Paul Meehl, the “gentle genius” and clinical psychologist from Minnesota coined the term “Barnum Effect,” a concept that dismisses Astrology’s predictive power. He points out that people tend to identify with spectacular claims and stories, arguing that people simply take generalized Astrology descriptions and read into them whatever it is that they want to hear. For example, he argues that readers relate to ambiguous forecasts by making them personal somehow, even though specificity is lacking and when in fact the descriptions are so vague and wide ranging that they might fit any Sign on any given day. Indeed, empirical studies bear this out in experiments that demonstrate readers do indeed tend to “identify” with paragraphs labeled according to their Sign, even when the astrological descriptions are swapped out with a paragraph describing an entirely different Sign. Fine! Meehl makes a point. But any consulting astrologer knows that reading a Sun Sign Astrology column and getting a consultation from an expert astrologer are not the same thing. Meehl essentially debunked Sun Sign Astrology, not Astrology. Even so, Sun Sign Astrology has evolved as well, but this astrologer feels that Meehl’s point still stands. Readers tend to “identify” with general statements, the more sensational the better. John Burroughs wrote “…to the poet the meaning is what he pleases to make it, what it provokes in his own soul.”1 Astrologers may be over-invested in symbolism, encouraged by an endless public appetite for waxing on about upcoming Big Celestial events. Regurgitating ancient astrological rhymes like The Brothers Grimm, only with provocative statements designed to get the reader’s attention away from life and not into it. Apparently the sensational is good for business. Anytime our Labrador brain is tickled we jump up from our nap as if our inner cave person just saw the Moon get eaten by the Sun for the first time. We get excited! Despite our better instincts. We tend to believe anything! Victor Frankl, the neurologist psychiatrist from Austria stated that human beings are fond of making meaning from life, from their lived experiences.2 We need to make meaning. “The Symbol is the thing symbolized,” which means that symbolism wrought properly is all encompassing, not based on partial and narrow views of the lived experience. We need to do a better job identifying with a type of Astrology that is rooted in the reality of the world.
In his book The Creative Astrologer, Noel Tyl cites the American Handbook of Psychotherapy and points to research suggesting that the personality of the therapist is more important than any particular school of thought.2 An important takeaway for me as a counseling astrologer is that this view is equally applicable to schools of astrology. In a separate study while poking around the journals for this piece I found a related comment cited in the American Handbook of Psychiatry. Here the premise and efficacy of psychotherapeutic intervention is called into question. Ironical, since the profession seemed to be criticizing itself. The work cited points out that most patients overcome their personal troubles, with or without therapy, within a 2-year period.
“‘Quem Jupiter vult perdere dementat prius,’ (whom Jupiter wants to destroy, he first renders mad.) Clearly, psychoanalyst have learned nothing and forgotten nothing! They have no intention of submitting their beliefs [emphasis mine] to any kind of empirical scrutiny; they prefer assertion to demonstration.”4 Two astrologers in the mid-1950’s tried to “demonstrate” Astrology’s value beyond “assertion.” Doris Chase Doan’s work from her 1956 book called, Astrology: 30 Years of Research, aimed at demonstrating correspondences between the natal chart and life events, health, career and income potential. Michel Ganquelin and his wife published L’Influence des Astres in 1955 and presented a “proof” of Astrology that became known as the “Mars Effect” where his research demonstrated a correspondence between the planet Mars and prominence of individuals within medicine, sports, and the military. He also emphatically stated that data on over 500,000 charts showed no statistical significance between an individual and correspondence with any planets and our personal fates.5 In other words, his research supported the humanistic notion of free-will a very different point of view from “believing” that every planet in transit actually “does anything to us.” Ganquelin’s final research was published in 1991. It is hard to believe that with all the computer power available today that Astrology has not conducted a more thorough empirical study, controlled for selection bias. Astrology remains vulnerable to the same accusations levied against psychiatrists in the work cited above; preferring “assertion to demonstration.” Anecdotally, all astrologers have great stories to tell. Remarkable correspondences seem to border on the miraculous. I do as well. But if we are to be honest with ourselves and our clients, we are no further along the road of proving Astrology than we were in the year 1950.
An unexpected corollary that updates these ideas came to me while reading Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow. In one psychological experiment he provides insight into Ganquelin’s original work, and I think supports Ganquelin’s research. In Kahneman’s book, he discusses research that empirically minded individuals will appreciate. It might be argued in fact that some of the greatest astrologers were empiricists. Even though original astrological thinkers from Pythagoras to Kepler didn’t have the same tools as modern researchers, but according to astrologers at the Avalon School of Astrology, their work did not end. Standing on the shoulders of great minds like Rheinhold Eberton and John Addey, or Theodor Landscheidt, Astrologers from Avalon are committed to discovering a working mechanism behind Astrology and have in their recruit some of the best and brightest of the scientific community, from NASA to Cal Tech, it’s a nerdy collection of unlikely seekers. As admirable as some of these efforts are and have been, the process of proving Astrology begins to look more and more like Zeno’s paradox to me, and researchers are merely stepping halfway to the wall of discovery, an infinite process of refinement and definition that brings one closer and closer but in the final measure unable to touch the thing they are measuring.
Back to Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow, he questions the “mechanism” at work in therapy. As mentioned above, counseling does seem to have more to do with the rapport established between the therapist and their client. An agreement is reached, and a transaction is made. But the “mechanism” remains evasive. He wrote, “Psychotherapists have many opportunities to observe the immediate reactions of patients to what they say. The feedback enables them to develop the intuitive skill to find the words and the tone that will calm anger, forge confidence, or focus the patient’s attention. On the other hand, therapists do not have a chance to identify which general treatment approach is most suitable for different patients. The feedback they receive from their patients’ long-term outcomes is sparse, delayed, or (usually) nonexistent, and in any case too ambiguous to support learning from experience.“6 A similar charge made against psychiatrists and by Meehl against Astrology, long-term outcomes are nonexistent and too ambiguous to learn from experience. But the experienced astrologer does have an advantage here. We can “see” the correspondence between transits, and progressions to the natal chart and get immediate feedback from clients (irrespective of Gauquelin’s statistics), and track progress over many years. But at the same time astrologers also tend to get carried away with these “proofs.” Pointing to an asteroid called marathon for example showing up incidentally in the chart of the Boston Marathon Bombing as some kind gotcha against the more rationally minded skeptic and in defense of Astrology feels like a stretch. These types of arguments play to the chorus but also only serve to make followers appear more irrational not less. Science demands that a correlation be predictable AND REPEATABLE. Astrology, like prayer, is inconsistent in this respect. We do Astrology no favor trying to prove measurements scientifically, and why would we want to? Science has its own challenges…7 Explaining the full breadth and scope of a symbol to every cynic is tantamount to explaining God to a humanistic atheist like Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins. What exactly would be the point unless one is built for argument in the way that say Jordan Peterson is built for polemical argument? At the end of the day these “high-minded” debates may in hindsight prove to be more like kids in kindergarten fighting over their blocks.
Kahneman discusses assembling a “dream team” and how they devised an index to measure the well-being of people by studying their moods. They borrowed a construct from the infamous psychologist in Chicago, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (author of Flow, and Beyond Boredom and Anxiety) who created a tool called “experience sampling.” Kahneman’s team modified this model to their own purpose, applying much better technology using apps installed on participants cell phones. Researchers recorded responses using the Day Reconstruction Method (DRM) which essentially aimed to measure the moods and experiences of people who self-reported using the app. Unpleasant experiences were captured in a U-index which was a type of measure that captured the percentage of time people were in bad moods. “The appeal of the U-index is that it is based not on a rating scale but on an objective measurement of time.”8 This is a fascinating observation because it is one the biggest appeals of Astrology, its ability to view time schema, and subsequent life experiences objectively, where events correspond with astrological indicators on a time line. The data aggregated from the participant in the DRM was insightful: “All of this was to point out that a significant minority of the population seems to do most of the suffering. The distribution of emotional pain is uneven across segments of society. Half the sample reported no stress throughout the day and a small segment accounted for most of the pain and suffering reported.“9 To an empirically minded astrological researcher this makes sense. Spoiler Alert! Not ALL forecasts or celestial events are going to affect ALL individuals equally, yet most forecast seem to imply the opposite of this “reality.” The premise of the Monthly Forecast simply attempts to scale and market planetary positions like financial reporting or news about the weather. Just because Neptune is in Pisces doesn’t mean we should all bring an umbrella to the picnic. Forecasts are presented as must have information delivered with the certitude of P.T. Barnum, and that the next big event will be the “greatest show on Earth,” so don’t miss it. Rare is the astrologer who adds circumspection to their projections about the future. Kahneman’s study was a carefully curated sample of participants to ensure a randomness factor and might serve as a model to add astrological events to the experience reporting of participants, and thereby might provide better insight to our understanding, and in regard to the uncertainty and anomalies that shape the paradoxes we embrace as astrologers, help make us better stewards of our sacred art, better tacticians of the practical nature of our craft, and become better astrological counselors in the process of helping people make their lives better.
“An individual’s mood at any moment depends on their temperament and overall happiness, but emotional well-being also fluctuates considerably over the day and the week. The mood of the moment depends primarily on the current situation. . . Attention is the key. Our emotional state is largely determined by what we attend to, and we are normally focused on our current activity and immediate environment. There are exceptions, where the quality of subjective experience is dominated by recurrent thoughts rather than by the events of the moment. When happily in love, we may feel joy even when caught in traffic, and if grieving, we may remain depressed when watching a funny movie. In normal circumstances…, we draw pleasure and pain from what is happening at the moment, if we attend to it… It is only a slight exaggeration to say that happiness is the experience of spending time with people you love and who love you.”10
Humanistic Astrology made great strides along the lines of freeing individuals from the confines of the mediaeval mindset: “this means that,” in astrological parlance. Astrology was dragged into the future by giants within the profession who pay homage to and who deserve our respect. Perhaps the biggest advancement within Astrology was to give the individual their due. There seems to be a certain pointlessness in trying to sync up Astrology with broad interpretive forecasts, but at the same time an addiction to any spectacles that the astrologer might imagine. Where the Moon happens to be may have less to do with a person’s emotional well-being, than how aware they are of their own temperament and where they place their attention. Pagan traditions notwithstanding, for example, the cross-quarter days and the collective rituals of the past that focused attention on Moon gazing, may have had more to do with people just getting together, which is always where the real magic lies, than with the action or inaction of the Light of the Moon. Like blowing out candles on a birthday cake, the celebrant makes a wish in good company, and we all clap and sing that those wishes may come true. We celebrate each other’s company. At some level what we all want is to believe that others are there for us, that someone loves us, and that we are deserving of one another’s support.
I am an unusual astrologer in that I do not share the same fascination for some of Astrology’s more unconventional beliefs. Many astrologers, who practice weird kinds of “woo woo,” depend on sensationalizing Astrology, but even so I have a profound sense of respect and wonder even for their “kind” of Astrology. Especially when a projection outcome exceeds the odds that would have been suggested by chance alone. A good anecdote I like to share happened when I was asked to work with a premed student. The odds of being accepted into the Toronto School of Medicine Program for Psychiatry are not zero. The program is extremely competitive. Overall acceptance rates barely exceed 10% of applicants, a number which approaches about 4,000 submission each year. But acceptance for international students is only about 4%. Add to this data a bright accomplished student, with competitive GPA and MCAT scores and the hope for one of the 600 spots available increases but… a tough call no matter how you slice it. A good client who is a psychotherapist asked me to work with her son. I immediately noticed that he was coming up on a reward cycle and that Saturn was moving beyond the opening square in its second orbit around the Sun since his birth. He would be age 40 and one of the oldest candidates in the pool. I suggested that he would be accepted, but he had a hard time accepting my projection, even though we’d shared an intense conversation over the previous hour. At the sensitive discovery phase of our session, he disclosed numerous clandestine relationships. He was bisexual but not open about his sexuality with anyone. I was the first person he’d shared his “secret” with, and we discussed five different relationships where he toggled back and forth between the sexes each on queue with the symbolism, and each time referenced correctly by me prior to his disclosure. Still, he was unsure he’d be accepted to UOT. It was all so neatly laid out, and such a fitting attitude that mirrored his personal search for identity. His search for being “accepted” and “loved” for who he was and who he was becoming. Using a technique known as tertiary progressed Moon analysis, I suggested to him what day his acceptance letter would arrive in the mail (email was still a relatively new thing). The letter came. He opened it. And it said he was accepted.
We discussed it afterward and he agreed with me that my “prediction” wasn’t so miraculous as it was logical, “in hindsight.” We discussed how he’d sold himself short in so many other instances in the past, and especially within relationships. He was crying in excitement AND some of those tears were tears of recognition that he was accepted. Through our work together he gained a clear idea of what he wanted to do with his life, helping young people struggling with identity issues to learn the power of acceptance, and in some cases like his own, help them cope with making the decision to live, and not to die by suicide. For my part, I simply heard how sensitive and intelligent he was, saw the reward cycle moving into an exact configuration, noted the TP Moon, and was drawn to a familiar narrative he’d expressed in the past through a pattern of overachievement. His core concern wasn’t whether or not he’d be accepted by the University of Toronto, although the facts presented it that way. His core concern was whether or not he’d accept himself. Our conversation ended with him thanking me for my time and for how I melted his cynicism about Astrology because he came to the consultation with a high degree of skepticism. Of course, I said thank you, and indeed considered it high praise coming from him, but also shared with him that he made such an extraordinary conversation possible, with his openness, disclosure, his engagement, and most importantly with his sincerity. I told him three forces are required for a good astrological consultation, the client, the astrologer, and Astrology. All three need to come together in equal measure, and on that day, they did come together for an extraordinary discussion. The Astrologer’s Way cannot have one without the other. Too much of one will throw the other two off-balance. We hung up the phone and I allowed myself to shed a tear, a tear of recognition for the miracle that is Astrology. It is why I do what I do, and why I love this profession. Why I love Astrology.
- Burroughs, J. (2021). Birds and Poets: with Other Papers. Independently published.
- Frankl, V. E., Lasch, I., & Allport, G. W. (1970). Man’s Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy, Revised and Enlarged Edition (Revised and Enlarged ed.). Touchstone Books.
- Tyl, N. (2000). The Creative Astrologer: Effective Single Session Counseling (First Edition). Llewellyn Publications.
- Giles, T. R. (2012). Handbook of Effective Psychotherapy (The Plenum Behavior Therapy Series) (Softcover reprint of the original 1st ed. 1993 ed.). Springer.
- “It is useless to declare that astrology represents an infantile state of mind if well designed experiments prove that its pronouncements are correct. In that case it should once again assume an extraordinary importance. It matters little whether it is explained by symbolism or physics, or whether the stars are signs or causes. … [But now] it is high time to come to an end. Every attempt, whether of astrologers or scientists, to produce evidence of the validity of astrological laws has been in vain. It is now quite certain that the signatures in the sky which presided over our births have no power whatever to decide our fates, to affect our hereditary characteristics, or to play any part however humble in the totality of effects, random and otherwise, which form the fabric of our lives and shape our impulses to action” (Astrology and Science 1970:125,138). The Gauquelin Work
- Kahneman, D. (2013). Thinking, Fast and Slow (1st ed.). Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
- Kuhn, T. S. (1996). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (3rd ed.). University of Chicago Press. [Thomas Kuhn writes about this in The Structure of Scientific Revolution and identifies anomalies (a necessary 12th House construct) as something worth embracing, that empirical difficulties point to the paradoxes in life which lead to revolution. The language of Astrology has this concept dynamically built into its symbolism.]
- Kahneman, D. (2013). Thinking, Fast and Slow (1st ed.). Farrar, Straus and Giroux.