Why astrology's laughable 2022 predictions aren't just harmless fluff

With 2021 in the rearview mirror, many of us are wondering what 2022 will hold. For some people, that means turning to the stars. Astrologers predict that 2022 will bring “enlightenment, glow-ups, and some serious rebirths” and that we should “expect for secrets to be revealed, the marginalized to rise up, and chances for a phoenix to rise from the ashes.”

This would be cause for excitement if not for one little problem: Astrology doesn’t work.

Despite a lack of compelling evidence for the power of astrology, the predictions made by astrologers often appear accurate. How can this be?

Astrology claims that the positions of the sun, the moon and the planets affect the lives of people here on Earth beyond obvious ways like daylight and tides. The positions of these celestial bodies when you are born are said to influence your personality, and the positions of these celestial bodies today are said to influence events. Astrologers look at star charts and diagrams of planets and their relative positions to uncover information about people and the future.

This makes it a pseudoscience, a method that can seem similar to science but that disregards important features of real science, like hypotheses that can be disproven and experiments that can be successfully repeated. Pseudoscience enriches charlatans at the expense of the public and distracts people from the very real science that can make the world a better place.

If the positions of the planets actually influence personality, it stands to reason that practicing astrologers would be able to accurately describe people’s personalities without meeting them. Yet try as they might, astrologers have failed to show that they have any predictive powers beyond the ability to guess. Study after study after study fails to provide evidence that astrology works.

Others try to legitimize astrology by talking about its long history. With roots thousands of years old in the ancient world, astrology was for millennia intertwined with the very real science of astronomy — the study of what exists beyond our planet’s atmosphere — separating only during the development of the scientific method at the end of the Renaissance.

Ancient peoples who practiced astrology did have their fair share of smart innovations, like mathematics, democracy and aqueducts, but they also had plenty of dumb ones. I’ve never heard anyone say we should try to predict the future by looking at sheep livers just because the ancient Etruscans did it.

Some astrologers do admit that they can’t explain why the location of a planet would influence a person’s life. This doesn’t inherently mean that it’s hogwash (cultures around the world figured out the length of the year long before they understood that the Earth orbits the sun), but it doesn’t help. And that honesty is belied by the follow-up admission that they don’t care whether the planets actually influence a person’s life or not.

Despite a lack of compelling evidence for the power of astrology, the predictions made by astrologers often appear accurate. How can this be?

Part of it is the Barnum effect, the psychological equivalent of one-size-fits-all. People are inclined to believe that vague descriptions of personality apply to them, especially if they are positive. In one demonstration, the vast majority of students in a classroom said that a personality profile applied to them — only to find out that they all received the same one. And if an astrologer claims that people of a certain sign are nervous about public speaking, well, lots of people are nervous about public speaking.

Part of it is chance. Take correlations between astrological signs and a certain section of society, like Olympic athletes. Consider that there are 12 astrological signs and billions of people. When they are randomly distributed, astrological signs are going to overlap with people and events because of chance alone. But a correlation between success at the Olympics and a specific astrological sign is as meaningful as a correlation between cheese consumption and people getting tangled to death in their bedsheets.

Part of it is observation, but not of the stars. Astrologers can use common knowledge to guide their annual predictions, as was demonstrated by the predictions astrologers made in 2020 about 2021. It hardly requires knowledge of planets to realize that the rollout of vaccines and the lack of a presidential election would make 2021 “a much more ‘normal’ year” than 2020; it simply requires common sense.

Given all this, is astrology, with its vague pop-psychology predictions, actually a problem? Yes.

Astrology’s practically meaningless prognostications and explanations for human behavior encourage people to accept flimsy answers rather than look for the real reasons the world is the way it is. Scientific literacy and critical thinking are increasingly important skills for people and society as a whole, and mumbo-jumbo like astrology stands in their way.

Saying Tauruses are optimistic and calling it a day ignores the very real scientific research indicating that people born in the spring are more likely to be optimistic than people born in other seasons. There are different hypotheses as to why this is (it might be due to seasonal environmental effects on pregnant mothers and their developing fetuses), but none involve the position of Uranus. If we really want to understand how the world works, we can’t accept handwaved explanations.

Vague predictions and statements also make it more difficult for people to realize they are nonsense. It’s easy to scoff at predictions that are obviously wrong (like the one that the world would end in 2012 or that John F. Kennedy and his son would appear alive in Dallas in 2021), but vague forecasts that can easily be partly correct suggest that there’s more to astrology than there really is.

And once someone thinks there might be some truth to it, believers and scammers alike can more easily exploit that interest all the way to the bank — “psychic services” like astrology, tarot card readings and others are worth $2.2 billion. Back-of-the-envelope math reveals that one astrologer (whether or not he or she cares whether astrology works) can make more than $1,000 in a single evening.

And sometimes these merchants of malarkey do more than just take money from unsuspecting marks. After an assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan, first lady Nancy Reagan brought an astrologer into the White House, who reported that she chose the timing of news conferences to the president’s cancer surgery.

Supporters of astrology often compare aspects of it to therapy, and it’s good for people to share their feelings and goals with other people who care. We just don’t need it to be wrapped up in hokum to do so.

source: nbcnews.com