Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Internal Consistency - Part 3: Astrology

As a skeptic, the truth matters to me. It's not enough for a belief to make me feel better, if it isn't true I'm not interested. Still, there are quite a few holdovers from my less skeptical days floating around in my brain. To resolve the cognitive dissonance created by valuing truth and associating myself with beliefs commonly dismissed as pseudoscience and 'woo' by the skeptical community, I've been writing about it. You can read part 1 and part 2 of this exercise as well, if you're interested.

With the recent brouhaha over the reported shift in the zodiac, this seemed like a good time to tackle my attachment to astrology. If being told that you've been reading the wrong horoscope all of your life wasn't enough to make you suspicious of astrology as a guiding force, you should really read Phil Plait's debunking of astrology as a whole. While there are many different types of astrology (Western, Chinese, Hindu, etc.), they all boil down to using the position of the Sun, Moon, planets and stars (though the position of the stars themselves are not relevant in Western astrology) to predict or explain what's going on here on Earth. As the various heavenly bodies move through space, they affect people and events in different ways. Astrologers chart this movement, which is considered to be predictive of events that correspond with it, and use it to write bits of pretty-sounding, generic nonsense for newspapers and gossip magazines.

Ok, so far so good. I'm sounding quite skeptical and scientific. But I never took the predictive power of astrology seriously, so it's not difficult to dismiss. It was the determinative aspect of astrology, the idea that the positions of the planets determine our personalities, that I was really involved with. Not only did my particular astrological designation (Capricorn, if you're curious) seem to describe me especially well, the idea that I could learn about myself and the people around me just by reading about their 'signs' was very appealing. Rigorous introspection? Taking the time to really get to know people? That sounds a lot like work. You're a Virgo, aren't you?

That's the crux of it, really. Taking determinative astrology seriously made me feel like I had this special understanding about people without having to put in any of the effort necessary to actually understand people. It was easy and fun and entertaining, and probably caused me to make a ton of stupid assumptions about myself and the people I knew. Looking at the concept now I'm amazed I bought into it for so long. Really? The positions of the planets on the day I was born is going to be what determines my personality? Not my genetics or how I was raised or the choices I make in life? Yeah the description for Capricorn sounds a lot like me, but honestly a lot of these descriptions could be about me...have you ever heard of something called confirmation bias?

So yeah, I feel like I've largely resolved the cognitive dissonance here. I am the only person or thing or heavenly body or whatever that gets to decide anything about who I am. I may have some overlap with the personality type described as a 'Capricorn', but that just doesn't mean anything significant. It's a little weird how attached I am to the idea of myself as a Capricorn, though. While I was writing this I kept trying to come up with some valid basis for the designation. Like the Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator or something...though personality tests like that don't necessarily have a better reputation for scientific integrity than horoscopes. Fact is though, there are many things that make me the person I am...but none of them have anything to do with me being born in early January.

And now, for your entertainment, my collection of astrology-themed 'Light bulb' jokes.

How many Capricorns does it take to change a light bulb?
One, but it has to be her idea.

How many Aquarius does it take to change a light bulb?
One, but he has to use the latest technology to do it.

How many Pisces does it take to change a light bulb?
The light went out?

How many Aries does it take to change a light bulb?
One, but you'd better get the hell out of her way.

How many Taurus does it take to change a light bulb?
One, but he'll do it when he's good and ready.

How many Gemini does it take to change a light bulb?

How many Cancers does it take to change a light bulb?
One, but her therapist (or Mother) has to talk her into it.

How many Leos does it take to change a light bulb?
One, and a 'Halelujah!' chorus while he does it.

How many Virgos does it take to change a light bulb?
Four; one to get a ladder, one to unscrew the bulb, one to check the wiring, and one to clean up the mess.

How many Libras does it take to change a light bulb?
Maybe one to do it, and maybe one not to do it.

How many Scorpios does it take to change a light bulb?
None, they like it in the dark.

How many Sagittarius does it take to change a light bulb?
One, and eleven other signs to revolve around her.


  1. This is so something a Capricorn would write. :p

  2. let's see what you think of this argument:

    1. a human's genes affect how they act in a large variety of ways.

    2. given 1, genetics affects how humans interact in society, including their work habits, vacation habits, etc.

    3. given 2, people of a certain broad genetic makeup will gravitate towards a common set of jobs (for example, perhaps those who have more muscle mass will be more likely to be manual laborers)

    4. given 3, people in a common set of jobs will likely share common socialization traits.

    5. given 3 and 4, people of similar genetic makeup may gravitate towards procreation in specific times of the year compared to other humans with different genetic makeups. for example, if people are manual laborers, it is likely that they have more free time during normal "work holidays", say... end of december? etc.

    6. offspring of parents with similar genetic makeup are more likely to pass on these traits to their kids, who inherit the parent's tendencies, etc.

    7. many kids are born 9 months after the situation in point 5.

    .*. horoscope works.

    this is crazy tenuous sure. maybe you can add something to it?

  3. Anonymous, that is an awful lot of 'givens' that would have to be accepted in order to follow your argument. What you're getting at does mesh with some of my thoughts on the potential validity of astrological designation, though. My train of thought was more along the lines of how certain personality traits are likely to cluster together. For example, people that are organized are likely to also be motivated and budget-conscious.

    Rather than lending validity to the concept though, I suspect that those kinds of groupings inflate the impression of accuracy in astrological charts. You read them and think...'Wow, a lot of this sounds like me' and don't notice as much when some of it doesn't. No matter how I tried to apply some scientific basis to astrology, it was all just too tenuous to be given any credit as a theory.