Wheels of Fortune

Astrology Does a Brisk Business, Despite Thin Claims

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LONDON, FEB. 22, 2003 (Zenit.org).- Astrologers and fortunetellers seem as popular as ever, despite their unscientific nature. That they feed on a deep-seated need in people to divine the future, seems axiomatic. The recent document on New Age by the pontifical councils for culture and for interreligious dialogue observed: "It has been said, quite correctly, that many people hover between certainty and uncertainty these days, particularly in questions relating to their identity."



Many newspapers and magazines, even some that aspire to seriousness, publish horoscopes. And a plethora of telephone hot lines and Web sites offer to reveal, for a fee, in more detail what lies ahead.

A Feb. 8 report in the London Telegraph recounted that in Moscow alone there are "tens of thousands" of mystics offering New Age treatments, shamanic rituals and fortunetelling services. Though banned under the Communists, these practices have flourished since the fall of the old regime.

The Telegraph cited Russian Health Ministry statistics that showed there were more than 300,000 registered magicians, seers, fortunetellers, witches and sorcerers in the country in 2001. The number today is estimated to be around half a million.

Viktor Makarov, head of the Russian League of Professional Psychotherapists, who, conducted an official study of the magic business, concluded that half the practitioners were fakes and another quarter mentally ill.

The future, for $4.99 a minute

Recent investigations underscore the fraudulent nature of the fortunetelling business. In the United States, a Federal Trade Commission (FTC) inquiry forced the operators of the Miss Cleo psychic hot line to cancel $500 million in customer bills, the Associated Press reported Nov. 14. Federal authorities charged two Fort Lauderdale, Florida-based companies with fleecing callers by promising mystical insights into love and money by means of a national network of psychic readers.

Under the settlement, the companies must pay a $5 million fine, stop trying to collect money from customers who called the service, and forgive about $500 million in outstanding charges. The service also must return all uncashed checks to customers.

Howard Beales, director of the FTC consumer protection bureau, said that during three years of operation the service charged people about $1 billion and collected half of it. The service's business fell sharply in the past year following a FTC lawsuit and is now shutting down, Beales said.

The FTC said the psychic service promised a free reading, but consumers calling a toll-free number were directed to a number charging $4.99 per minute. The agency said nearly 6 million people made such calls and were charged an average of about $60.

Fraud also abounds in Italy. The newspaper Il Messaggero on Dec. 28 said there are around 22,000 registered magicians and assorted fortunetellers in the country. Eight million Italians, about 15% of the population, admit to having consulted an astrologer at least once, the paper said. Other estimates go higher. Enthusiasm in Italy is such that even the Web page for the state-owned national electricity authority, ENEL, has a section offering horoscopes, along with an assortment of New Age information.

The latest report on magic and esoteric practices in Italy, published by a government telephone line set up to receive complaints, spoke of 7,500 complaints of fraud during the past year, the paper Il Giornale reported Nov. 1. Last year also saw the arrest of several fortunetellers on charges of fraud.

Moonstruck

Evidence is not lacking on the scientific unreliability of astrological predictions. For example, the Web site of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal has an article by James Rotton, professor of psychology at Florida International University, on the moon and its effects.

Rotton analyzes the book "How the Moon Affects You" by Arnold L. Lieber. The book extols the theory that since the moon causes ocean tides, and the human body is 80% water, the moon's gravitational pull also causes tides in the human body.

Rotton cites a study by astronomer George O. Abell, who pointed out that the moon's gravitational pull on a person was less than the weight of a mosquito. Two of Rotton's colleagues, Roger Culver and Roger Ianna, calculated that the moon's "pull" was less than that of a wall of a building six inches away.

As an example of the sleight-of-hand techniques used in the book, Rotton observes that the revised 1996 edition reports that there have been "at least 43 data-based studies" since the original 1978 publication. Lieber claims that "critical review of documented findings reveals the following: positive and negative findings are pretty much equally divided." In fact, Rotton observes, most studies have failed to uncover anything resembling support for the lunar hypothesis.

On the question of the stars, the Web site of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific contains a useful page titled "Your Astrology Defense Kit," by Andrew Fraknoi. The society was founded in 1889 by a group of astronomers and is now the largest general astronomy society in the world.

Newspaper astrology columns appear in more than 1,200 dailies in the United States alone, Fraknoi's Web page notes. The columns claim you can learn something about your day by reading one of the entries under a zodiac sign. But what are the odds that hundreds of millions of people around the world will all have the same kind of day?

Another objection relates to the use of the birth date to tell a person's future. While in the past the moment of birth was considered the critical moment, today we understand birth as the culmination of nine months of steady development inside the womb, notes Fraknoi. How is it that a baby's potential horoscope is inhibited before birth merely because the child is in the womb?

And turning to astronomical evidence, many practitioners, notes Fraknoi, insist that the influence of all major bodies in the solar system must be taken into account -- including, presumably, the outermost planets Uranus, Neptune and Pluto. But these planets were not discovered until 1781, 1846 and 1930, respectively. If that's the case, he asks, what about the astrologers who claim their art has been making accurate predictions for centuries?

Another astronomical embarrassment for astrologers is that horoscopes were developed in times when an Earth-centered planetary system was held to be a celestial fact. Therefore, the importance of Mars in a horoscope is identical whether the planet is on the same side of the Sun as the Earth or seven times farther away on the other side. A force not dependent on distance would be a revolutionary discovery for science indeed, comments Fraknoi.

He also observes that many astrologers insist that a person's Sun sign is strongly correlated with his or her choice of profession. Indeed, job counseling is an important function of modern astrology. Yet Fraknoi cites research by physicist John McGervey at Case Western Reserve University, who looked at biographies and birth dates of some 6,000 politicians and 17,000 scientists. The object was to see if members of these professions would cluster among certain signs, as astrologers predict. Instead, McGervey found the signs of both groups to be distributed completely at random.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 2116, states bluntly: "All forms of divination are to be rejected." Horoscopes, astrology and other forms of seeing into the future "contradict the honor, respect and loving fear that we owe to God alone." They can be hard on the wallet too.