Posts Tagged ‘astrology’

Astrology – A Test

Posted: October 20, 2009 by Tim Barclay in astrology
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A little while ago I wrote this piece about astrology, or more specifically about horoscopes. I explained that I believe any apparent correct predictions arrived at through the practice of astrology are due to a combination of vagueness the Barnum effect,  and wishful thinking on behalf of the reader, among other things.

Michelle Gregg, a consulting astrologer, disagreed with my analysis of her trade in the comments, explaining that I was being simplistic in writing off all of astrology on the basis of newspaper horoscopes, which she agreed are mostly for their entertainment value. 

So, based on Michelle’s defences of the specificity and accuracy possible in more in-depth astrological readings, I challenged her to take part in a little experiment, the details of which we have been hashing out for the last month or so.

I am pleased to announce that the test is now going ahead and, in the name of transparency, I will outline the full protocol being used here.

From a group of four people1, the time and date2 of birth of one person has been randomly selected3 and sent to Michelle. She will then give a reading for that date, attempting to make it specific and accurate enough that it would only apply to a person born at that time on that date, and send it back to me. 

I will circulate the email around the other three people in the original group and each of us will indicate whether we think the reading describes us. We will all do this without seeing each other’s responses. 

The test will be called a success for Michelle and for astrology if only the person whose date Michelle read for identifies him or herself in the reading.

In the case of any other result, the test will be deemed failed.

If nobody identifies themselves in the reading, or if the incorrect person does, the reading must have been wrong. If more than one person identifies themselves in the reading, this can be seen as support for my point about the “something for everyone” nature of Barnum statements.

The details have been sent today, so the test is now underway. We will keep you informed.


1: The group includes myself and theenglishradical as well as two unidentified others.

2: All times and dates were given in their GMT equivalent to avoid any potential confusion regarding time zones or daylight savings adjustments.

3: To do this, I set up four web pages, each of which contained one time and date. I emailed the four numbered links to a third party, nominated by Michelle, so that she could choose a number, click the corresponding link and send those details on to Michelle herself. This would blind the test by ensuring that neither we nor Michelle could know for whose date the reading was being done.

How to Read the Stars

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