Flashback Friday: Astrology Now!

Brian Lehrer looks to the stars in this August, 1985 High Times feature about astrology.
Flashback Friday: Astrology Now!
Wikimedia Commons

Brian Lehrer looks to the stars in this August, 1985 High Times feature.

If “What’s your sign” has joined the predictables of polite conversation—alongside “What do you do for a living?”—does this mean we’re all running our lives by the stars? According to Llewellyn’s 1985 Sun Sign Book, one of America’s most popular astrology guides, the best days for Leos in love are August 1, 27 and 28. How many Leos in America (people born between July 23 and August 22) will take such predictions to heart?

“Every once in a while, I read one and say ‘Wow! How did they know?'” says a usually skeptical New York journalist, age 30, who admits to peeking at her horoscope most days. “Usually I read them and think ‘nothing special’ but sometimes they come so close, it’s uncanny.”

This journalist has plenty of company. A 1984 Gallup Poll found that 55 percent of Americans, 13 to 18 years old, believe in astrology, up from 40 percent in 1978. Eighteen hundred newspapers in the United States and Canada print daily horoscope reports, and everyone seems to know someone who won’t walk out the front door without making sure the planets are favorably aligned for breathing fresh air.

But can it be true? Can the positions of Mars, Jupiter and Pluto determine whether it’s a good night for the lovelorn to go to singles bars, or whether it’s a good day for U.S. negotiators to launch a new peace initiative? Or do the astrologically faithful belong in the same category as the basketball coach who won’t take off his lucky sweater, or the real estate developer who won’t erect a building with a 13th floor?

When the Gallup Poll was released, reflecting an increase in belief in astrology among teenagers, a nationwide group of scientists and scholars, The Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, decided it was time for the other side to be heard. The group wrote letters to every daily newspaper in North America which publishes a horoscope column. It asked the papers to print disclaimers with their astrology reports, stating: “The following astrological forecasts should be read for entertainment value only. Such predictions have no reliable basis in scientific fact.”

The chairman of the group, Dr. Paul Kurtz, a philosophy professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo, says such a warning is warranted because astrology is “pure fiction” and because people follow their “stars” far too seriously.

“America is an advanced scientific and technological society,” Kurtz said in a recent interview, “and we want to keep the level of scientific literacy high. Astrology columns are dangerous insofar as they are not based upon scientific fact but upon pure mythology.”

You might think astrologers would be up in arms over such a campaign, but many are not. “I agree with him 100, 200 percent,” says Julia Parker, coauthor of The New Compleat Astrologer, a serious, “highbrow” book on the subject. “It couldn’t be a better thing to print something like the government health warning on cigarettes. Newspapers publish “Sun Sign” astrology, and while that may be fun, we encourage people not to take it seriously. You can’t divide the whole population of the world and say this or that is going to happen to one-twelfth of them!”

“Astrology is based on the planets’ positions with relevance to each other and the angles they make,” explains Derek Parker, Julia’s husband and coauthor of The New Compleat Astrologer. “Incidentally, astrologers do not use the stars, and the ‘Star Sign’ columns in the papers are really a lot of rubbish and have nothing to do with astrology,” Parker declares.

It’s hard to prove just how seriously people really take newspaper horoscopes. But one thing is for sure—people read them. Dr. Kurtz says virtually every newspaper in the United States, except the New York Times, prints them. The Chicago Sun-Times began publishing two astrology columns this year. When it tried to replace Sidney Omar’s daily forecast with Patrick Walker’s column, Omar fans deluged the paper with letters and phone calls. Walker quickly developed a loyal following too, so the Sun-Times finally decided to go with both of them.

According to a Sun-Times employee, the two astrologers attract different types of readers. She says more high income and professional people read Walker. “We get letters from lawyers and other people using very classy stationery. We didn’t do a scientific survey or anything, but I think Omar’s fans are different. Some of them write that they’re lost without his column.”

Joan O’Sullivan, senior editor of King Features Syndicate, which distributes Your Individual Horoscope to about 300 newspapers, doubts that people really put much faith in the astrology columns.

“Horoscope fans fall into three categories,” says O’Sullivan. “Number one, there are the true believers who have their horoscopes cast from the second of birth, and consult them every second, every minute, every hour, and don’t go down in an elevator unless their chart says this is the auspicious moment for that move. Then there are people who sort of believe, who really want to believe. And what they really believe is all the good stuff. And they hope that it’s all going to come true, and they’re sort of pseudo-serious. Newspaper horoscope fans really are not true believers. They just do it for a laugh.”

And she thinks the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal is a waste of trained scientists’ time. “Can you imagine a column that says ‘This horoscope is hazardous to your mental health?’ I think it’s a tempest in a teapot. Why aren’t these scientists concerned about truly important matters?”

Most newspapers certainly do not care about Dr. Kurtz’ request. Dr. Kurtz admits that just four newspapers have begun printing it: the Indianapolis Star, the Wilmington, Delaware News-Journal, the Charleston, Illinois Times-Courier and the Mattoon, Illinois Times-Courier.

Richard Hopper, features editor for the Indianapolis Star, says the paper began printing the warning partly because of Dr. Kurtz’ letter and partly because of a push by some local groups, including fundamentalist Christians. “We didn’t want anyone to get the idea that we endorse the views of the astrology report,” says Hopper. “I saw examples of some pretty ignorant people who do think that these readings should be taken seriously.”

What you see is not always what you get in newspaper horoscopes. Astrologer Julia Parker says she knew of a newspaper in England where a junior editor wrote the column. And she’s so critical of the one-paragraph forecasts that she says, “He’s got as good a chance as anyone of getting it right.”

Another editor, who asked to remain anonymous, admitted to me that the popular astrologer she worked with died about 15 years ago. “We decided at that time to keep the name. We’ve had a number of people use it. I even did the column for a few months. I used to sit around the dinner table with my kids and ask them, ‘Okay, anyone have a good one?'”

Nevertheless, astrologers are quick to point out that while the newspaper columns may be the most visible form of astrology, they are the least useful in terms of how people can benefit from the practice. Julia Parker works with individual clients, mostly in London where she lives, and says it takes a long time before an astrologer can tell you anything that will improve your life. That, she says, is because contrary to popular belief, astrology does not predict events.

“It can only assess trends that are working in your life. If an astrologer says ‘This will happen or that will happen,’ he or she is not using true astrology. They might be using clairvoyance or some kind of occult thing, but astrology has absolutely nothing to do with that,” Parker says.

“Astrology helps you to know yourself better. A birth chart will show you your psychological motivations, your energy level, the way you respond in all situations in your life, how your emotions work, how you respond in partnerships, give you some direction about your interests, and the development of your potential.”

Not Everyone is a Fan (or Believer) in Astrology

But that level of conservatism is not good enough for the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. Committee chairman Dr. Kurtz states categorically that “astrology is pure hokem. It’s a kind of mythology… It developed before modern astronomy, and has been discovered by modern science over the past 300 years.”

When asked if he acknowledges any difference between the “sun sign” astrology of newspaper columns and the detailed work of more serious astrologers, Kurtz says: “Astrologers tell us that they cast horoscopes that are more precise because they’re based not simply on the sun sign but upon the position of the various planets at the exact time of birth. Of course, we’ve looked at that too, and we find those horoscopes to be equally fiction or fairy tale.”

Kurtz cites a 1967 Michigan State University study of 3,000 marriages and 500 divorces. He says psychology professor Bernard Silverman found no statistical correlation between traditionally compatible or incompatible signs and the number of couples who got married or broke up.

Julia Parker prefers to link psychology and astrology in a more hands-on way. “Well-trained astrologers work in precisely the same way as marriage counselors, vocational guidance counselors and generally as psychoanalysts, and many people who are already psychoanalysts come in and take astrological training.”

Parker trained at the Faculty of Astrological Studies in England. She says the three-year course requires rigorous study and that “in no way just because you finish the course do you get your nice little diploma. You jolly well have to earn it.”

Is astrology true? Can it help people in their lives? Or is it an obsolete predecessor to astronomy that lingers as a fad and threatens the scientific literacy of America’s young people? The answer lies, perhaps, in our stars.

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