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Believe It Or Not: Astrology

Believe It Or Not: Astrology

Should you be running your love life based on the position of Jupiter or can you handle it without your horoscope? Scary Boots* takes a look at some of the ‘science’ behind astrology.

If the moon was rising in the west at the time of your birth, you should avoid encounters with uncouth elements, as you're a sensitive soul who probably wears a lot of bling and wouldn't like to get it nicked.

Astrology: the gentle practice of observing the positions of heavenly bodies and deducing personality traits and future events. However irrational it may appear, astrology has been terribly popular for at least the last four thousand years, counting in its practitioners Pythagoras, Kepler, Tycho Brahe, Karl Jung and Mystic Meg.

 The idea that the planets influence someone’s personality at the moment of birth seems rather odd. Certainly it can't work in any way we are currently aware of, because even the gravitational pull (the strongest long distance force we know of) of the planets is less than that of the nurses and doctors in the delivery room. Then again, we still don't know how gravity itself works.

Further criticisms of astrology are that its predictions are vague and will fit any eventuality. However, this is somewhat harsh: many astrologers have foreseen the end of the world, which is a fairly specific prediction - it just happened to be wrong. Several times.1 This does not seem to affect its popularity. In defence of these erroneous predictions, practising astrologers protest that it is necessary to have exact data of the birthplace and time of the subject to assure accuracy, and the position of the planets indicate a tendency, not a fate set in stone.

Still, the effects should be detectable with statistical techniques. And this is what Michel Gauquelin, a psychologist and statistician, attempted, correlating a sample of the birth dates of 15,000 Frenchmen with their subsequent careers. Found: several statistically significant correlations, the most commonly cited of which is 'The Mars Effect', the fact that athletes and those in the military are more likely to have Mars in a prominent position in their charts. Bugger. Big balls of rock do, apparently, have a view on our career choices.

Various people have been bothered by this, and have conducted their own research - no consensus has been reached, although there is a strong tendency for them to confirm the original beliefs of the person carrying out the study, leading to accusations of prejudice all round.

Happily, several studies correlating birth dates with psychological disorders and traits have come up with a more palatable, to the scientific orthodox, suggestion. Your birthdate affects your experiences, and your experiences shape your personality. For example, younger kids in a school year are more likely to suffer from mental health problems, due to 'difficulties of immaturity'.2 Anorexic mothers are only fertile during warmer months, and so mainly give birth to children in April and May. These little Taureans and Geminis** are brought up in image conscious households, leading to a higher rate of anorexia in individuals with birthdays in late Spring. Overall, though, you're better looking at the specific events in your life if you want to self-scrutinise, rather than at statistical assessments.

So why are people so interested in astrology, if it's notoriously unreliable? Talking to your parents and about your upbringing is a far better guide to your personality. But astrological consultations provide an opportunity to talk about
yourself for an hour, for far cheaper than a psychiatrist, with a handy list of statements that you can refer to if you run out of flattery or general advice.

* Scary is a Libra. Libras don't believe in astrology.
** Neither of which are 'vain' signs, traditionally. Oh well.

[1] 220 dates for the end of the world, admittedly not all from astrologers.

[2] Child Psychiatric Disorder and Relative Age Within School Year, British Medical Journal, 9th June 2003.

More of Scary Boots?  Try her tasty Galactic Sandwich.

Or choose something just as mouthwatering from this selection...

- Phobias - Fear of meteors
- Silly - Space travelogue series
- Interesting - People who can taste shapes
- Controversial - Romance in the stars

And perhaps you'd like to join the crew at the Null Hypothesis Facebook group?

Image: Margarit Ralev

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27 Jan 2010
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