.
Like Jayne, a fortune teller said, I would marry a guy whose name started with D, he'd have a Doctorate degree and I'd have 3 sons, and she was right on all 3. So perhaps this was all a guess, before I'd even met my husband.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Gutsy The analysis took a couple of days to complete.

I was hoping Jayne would respond back about her husband's name. According the Census, "Michael" is the 4th most common male name, "Matthew" not far behind. The median household has two children. The psychic made an easy guess.

The question for you and Jayne, of course, is: you remembered the "hits", but can you recall how many of the psychic's predictions were wrong? Psychics doing face-to-face sessions also have it easier in plying Cold Reading as we give them subtle body and facial queues which guide their "predictions".

Going back to something Billy said about "appeals to vanity" - I noticed that my personality as revealed in my horoscope was fairly complimentary. But even the negative traits in my horoscope were pretty tepid;

• You quarrel with siblings.
• You don’t like restrictive ties.
• You are close to siblings and neighbors and are apt to be a gossip.
• You are domineering in romantic relations--causing fits of jealousy.

Notice there are no really negative comments. If horoscopes were truly accurate and unbiased, some of them would also disclose negative traits, like:

• You are prone to uncontrollable anger.
• You maintain racist views of other people or cultures.
• You will probably become involved in the criminal justice system or serve time in jail.
• You are unable to handle money and will have frequent bouts of poverty.

One NEVER sees negative personality attributes like these in horoscopes even though people with these tendencies apply to a percentage of the population at large. Yet another example of how Astrology, Psychic readings, Fortune Tellers are bunk.

Jayne said...

Correct! Wow, you are good, Robert. ;)

Robert the Skeptic said...

Jayne Hey, I was more precise than the Tarot Reader!!

It turns out the name "Michael" is the 4th all-time most popular name. Between 1965 through 1995, Michael was the #1 most popular name - from 1995 through 2005 it dropped into #2 in popularity. "Matthew" was in the top three during that period.

Psychics throw out a lot of guesses; you tend to remember when they were right and forget when they were wrong, making it appear like they have some special knowledge.

Rain said...

Well the astrology readings that I have had done on me have had negative things in them to the point I didn't like them at all nor did I think they possibly could be right ;) I need to find a more flattering astrologer, I am thinking!

Shubhra Jain said...

Its hard to allways accept not so good about things about yourself.

I am a Tarot Reader, may be my blog would help you

Robert the Skeptic said...

Shubhra Jain Tarot, Phrenology, palm-reading, etc. use all the same well known techniques I discuss in my blog. I am well versed in the psychology and technique. In closed double-blind testing, Tarot is no more accurate than any other Cold Reading technique and random chance. As the horoscope experiment showed, and is true for Tarot, it provides nothing but vague generalized statements that could apply to a lot of people and situations.

Tell me what your cards say I will be doing Tuesday afternoon at 2:00 or suggest a stock that will make a huge amount of money... I'll even split it with you. That would get my attention. Tanks for commenting.