Earlier this month, starry-eyed readers read the last horoscope of one
of America’s leading newspaper astrologers, Joyce Jillson. Death came
on October 1, but her horoscopes had been prepared up to November 6.
From November 7, another expert will cipher out the meaning of the
stars for her readers in nearly 200 newspapers.
JoyMs Jillson was not a mundane cross-my-hand-with-silver sort of
star gazer. She was the official astrologer for 20th Century Fox
Studios. It was on her advice that studio executives picked the opening
date for Star Wars in 1977, which went on to become the second-highest
grossing film of all time.
She also moved in circles which played another kind of star
wars. After the March 1981 assassination attempt on President Ronald
Reagan, she “spent a lot of time” at the White House — an assertion
denied, of course, by the White House, although Nancy Reagan was known
to consult astrologers. Since Ms Jillson claimed to have fingered
George H.W. Bush as Reagan’s vice-presidential candidate in 1980,
perhaps she is responsible for W’s dance with destiny.
few words from Ms Jillson’s ex-husband sum up her contribution: “She
bridged the gap between astrology and self-help and astrology and the
entertainment community.” And not only these, but companion animals as
well. Awaiting publication are two books by Ms Jillson, Dog Astrology and Astrology for Cats.
The death of an astrologer prompts questions: couldn’t she have
done something about it? Gone on holidays? Consulted a better doctor?
Taken a rain check? Perhaps this is the moment to ask whether reading
your horoscope is a useful investment of time.
Most astrology columns in the media, says a professional astrologer, are just “creative writing”.
A journalist acquaintance of mine tells the story of her brief
career as an astrologist. During a stint on a rural paper, she was able
to access the astrology column before the paper went to press. As a
joke on one of her colleagues, she used to adapt the wording of his
star sign predictions to suit what was happening in his life. Much to
her glee, he used to tell her confidentially how incredibly accurate
his horoscope had been in recent weeks.
The moral of the story is that newspaper astrology is rubbish.
Surprisingly, professional astrologers agree. The president of the
Federation of Australian Astrologers, Dr Duane Eaks — his PhD is in
psychology — says that newspapers are boltholes for charlatans.
Accurate astrological information requires the exact time and place of
birth, he told MercatorNet. Most astrology columns in the media, he says, are
just “creative writing”.
Professional astrologers claim that their trade is a science
and sneer at the vague platitudes written by astrological hacks for the
media. “They’re so general that anyone could have written it,” says Dr
Eaks. His Federation has its own examination system and practitioners
teach part-time courses lasting two or three years. There are
assignments and projects, and for the highest qualification, a research
thesis is required.
However, notwithstanding this veneer of academic rigour, a
recent comprehensive study debunked the predictions of professional
astrologers as well. In a magazine called the Journal of Consciousness
Studies two researchers analysed the results of more than 40 controlled
studies and found that the best of astrologers perform little better
than chance even on the simplest tasks.
The core claim of astrology is that the positions of the sun,
moon and planets indicate and even produce changes in our minds,
emotions, bodies and careers. Ultimately it is based on the discredited
principle of correspondences: that things similar in some respects are
similar in others. As above in the heavens, so below in our lives is
the underlying philosophy.
If astrology is a science, scientists ought to be able to test
its predictions. But none of hundreds of investigations into its claims
since 1975 has found anything to support them.
The most damning of these studies was carried out by Dr
Geoffrey Dean, an Australian scientist and former astrologer, and a
Professor Ivan Kelly, a psychologist at the University of Saskatchewan
The lives of more than 2,000 people born in London in the
month of March 1958 were tracked. They had been born on average 4.8
minutes apart and according to astrological theory, their lives and
temperaments should have shown exceptional similarities.
More than 100 features of each person in the study — such as
IQ, anxiety, aggressiveness, musical ability, accident proneness and
marital status were examined. According to the Dean and Kelly, “the
test conditions could hardly have been more conducive to success. But
the results are uniformly negative.”
Dr Dean told the London Telegraph that this massive study of
so-called “time twins” undermined the claims of astrologers, who
normally work with birth data which is far less precise than the data
he was working with (2).
“They sometimes argue that times of birth just a minute apart
can make all the difference by altering what they call the house
‘cusps’,” he said. “But in their work, they are happy to take whatever
time they can get from a client.”
Many of the claims made by astrologers are anecdotal. But Dean
and Kelly reviewed more than 40 controlled studies — and all of them
found that astrologers cannot perform significantly better than chance.
In 25 of these studies, astrologers were unable even to agree on how to
interpret a birth chart.
“If astrologers cannot agree on what a birth chart indicates,
or on their confidence in that intuition, then what price astrology and
the supposed intuitions of astrologers?” ask the researchers.
“It has no acceptable mechanism, its principles are invalid
and it has failed hundreds of tests,” said Dr Dean. “But no hint of
these problems will be found in astrology books which, in effect, are
exercises in deception.”
Have these criticisms rattled astrologers?
Not at all. In the words of British astrologer Roy Alexander, “I
take it for granted that astrology works, and that we have enough
cumulative experience to know that it works, whether the computer
studies and the scientists agree with us or not.”
In fact, some astrologers believe that their own mental state,
or insight, is more important than the birth chart in interpreting your
life. In other words, their work is a form of extra-sensory perception,
or magical insight. Astrologers are latter-day medicine men seeking to
divine the plans of the spirit world. Some even believe that successful
astrologers conjure up spirit guides to gain access to hidden
However it works, astrology has lost none of its appeal.
Interest in astrology is burgeoning. A Harris poll in the United States
found that 31 per cent of the public believed in astrology, including
36 per cent of women and 43 per cent of people between 25 and 29. Dean
and Kelly say that about 1 person in 10,000 in Western countries is
practicing or seriously studying astrology.
The internet is flooded with information on astrology. After
pornography sites, it is said, astrology sites are the most visited
sites on the internet. You can send in your birth data, pay a fee, and
learn all about your future. Financial astrology is a growing area,
too, with many sites offering insight into the ups and downs of the
business cycle and tips on what shares to buy.
There are no readily available figures on the size of the
astrology business. However, the London Telegraph says that some of the
most popular astrologers in the British media can earn £600,000 or more
a year. Back in 1999, the Daily Mail in London reportedly offered its
astrological expert a £1 million salary and a £1 million bonus to keep
him from deserting to a rival newspaper. A popular astrology website
can be worth as much as £50 million, says the Telegraph.
However, after twenty centuries of practice, astrologers do
not agree on how the map of the heavens at the time of our birth, or
“birth charts”, should be interpreted. Even professional astrologers
have acknowledged that “astrology is almost as confused as the earthly
chaos that it is supposed to clarify”.
With astrology proven time and again heap of twaddle, it’s a
puzzle why so many people still check Joyce Jillson’s horoscopes.
Perhaps the thought that the stars are responsible for lost loves and
financial ruin is more comforting than the daunting challenge of free
will and responsibility for our lives. As Shakespeare said in Julius
Caesar, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves,
that we are underlings.”
If astrology really worked, you’d think that Joyce Jillson’s
horoscope for October 1 would have reflected her death. She was a
Libra, and this was her message for Libras: “Feeling a little off
kilter? It might be something as simple as eating smarter, more
nutritious meals.” Sadly, it wasn’t that simple.