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The Enduring Fallacy of Astrology and Why Your Sign Actually Isn't Your Sign

It was June of 1973, and Freddie Mercury, lead singer of Queen and the man whose vocals remain one of the few reasonable arguments for the existence of God, had a serious problem. Queen was about to release its debut album, but they had no logo, no brand. So one night, Mercury drew up an insignia featuring the creature of each member’s zodiac sign—two lions, a crab, and fairy maidens—and lo, the Queen crest was born. It also may have been astrology’s only truly useful moment.

The veracity of astrological pseudoscience has been run through by actual science so repeatedly and thoroughly that it seems cruel to pile on. But for all the holes actual science pokes, none are a coup de grâce; Astrology remains a thriving industry with a daily column in virtually every major newspaper on the planet. Why?

Because we’re wired to believe Astrology, or perhaps more accurately, Astrology is wired for us to believe it. Humans suffer from the Forer Effect, a cognitive bias where individuals will see high accuracy in personality descriptions supposedly tailored specifically for them, but which are in fact so vague and general they apply to virtually anyone.

Moreover, scientists discovered if a subject believed the information was uniquely tailored to him or her (“what was the exact time and location of your birth?”), and came from a source of perceived authority (“the stars and the planets are telling me…”), and used positive statements (“a major advancement in your personal life is imminent”), accuracy ratings would skyrocket. This effect is also known as the Barnum Effect, named for P.T. Barnum whose circus had “something for everyone,” and astrology has perfected the way to milk it.

The Forer Effect is merely a facet of humans’ unrelenting capacity for “confirmation bias,” the tendency to favor information that confirms an individual’s beliefs or hypotheses. Confirmation bias, and its bedfellow “illusory correlation” (falsely perceiving an association between two events), supply the lifeblood of astrology, palm reading, fortune cookies, and Fox News. Yet as often as we’re hoodwinked, we still find it in our hearts to go on believing. As Shakespeare would say, “the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.“

There’s a deeper problem with astrology though, and it’s not well known. Simply put, your horoscope is literally never correct. It can’t be, because your sign is not your sign.

To explain, let’s say you were born today. That would make you a Scorpio (Oct. 23 - Nov. 23). But you’re not a Scorpio, you’re a Libra. Here’s why: your sign is determined by what zodiac constellation the sun “appears” in on your birthday. This is most easily observed at dawn, when the sun rises into one of the zodiac’s constellations. But when the zodiac was established two thousand odd years ago, the sun would rise in a very different part of the sky than it does today.

Thanks to a wobble in the earth’s axis, the constellations nowadays are shifted in the sky by almost 36 degrees—an entire month along the zodiac’s clock. And today, the sun rose in the constellation Scorpio. Thus Libras are actually Virgos, Virgos are Leos, etc. If you’re confused, here’s a video that explains it all, from TV personality and bow-tied man crush Bill Nye.

Had Freddie Mercury known this, the Queen crest would feature two sets of Gemini’s twins, a crab, and a lion. I doubt this would’ve upset Mercury—when asked about the astrological influence, he quietly reassured the interviewer he doesn’t believe in that shit.

Nor should anyone. I certainly don’t, but I’m a Virgo. We’re naturally skeptical.

Image (cc) flickr user zeevveez

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