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How is Astrology Still A Thing When It Fails To Predict A Pandemic?

New York Times journalist dubs astrology-skeptics "haters".

The New York Times posted an article on Saturday by Hayley Phelan titled Will Coronavirus Kill Astrology? and although I know the answer to this type of headline is always no, I was intrigued and hopeful. Astrology hasn’t been on my radar for a few years and I though maybe Covid-19 would indeed have a significant impact on believers.

The Times and the writer certainly wanted me to get that impression. The HTML-title (what you see on the browser tab) was The Astrologers Didn’t Predict Coronavirus and the article opens with a strike against astrologers. Susan Miller, described as “a blue-chip astrologer [if ever there was one]” proclaimed on CBS New York in January that 2020 would be a great year and a prosperous one. I clicked through to the video and she’s quite precise. “They keep saying recession. No, I don’t see it!

Next we get the “human story” paragraph all articles have to include these days. A subscriber to Miller’s app who was disappointed Miller didn’t predict this is quoted and a couple of comments from the predictable backlash on Miller’s Instagram and on YouTube-videos are included. So far so good. Drag her, Phelan!

But then, after a brief paragraph of “adherents believe this”, “science says this”, Phelan picks sides:

 

Astrologers, the haters say, write their horoscopes in such a broad, general way that anyone could find something that applied to them, especially if they’re really looking for it.

“Haters”? Really? And this is the totally extent of their criticism, is it? After this dismissive and misleading summary Phelan answers the headline with the unsurprising “no”. Astrology sites have actually had traffic increase. And the article swings towards a puff piece on how astrology comforts believers and how some of them came back in the comments to apologize for being rude when asking why Miller didn’t predict Covid-19.

It’s a pity this is what Phelan chose to do, and the Times decided to publish, when it would have been so easy to write a good critical article. The article could have followed Miller’s Instagram posts step by step instead and genuinely considered questions such as: Why didn’t she predict the pandemic in January before she went on CBS? Why was it still not on her radar when she posted this in March to hawk a 2020 calendar that she apparently didn’t predict the right printing volume for:

From my Year Ahead 2020 Calendar for this weekend–Sun 3/8 I wrote: “Great weekend date to go to the movies or to suddenly meet someone new with sparkling chemistry.”

Commenters asked her at the time what she predicted for the pandemic, but she didn’t reply for two weeks and in the mean time she had time to promote appearances on a TV-show, a podcast, a couple of public events and to post this:

#LosAngeles Yes, I’m flying, I’m not afraid. I will give talk on Year Ahead 2020 at Liberate Hollywood THIS Sat 3/14 at 2:30 PM–lots of Q&A + calendar signing to follow, no regular kisses + handshakes due to gov mandate, big smiles instead! Tix $75

Finally, two days after this event, she addressed the pandemic and replied to the commenters asking for her Covid advice linking to an essay.

The Times article addresses this “2020 coronavirus outlook” essay in the final paragraphs, referring to it as a report. And when I write “addresses” I mean “quotes”. It would have been a great opportunity for the article to point out that it’s not just confirmation bias that keeps belief in astrology alive, it’s also the use of post hoc rationalization like when Miller “explains” how this pandemic is absolutely corresponding to the movements of the stars and planets.

She links the pandemic to a conjunction of Jupiter and Pluto, saying that it happens every 13 years and amplifies existing problems, if any are around. Phelan fails to ask the question: Why didn’t Miller include this possibility for 2020? Miller then writes Jupiter and Pluto usually brings prosperity. Phelan could have written “Now isn’t that convenient?” The essay includes pearls such as how the stars predict the impact on the elderly (the conjunction is in Capricorn you see), on Italy (something to do with Gemini being connected to both Italy and lungs), and how this Jupiter and Pluto thing totally happened in 1918 as well. Phelan summarizes some of it, but misses a great opportunity to explain how meaningless it is to predict what happened yesterday.

I think it is understandable that most people, journalists included, don’t see much harm in astrology. Most believers in astrology aren’t harmed. But neither are most people who believe in not wearing in seat belts, or in not taking vaccines, or in not practicing social distancing during a fucking pandemic. But some certainly are harmed and many of Miller’s subscribers take her advice heavily into consideration when making decisions both large and small. When she wrote “Yes I’m flying, I’m not afraid.” after hundreds of cases and the firsts deaths had been reported in the US, some of her adherents will have been more complacent than they would have been if they’d listened to expert advice. And in the middle of a pandemic and a national discussion on the problems with promoting misinformation for clicks Phelan and the Times should have thought this through one more time.

Miller is not handing the advice out for free either, which makes it even more incumbent upon journalists to be careful when repeating her statements. When her post hoc explanations are left to stand unopposed it gives believers a false idea about accuracy, as one can see in the comments on Miller’s Instagram about the essay.

This matches so well with my intuition!

I thought the coincidence of planetary movement now and during the Spanish Flu said it all.. Sylvia Browne also had a premonition in her last book about a virus in 2020 that was pneumonia like.” (Sylvia Browne died almost 7 years ago if you didn’t know. And her crap still poisons people’s minds.)

Giving Miller’s nonsense additional publicity without real criticism is irresponsible, and Phelan and the Times do not even have the excuse “She’s the President, so her nonsense is news by definition.”. They could have chosen an angle more critical of woo or no article at all, but they didn’t, and astrologers will profit from it.

Maybe they think they’re just being balanced, as Phelan swings slightly back towards the skeptical in the final paragraphs to point out that Miller’s updated predictions are very close to those of the medical experts. But she does so in a way that makes me think that her mindset is, like so many others, that astrology is real, but astrologers are fallible:

So perhaps Ms. Miller, like many astrologers of the newer generation, isn’t only taking cues from the stars these days.

Of course Miller isn’t, neither were any generation of astrologer. And more importantly, the clues from the stars have always been worthless for predicting the future. But unless you already knew that, you won’t get that from this article.

Then again maybe I’m just a hater who’s disappointed neither the Corona Borealis, nor Corona Australis made an appearance in the Times or in Miller’s essay. If you are going to make up nonsense linking the pandemic to the stars, why not make it fun? What do you think?

The Constellation Corona Australis
IAU and Sky & Telescope magazine (Roger Sinnott & Rick Fienberg) / CC BY

Bjørnar

Bjørnar used to be a CompSci-major high school teacher in Norway, but now lives with his American wife in Cincinnati where he gives her programming advice, walks the dog, works as a tutor and tries to decide what to be when he grows up.

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3 Comments

  1. I feel like maybe an article title changed out from underneath you? You ref the article “Will Astrology Survive Coronavirus?” and then say that the apologists eventually admit the answer is “no (it will not survive)”… and that the believers keep believing. Don’t you mean the answer is “yes, it will survive?” I mean, it shouldn’t, but I don’t think there’s much chance these people are going to start being negatively affected by evidence now, after all this time…

    1. D’oh! I wish I could blame a changed title, but I think this is just evidence of my cognitive biases. I expect all such headlines to have the answer “no”, so I read it like “Will Coronovirus Kill Astrology?” even though it says the opposite. I’ll adjust the text.

      1. Wait! It was “will kill” and I just quoted it wrong. I can’t explain that, except by claiming it would have been a far superior title and that it’s the Times that messed up to keep the “the answer is no”-streak going.

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