This article originally appeared in The Skeptic, Volume 15, Issue 2, from 2002.
The skeptic movement’s historic task is to counter the rise in belief in paranormal claims – a goal enshrined in the Humanist denunciation of astrology in 1975, in this case specifically to reverse the increased acceptance of astrology. The trouble is that none of the signatories of the famous statement had ever actually worked out whether acceptance of astrology was increasing. It was just assumed. No tests were done, no evidence was gathered. It was not considered necessary to do this in order to state what seemed to them to be a self-evident truth. But what if nobody takes magazine horoscopes seriously any more, as Lucy Sherriff argued? What if acceptance of astrology as a whole is actually declining? If that were to be the case scepticism would remain as an interesting intellectual activity, but the sense of cultural crisis that led to the creation of CSICOP in 1976 would disappear.
Astrology occupies a sort of public front line in the whole debate about paranormal belief largely because of the high public profile achieved by sun-sign columns. For many years, as an unofficial “expert” in the history of astrology I have fielded questions from journalists who want to know (a) whether belief in astrology is increasing?; (b) if it is, then why?; and (c) how many people currently believe in it? The answers to these questions were pretty much already formulated in their minds as follows: (a) belief in astrology is increasing and has been doing so ever since the 1960s boom in alternative ideas; (b) the cause is the collapse in traditional church-going, which has opened a spiritual vacuum – which in turn is filled by horoscopes, tarot cards and so on; and (c) a lot of people believe in it. Although skeptics would replace the journalists’ (b) (which is in fact a standard Christian explanation for declining church attendance) with a lack of scientific understanding and education, the fact is that the answers to all these questions is a resounding “don’t know”. Between them Erich Goode and Glenn Sparks have seriously cast doubt on the established notion that belief in astrology is necessarily incompatible with either traditional religious faith or knowledge of science.
So how many people actually believe in astrology?
The figures for belief in astrology are usually based on questions about readership of horoscope columns or private visits to astrologers, which are activities assumed to indicate belief in the subject. It has been pointed out time and time again that, when people are asked direct questions about matters which impinge on their private beliefs, their answers depend on who is doing the asking and how they feel at that particular moment. And that’s before we even face the ultimate problem of how the question is asked. One way or another, the figures cited for belief in astrology in a range of studies over the last thirty years are, when taken together, so variable as to be almost meaningless. Recent research by Glenn Sparks found that 89% of church-goers and 91% of non-goers agree with the statement that “Horoscopes DO NOT contain accurate information”, suggesting a level of belief in astrology of around 10% across the population as a whole. Yet the weakness of such questions is clear: they invite the subject to make an evaluation of objective truth rather than asking them how they actually feel. At the other end of the scale Sue Blackmore and Marianne Seebold elicited much higher answers from a small group of women undergraduates at the University of the West of England. They found that 13% would consult an astrologer before settling down, 22% knew their moon sign (suggesting they had taken active steps to find this out), 24% had read a teach-yourself astrology book or had taken a course in the subject, 39% valued the advice given in horoscope columns, 70% regularly read such columns, 85% agreed that their sun-sign description suited their personality and 100% knew their sun-sign. So, how would we fix a level of belief from this sample? It’s clearly anywhere between 13% and 85%.
One solution is to fall back on attempts to distinguish “strong” believers from “weak”. Yet, here again the results vary wildly. In the UK Bauer and Durant established a figure of 5% for “serious believers” while in Germany Paulik and Buse’s “strong believers” were almost eight times as numerous at 38%. The existence of such a discrepancy between two such similar countries suggests fatal methodological flaws and essentially arbitrary judgements about what behaviour might differentiate strong belief from weak. It’s more likely that at one end of the attitude spectrum there is a tiny number of people who consult astrologers obsessively and at the other there is a small group who denounce it vigorously. The bulk of the population exists in a grey mass somewhere in the middle. They may have no strong opinions either way. They might think one thing in the morning and another in the afternoon, or they might quite happily hold contradictory beliefs at one and the same time.
And what does “belief” mean?
And then there’s the whole question of the definition of belief. Strictly speaking, the word’s definition is neutral, meaning simply “trust or confidence” in the object of belief and, in the examples given in the Concise Oxford Dictionary, the objects of belief can be either religious, intuitive, a matter of opinion or an accepted fact. Thus it is possible to believe both in the Virgin birth and the existence of gravity without implying that one is more true than the other. In this sense a belief does not have to be true but neither is it necessarily false: it is the perception of the believer that counts. However, in much of the skeptical scientific literature, a “belief ” is automatically defined as false unless, in rare cases, proved otherwise. A summary of the skeptical arguments is given by Robert Park, Professor of Physics at the University of Maryland in his recent book, Voodoo Science, well reviewed by Chris French in a recent issue of The Skeptic (Vol. 14 no 2). The book’s stature is endorsed by jacket-blurbs from Richard Dawkins and Paul Gross, author of Higher Superstition. Park’s argument is not only that beliefs are necessarily false but that they result from a physiological malfunction of the brain. In other words, belief is roughly equivalent to mental illness. The very word belief has become so loaded that it’s surprising that anyone admits to belief in anything.
Do astrologers believe in astrology?
With all this in mind I devised a questionnaire asking delegates at the 2000 British Astrological Association conference how they would respond to the question “do you believe in astrology?”, with four possible answers (a: yes, b: no, c: don’t know and d: other) to account for every eventuality, and invited them to explain their reasons. I sought a quantitative result, but one which could only be justified in the light of qualitative material, the respondents’ justification of their answers. I received forty-seven replies out of a total of 220 questionnaires distributed, a return of 21%. Although quantitative conclusions from such a small sample can be misleading, the responses were surprising. Only 27, or 57%, ticked “yes”, the other 43% opting for “no”, “don’t know” or “other”. A breakdown of these three options is also interesting. While 1 opted for “don’t know”, only 3 chose “no”, but 14 (30%) ticked “other”, disputing the basis of the question. Belief, according these astrologers, is not an appropriate word to apply to astrology.
What I found most surprising, though, is that the reasons given for each answer did not differ. The overwhelming response was that astrology is such an obvious part of the natural world that either (a) of course one believes in it, (b) of course one doesn’t need to believe in it because it works or (c) the whole question of belief is irrelevant. I’ve been backing up my questionnaires with interviews and so far I’ve spoken to about twenty astrologers in the UK and USA, all “opinion formers” in the sense that they are prominent writers or lecturers on the subject. Again, what I’ve found surprising is the almost uniform rejection of any religious dimension in astrology and the simple claim that one doesn’t believe in astrology because of the simple fact that it works. And that, of course, takes us into territory covered by the Barnum Effect, the argument, as applied to astrology, that astrologers believe that astrology works because they are inclined to agree with its statements and claims.
So what do we do with astrologers who, in research done to date, should surely be classed as “strong” or “serious” believers in astrology, yet claim that they don’t believe in it at all? Can we argue that they really are believers – they just don’t know it? This solution is somewhat patronising, a little like well-meaning missionaries travelling the Empire lecturing the natives on the inadequacies of their religions.
The fact is that the argument that says that astrologers are necessarily believers may be flawed. Basically it runs like this: all research into astrology indicates that its claims are false, therefore nobody can accept it on the basis of the evidence and, finally, its adherents are therefore “believers”. We can then supposedly quantify the number of believers and reduce the total by convincing them of the evidence against astrology.
However, putting to one side for the moment the issue of whether astrologers’ personal observations of astrology actually working can be explained away, we have a number of other issues to consider. First, for those astrologers who are swayed by empirical research, there are in existence published positive results for astrology – and that’s without getting into the complex issues surrounding the Mars Effect. These results may be flawed, but then so is a great deal of research in all areas. That’s not the point. What matters is that they exist and have been published. Second, the astrological literature regularly contains trenchant responses to the skeptics. And third, there are schools of thought within astrology which argue for a range of philosophical reasons that scientific tests (including, as it happens, the positive ones) are irrelevant. That skeptics might dismiss these arguments as irrelevant overlooks the fact that they exist and are influential. So, are astrologers who form a perfectly reasoned assumption that astrological claims are true to be considered “believers”, as if they should know that the object of their belief is false? The waters are further muddied by research which tests levels of gullibility among skeptics, blurring the distinction between them and “believers in astrology”.
What I’m saying is, that half-way through my research into belief in astrology, I’m no longer convinced that belief is a useful category for measuring astrology – or anything. And, if anyone can convince me that it is, I’ll be very happy.
- “Objections to Astrology: A statement by 186 leading scientists”, Humanist, September/October 1975, pp. 4-6. See also Kurtz, Paul, “A Quarter Century of Skeptical Inquiry: My Personal Involvement”, Skeptical Inquirer, Vol. 25 no 4, July/August 2001, pp. 42-47.
- Sherriff, Lucy, “Women are NOT from Gullibull”, The Skeptic, Vol. 14 no 3, p.7.
- Miller, Jon D., “The Public Acceptance of Astrology and other Pseudo-science in the United States”, paper presented to the 1992 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, 9 February 1992; Miller, Jon D., “The Scientifically Illiterate”, American Demographics, 1987, Vol. 9, pp. 26-31.
- Sparks, Glenn G., “The Relationship Between Paranormal Beliefs and Religious Beliefs”, Skeptical Inquirer, Vol. 25 no 5, September/October 2001, pp. 50-56. Goode, Erich, “Education, Scientific Knowledge, and Belief in the Paranormal”, Skeptical Inquirer, Vol. 26 no 1, January/February 2002, pp. 24-27.
- Jahoda, Gustav, The Psychology of Superstition, London: Allen Lane 1969, pp. 25-26; Bennett, Gillian, Traditions of Belief: Women, Folklore and the Supernatural Today, London: Penguin 1987, p. 27. Edwards, Allen L. Techniques of Attitude Scale Construction, New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts 1957, pp. 3-5.13; Payne, Stanley L., The Art of Asking Questions, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1st edn. 1951, 1980, pp. 3-10.
- Sparks 2001, p. 55.
- Blackmore, Susan and Seebold, Marianne, “The Effect of Horoscopes on Women’s Relationships”, Correlation, Vol. 19 no 2, Winter 2000-1, pp. 14-23.
- Bauer, John, and Durant, Martin, “British Public Perceptions of Astrology: An Approach from the Sociology of Knowledge”, Culture and Cosmos Vol. 1 no 1, 1997, pp. 55-72.
- Park, Robert, Voodoo Science: the Road from Foolishness to Fraud, Oxford: Oxford University Press 2000, pp 35-6.
- Vaughan, Valerie, “Debunking the Debunkers: Lessons to be Learned”, The Mountain Astrologer, no 80, August/September 1998, pp. 11-17.
- See for example, Cornelius, Geoffrey, The Moment of Astrology, London: Penguin-Arkana 1994.
- Glick, Peter; Gottesman, Deborah; Jolton, Jeffrey, “The Fault is Not In The Stars: Susceptibility of Skeptics and Believers in Astrology to the Barnum Effect” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Vol. 15 no 4, December 1989, pp 572-583.