Shortly after entering the working world, I began to notice something rather surprising; a large number of Singaporean adults – larger, really than I expected – actually believe in astrology.
I considered: Why? Why do these people, otherwise completely rational and intelligent human beings, subscribe to something so ludicrous? Could they be seeing something I’m not?
Before you continue reading, know that you have the right to believe whatever you want. Read on with an open mind, or not at all. You’ve been warned.
LACK OF EVIDENCE, LAPSE OF LOGIC
Try to explain logically how astrology works; you can’t. It is a mass cultural delusion that manifests in a belief that the positions of celestial bodies in the galaxy from the frame of reference of Earth at the time of one’s birth somehow impact the events of one’s life and development of one’s character. It is, in the truest definition of the word, nonsense.
Could the stars be emitting some sort of radiation detectable from Earth that affects the activity of neurons in our brains? Well, no. Aside from our sun, we don’t receive any significant amount of radiation from the stars or planets that could affect our biochemistry. Even if we did, the radiation would just give us skin cancer, not make us “curious and energetic” or “possess a great sense of humour”.
Could there be some hidden explanation for astrology that science has yet to quantify and uncover? Sure. Could there be tiny leprechaun-mermaids living at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean? Possibly. But just because we can’t disprove it definitively, doesn’t mean we should believe it. As it stands right now, like leprechaun-Ariel, astrology has no place whatsoever in the realm of logic.
Chances are, however, that logic doesn’t usually factor into a belief in astrology. Most horoscope-believers would gladly submit that their beliefs make no rational sense, and that they believe in astrology only because of what they’ve experienced personally.
“I know it makes no sense, and I can’t explain it, but I’ve experienced it first-hand; I’ve seen it work with my own eyes.”
Fret not. I’ll address that too.
PSYCHOLOGICAL BIAS AND BELIEF MANIPULATION
With so many believers, surely astrology must work, right? Well, it does, in a manner of speaking.
Unsurprisingly, astrology works in very much the same way as psychic readings, tarot cards, séances, and other such rackets. It works on a very simple psychological phenomenon known as confirmation bias.
In essence, confirmation bias is the natural tendency people have to focus on evidence that confirms their beliefs, and ignore all evidence to the contrary. It affects everyone, you and me included.
Horoscope writers rely on this innate cognitive bias to provide readings that people will more likely confirm than refute. They use vague, broad statements with very slim chances of being wrong, and allow the reader to draw connections on his/her own.
For example, your horoscope for this month might say something like, “You should be open to new experiences.” A week later, your friend invites you to try out flow-riding at Sentosa’s Wavehouse for the first time in your life, and you think, “Oh my god, my horoscope was right!”
But really, is it that unbelievable for you to be having at least one new experience in an entire month? Last month, you tried out that restaurant for the first time. Next month, you might have your first ever colonoscopy. Had that particular horoscope been shown to you on any other month, it would probably have been accurate too!
In scientific research, confirmation bias is a huge problem too. Researchers often accord greater attention and credence to results that confirm their hypotheses, while trying to ignore contradictory evidence.
Thankfully, this bias is addressed in the scientific method through a practice known as the “blinded experiment”. What this does, put very simply, is prevent the people collecting data from knowing the purpose of said data, and the people creating the hypotheses from handling the data collection and analysis, thereby rendering confirmation bias impossible.
YOU CONTROL YOUR LIFE, NOT THE STARS
For many, a belief in astrology is harmless fun, and maybe they’re right. Unfortunately, advocating the false idea that some uncontrollable celestial force influences your life leads to a dissociation of cause and effect, and a destructive “not my fault” attitude that permeates the present cultural landscape and erodes the rigour of rational inquiry.
“Sure, I’m insecure, but my horoscope says I’m supposed to be. Why should I change who I am?”
If you only use your horoscope as motivation to get out and do fun, meaningful things, then awesome, more power to you.
But if you use horoscope readings to excuse certain character traits and judge people you don’t even know, you should go ahead and book that one-way trip to Mars. I hear you can see the stars very clearly from there.