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Reading Your Horoscope
Practice Makes Perfect
by Carolyn Ray

Date: 28 Jun 98 (draft)
Copyright: Carolyn Ray

I propose that the harm in horoscopes is that regular readers get good at manipulating factual data to fit a theory.

You've heard people scoff at the horoscope. But very few people seem to want to tell you exactly why they find horoscopes laughable. What is the big deal about getting your daily fix of horoscopes?

Horoscopes seem harmless, but there are definitely some things that can be said against them. Have you ever thought about the following points?

When most people think of the idea of practicing, they picture people on a baseball field getting ready for the next game, a pianist spending hours learning scales or a new piece in preparation for an audition, or an actor rehearsing her lines before the taping of the next episode.

Most people don't think of their daily activities as a form of practice. But the word 'practice' doesn't apply only to a specific type of preparation for a specific type of activity. Anything that one does repeatedly amounts to practice. If you weed your garden a lot, you get good at recognizing weeds, dislodging them, and finishing your job quickly without accidentally pulling up the plants you want to keep. If you talk about politics with your friends a lot, you get good at thinking about politics, expressing your opinions, and thinking up objections to other people's positions. As I have discussed in another piece, if you lie frequently, you get good at fooling people, at coming up with believable falsehoods, at thinking in terms of deceiving people, at avoiding unpleasant facts, and even at believing your own lies.

People usually read horoscopes, not because they think they are funny, but because they take them seriously. They want some advice about what to do today or tomorrow, or they want confirmation of their assessment of the day. Even if they don't really fully believe that the horoscopes could be right, they are repeatedly engaging in an activity, and that means there's probably something that they are learning to do or are getting good at doing.

I propose that the harm in horoscopes is that regular readers get good at manipulating factual data to fit a theory.

Let me explain a bit about what that means. If you ever took high school biology or chemistry, you might remember that your teacher and textbook stressed being objective in your observations. You were to come up with a hypothesis, an educated guess about what would happen when you did an experiment. But after you got your data, you were supposed to record it faithfully, even if it didn't support your hypothesis. You were never supposed to ignore or fail to report data that contradicted your guess. When you were done with your experiment, if your data didn't support the hypothesis, you were supposed to draw the conclusion, "The data does not support the hypothesis." (Note that you were not supposed to take the further step of saying "Therefore the hypothesis was FALSE." To say that, you would have to perform a different kind of test, or you would have to repeat the same test many times.)

When people read the horoscope, the first thing they do is attempt to find data that will support the "hypothesis." For example, suppose I read two things, the horoscope and the ads, over breakfast this morning. If my horoscope said, "This is a good day for finances," and if I find an ad for 70% off at my favorite clothing store, I might be tempted to say that the horoscope's hypothesis is confirmed! After all, I was going to buy clothing at that store anyway, and isn't a 70% savings on clothing I already planned to buy good for my finances? Sure!

The fallacy illustrated above is familiar to most of us. We call such events "coincidences." Many of us just forget about them. But for those of us who repeatedly turn to the horoscope, "just out of curiosity, just to see if it's right," are getting practice at manipulating the data of everyday experience to fit the hypothesis. Talk to someone who reads and interprets the horoscope regularly. Challenge the person, and say, "My horoscope says I will meet someone today who will change my life. But I haven't met anyone new today, and I plan to spend the rest of the day locked in my apartments studying for an exam. Don't you think that the horoscope is wrong?" The horoscope reader will be able to explain this without a problem. She might say something like, "Well, 'to meet' doesn't necessarily mean that the person is a stranger. And it doesn't say that the person will change your life TODAY. You and I "met" today, as you can plainly see. If I can show you enough times that the horoscope is right, it WILL change your life!"

The horror of horoscopes is that they are so generally stated that they can apply to anyone, and it is easy to interpret them as our friend did in this example.

I contend that it takes an enormously strong mind to totally resist repetitive habits of thought, especially when they are engaged in as casually as most people read their horoscopes--"yeah, it's not all that important, but I do want to at least have some idea of what's going on today." The human mind WANTS explanation, confirmation, agreement, order, connection, and integration. But it must be trained and monitored to find those in the right way, and not to pick them out haphazardly.

We think it is cute when a child makes the mistake of thinking that the refrigerator's motor clicks on whenever she claps her hands (in some instances, of course, it takes a little longer for the response to occur, but it eventually does happen!). Yet we don't see ourselves doing exactly the same thing when we read and believe that there is a connection between life's daily events and the generalizations made in the horoscope.

The bottom line is that trying to find specific facts that confirm the broad generalizations made in horoscopes is practicing to commit the same fallacy in other areas of life. One makes oneself more inclined to see only confirming instances of the horoscopic generalizations common to sexists, racists, ageists, and politicians.

But, you might wonder, if the horoscope said it was a good day for finances, and I found ads for my favorite store, then the horoscope is still TRUE in some sense; isn't it?

This is a separate issue that I may cover in another piece. Here, suffice it to say that to whatever extent the horoscope's statement can be called 'true', it is not a very interesting truth and cannot be said to express knowledge that the ordinary person doesn't have. Any day is a good day for finances in some sense; the same days are also bad for finances in some way. And any ordinary person can make a guess like that and print it in the newspaper or on a website. Try it! Make up a list of typical horoscopic statements, and then look for confirming evidence of them. Then look for evidence to the contrary. I can guarantee you, you will find both.

In conclusion, if you are convinced that horoscopes are simply broad generalizations that might apply to anyone's life, and that they are made up and attached to dates randomly by people with no more mystical insight than you have, then you can probably read your horoscope every day without damaging your conceptual faculty. But if you suspect that finding lots of confirming instances of the generalizations amounts to partial evidence that the horoscope has something interesting or important to add to your day, then it is time to think about the fact that practice makes perfect. It might not be the kind of perfection you were after.

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