How to Read the Stars

Posted: August 27, 2009 by Tim Barclay in astrology
Tags: ,

Today I got into a conversation about astrology with a work colleague after she told me that she found one paper’s horoscopes so much better than another’s (thelondonpaper’s are apparently better than the London Lite’s if you’re interested). Although I registered my disbelief in astrology, it was only later that I worked out what I should have said, by which time, as is so often the case, the moment had passed. So this is what I should have said to her:

The best way to demonstrate why I don’t think horoscopes should be believed is by telling you how to create them yourself. There are a small number of simple but effective techniques to use in order to easily convince people that you not only know a lot about them, but you also know what’s going to happen to them.

1. Barnum statements
So named because of P.T Barnum’s famous quote that his circus contained something for everyone, these are phrases that sound very specific to you but actually apply to almost anybody – and they’re incredibly easy to write. For example, almost everyone is outgoing and loud in some situations, and around some people, but self-conscious and quiet at other times. So if you tell someone that they are sometimes the life of the party but have a quiet side that occasionally feels very insecure, you’ll almost certainly be right.

In fact, by virtue of the fact that people are generally fairly complicated creatures and act differently in varying situations, almost any contradictory pair of traits will have the same effect. You are intelligent but occasionally you enjoy switching off your brain and watching really low brow TV… you like to try to stay fit, but some times you just can’t resist a naughty snack etc.

For a demonstration of these techniques in action, see Derren Brown or Penn and Teller (skip to about 3.30).

2. Compliments
Another way to be sure of hits is to compliment people on personality traits everyone likes to think they have. If you tell someone they have an excellent sense of humour, nobody will argue with you. Everyone likes to think they have a good sense of humour, whether they do or not, and it’s surprising how impressed people can be when they’re told about it.

Again this applies to almost any generally positive trait that most people either have or like to think they have – like trustworthiness, honesty or integrity.

More specific characteristics that are more likely to be wrong can also be used sparingly, as long as you keep in mind the principal I mentioned earlier about contradictory traits. If you tell someone they are tidy and they reply that they haven’t cleared away a plate in a week and don’t remember which pile of old papers the hoover is under, just come back that they are tidy in some important aspects of their life even though they are untidy in their flat. That may not sound very convincing written down, but that doesn’t matter when you bare in mind number 3.

3. People remember the hits
How many times has a horoscope predicted something that has never happened? Nobody can remember because there’s no reason to remember all the times you have been told you might be lucky with money and then haven’t been.

But how many times has a horoscope said something that has come true? Chances are, anyone who regularly reads horoscopes will have a bank of examples of times when something really did happen after it was prophesied in the paper that morning.

Hits are much easier to remember than misses, and that is also true in face to face readings, not just printed horoscopes. Once you’ve already impressed someone with your insights into their fantastic sense of humour and their saintly trustworthiness, people will find it very easy to overlook the odd misstep.

In a face to face reading, it can also be worth baring in mind the primacy and recency effects and using your most surefire and impressive items at the beginning and end of the session as these will be remembered significantly better than any of what happens in between.

4. Be vague
Horoscopes never contain really specific predictions like, “today you will meet your future husband”, “today you will get a promotion” or “today you will break your arm in a strange accident”. The reason for this is that the chances are very small that they’ll come true. If there’s more leeway in the phrase, then it’s much easier to interpret something as a hit. If, instead of writing “you will come into a large sum of money today”, you write “money will be at the front of your mind today”, an obliging believer will be able to re-interpret your statement in light of any number of different events that could happen during the day.

Of course, even if absolutely nothing applicable happens, there’s always good old number 3 to fall back on.

5. Make predictions
The problem with making any statements about someone, however woolly and likely to be true, is that you could still be wrong. Perhaps someone is aware that they really don’t have a sense of humour and despite your best contradictory wriggling, he won’t buy it.

No such problem exists when making predictions. If you tell someone that something will happen, especially if you make the time non-specific, nobody can ever contradict you. If you make the future event positive, their willingness for it to happen will make them even more glad to believe you.

Astrologers and psychics often tell people that they will find love. This is a perfect prediction because chances are that sooner or later they willl. If you give no specific date, then even if your subject sits reflecting on your prediction in their 70s as a spinster with their cats, they still can’t be sure that they won’t find love yet.

Another useful tool in face to face readings is the past to future switch, often used by John Edward and his peers to cover mistakes. This is simply the hasty re-labelling of a miss about something that happened in the past as a hit that hasn’t happened yet. For example, you come out with a solid line like, “you’ve recently met someone you feel you have a real connection with”, and they spoil it by disconcertedly saying that they haven’t – you can quickly smile, raise your eyebrows and say “ah, well look out for them then because it won’t be long!” This little trick has the added bonus of making it look like you’re so far advanced beyond this world’s trivial framework that petty human concepts like time hardly matter to you – an event that hasn’t happened yet is just as clear to you as something that happened last week.

It is these five remarkably simple tools that lie beneath the work of every horoscope writer and, along with cold reading and hot reading, also form the basis for all face to face readings by astrologers, psychics and faith healers. Perhaps they sound too simple to account for all the successes you have experienced and heard about. But in future, just keep them in mind when you read the horoscopes in the paper and make up your own mind with the honesty, intelligence and personal integrity that I can tell you have.

  1. Hi pazot. As a Counseling Astrologer myself, I don’t put much stock in reading Sun Sign horoscopes in the newspaper either. Their high point is their entertainment value. However, Sun Sign columns don’t even begin to touch the depth or the usefulness of all that astrology offers. When used as symbolic language in the realm of counseling, helping people to understand themselves, those around them, and the challenges in their lives, astrology becomes an amazing tool for positive change, validation and transformation. I implore you to look deeply into this subject, as it is clear that you have only skimmed across the surface.

  2. Michelle, You say you don’t place much stock in newspaper “Sun Signs”, yet looking at your website, it contains articles with the following for example:

    “Obama’s Solar Return chart contains a couple of standout features. First, the Solar Return conjunction of Jupiter, Chiron and Neptune in Aquarius across his natal 1st House of “Self”, and opposite his Uranus in the 7th House of “Other” indicates that this will be a year very much dedicated to his learning a new way to present his beliefs, his woundedness, and his “savior” role – not surprising for someone recently elected President”

    How is the above any different other then referencing more celestial bodies to pad the reading out?

  3. The Solar Return chart has nothing to do with sun sign astrology. The Solar Return is a complete chart drawn for the moment the Sun returns to the same place it occupied in the natal chart at birth, and it’s relationship with all of the other planets of that moment and with the natal birth chart. It gives us information of what the following year will bring for that person, and what areas of the life will be impacted. I could not have made the same statement for all people who are Leo sun signs like Obama. This statement could only be true for the few born the same day, the same time, and the same place as Obama. The Solar Return chart is specific to an individual – blanket statements for a group of individuals cannot be made, because the Solar Return chart is unique to the individual alone. My statement about newspaper sun signs reflects the futility of any effort to realistically inform masses who share only their sun sign, without taking into account the entirety of each person’s chart. People who share a sun sign will have extraordinarily different charts, and to accurately help anyone you must look at the entire chart…not simply the sun sign. Every person’s chart has the sun in a particular sign…but every persons chart also has all of the other planets represented, as well as other bodies and points in space and the relationships between all of those planets, bodies and points must be taken into consideration. You must look at the whole, not just one small part (the sun) in order to grasp the whole person. My statements on Obama’s Solar Return chart are from the perspective of the combination of two entire charts – not simply his natal sun sign. I hope this has made my statement in question a little clearer…it’s difficult to explain if you are unfamiliar with the astrological language. I would love to explain this further…feel free to give me a call. You’ll find my number on my site. Thanks for your interest in this.

  4. In re-reading your blog above, I also just want to say this. When someone comes to me, the last thing we talk about is whether they are tidy, intelligent, or any other personality trait. Surely, anyone who has lived with him/herself for any number of years is already aware of their own personality traits. It is not in re-iterating already known factors that makes astrology valuable. The value comes in using the symbolism to offer this struggling human being in front of you new perspectives on entrenched behaviour patterns…offering them ways to realistically and practically make positive changes in their lives, based on potentials that they may have either given up on have been afraid to activate. The other fantastic thing about this work is that it allows for the timing of taking action that is most beneficial for the outcome of particular goals, and is also helpful in illuminating the areas of life that will be impacted and up for new lessons at any given moment. Pardon me as I rail on! But thanks for space to be able to do so.

  5. pazot says:

    Hi Michelle
    Thanks for your comments – I appreciate you lending your opinions to the comments and it’s been interesting reading your input.
    I certainly note that the sweeping statements inherent in a daily newspaper horoscope are completely different to the sort of reading you would do for an individual and that, in those cases, a different degree of specificity is important.

    Baring that in mind, I wonder whether you would mind submitting to a little test?
    I’ve been thinking hard about this and I have an idea for something that I think would be fair and which should allow you to prove the value of your trade if it does exist.

    I would propose something like this:

    I would provide you with one time and date of birth. This information would belong to one of four people – two of whom would be myself and theenglishradical, with the other two being acquaintances of ours.
    Obviously you wouldn’t know whose dates you were reading, and we would design it in such a way that we wouldn’t either. For example, we could get an uninvolved 3rd party to pick the date at random from the four choices and send it on to you.
    By doing this, we would make the test double-blind – which is the gold standard method for performing scientific tests. What this means is that as well as you not knowing the identity of your subject, neither will any of us, so no biases that we may have can influence us later.
    Then you would give a reading for that information – specific enough that it would only apply to someone born at that time on that date and send it back to me. Obviously without disclosing the date given to you.
    I’d send it around each of the four potential subjects and we would each indicate whether we think the reading describes us.
    If only the person for whom the reading was intended indicates that they have been read, the test will be a success. If more than one person or none of us think we have been described, then that would count as a failure.

    Would you be at all willing to agree to something like this? And if so does this protocol or something similar sound fair?

    I’m afraid if you were successful we wouldn’t be able to offer you any sort of prize or anything, but you would certainly have won the respect of a few skeptics and made some non-believers question their conclusions.

  6. pazot says:

    Please note: I’ve corrected the spelling of Barnum above.

  7. Hi Pazot,

    What an interesting and intriguing proposal! Here are my initial thoughts:

    I don’t in any way believe that Astrology needs to be proven via scientific testing. It is this belief that Astrology needs proving that I fear could put it on the track to becoming controlled and regulated, which, as a practitioner of this art, would get terrifically in the way of helping people, just as the regulation of medicine has turned it into a fiasco of insurance hard-handing and liable suits rather than caring and healing. I’m not a very scientifically oriented person, and strongly hold that the experiential evidence of its efficacy and value are more than enough to validate its usefulness. My clients and loyal readers would strongly agree. 🙂

    As a professional I must point out that what you are asking of me is time consuming and something that I would normally be paid $150 or more to do. It will take hours of my time.

    I’m delighted that you have this level of interest. It’s wonderful! And the thoughtful way that you’ve approached this request earns you brownie points. I believe that your interest is genuine. But I also have to admit to fearing that you only want me to participate so that you can have a turn tearing me apart.

    I assume that scientists and those who believe exclusively in science believe themselves to be realists. Am I correct in that assumption? If so, allow me to turn you on to a man who you might already be aware of, but possibly not. His name is Satish Kumar. He is the editor for Resurgence Magazine ( and is first and foremost a peace activist. He insists that reverence for nature should be at the heart of every political and social debate. Defending criticism that his goals are unrealistic, he has said:

    “Look at what realists have done for us. They have led us to war and climate change, poverty on an unimaginable scale, and wholesale ecological destruction. Half of humanity goes to bed hungry because of all the realistic leaders in the world. I tell people who call me ‘unrealistic’ to show me what their realism has done. Realism is an outdated, overplayed and wholly exaggerated concept.”

    Your offer to “test” astrology through my expertise reminds me of years of conversations with my much older brother who was a huge skeptic of anything that had not been scientifically “proven”. It’s enjoyable in that it brings him back to me via strong memory and the excitement of dueling opinions. He passed away 4 years ago, and I’ve missed our lively exchanges.

    So, having said all of that, I am quite open to your “test”, though please understand that I in no way believe that astrology needs testing, nor that it will benefit from such tactics. However, if, as you say, I have the opportunity to win the respect for astrology of even one person who was once a “disbeliever” then I will feel gratified (while also feeling that I have participated in something that is unnecessary and goes against my grain – akin to the fact that I’m required to write sun sign astrology for Aquarius Magazine, as part of my responsibilities as a columnist. I will defend my sun sign writings by saying that I only use the planets in my approach to sun sign forecasts. This is much different than most astrologers).

    Would you be open to a verbal rather than a written “test”? Any chance that we could do this as a conference call, rather than having me take the time to write it all out? There’s also Skype. I work much better and am more effective with feedback during any consultation. It seems that that luxury won’t be available for this scenario, but a voice, even a skeptical one, on the other end of the line would be nice. However, I do enjoy a challenge!

    Looking forward to your response and I truly appreciate your interest.


    P.S. I’d also like to post this on my website as a blog, and allow my readers to follow the “test”. Any objections?

    P.P.S. Please go back to my page and under the articles tab you will find a piece titled “The Astrology of Medicine –
    Cutting Edge Medicine: An Interview with Dr. Frenesa Hall on the
    Importance of Astrology in the Medical Field.” This was an interview with a medical doctor in which she gave me the birth data of one of her patients and I “read” the patient offering her some great information on how best to proceed in this young woman’s care. This was a completely “cold” reading…I had never heard of this case prior to the phone call. You might be interested in reading it. It is similar to your proposal…however, I wasn’t trying to prove anything. Dr. Hall was very clear on the value of astrology before our conversation.

  8. OH! One more thing…Mercury is Retrograde as of yesterday, and since this is a completely new avenue for me, I won’t be able to participate until after October 15, when we are out of the shadow of the Retrograde. Call me superstitious, eh? 🙂

  9. pazot says:

    Hi Michelle

    Thanks for your reply. Although I see you did agree to the idea of a test, it was clearly with a certain amount of reticence. I believe that one of the really important elements of an undertaking such as this is that all parties involved are 100% happy with the protocols and accept beforehand the implied consequences of any outcomes. If you really are happy to proceed (after October 15, of course) then I would be extremely pleased to go ahead, although we won’t be able to pay for your time. But if you are not completely satisfied with the set up or the fundamental idea of a test, then I don’t believe it is worth doing.

    You are correct that I am, I suppose, what you are calling a realist, although I absolutely disagree with Satish Kumar’s cynical and insulting characterisation of that position. What Kumar is apparently neglecting to mention is that scientists (or realists, if he would rather) are almost entirely responsible for the current level of efficiency in farming that has led to more of the world’s population being fed than would have been if science had never been involved. It is also science that is finding ways to dig us out of the problems of man-made global warming – wind turbines, solar panels and biofuels are not being daily improved by superstition or indeed by anything other than the rigorous and systematic application of the scientific method. Remember that war was around long before science was even invented and it is grossly presumptive to state that all wars are somehow caused by “realists”. Science, or realism, is responsible for the fact that 400,000 people no longer die each year from smallpox in Europe alone. Science is the reason that sufferers of HIV can live relatively normal lives or that anyone can live on after a heart attack. Science and realism are the reason that the rate of maternal deaths has dropped from 1 in 100 to about 1 in 10,000 in the last 100 years. Not to mention that science is the reason that you and I are able to communicate like this, or that we can read Kumar’s words with such ease.

    You say that for you “the experiential evidence of its efficacy and value are more than enough to validate its usefulness”. However, there are a lot of people who believe a lot of things no less sincerely than you believe in astrology. I’m sure we can agree that not everything is true simply by virtue of the fact that someone somewhere believes it. Some people are right, some are wrong, some are sincere and some are fraudulent. We cannot and should not believe everything that everyone tells us without question and therefore a system is needed to decide between those theories that have merit and those that do not. Science is a system created to do just that.

    Once again, thank you for your willingness to respond and engage, and please think carefully about whether you would like to take part in the test I have proposed. Again, if you have any doubts or are at all unhappy with the idea, I would rather you declined than go through it believing the whole idea useless. Of course, if you agree, you are absolutely welcome to write about it on your blog. I will also read the interview you mentioned above.

  10. Hi Again Pazot,

    I believe it is my fault (via my wording previously) that you so strongly came out against Satish Kumar. In his statement about realists, I don’t believe he had scientists and science specifically in mind, though certainly political, social and other types of realists were included. It was my own connection of the dots that led me to conjure realists and scientists together specifically. I don’t believe that Kumar has an issue with the important leaps in the medical field, agriculture, and communications technology that you mention, and I don’t either. I believe the point is that advancing only science to such an elevated state (“this is only true/real/effective if it can be scientifically proven”), and leaving behind the importance of nature, faith, the numinous, experience, feeling, spirituality, sacred ritual, and intuition creates a void not only in each of us as individuals, but collectively as well. A balance is desired for optimum health, well-being, and positive evolution on all levels.

    Also to clarify my statement “the experiential evidence of its efficacy and value are more than enough to validate its usefulness” did not state that astrology is true because I believe it is true. My meaning is that the usefulness and value of astrology cannot be in question when the experience of it by so many is without a doubt very helpful and very positive…even life changing in some instances.

    Suppose that suddenly someone, somehow actually does disprove astrology (which leads to lots of questions about what it is that is being dis-proven, since we really don’t know how or why it works). Does that mean that just as suddenly those who are benefiting from it will no longer have access to that benefit? I don’t think so. It’s a bit like saying that Tom, who has believed that Joe (a loving man who is a wonderful provider and role model) is his father for 29 years, and then suddenly, because someone else thought that Tom absolutely must know the “truth”, is told that Joe is actually not his biological father. First, the emotional devastation to Tom is horrible and will likely take a life-time to work through, and second, the truth is that Joe really is his father, as the man who loves and claims him as a son. Two versions of the truth – one scientifically valid via biology and one truly experienced and felt. Which one holds more weight, more meaning? My point is, if something works, is useful, and has incredible benefit…who cares if it can be scientifically proven? There are things in this world and beyond that are a mystery…and I am very happy living in that mystery.

    Another example: If someone gave my mother a sugar pill and told her that without a doubt it would cure her Alzheimer’s, and she believed it completely, took the pill, and was cured of this devastating disease, do you think that anyone in my family would care that there is no scientific proof that a sugar pill can cure Alzheimer’s?

    I personally believe that astrology is real, that it works, and that it has enormous value. I cannot tell you how it works though. Within the astrological community there are two camps (at least): one who believes that astrology works because of the actual effects of the planets, and one who believes that astrology is a symbolic language mirroring back to us what we inherently know within ourselves. I believe its both and more that we have yet to understand.

    That said, let me turn you on to this book written in 1988: Astrology, The Evidence of Science by Percy Seymour, a physicist and astrophysicist. The back of the book reads, “Does astrology work? Does it have any basis in science? Now a scientist comes out on the side of those who believe in the influence of ‘the stars’ and provides hard, factual evidence that it does.” A review from Omni states, “Seymour’s book is a crucible – a new battleground for the a centuries-old debate…To reverse the historical trend now, as Percy Seymour has done – to use the findings of astronomy to vindicate the teachings of astrology – shakes up everything we know about the progress of science.” The debate about astrology seems set to continue.

    I do believe that I would enjoy taking part in the test…I love a good debate (as you witness here), I love what I do and how what I do ripples positively out into the world, and I don’t think the outcome of the test could possibly have any negative effect on any of us. And, as a woman with the Moon in Aries, making a trine (120 degree angle) to my Mars (Sun and Mercury too) I don’t think I’m capable of backing down from a non-life threatening challenge once the gauntlet has been thrown. Haven’t done so yet…see no reason to do so now. My reticence is purely intellectual. My instinctive self says bring it on!

    Thanks for reading my rants…

  11. pazot says:

    I’m glad to hear you’re interested in the idea of a test. Would the protocol that I outlined above be ok for you? More importantly do you believe that this is a fair test of your abilities that you should be able to pass? Because if not we’ll have to think of something else.

    You asked before about the possibility of giving a reading over skype or some other two way communication stream. I don’t think this would work. The purpose of asking for a written reading was to control for the possibility of using, consciously or sub-consciously, some of the techniques I described in my original post. This would be like trying to ascertain if a magician really could saw a woman in half by allowing him all his usual props, lights and stage patter.

    I would like to make a more full reply to your last comment but I am travelling at the moment so my Internet access is somewhat sporadic. So I will when I am able.

    If you are happy with the outline of the test then I can begin to make any preparations needed. I would suggest that you nominate someone to randomly select the date you would read. I can send an email to the person you nominate and get him/her to choose a number which will correspond to one of the dates. That way it should be appropriately randomised and you will be able to verify that we haven’t been able to try any tricks or anything.

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  13. theenglishradical says:

    Michelle, we are all back from vacation now, so any time after October 15th is perfect.


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