Not In Your Stars

Kimberly Blaker has written a delightful new book, Horoscopes: Reality or Trickery?, that encourages readers to ask those questions and gives them the tools to find the answers for themselves. It is aimed at children age 9-13 but is also suitable for adults. It is short, entertaining, easy to read, and is illustrated with cartoons. She begins with her own horoscope and shows how the description seemed to fit her perfectly. Then she asks if there is a scientific explanation for why it seemed so true.

She covers the 5000-year history of astrology, how it was originally used as a guide for when to plant crops and as a source of omens to guide the state, and how zodiac signs and horoscopes were a later development. She goes over the evidence for astrology and shows how it is flawed, based on unreliable testimonials and flawed reasoning. She says, “Scientific studies make it possible to examine a claim and determine its validity.” And then she goes over all the scientific studies that have shown no correlation between astrological bodies and personalities or life events. She points out that the position of the Sun shifts over time and is now off by one whole zodiac sign, and astrologers have not made any adjustments.

She reviews the psychology of how people are misled into thinking their horoscope is accurate for them. In one study, 94 percent of people recognized themselves in the horoscope of a serial killer! People remember the hits and forget the misses, they like to read things that make them feel good about themselves, they are looking for something to help them make decisions, and they react to a self-fulfilling prophecy by changing their behavior so that the prediction comes true.

She asks if there is any harm in believing in astrology and shows that yes, it can be harmful. It can waste money and can lead to poor decisions and illogical thinking.

In a final chapter, she encourages readers to try a series of fun, informative activities to examine astrology for themselves. They can compare horoscopes from different sources to look for contradictions. They can follow their own horoscopes and tally how many predictions came true versus those that didn’t (“You’re prone to accidents today.” “You’ll get a big surprise.”). They can show a single horoscope to lots of people and tally how many agree that it describes them well. If astrology is valid, only one in 12 should agree, but most horoscopes are so vague that most people can see themselves in them.

Blaker provides a good explanation of how we know astrology doesn’t work and why some people still believe it does. In the process, she teaches valuable lessons in critical thinking. This book is the first in a planned series of Sleuthing for Explanations books from Grove Press. I look forward to seeing more in the series. In this age of fake news, it is vital that we teach critical thinking skills to our children at an early age, and books like this are a perfect way to get the job done.

This article was originally published on eSkeptic, a weekly email newsletter of the Skeptic Society. It is scheduled to appear in a future issue of  Skeptic magazine.

Dr. Hall is a contributing editor to both Skeptic magazine and the Skeptical Inquirer. She is a weekly contributor to the Science-Based Medicine blog and is one of its editors. She has also contributed to Quackwatch and to a number of other respected journals and publications. She is the author of Women Aren’t Supposed to Fly: The Memoirs of a Female Flight Surgeon and co-author of the textbook, Consumer Health: A Guide to Intelligent Decisions.