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Astrology my passion, my life
And my personal disaster: a true story

A true story about a skeptical amateur astronomer who became a leading astrologer and true believer in astrology, and then a true doubter again. It was originally published on www.astrology-and-science.com in 2005. This version has been slightly abridged and updated by the author, who is a former editor and translator for one of the Netherlands' leading technological institutes.

By Rudolf H. Smit

Astronomy has been part of my life since I was a boy of nine growing up in the Netherlands. As a teenager I was a keen amateur astronomer with many astronomy books in my library. None said anything good about astrology, so I was led to believe it was nonsense, and that believers in astrology were either gullible or ignorant.

I meet a true believer
In 1968 I became technical editor for a photographic magazine. To my dismay I discovered that my boss (a highly educated person) believed in astrology. So I protested. He told me, gently, that I should study it before opening my mouth. He was right of course.

So for the first time I read about my sun sign. I was astonished to find how accurate it was. I then had my birth chart (horoscope) read, not once but twice. Again I was astonished to find how accurate it was. My life and character were perfectly described! It seemed that the astronomy books were wrong. Astrology was not nonsense and was something worth investigating. From then on astrology became my passion.

I teach myself astrology
I taught myself how to calculate and read birth charts. It wasn't easy and took many months of effort. My friends quickly became victims of my enthusiasm. But nearly everyone said my readings were spot on. I felt elated.

De Planeten Spreken I even wrote articles on astrology for a popular magazine.
They were later published as a 312-page book De Planeten
Spreken
(The Planets Speak, 1976). It covered the history of
astrology, chart reading, and what I thought was good evidence
for astrological claims such as the findings of Vernon Clark
and Michel Gauquelin, then the best there was.

I become a leading astrologer
Astrology worked so well for me that I soon rose through the ranks. I suggested that a Dutch society of professional astrologers be founded and was made its first chairman. I was co-author of an astrology handbook for beginners, and became the founding magazine editor for a Dutch society for the critical study of astrology. This was in 1977.

Typical ad for my services A truly wonderful time followed. I was now a part-time professional astrologer
with many satisfied clients. Everyone was optimistic that astrology would soon
be accepted by society. My doubts as a doubting astronomer seemed to be
over. But it was not to last. One day I accidentally used the wrong birth chart
for a client, who was nevertheless happy with my reading. Two years later it
happened again. In due course I discovered this was a common experience
among astrologers. But wasn't a birth chart supposed to be unique? How could
astrologers make correct readings from wrong charts? I was completely puzzled.
But my early doubts started to return. I began to do what astrologers almost
never do, namely question the statements made in astrology books. Before long I was seen as a pain in the neck. Then came a turning point.

Enter the computer
In the late 1970s I bought one of the early home computers. It could use astrological software that a friend of mine had written, and completely transformed my world of astrology. Until then the most difficult part of astrology had been the calculations. Even with a hand calculator some calculations could take many hours or days just for one birth chart. So tests involving many charts (or "an adequate sample size" as scientists would say) were almost impossible. But my computer could do the calculations in a few seconds without effort for as many charts as I liked. It was truly wonderful! I was now able to test astrology statements on large numbers of birth charts to see if the statements were actually true, especially statements about events.

Astrology statements can be multiplied almost indefinitely. Some examples: An afflicted Mars indicates danger from fire. Saturn in 10th house indicates violent falls. Jupiter rising indicates wealth. A majority of planets retrograde or below the horison indicates failing fortune. An angular Neptune indicates musical ability. Someone's Moon on your Sun indicates compatibility. A cadent Part of Fortune indicates numerous journeys. Primary directions from Uranus indicate fatal accidents. There is an exact interchange between the Moon at conception and the Ascendant or Descendent at birth, and vice versa. Moon-Saturn contacts suggest early problems in childhood with your mother. Such statements sounded impressive and were generally accepted by astrologers without question, but were they actually true?

Testing birth charts by computer in the 1980s

Testing birth charts with my PET computer in Australia in the 1980s

Of course I needed to find people with the relevant history. And even with a computer, testing took several years of painstaking work. To my horror I found that virtually none of the statements I was able to test could be confirmed. Yet my clients continued to be satisfied with my readings. My puzzlement increased. Was I deluding myself about astrology? Could my many satisfied clients be wrong?

The final crunch came in 1984 when I was living in Australia. At a conference I was invited to comment on a draft article about astrological counselling and the techniques used by astrologers in their consulting rooms. The article was based on scientific studies (it had 87 references) that were generally never mentioned in astrology books. Of course I agreed.

The penny drops
The draft was an eye opener. It explained why I could make correct readings from wrong charts, and how clients could be convinced that astrology was true even if it wasn't. There were many reasons. They included the Barnum effect (seeing specifics in generalities like "you have problems with money"), magical thinking (being seduced by resemblances like "your strong Venus means you are affectionate"), illusory correlation (seeing meaning where none exists like faces in clouds), selective memory (ignoring errors), and plausibility (seeing astrology as a science, an art, a philosophy, a language, 100% compatible with God, or just a study of nature). Altogether there were nearly forty reasons why clients could be convinced that astrology was true when it was actually false, all of which applied to the readings that I and other astrologers were making.

The most telling reason involved non-verbal cues. The recipe was a simple one: (1) Watch the eyes and hands for signs that say yes and no. (2) Make the reading happy and positive. (3) Be a good listener. (4) Loosen the client's tongue with flattery. (5) Discover the problem and then tell the client what she wants to hear.

The above recipe described my approach very well. But I never worked that way deliberately or intentionally. It just came naturally to me, and probably to most other astrologers as well. Which made the readings doubly dubious.

My happy world of astrology collapses
It was devastatingly clear. Astrology did not need to be true. Just being warm and caring would do the trick. Worse, astrological symbolism was so flexible that any chart would do, hence also the wrong chart. For example, having many planets in Aries emphasised what Aries stood for (energy) but also the exact opposite (too much of anything was said to make a person over-compensate). Even worse, if the chart still seemed to be wrong, sure-fire explanations were in every astrology book -- the birth time is not accurate, astrologers are not infallible, the client does not know herself, another chart factor is responsible (there is always another chart factor), or the manifestation is not typical. In other words astrology's Rules of Engagement made it impossible for astrology in the consulting room to be proven wrong.

At which point my happy world of astrology collapsed. In reality I had been deluded by a beautiful illusion. After twelve years of successful astrological practice I now felt compelled to close it.

Hitler cartoon "With Libra Rising, you could find great satisfaction in your
own home decorating business -- or then again you may prefer
to invade Poland". This anonymous cartoon from the British
Astrological Association newsletter Transit February 1983
perfectly sums up astrology's ability to fit almost any outcome.

My life loses its meaning
But for me it did not end there. Astrology, once my great passion, was now a great mistake. I had invested my whole existence on astrology's rosy certainty that life is meaningfully linked with the universe. So without astrology my life suddenly lost its meaning. I fell into a clinical depression that lasted for three painful years. Never underestimate astrology's appeal to true believers.

I regain scientific interest
In 1988 I received a Commemorative Bi-Centennial Award from the Astrological Monthly Review (Australia) for my contributions to astrology. I regained interest in testing astrology and became secretary of the late Professor H J Eysenck's Committee for Objective Research into Astrology, now defunct (it offered free expert advice on testing astrology and was predictably almost totally ignored by astrologers). During 1992-1997 I was editor and typesetter of Correlation, the journal of research into astrology published by the British Astrological Association. I was still trying to discover which statements of astrology were true. But I never found any.

I was also typesetter for the same Dutch magazine that I had been the founding editor of back in 1976. A highlight was its publication in 2000, in a special English edition, of Geoffrey Dean's ten years of research into Gauquelin's planetarty effects. Dean had found social artifacts in Gauquelin's data that confirmed the reality of Gauquelin's findings (which by then were the last remaining claimed evidence for astrology), but which also required their control before proceeding further. It was yet another example of what I had repeatedly observed more than two decades earlier -- the more careful the test the less the effect, a problem that astrologers overcome either by ignoring it, or by appealing to some unspecified property of astrology that puts it beyond science (and squarely in the realm of a belief system).

My scientific website
In 2000 I set up the website www.astrology-and-science.com for people interested in the scientific exploration of astrology, but remaining sympathetic to its appeal. In 2009 the site registered its 100,000th visitor. The Astronomical Society of the Pacific's website has rated it "the most useful site for information on testing astrology". In 2008 the astrologer Richard Nolle's website rated it as "good stuff, some of the best anywhere in the world". Two tests from my website are shown below. Had they been available thirty years earlier when I became interested in astrology, my personal life might have been less disastrous.

Tests of astrologers

Above, astrologers asked to match birth charts with their owners perform no better than chance.
If astrology performed as claimed, the red bars would be far to the right near the arrow. But they aren't.
These tests are called Vernon Clark tests after the psychologist who made the first ones in 1961.
This and the next figure show all known studies. They have not been selected to prove a point.

Tests of astrologer agreement

Again, if astrology performed as claimed, the red bars would be far to the right. But they aren't.
If astrologers cannot usefully agree on what a birth chart means, what price astrology?
Figures are from Case For and Against Astrology at www.astrology-and-science.com

Coming full circle
After a lifetime devoted to researching astrology, I have come full circle from doubter to true believer back to doubter. I became a true believer in the same way as other true believers do -- I gave astrology a fair go and found that it seemed to work. But unlike other true believers I applied proper tests and discovered I was fooling myself. Since then a few other astrologers have followed the same path and have reached the same conclusion.

Astrology now faces a dilemma. Most astrologers are warm and caring, and astrology can be helpful. Not because astrology itself is helpful, but because astrology sets a scene that helps astrologers to be helpful. The problem of course is that astrology can never become respectable if it requires astrologers and clients to believe in illusions.

Appendix: Doing what astrologers do
Astrologers have the perfect response to skeptics. Just compare birth charts with their owners, they say, and the amazing fit will show that astrology really works. What could be more reasonable? So let's try it.

Booklet In 1993 I helped to write a booklet Hoe waar is astrologie?
(How true is astrology?). To show what astrologers do to prove
that astrology works, it compared the birth chart of superstar
Michael Jackson with his life and character as described in the
biographies of Michael Jackson (M) and Jackie Onassis (J).
This made sure the comparison was free of any personal bias.
The results are shown below.

Birth chart

Birth chart of Michael Jackson

A. Jupiter, planet of expansion and success, is close to the MC, indicating career and public image. J says "He is one of the world's most celebrated entertainers." B. Uranus (innovation) is prominent because close to the Ascendant (outward personality and style). J says "He is a discoverer of new things, and a fantastic songwriter." C. Saturn (restriction) in secretive Scorpio and the 1st house of self-expression makes him build a wall around himself. M says "I've been accused of being obsessed with protecting my privacy. That is true. I'm a person who wishes to be in control of my own life." So far the birth chart is exactly right!

D. Sun (inner self) in a benevolent 60-degree angle to Saturn (discipline) makes a person reserved and introverted but also hard-working and ambitious. J says "For many he seems to be an introverted person." M says "To reach the goal I had in mind is beautiful, but to reach more is really beautiful." E. Mercury (communication) is in visionary unconventional Aquarius in the 3rd house of communication. F. Jupiter (expansion) is here ruler of 2nd house (possessions) opposite benevolent Venus, ruler of Taurus (possessions). Both planets confer fame, wealth, and success. The birth chart continues to be exactly right!

G. Jupiter is also in perfectionist Virgo, at a 90-degree angle (difficulties) to Mars (energy and action). J says "He is a perfectionist who continually fights with himself." H. The Moon (sensitivity) is in caring nurturing Cancer. M says "Much of my spare time is spent visiting children's hospitals. It brings me great joy to bring joy to those children." Cancer the crab walks sideways. Michael Jackson's biography is called Moon Walker. A double whammy!

I. Neptune (music, inspiration) in vocal Gemini and 7th house of love and relationships indicates his songwriting skills and their subject matter exactly. Neptune lacks aspects, indicating unrestrained musical freedom. J. Mars with Pluto (intensity, power) are at 90-degree angles (indicating challenges) to Venus (artistic taste) and Jupiter (extravagance). J says "His way of dancing has a tendency to challenge others." Pluto with Mars (surgery) also rules 12th house (hospitalisation) and its aspects show his plastic surgery and its unhappy consequences.

K. Now for the clinchers. In 2004 and 2005 progressed Sun is at a 90-degree angle to natal Mars and Pluto in 7th house of relationships, and opposite Jupiter in 9th house of law, exactly indicating his traumatic court prosecution and its timing. Progressed Sun is also conjunct Venus, indicating both the nature of the charges and his eventual acquittal. H again. In 2009 progressed Mars is conjunct Moon in the 8th house of death, showing his untimely demise.

Everywhere we look the chart is amazingly spot on! Indeed the chart fits so well, and in such unlikely ways, that coincidence would seem to be ruled out. Yes, astrology really works! Or so astrologers would claim. But there is one small snag -- the chart is the wrong chart. What we said was Michael Jackson's chart is actually the chart of Dr Marcel Petiot, one of the worst mass murderers in history. So the powerful and accurate fit with Michael Jackson is meaningless. It shows only how a birth chart can be made to fit almost anything after the event.

Petiot was born on 17 January 1897 with Capricorn Sun, Cancer Moon, Scorpio Ascendant, and was executed in May 1946 for murdering 27 people (he claimed 63). Michael Jackson was born nearly sixty years later on 29 August 1958 with Virgo Sun, Pisces Moon, Gemini Ascendant, and no close aspects in common with Petiot. So Petiot's chart could hardly be more different yet it fits Michael Jackson exactly. Of course astrologers could always argue that Jackson and Petiot are actually very similar, the one doing to music what the other did to people. But this powerful and accurate fit to a wildly wrong chart is nothing special. For example in April 1968 the famous French researcher Michel Gauquelin placed this ad in the magazine Ici-Paris offering free personal chart readings:

Gauquelin's ad

Michel Gauquelin's ad in Ici-Paris April 1968

To each of over 500 respondents he sent a copy of a 10-page reading of Dr Petiot's birth chart pretending it was their own. The reading had been generated by an IBM computer programmed by France's leading astrologer Andre Barbault. It said things like "instinctive warmth ... adaptable ... organised ... bathed in a sea of sensitivity ... total devotion to others ... altruistic sacrifices". Gauquelin enclosed a stamped addressed envelope and asked respondents for their comments.

Of the first 150 replies 94% found the reading to powerfully and accurately fit their character, personal problems, and life events; and 90% found its accuracy to be confirmed by their family and friends. The respondents were generally delighted and impressed by the reading. They described it in terms like "marvellous ... extraordinary ... astonishingly accurate ... certainly me." But they all received the same reading!

No wonder that astrologers and clients are persuaded that astrology works. It works because it cannot fail to work even when the wrong birth chart is used. (Of course if we already know the chart is wrong, we can just as easily make it not work.) Astrologers habitually see faces in clouds and pronounce it miraculous. But from what I have most painfully learned, for possibly 100% of astrology it is not gold that glitters.

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