A Skeptic's Casebook

Chapter 1

Twinkle Twinkle ... 

(Investigator 213, 2023 November)

Man' predilection with the stars goes back to the dawn of time, and it was not long before he observed that together with the sun, moon and planets, they appeared to move in a predictable manner across the sky. The observation of this regular procession of heavenly bodies saw the beginning of astronomy, a necessary method of reckoning time for agricultural purposes. More important, however, were the religious ceremonies which had to take place at fixed dates. Consequently, the astronomers were also the priests. The dry cloudless climatic conditions of the near east were naturally more favourable to astronomy than elsewhere, and by the third millennium B.C., the Chaldeans (of Babylonia, known today as Iraq) had developed the basis of astronomy and the predictive art of astrology. Beneficient aspects were always forecast for the king, a habit which later evolved into good things for everybody.

Traditional astrology had its beginnings with Claudius Ptolemy in the second century AD., when most of the astrological lore of preceding centuries was gathered together in his Tetrabiblos. It has remained in vogue almost unchanged.

Science or entertainment?

While practitioners of astrology call it a science, any such pretention ceases after the mathematical calculations involved are completed. Thereafter, it becomes a predictive art, one which, after examination, is shown to be wanting.

Simply put, astrologers attribute influences to distant planets—unknown and unspecified energies that supposedly determine a person’s character, attributes and trends in life, and events on earth. At the same time they abrogate this claim by arguing that man has free will and the ability to change the future. This on the one hand argues that the future is immutable and therefore destinies are predetermined by astral-forces, on the other, that it is mutable and that man is master of his own fate.

All attempts by astrologers to bolster their claims by citing the effects of gravity, air ions and other natural phenomena, can be refuted by reference to physical laws. In frustration, astrologers fall back on ‘energies unknown to science' admitting they don’t know how astrology works but still claiming that it does.

Viewed simply as a form of entertainment, astrology is probably harmless; even astrologers will admit that the ‘Star guides’ and ‘Zodiac columns’ appearing in newspapers and magazines are not meant to be taken seriously. Natal horoscopes and predictions for the future however, are another matter.

Such was the concern in 1975, that one hundred and ninety-two leading scientists, including nineteen Nobel Prize winners, cautioned the public against the unquestioning acceptance and advice given privately and publicly by astrologers, saying ‘We believe that the time has come to challenge directly, and forcefully, the pretentious claims of astrological charlatans ... Those who wish to believe in astrology should realise that there is no scientific foundation for its tenets ... and indeed that there is strong evidence to the contrary.’ This statement was first published in the American Humanist and was given front page attention in the New York Times, the Boston Globe, the San Francisco Chronicle, and other American newspapers coast to coast.

The dangers of belief in astrology are manifold. Taken seriously and relied upon as an infallible guide for the future, it abrogates personal responsibility for one’s actions, undermines one's decision making processes, and creates a reliance on those unqualified to advise. Astrological forecasts utilised by those in powerful positions such as Ronald Reagan, the former president of the United States of America, have potentially horrendous ramifications. This particular case will be dealt with later in this chapter.

What follows are mostly accounts of my personal investigations and observations on the subject of astrology, most of which have appeared in print elsewhere.

Zodiac columns

First let’s consider newspaper star guide columns. Although as previously mentioned, astrologers themselves admit these columns are for entertainment only, very few newspapers and magazines carry a disclaimer. Consequently many people still see them as serious forecasts. It is only a matter of comparing the columns appearing in different papers on the same day to see how inaccurate they are. If there were any substance to them they would be essentially the same, apart from the way the astrologers choose to express themselves. Invariably they are not, and in many cases are completely different. Take for instance these examples picked at random from the Sydney Daily Telegraph Mirror, December 3, 1990, which features two astrologers, Arthur Bowman and Athena Starwoman. In his column, Stars with Arthur Bowman, the prediction for Scorpio reads: ‘One of those days when Murphy takes and just about everything that can go wrong, does.’ Bowman tells Cancerians that it’s ‘a good day to stay as far as possible in the background.’ Athena Starwoman in her column however, tells Scorpios that ‘everything should be running well for you', and Cancerians, that they should ‘be prepared to man the action stations.’ Exactly the opposite of each other. If the predictions were arrived at by using universally accepted methods of calculation, they should be substantially in agreement, the only variation being the way in which the astrologers express themselves.

Hits and misses

Over the years sceptical groups around the world have given prognosticators a drubbing. Any pretensions to accuracy in forecasting future events can usually be seen in the post-validation of them in the vague and ambiguous wording of the prediction. On one rare occasion back in 1984 however, I was surprised to come across a prediction uncharacteristically specific. It was in Old Moore’s Almanac (Australian edition) and read: ‘On the 28th August Victoria will be subjected to a plague of mice which would become a health hazard in the State’s hospitals.’

How the astrologer (at that time Doris Greaves, President of the Australian Federation of Astrologers) could predict an event with such a precise date from the disposition of the heavenly bodies intrigued me, and I suspected that although it was presented as an astrologically computed prediction it would, on closer examination, turn out to be based on information freely available albeit generally not known, allied with probability.

How then was this prediction concocted? First let us look at the laws of probability.

Between 1960 and 1984, at least twenty plagues of mice have been recorded in eastern Australia. The towns of Nyngan, Cowra and Dubbo reported them in June 1984; another was averted in south east Queensland when the area was hit by a cold snap; mice were running riot in Swan Hill and Ceduna early in 1984; and in Wagga Wagga in June and July 1984, the situation was so critical that up to one hundred dead mice were being removed from the classrooms of the Riverina College of Advanced Education each day. This is a fair indication of how widespread the problem was, albeit not common knowledge to the average city dweller.

The plagues are not necessarily of short duration but can last three or four years. The mouse population fluctuates greatly and is self-controlling, sometimes to the point of extinction, so it can be seen as an on-going cycle with only the peaks being recorded and reported as plagues.

The CSIRO maintains a research station at Walpeup on the edge of the Big Desert in northwest Victoria, where an officer is engaged solely in monitoring the mouse problem. Information is passed on to the Department of Wildlife in Canberra, whence it is disseminated. One such forecast was the possibility of a plague for December 1984 or January 1985 depending on weather conditions.

Information of this type is freely available from the CSIRO and State Agriculture Departments, and is frequently broadcast over rural radio stations.

It can be seen therefore, that a few simple enquiries would provide a would be prognosticator with the basis for a relatively accurate prediction.

Now let’s take a look at other factors that could have been of use in concocting this particular prediction.

In Australia the mouse in question is the Mus musculus, probably introduced into the country about two hundred years ago from Asia, and which has spread more widely than another alien — the rabbit. It reaches sexual maturity in eight weeks, has a gestation period of nineteen days, and produces litters of between four and eight, sometimes more.

What we see as a plague is the final state of an irruption; as their resources become exhausted the mice disperse en masse into unsuitable areas, become a nuisance for a time, then the vast majority perish.

Studies have established that the key factors limiting the increase in house mouse populations are the suitability of soil for burrowing and the food supply. The latter explains why in certain areas, the cereal belts of Australia, mice infestations are endemic. These belts are relatively limited to the Darling Downs and Dalby areas of Queensland, southwest New South Wiles and a large area of Victoria.

The first factor, the suitability of soil for burrowing (in which the mice breed) is the final piece of the jigsaw and provides the key to why the month of August was picked for the prediction. (I suspect that maybe Doris has something between the ears as well as stars in her eyes!)

Burrowing depends on rain softened soil, and rainfalls about one year prior to the plague may be involved. Most important however is, a not yet understood effect, that which bushfires have on a mouse increase. It has been found that rodents increase about eighteen months after a fire has swept through their range.

The Ash Wednesday bush-fire ravaged Victoria and South Australia with a ferocity rarely known before, laying waste three thousand eight hundred and eighty-nine square kilometres of forest, farmland and scrub, taking seventy-four lives, and destroying two thousand two hundred and thirty-six houses and two hundred and eighty thousand livestock. The date? February 1983, exactly eighteen months prior to the forecast date of the plague.

The possibility of mice plagues always exists therefore, as the population waxes and wanes with the conditions conducive or adverse to their breeding.

Finally, why the 28th August precisely?

The choice reflects an astrologer’s clinging to the belief in lunar influence — the 28th of August was the night of the new moon.

If Doris diligently went about collating the information available and did arrive at the prediction by the method suggested, then I take my hat off to her. Nevertheless she was still wrong—no plague of mice was reported as a health hazard in any Victorian hospital on that or any other date.

As an aside, Doris Greaves and Milton Black, who were the principal astrologers contributing to Old Moore’s Almanac in 1984, between them got ninety-five per cent of the predictions wrong. Any that were even remotely close were odds-on probabilities anyway. None of the major events of that year were mentioned — not even the usual plane crashes, earthquakes and obituaries.

In addressing the astrologers’ favourite argumentum ad ignoratum, knowing the nature of the energy, force or law fundamental to the process is surely essential if any claim of astrological influence is to be taken seriously. Further, after four thousand years, despite the devotion of noteworthy intellectuals to its study, and notwithstanding the dramatic increase in knowledge in all scientific disciplines, astrology — at least to the rational mind — remains superstitious nonsense. In the second instance, by relegating the ‘science’ of astrology to the status of a fun game, the proponents themselves denigrate their art, and abrogate any putative worth it may have as a divinitory system or a serious character assessment tool. Using an extreme and perhaps fatuous analogy, ‘having a bit of fun’ to my mind likens the adherents of astrology to those who voluntarily expose themselves to the risk of AIDS for the same reason.

A review of the historical testimony left us by the Moonies, Raj Neeshi, the Rev. Jim Jones and other purveyors of intangibles, miracles, the quick fix and ‘wisdom’ from extraterrestrial sources, dispels any suggestion that this is an absurd analogy. It is a simple progression from having faith in and dependence on an astrologer, psychic or guru, to joining or following an organisation in which the credulous, unsuspecting and innocent are manipulated to part with their money, their minds, and in extreme cases, their lives.

The ramifications

So what is the harm in ‘having a bit of fun anyway?’ Let’s look at the classic case of the former US president Ronald Reagan and his wife Nancy. If superstitious beliefs and their supposed influence on the destinies of mankind are of concern to the rational mind, how much more concerned should we be to learn that one of the world’s most powerful and influential men at the time — the President of the United States of America and that country’s commander-in-chief, in whom was invested the power to exercise control not only over the lives of millions, but, in theory at least, the very survival of our planet — was himself directly or indirectly influenced by those trapped in a mythological time-warp?

This bizarre scenario of a president whose intellectual fortitude is such that the baseless prognostications of a 20th century shaman overrode his capacity for decision making, is revealed in a book, For the Record, by Reagan’s former chief-of-staff Donald Regan. In the book, Regan discloses that both the president and the first lady had been consulting astrologers for the past fifty years, and that the timing of many important public events were determined by astrological advisers to them. Not that that creates a precedent: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, the Fords and Henry Kissinger are all reported to have been interested in or had recourse to astrology, although the first three may have had an excuse. The wives of presidents Lincoln, Harding and Wilson are also reported to have consulted clairvoyants. The entertainment industry too, in which Reagan made his debut and which he ultimately used as a vehicle to public office, is one renowned for superstitious beliefs. Many of these Regan reports, were taken into the political arena by Reagan.

Although an antagonist of Nancy Reagan, the former chief-of-staff's revelations do not appear to be a partisan attempt at oneupmanship, nor unnecessarily vindictive, as they are confirmed by other sources. Presidential Secretary Marlin Fitzwater, for instance, admits to Mrs Reagan’s interest in astrology, and in the president’s autobiography published in 1965, Ronald Reagan refers to Caroll Righter (an astrologer) as ‘a good friend of twenty+ years’, and says that reading a horoscope written by an astrologer helped him make major career decisions in the early 1950s.

Astrologer Joan Quigley is also referred to by Nancy Reagan as ‘my friend’ and, according to Donald Regan, ‘the first lady seemed to have absolute faith in the clairvoyant talents of the woman in San Francisco.’

In a 1987 book, another close friend of the president, Michael Deaver, says, ‘Ronald Reagan is incurably superstitious’, and ‘during a photo session following a White House ceremony on May 3, a reporter asked President Reagan about reports that his schedules were based on astrological forecasts, to which Reagan responded, “no policy or decision in my mind has ever been influenced by astrology”.’ A psychological stress evaluation carried out by Charles R. McQuinton to analyse the statement at the time of the interview showed that Reagan was under tremendous stress as he spoke. McQuinton concluded that ‘it was indicative of deception and conflict—the president was lying to us.’ In addition to providing a field day for cartoonists and sceptics, the revelations have also provided a band-wagon onto which many astrologers and psychics have hastened to climb, alleging they too had personally advised the Reagans or at least knew of someone who had. Foremost of these was the perennial crystal ball gazer, seer and ‘super- psychic’ Jeane Dixon, who churns out lamentably inaccurate predictions and gives advice through syndicated columns in those prestigious bastions of journalistic integrity, the Star and the National Enquirer. Although the Reagans are said to have lost faith in Mrs Dixon’s occult powers some years ago, she was nevertheless quick to take advantage of this golden opportunity to enhance her standing with the credulous, and a White House aide confirmed that she had been advising the first lady for decades, ever since she had predicted that Ronald Reagan, then a B-grade actor, would become president. The ambiguity evident in Mrs Dixon’s predictions can be seen in the following forecast— ‘a Democrat president who will be running in a future election.’ But which future election? 1988, 1992, 1996, 2000? As it happened she was right, because Bill Clinton was elected in 1992, but then with only the Democrats and Republicans to choose from isn’t it an even money bet?

Joan Quigley, a San Francisco heiress who calls herself a serious ‘scientific’ astrologer, also claims that she had been advising Nancy Reagan since they were first introduced by TV host Merv Griffin early in the 1970s. After the attempted assassination of President Reagan in 1981, Quigley also claims to have been consulted by the first lady because ‘she knew I could protect him (the president) from further trouble.’ Who needs a bullet-proof vest and the CIA with an assurance like that? The Nob Hill socialite made Nancy a believer by showing her (after the event) how the astrological charts could have foretold that the period on or around March 30, 1981 (the date John Hinkley Jr. attempted to shoot Reagan) would be extremely dangerous for the president. A recent forecast, a major earthquake to hit San Francisco on May 5, 1988 turned out to be a fizzer. She evidently believed in her own prescience however, and left town for the day.

Carrol Righter, of the Carrol Righter Astrology Institute in Los Angeles, was unavailable for comment due to his demise a few weeks before the Regan revelations hit the fan. Until Righter’s spirit manifests itself through some enterprising channeler, Edward Helin, an astrologer employed at the institute, acts as a spokesman. He advised that the late lamented had prepared astrological charts for Ron Reagan as far back as 1937. His advice supposedly included the best time for the Jane Wyman-Ronald Reagan split in 1949; the most auspicious time to marry Nancy Davis in 1952; the Goldwater support speech in 1964 (the Republicans lost); and the swearing in as governor of California in 1967. A calendar and a pin would have saved a lot of unnecessary calculations and would have been just as accurate.

Bernard Gittleson, while researching Intangible Evidence, a book on psychic phenomena, interviewed Caroll Righter in 1986, and was told that towards the end of the Vietnam war, Reagan recommended to Washington that Righter be used to help the war effort, as it had been reported that the Vietnamese troops were winning because they used astrologers.

Military historians, political commentators and the less credulous may have some difficulty in coming to terms with that particular revelation.

Ronald Reagan also reportedly had Righter, Californian astrologer Joyce Jillson and the late British astrologer Sybil Leek prepare charts of the eight vice-presidential candidates. George Bush got the job because as a Gemini (an air sign) he was compatible with Reagan, an Aquarian (also an air sign). Or is that hot air?

While it would be easy, in spite of its disturbing implications, to dismiss the whole sad scenario as a figment of pulp press imagination, perhaps it would be better to settle for an unqualified and objective conclusion that ‘where there’s smoke there’s fire.’

One wit writing in the Sunday New York Times commented, ‘The report that important decisions in the White House were based on astrological advice is most disturbing. The results could undermine the faith in astrology!’

A more serious note was struck by Jeremy Stone, the president of the Federation of American Scientists who, when the astrology question caused concern in the 1980 presidential campaign, wrote to Reagan concerning Reagan’s discussion of fortune telling by one of his close friends, Jeane Dixon. Stone asked him if he wouldn’t deny this, since ‘we didn’t feel that we should have a president whose decision making might be biased by a belief in these superstitions.’ Reagan replied before the election saying ‘I don’t take astrology columns very (my emphasis) seriously, and don’t make decisions based on them.’ Disconcerting though it may be to know that he considers them at all, perhaps we can take consolation in the knowledge that presidents don’t lie ... do they?

Untenable belief

Despite the fact that astrologers admit they don’t know how astrology works they aver that it does, their claim enthusiastically upheld by clients who have had their natal charts prepared and who readily testify to their accuracy. Why is this so? There are several reasons. First, we consider ourselves to be individuals and our experiences to be unique, whereas in reality we all go through much the same passages in life, experiencing the same traumas, joys and sorrows, elations and depressions, gains and losses and ups and downs. Consequently certain general statements will apply equally to one or another.

Then there is the inherent ambiguity of the statements which allow different interpretations, and this, together with a proclivity to believe, and a conscious searching by the client to make sense out of what they are being told, culminates in a perception of accuracy. This erroneous perception was made very evident in a study carried out by a French statistician, Michel Gauquelin, who, in 1979, placed an advertisement in the Ici-Paris offering free personal horoscopes. The applicants were requested to reply saying whether they recognized themselves in the horoscope and to have their friends confirm the accuracy of the assessment. Of the first one hundred and fifty replies, ninety-four per cent claimed that the horoscope accurately described their character, and the accuracy was confirmed by ninety per cent of their families and friends.

Everyone had been sent the same horoscope, that of Dr Petiot, a notorious mass murderer who was executed in 1946, for murdering twenty-seven people and disposing of their bodies in a tub of quicklime.

Expensive and useless

Not only are natal horoscopes inaccurate and of a very general nature, they are relatively expensive and totally inadequate when it comes to projections, that is, forecasting the future trends in one’s life.

In 1988, working with a reporter from People magazine, we approached two well known professional astrologers and gave them the necessary information required to erect a natal chart — a name, place, time and date of birth of a female subject, Linda Unicomb, Sydney, April 15, 1953. Their fee was the same, one hundred dollars.

The first astrologer, Gordon Ballard of Manly, is a member of the Federation of Australian Astrologers and has been advertising in the local newspaper as such for over twenty years. After his name he includes the initials, Dip, Ast., A.C.A.Adv., and Dip. Struct. Eng., B.I.E.T. While these qualifications are quite irrelevant to astrology, there is little doubt that they were included to impress his clients.

Ballard’s completed natal horoscope included a chart analysis, and tendencies of direction up to 1990, (a two year forecast for the future). I found the presentation most unprofessional. It was couched in nonsensical phrases and contradictory statements. Mr Ballard also included six photocopied pages of astrological and numerological information extracted from magazines as part of his ‘personal assessment.’

Notwithstanding that a natal chart is supposed to be a record of the past, a mirror of the present, and a peep into the future, and that the astrologer is supposed to read all in the stars, Mr Ballard confessed, ‘I do not actually know of Linda’s problems or what is going on, so you will have to read between the lines in the tendencies to apply them, they are always spot on.’ (my emphasis). In other words, the client has to try and make them fit, not difficult to do considering the ambiguity and general terms which would allow them to fit just about anyone. It was also noticed that the syntax used in the analysis was markedly different from that used in Mr Ballard’s covering letter and bore a remarkable resemblance to that commonly found in standard textbooks.

Mr Ballard’s claim to be ‘spot on’ was hardly supported by a study of the chart and an analysis as the following extracts will show. ‘Generally of good health’, ‘Talks languages’, ‘Good at procreating.’ And from tendencies up to 1990, ‘Good relationships’, ‘Getting married maybe’, ‘Recognition of success’, ‘Overseas travel’, ‘Expectant mother’, ‘Rich living’, ‘Meeting with some good connections’, ‘Success through speaking’, and a ‘Taurus partnership.’

Why am I so sure that Mr Ballard was not spot on? Nowhere in the chart or tendencies was there any mention of illness, disease or accident — in fact just the opposite. Our subject was alive and well, enjoying a healthy, prosperous, eventful and successful life. Nowhere was there any suggestion that the subject of this horoscope would meet with a premature death at the age of six months, as did Linda Unicomb in October 1953. (Her headstone can be seen in Mona Vale cemetery in New South Wales.) When confronted with his horrendous gaffe, Mr Ballard beat a hasty retreat refusing to comment. Mrs Ballard however, became extremely abusive, yelling how deceitful we were! A case of the pot calling the kettle black?

The second horoscope was prepared by astrologer/psychologist Joy Joyce of Newport. Her information was presented in a vastly superior manner — better typed, more stylistic and longer. However, the content was just as inaccurate.

Many of the assertions about the subject were similar to those of Mr Ballard which would seem to indicate they were copying from the same books—Linda will have ‘a relationship with a Taurean, and has singing and writing ability’. The relationship aspects were largely ignored, however, and Ms Joyce concentrated on career and development. To this end she relied heavily on dubious New Age views, such as past lives, healing powers, predestination and psychic energies, all as unproven as astrology. Direct from the textbook she tells Linda that ‘Aries people are invariably tall and slim.’ An amazing statement when one looks around to see how utterly stupid it really is. Aries readers are advised to check themselves — are you tall and slim? It is also indicative of a subtle form of bigotry.

Her predictions for the subject’s future however, really put the cap on it. Ms Joyce says that the horoscope she has prepared is unique and a blueprint of your life pattern — it applies only to you.

Among the other comments were ‘there appears to be an emotional conflict between you and your parents.’ and ‘I see you have just experienced a promotion during 1987.’ 1987 was a good year for Linda, 1988 a year of change, and there would be ‘new commitments in 1990.’ Rather remarkable prognostications given that the subject had been dead for the past thirty-five years. If astrology is so accurate, why was there no sign of an early death for the subject? Everything else was written in the stars — character, traits, romance, career and family.

When confronted with the facts, Mrs Joyce made the following remarkable statement, ‘Astrologers cannot predict death’, contradicting astrologers’ claims that the future is immutable and that life is pre-ordained. In Mrs Joyce’s own words, ‘a natal chart is a blue-print of the life pattern before you’; why therefore, was there no indication of the exact time of the subject’s death? Apart from the fact that it cannot be foretold by the stars, the answer is, more than likely, that it’s bad for business to give your clients anything other than good news.

For one hundred dollars each, a genuine client would have received from these two astrologers a completely useless and inaccurate confabulation of guesswork, comprising vague and ambiguous predictions which would apply equally to anyone, except to someone who was dead.

Energies unknown to intelligent man

Astrologers are quick to dismiss any scepticism of their art by alleging that their critics know nothing about astrology or that they have ‘closed minds’. However, a brief consideration of a few known physical laws and a look at the fundamental concepts on which astrology is founded should be sufficient to convince even a half open mind of the truth. Mentioned earlier were air ions and gravity.

Air ions

Put simply, air ions are the result of the moon modulating the earth’s magnetic field and the entering ions follow a lunar cycle. The abundance of positive ions coming down to earth during the full-moon phase are suspected by some scientists to create depression and irritability by increasing levels of serotonin in the nervous system, although there appears to be little support for that assumption. Astrologers however, attach undue importance to them, possibly unaware that the positive ion concentrations related to the lunar variations are negligible when compared to those related to air-conditioning units and air pollution generally. The ion levels related to the moon when full is not high enough to produce any effect.


Astrologers and others often refer to the fact ‘The Earth is seventy per cent water and we are fifty per cent water, therefore it is reasonable that the tidal effect, so obvious in oceans, must surely have an effect on us.’ This is a gross misconception. Seventy per cent of the surface of the Earth is covered with water, but water only makes up a tiny fraction of the Earth’s mass. Water makes up ninety per cent of our mass total, so they are not comparing like with like.

Tidal effect is caused by the gravitational attraction between two bodies. Newton’s law, ‘that the force of attraction is proportional to the product of the masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them’ has stood unchallenged since 1684, and is one of the first formulae learned by science students.

The killer in the equation (from the astrologers’ view point) is the ‘square of the distance’ bit. If body ‘A’ is twice as far from you as body ‘B’ its influence is not one half, as you might suppose, but one quarter or one half squared. If ‘B’ is ten times as far away, then its influence is one tenth squared or one hundredth. And in the solar system, the distances are so great that this really matters. Jupiter is big and the moon is small (in astronomical terms) but the moon is four hundred thousand kilometres away and Jupiter is six hundred and twenty million kilometres from Earth; and if you square the distance the mass doesn’t really come into it. And as far as Pluto is concerned, which isn’t that much bigger than the moon anyway, what effect on the insignificant mass of a human being could it have? Its mass is 0.1 per cent of that of Earth and it is five thousand seven hundred million kilometres distant. Yet according to astrologers, Pluto (depending in which constellation it happens to be at the time of birth) encourages extremes of wealth, poverty, ideals and emotions; can contribute to mental restlessness, a love of power and self-aggrandisement and cruel, bestial, sadistic and criminal tendencies.

What sign are you really?

Three important considerations are totally ignored by astrologers when constructing their charts. The precession of equinoxes; the omission of two constellations from the zodiacal band of the ecliptic, (the apparent path of the Sun ‘around’ the Earth); and the many other bodies orbiting the sun. The precession of the equinoxes is caused by a gravitationally induced ‘wobble’ in the Earth’s rotation, similar to that observed when a spinning top is running down. The effect of this precession causes the Earth’s axis to describe an imaginary great circle against the background, transpolar stars. Taking approximately twenty-five thousand years to complete a circuit. For this reason, the sun enters different constellations at different times, depending on at what stage in history the measurement is taken. If all the constellations were the same size, it can be seen that after two thousand years the sun enters a constellation on the date that astrologers fixed for the preceding one. As we are approaching two thousand years since Ptolemy set the rules that astrologers still follow, they are using data that is more than a little out of date. Astrologers have an answer for this — that they don’t really mean the ‘signs’ to refer to the constellations that share those names.

This explanation, like so much to do with astrology, is trivial tripe. The two major constellations ignored by astrologers are Ophiuchus (the Serpent Bearer), which takes up seventy-five per cent of the space ascribed by astrologers to Scorpio, and Cetus, which just intrudes between Pisces and Aquarius. By not including them, astrologers were able to conveniently divide the zodiac into twelve to suit the traditional yearly division of months. Most so-called Scorpios were in fact born under the sign of Ophiuchus. Had the individual areas occupied by the constellations been proportionally divided according to size, there would have been twice the number of Leos as Cancerians, considerably more Taureans than Arians and so on. Thus any ascribed influences, apart from being arbitrary, are illogically and incorrectly attributed.

As an aside, most people (at least those who follow the stars) will be familiar with the characteristics allegedly associated with their sign. For those who were unaware that they are Ophiuchans (born between November 30 and December 17), they may like to know that they live under the sign of the snake handler—slippery, timid, secretive and speak with forked tongues.

What star sign are you really?


    Sun entry astrological date

    Sun entry actual date

Aries March 20 April 18 22
Taurus April 20 May 11 35
Gemini May 22 June 15 26
Cancer June 22 July 11 21
Leo July 23 August 1 38
Virgo August 22 September 8 47
Libra September 22 October 15 25
Scorpio October 22 November 25 18
Sagittarius November 22 December 14 34
Capricorn December 22 January 16 30
Aquarius January 22 February 15 24
Pisces February 21 March 10 39
Table courtesy of the Skeptic


On the subject of characteristics, particularly those of a physical nature, one only need compare the textbook descriptions with people you know to see just how ridiculously inaccurate they are. To slot the world’s five billion multi-racial, multicoloured peoples into twelve distinct categories whereby they allegedly share the same physical characteristics is ludicrous in the extreme.

Lucrative astrology

Apart from the inability of astrologers to accurately determine a person’s characteristics and the future trends in one’s life from the heavenly disposition of the planets, and to charge exorbitantly for useless natal charts, what other means do astrologers employ to part the gullible from their money? Very popular are the appealing get-rich-quick schemes supposedly based on astrologically and/or numerologically based information. The following is a typical example of how one scam operated, and which was reported by me in the Summer 1992 issue of the Skeptic.

Early in 1992, during ‘the recession we had to have’, advertisements appeared in newspapers across Australia under the heading Astrology Today, offering free horoscopes. I surmised that the bait would contain a hidden hook but nevertheless wrote six letters to the advertiser using different names and addresses.

By return, I received a metre-long horoscope print-out containing more meaningless (to the lay person) astrological data than there are hieroglyphics on the walls of the pyramids, together with a few general and ambiguous lines regarding my alleged character. My five aliases also received almost identical print-outs.

A few weeks later, ‘we’ all received long ‘personal, private and confidential’ follow-up letters from a Mr Ray Hastings-Clarke, the director of Astrology Today. Rarely have I been approached with such honesty, sincerity, warmth and concern for my well being and, by the time I finished reading the letter, my faith in humanity was all but restored. Let me share some extracts with you to the strains of The Platters singing Only You!

 ‘I wrote to you some time ago about your very exciting horoscope and strongly recommended that you have a more fully detailed transit report plotted for you personally ... you know Mr Edwards I have become so familiar with certain horoscopes of special promise such as your own (and the other five?) that I often feel as though I am reading the horoscope of a close friend, and I become quite concerned when I see either troublesome events on the horizon or, perhaps even more importantly, wonderful opportunities that you may not yet have achieved. [A common ploy—instil fear or create a need, then offer a solution or an appeal to greed] ... planetary transits as favourable as yours [and all those others who have received the same letter] only last a year or so at the most and I am very concerned that you may miss the bus on a once in a lifetime opportunity. [Create apprehension—hurry or you’ll miss out on something worthwhile] For this reason I have made a special effort to select for you a most powerful crystal talisman to give you that extra help. This talisman is my special free gift to you when you order your full horoscope. [The hook in the bait]. My recent examination of your chart has convinced me that the time is right to share with you [and everyone else] a secret that has not only changed my life but has also given new vitality to the lives of a small group of others ... I strongly feel that this secret will be of great benefit to you too. [Oh! the suspense!] ... I see that you are a person who deserves a better deal in life and feel duty bound to leave no stone unturned in helping you to achieve the wonderful promise of your true astrological potential [a friend indeed, even if one addicted to the cliché] ... and I am going to offer you that help right now.’

Now at this point in the story I tend to hesitate. Should I go on and give this secret away to hundreds, no thousands, of undeserving sceptics or keep it all to myself? After all, this is ‘personal, private and confidential’, to all of Mr Hastings-Clarke’s clients.

‘The secret I want to share with you Mr Edwards [and Ms Williams, and Mr Brown, and Mrs Smith et al] is the rediscovered crystal of the Incas [and I didn’t even know it was lost] a rare talisman [so rare that he can give them away by the bucketful] of great good fortune previously known only to the ancient rulers of the great Inca Empire of golden magnificence. Modern scientists [unnamed] have long known that they attributed their great good fortune as well as the good health and well being of their people to the wonderful power of a strange crystal talisman each of them wore. These mystical crystal talismans actually seemed to enhance their owner’s natural energy, giving them a special ability to succeed beyond their wildest dreams ... [Which no doubt accounts for the severe thrashing they administered to the Spanish XI under the captaincy of Pizarro in a home game!] Now modern scientific research [unreferenced] has confirmed that the powers [undefined] attributed to these crystals by the Inca are in fact not just superstitious mumbo-jumbo but do in fact have a very solid base. [Must have missed out on that modern scientific research somewhere along the line] University [unnamed] research published [where?] in 1990, has confirmed that the Inca crystal gives off dynamic electromagnetic energy waves creating a strong beneficial force field that enhances the user’s own natural ability to attract great good fortune to themselves.’ [Some force-field. There was no response from Mr H-C to my request for the names of the university, and researchers.]

The blurb continued

‘... the Incas made the crystals really potent, to unleash their maximum power ... a secret method of cutting and tuning known only to them [and Mr H-C no doubt] ... only a few precious crystals available from the remote Brazilian caves of Pachucuti ... a beautiful crystal picked out especially for you Mr Edwards [how the Incas knew how to tune a crystal just for me and the other five is not explained] ... prepared in accordance with the ancient formula [deciphered from a knotted string quipu?] ... harmonic balance ... power of potent astrological aspects ... energy field aligned to your star chart ... happiness, harmony, wellbeing. [and so on, ad nauseam]. Fill in the questionnaire and a thirty page fully detailed horoscope for a special price of twenty-five dollars, plus two dollars postage (normally thirty-seven dollars.) and a free Inca crystal (usually forty dollars.) will be in your hands within two weeks.’

The ballpoint hovered over my chequebook as I teetered on the brink, a rag in a tug-of-war between scepticism and credulity. Could I survive without the Inca crystal? I decided I could and filed the missive. What will power!

Three weeks later, six identical ‘personal, private and confidential’ letters arrived from Mr Hastings-Clarke, lamenting that I (we) may lose my (our) specially selected free Inca Power Crystal(s) and increasing the free offer to include a Crystal Pyramid of Wealth (usually thirty-five dollars.) which ‘amplifies the electromagnetic energy of a person’s aura’, a set of Lucky numbers (normally eighteen dollars.), and a book entitled The Five Minute Miracle, ‘a secret that could change your life forever.’ A whole one hundred and nine dollar’s worth, for only twenty-seven dollars. Furthermore, the purchase is covered by an immediate full money-back guarantee if not fully satisfied.

The pitch concluded, ‘I want you to have every chance to collect your own personal horoscope and Inca Power Crystal before I have to return your crystal to Brazil where it will be lost to you forever.’ (With each letter came a photograph of a quartz crystal pointing to a roughly cut out natal chart. Three of the charts were identical despite the different birth dates.)

That did it, I just couldn’t afford to miss out on a bargain like that, so with the order form completed, a cheque signed and into the post it went. The date was May 30, the cheque was deposited on June 1. The following correspondence then ensued.

*June 30. Letter to Mr Hastings-Clarke asking for my horoscope and gifts. (Remember delivery was to be two weeks.)

*July 11. Letter to Mr Hastings-Clarke requesting the goods within seven days or my money back. I also expressed my difficulty in reconciling the delay with the expressed concern for my well-being in his ‘personal and private’ letters. No response.

*July 17. Letter to the Department of Business and Consumer Affairs inquiring whether any complaints had been received about Astrology Today or its proprietor.

*July 19. Letter to Mr Hastings-Clarke informing him that failure to return my money would result in a formal complaint to the Department of Business and Consumer Affairs. No response.

*July 27. Formal complaint lodged with the Department, making it (unofficially, as they are not permitted to give out the information) the eighty-first complaint about the organisation.

Numerous phone calls and a fax from the department to Mr Hastings-Clarke met with the excuse that he was three months behind in his orders.

On August 19, I received a refund cheque!

It seems odd under the circumstances that Mr Hastings-Clarke persisted with so many follow-up letters when he was so far behind in his orders, unless of course there was little intention of fulfilling them. Eleven weeks after sending my payment, and after receiving a refund, I was surprised to receive in the post my horoscope and Free Gifts!

The horoscope was a computer print-out; the Lucky Lotto a sheet of random numbers; the Pyramid of Wealth a multi-faceted piece of red moulded substance (not a pyramid); the Five Minute Miracle consisted of thirteen hundred words about ‘Creative Visualisation’ printed on five cards, and the mysterious Inca Crystal looked like a piece of rough cut quartz with as much kick in it as a cane toad that had just been run over by a steam roller.

However, first impressions can be wrong so I forwarded the ‘crystal’ and the ‘pyramid’ to Professor Ian Plimer, Head of the School of Earth Sciences at Melbourne University and asked his opinion. He reported that under a scanning microscope and an electron microprobe the thirty-five dollar Pyramid of Wealth was shown to be costume jewellry, probably from Taiwan or Korea and valued at most at a few cents.

Being of quartz, the most common mineral on the surface of the Earth, the origin of the ‘Inca’ crystal was difficult to determine. It was however, an inferior specimen containing inclusions, had poorly striated faces and was deformed and fractured. Value — less than an ice cream.

Professor Plimer added that superb museum specimens of quartz come from South America and are quite distinctive. Abundant supplies can also be found in the New England area of New South Wales.

Summarising the facts we find that the horoscope gave no indication of being the ‘personal’ work of Mr Hastings-Clarke, nor would it require any astrological knowledge to produce. Many over-the-counter computerised versions are available.

Delivery took thirteen weeks as against the two weeks specified in the letters. Orders backing up for three months would indicate a thriving business. Client enquiries were ignored, and a money back guarantee is problematical if one doesn’t receive the goods in the first instance.

With over eighty complaints, there would appear to be many unhappy customers and this may not have been the full extent of dissatisfaction given that many people would not be overly concerned about losing twenty-seven dollars.

Another client with whom I had been in contact complained to both the Department of Business and Consumer Affairs and the Australian Taxation Department. He received both the goods and a refund, which doesn’t say much in favour of Mr Hastings-Clarke’s book-keeping.

The inaccuracy of the horoscopes was also evident in this client’s case. It read in part, ‘you have great happiness in store for both you and someone you care about.’ At the time, the eighty-year-old man was still grieving over the recent loss of his wife. Such an ambiguous, inaccurate and all-purpose chart could in similar cases lead to tragic consequences.

A scam or just bad business?

Examining the evidence and ignoring all the obvious hyperbole about the Incas and mysterious powers emanating from common quartz, we must ask whether Mr Hastings-Clarke is just a hopeless businessman or whether he’s a con merchant.

First there is no evidence that astrology can do what its proponents claim. Identical ‘personal’ letters sent to different people indicate that there is nothing personal involved and that the horoscopes will not be prepared individually.

Other questions that need be addressed are: How can a genuine business afford to give away one hundred and nine dollars’ worth of ‘free’ gifts for an income of twenty-seven dollars? And if the proprietor’s crystals had such ‘awesome powers’ why not use them himself instead of giving them away? Caveat emptor!

One thing I’ll say for Mr Hastings-Clarke — he’s tenacious, but then so are blood-sucking leeches. On September 14, after receiving both the goods and a refund, I received another follow-up letter offering me my horoscope for just sixteen dollars!

        From: Edwards, H. 1997 A Skeptic's Casebook, Australian Skeptics Inc.