The Radford Files
Astrology, Prejudice and Racism
By Benjamin Radford
Unlike astrologers, I don’t think people should be stereotyped and subjected to prejudice. (I use prejudice in its original meaning: forming an opinion about a person or group on the basis of generalizations, assumptions or stereotypes.)
Yet if you think about it, that’s the basis of astrology. For example, astrologer Sasha Fenton, author of Astrology for Wimps, writes that astrology is for “people who want to understand themselves, their friends, and their loved ones ... . With no more than a date of birth to go on, we can see where people are coming from, and how they are likely to impact our lives ... . You can apply [astrology] to others who share the same signs.”
The basic premise of astrology is that people who were born at certain times and places share distinguishing personality characteristics. Libras, for example, are said to be diplomatic, refined, idealistic and sociable; Capricorns are responsible, disciplined, hard-working, demanding and so on. Tens of millions of people know something about their sun signs and read their daily horoscopes.
There are some interesting parallels between racism and astrology. In both cases, people are being judged by factors beyond their control. Just as people have no control over their race or skin color, they also have no control over when and where they were born. Also in both cases, there is a framework of belief that says, Without even meeting or knowing you, I believe something about you: I can expect these traits or particular sort of behavior (sneakiness, laziness, arrogance, etc.) from members of this particular group of people.
When an astrologer meets a person and finds out that person’s astrological sign, he or she will bring to that experience a pre-existing list of assumptions (prejudices) about that person’s behavior, personality and character. In both cases, the prejudices will cause people to seek out and confirm their expectations. Racists will look for examples of anti-social behaviors in the groups they dislike, and astrologers will look for the personality traits they believe the person will exhibit. Since people have complex personalities (all of us are lazy some of the time, caring at other times, etc.), both racists and astrologers will find evidence to confirm their beliefs.
Of course, there are differences, and astrologers are not racists. But the belief systems underlying both viewpoints are similar: prejudging individuals based on beliefs about a group. Some might ask what the harm is, if the stereotypes are harmless. Not all stereotypes are negative; some are positive. But these prejudices can be just as harmful in creating expectations.
In both cases, people are being judged by factors beyond their control.
And who came up with all of this? Who decided that Leos are ambitious and well-organized while Cancers are moody and domestic? Nobody seems to know or have any explanation.
But even though astrology is based on prejudice, is it true? After all, if the astrological stereotypes are correct, then the signs may be valuable after all. Can we scientifically check to see if astrology is valid, if people really do fit their astrological profile? The answer is yes, and such studies have consistently failed to prove any correlation between sun signs and personality traits.
In a study (“Is Astrology Relevant to Consciousness and Psi?”) published in 2003, the most thorough scientific study ever made of astrology, researchers followed more than 2,000 people born in 1958 for several decades. The study’s participants were born within minutes of each other and in nearby locations. If astrology is true, all the participants should have very similar personality traits. Researchers examined more than 100 different characteristics, including occupation, anxiety levels, marital status, aggressiveness, IQ levels, and ability in art, athletics and mathematics. Astrologers claim these are exactly the traits astrology can predict, but researchers (including Geoffrey Dean, a former professional astrologer) failed to find any evidence for the claim. The research was published in the Journal of Consciousness Studies. Many other studies have also failed to find evidence that astrology has any basis in reality (see, for example, a 2006 study by Peter Hartmann, Martin Reuter and Helmut Nyborg, “The relationship between date of birth and individual differences in personality and intelligence: a large-scale study” in the journal Personality and Individual Differences.
In fact, it gets worse: Astrologers cannot explain how a person’s personality or future could possibly be influenced by the position of planets and stars at birth. Why would a person be especially creative and generous just because she happened to come out of her mother’s womb between July 23 and Aug. 22?
I judge people individually, on who they are as a person, not on what arbitrary group they belong to. To paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr., I believe a person should be judged not by the color of her skin—nor the date and time of her birth—but by the content of her character. Then again, I’m a Libra.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author. E-mail email@example.com.
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