Bad Astrologers III

Tonight, BBC Radio 4's The World Tonight mentioned some new research into astrology by researchers in Germany and Denmark. The story has also been covered by the ABC, the Sydney Morning Herald and The Mirror.

The study apparently (I don't have a subscription so haven't been able to read it) grouped over 15,000 people by sun-sign and then compared the personality types of the 12 resulting groups. The total sample was drawn from two sources: the first was a group of 4,000 Vietnam veterans (who the researchers state could be a biased sample due to the experience of traumatic events) and the second was a group of 12,000 from the US National Longitudinal Study of Youth (NLS). The veterans were tested for psychoticism, extraversion, neuroticism and social desirability, but the researchers found no statistically significant difference between the different sun-signs groups or time of birth for that matter. They did find a tiny difference in IQ between those born between July and December compared to the other half of the year but this was actually reversed for the NLS sample.

After talking to one of the researchers, The World Tonight interviewed Jonathan Cainer - perhaps the UK's best known and best paid astrologer - for his view on the matter. I have typed it up here so that there is a record of it.

Jonathan Cainer: Well I'm absolutely horrified, because I read the study very carefully and the report you've just given is an example of deep disingenouity on behalf of scientists. Contrary to how you've reported this, it is not the case that they studied 11,000 young people and compared their personality traits to the expected characteristics of the zodiac signs. They didn't have access to the personality data for those 11,000. The only people they did personality research on were 4,000 Vietnam veterans; all male, all middle-aged. In other words, the reason they managed to tie the two subjects together was because they also investigated intelligence, about which astrology makes no claim. So, where it comes to actual personality research, very naughtily they've sort of said "Oh, there's nothing in this" but then they haven't actually looked at - their data didn't contain that resource and basic material.
Roger Hearing: Well if you discount the data which you say doesn't work, which was related to the young people, nevertheless they did look at these tens of thousands...
Jonathan Cainer: No it was 4,000 Vietnam veterans, which is a relatively small scale and they were all male ermm and they were all American, and you know that now takes us into a little wider area because I'm not, I'm not going to put my hand up and say that sun sign astrology is a perfect science. It is true that there are about approximately 6 billion people on the planet and we've a roughly equal distribution of birth signs that means that there's half a billion people born under each sign and no of course all Geminis aren't the same but that's the whole point; they [the researchers] were looking for extroversion and introversion. Now, you get extroverted Leos and you get introverted Leos.
Roger Hearing: So what does it mean then if it doesn't predict characteristics or behaviour?
Jonathan Cainer: Oh it does but it predicts them at a somewhat subtler level. Each one of us is ultimately unique and astrology is a much more subtle subject which deserves, and eventually will get, a much more subtle understanding.
Roger Hearing: Well some people might read subtle as being perhaps vague. I mean let me quote what you've written about me. Virgo, err today that is, Thursday April 27th. "Do you want to attain a great victory? Would you like to change something deep-seated and fundamental? Change it forever - it's possible. I mean that's pretty vague isn't it?
Jonathan Cainer: I venture to suggest it's very accurate for what you're currently going through. Interestingly enough you're not the only Virgo in the news at the moment because Charles Clarke [Home Secretary] is also a Virgo, and I'm not suggesting for one moment that the two of you have something very strong in common, but you will in one respect; you'll both have the ability to pay attention to detail. You'll both be methodical in your own way. You'll both be very clever people because Virgo's have ability to ... I mean ... I said astrology doesn't deal with intelligence it does deal with the ability to notice detail and to have perspicacity.
Roger Hearing: But how on Earth does it work. I mean how being born under a particular star or sun sign - how can that possibly make any difference to you?
Jonathan Cainer: Well the answer is: it does. And as for how it works, I only drive the car; I don't know how to operate the engine. I make no claims.

Now, I would like to take issue with a few things that Jonathan Cainer says there. Firstly, a sample of even 4,000 people, rather than being "small scale", is pretty huge. Normally pollsters sample 1,000 people and have to take into account biases (e.g. age, parents, income, profession etc.) that make different parts of the population vote or think differently. However, as astrology only depends on your date, time and location of birth, most of these biases should be totally irrelevant. Also, despite Jonathan Cainer's complaints that the veterans were all male and middle-aged, I would have thought that having a pretty uniform sample, with similar life experiences, would be ideal. After all, there are then less factors that need to be taken into account to explain any differences. Thirdly, Jonathan says that astrology "isn't a perfect science". Well, I'm afraid it isn't a science at all. Although astrologers do make many predictions, they don't tend to stick around to test them to see if they were correct. Jonathan, like other astrologers, likes to dress up astrology as a science by using complicated jargon and talking about precise calculations. When you try to find out what these precise calculations are they start telling you that it is too subtle to study.

Of course, other astrologers have been quick to distance themselves from the uncomfortable scrutiny caused by actual evidence. The Mirror's astrologer Debbie Frank said "astrology should not be treated as a science" and Marlene Houghton was quoted by a very pro-astrology Independent as saying "astrology is a metaphysical doctrine, not a science, and cannot

be easily judged by the narrow instrument that is science." Russell Grant seemed to think that because something has been used for thousands of years it must be correct and added that "proper" astrology was valid. Does that include his own horoscopes?

As I see it, astronomers want to share the knowlege they have found out through hard work

whilst astrologers want to maintain their power by claiming special ways to hidden knowledge. So, it has been quite funny to see all the astrologers out in force to defend their current accounts profession from such a terrible thing as scrutiny, evidence and proper research. Long may the scrutiny continue.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Friday 28th Apr 2006 (01:50 UTC) | Permalink
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