Ophiuchus Ain’t News (But At Least Astronomers Might Get Less Questions About Fortune Telling)

Ophiuchus Ain’t News (But At Least Astronomers Might Get Less Questions About Fortune Telling) July 17, 2020

If you’re a person with a pulse, more likely than not you’ve been asked about your star sign.

Back in the day, I used to respond with “Ophiuchus”! Because being a smart-ass is a trait of those skeptics who need to work on their social skills.

Apparently NASA has now got into the act of disappointing fortune tellers world-wide, although whether this is due to astronomers finally being fed to the back teeth of being asked by the general public if they can tell them how their love life will go… I don’t know.

But “a brand new 13th star sign: Ophiuchus, the snake bearer” is hardly that. It’s been with us for quite some time, and NASA lays it out quite well:

When the Babylonians first invented the 12 signs of zodiac, a birthday between about July 23 and August 22 meant being born under the constellation Leo. Now, 3,000 years later, the sky has shifted because Earth’s axis (North Pole) doesn’t point in quite the same direction.

Thanks to Eric Idle’s What About Dick (still on Netflix!), you can see a good summary of the typical skeptics’ approach to the claims of astrology… pretty much the same as “ass-trology”.

Apart from the rolling-of-the-eyes element as to how a bunch of lights could possibly determine your life, there’s a few psychological factors that come into play as to ‘why we believe’. And also something to think about how the movement of celestial bodies do have practical applications – as anyone who knows about the seasons and the weather can attest!

Firstly, when thinking about astrological predictions as relating to human lives, there’s the factor of the clustering illusion. Stars are fairly randomly distributed in the sky and we recognise those patterns, calling them constellations. We have a poor sense of the randomness when there’s patterns, particularly ones that are passed into common knowledge as ‘the big dipper’. Also, you could look at data mining.  Astrologers look for patterns in the data with the movement of stars of planets to relate it to an astrological sign, but when you’re just looking for matches, you miss the elements of randomness. Then there’s the Forer or Barnum effect, which is the tendency to make judgements about vague descriptions or generalisations about claims by astrology. We look for examples in our lives to match the statements being told, and allow that confirmation to influence our view of the predictions.

However, the stories and legends and names that we give to constellations absolutely have a rich and interesting history, across many different cultures – not just the Babylonians. I particularly enjoyed reading the site Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Astronomy, which talks about the practical application of navigation, weather and ties to indigenous stories and identity still relevant thousands of years later. The Gravity Discovery Centre and Observatory Centre in my home town of Perth regularly does exhibitions and outreach on the ties between culture and astronomy.

So while I’m a little sympathetic to what NASA has said about poor “Mimi”, who is now “born ‘under the sign’ of Cancer (one constellation ‘earlier’), not Leo’, I hope that what might be a revolutionary revelation to many astrological believers might get them interested in seeing how astronomy, culture and psychology are just as intriguing.

And I hope that Mimi doesn’t mind having to change the symbol of her zodiac necklace next birthday… because that’s just so Ophiuchus of me.

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