The "New Astrology" explained… sort of

I used to be really into astrology. I mean really into it – I had multiple books, drew up my own charts with computer programs, and even did a speech on it for my high school speech class. Being a lifelong atheist, it was my one woo of choice, and I’ve written about this embarrassing fact before. So when this “story” broke that astrological signs have now been “updated” and everyone’s sign is different, I did a triple facepalm.

The first facepalm was shared with the rest of the skeptical community:

1. It doesn’t matter if the signs up are updated, because both new and old signs are complete and utter bullshit. (I admit, I’m a bit hurt at PZ saying “only the deeply gullible and ignorant can fall for it any more.” It’s no more crazy than religion… though I guess a lot of teenagers, including teenage Jen, are gullible and ignorant to an extent.)

The second facepalm was the old astrologist in me bubbling up:

2. This is not news. Most Western astrologers use the Tropical Zodiac. It’s not based on the position of the stars in the sky, but rather when the sun crosses the Tropic of Cancer (the summer solstice), the Tropic of Capricorn (the winter solstice), and the equator (which happens twice). These four points are used to divide the Zodiac into 12 neat little sections that are basically the same from year to year. The “new astrological signs” this press release is talking about is actually using the Sidereal Zodiac, which has been used for ages by Eastern astrologers. That uses the position of the constellations.

If you ask an astrologer why they use one and not the other, they’ll give a BS answer about how one is better for showing certain aspects of your life. I “understood” this ten years ago, so it’s annoying seeing this covered by every news outlet or having a flood of facebook friends babbling about their new sign. Old news, guys.

The third facepalm was aimed at myself:

3. I still have a visceral emotional reaction to people not “understanding” astrology even though I now logically know that it’s all horseshit. If you were formerly religious, you can probably relate to this feeling. Someone says something incorrect about Catholic doctrine, and you feel compelled to correct them even though you’re arguing about something irrelevant because you know the wine isn’t actually blood, or whatever. But you still emotionally revert back to Catholic mode for a second.

When I think “Eww, I am so not a Virgo, I’m totally a Scorpio,” I want to slap myself.

But I wondered how a Western astrologer would respond to this news. If someone who dabbled years ago was annoyed, they must be furious. I looked up my old buddy Eric Francis who drew up my chart around Boobquake (and was nice enough to not get too mad when I tore it apart). Sure enough, he has a post about this news, and it’s just too chock full of goodies to ignore.

After explaining what I went over in my second point, he states “This is not rocket science — but it is science.” Oh yeah, you know it’s going to be good.

So, hear ye, hear ye! Vedic astrologers use the the sidereal zodiac, and most Western astrologers use the tropical zodiac. They have different purposes, and different philosophies. Both zodiacs work. Most Western astrologers are familiar with their sidereal chart — it tells a different story, and can reveal deeper tendencies you may have noticed but not named. I’m a Pisces in tropical astrology but an Aquarius in sidereal astrology. If you’re curious, cast your sidereal chart and see where the planets show up.

The differences between the two or the reasons behind them are not explained here, or anywhere, but they both work! Because he said so! I mean, isn’t it proof enough that astrology can produce vague descriptions that sort of fit anyone? Oops, I meant “deeper tendencies you may have noticed.”

As for Ophiuchus. This is an old hoax. Historically, Ophiuchus has never been listed as a constellation in the sidereal zodiac. It is a constellation out there, but it’s off the ecliptic (that is, it’s not along the path of the Sun through the sky). I’ve read that Ptolemy mentions it in his literature as an off-zodiac constellation, meaning that the Sun never travels through it. In any event, there are some two dozen constellations that touch the ecliptic; but the sidereal zodiac uses just 12 of them.

The origin of the hoax is a sci-fi author named John Sladek — a satire writer who died in 2000. Sladek liked to prank astrology, and he has a whole novel about a fictitious 13th sign based on Ophiuchus he called Arachne that was “suppressed by the scientific community.” The Ophiuchus hoax first made its rounds in the late 1990s and pops up again like those emails from the guy in Nigeria who wants you to send him your bank account number so he can transfer $15 million your way.

Or like astrologers who say they can explain your personality and predict your future, except those pop up in newspapers every freaking day. Glad we cleared up that that’s legitimate, but everything else is a hoax. Thanks.

The irony. It burns like the fire of a thousand Suns conjunct Aries.

*slaps self* Whoops, sorry about that.


  1. says

    I think the “science” part is where 360 / 12 = 30 … o.O But thanks for the link, good to see an expert astrologist’s take on this…… and good to know I’m still a Scorpio, dammit

  2. ~m says

    i totally hear you with respect to instinctively jumping to the defense of something you don’t even believe anymore. even if you don’t agree with a belief system, there are still indisputable facts about the shape and nature of that belief system. heck, the “hercules” cartoon drove me nuts because it portrayed hera and zeus as happily married! the fact that it’s fictional doesn’t mean it’s open to random manipulation.

  3. says

    That’s interesting. I think it would be more interesting if you can make sure your astrological sign is not accurate by doing the opposite of what it predicts. This way, you can tell an astrologist that they are wrong most of the time.I do this to fortune tellers all the time and have a lot of fun. ;-)

  4. breadbox says

    Thanks for the link to your earlier post, BTW, which I missed at the time.I don’t think you should present yourself as being embarrassed by your previous fascination with astrology. When I was young, I was interested in not just astrology, but Tarot cards, magic, ESP, UFOs, life-after-death experiences … That’s why I’m a skeptic now: because I took the time to understand these things for myself. None of these things are prima facie wrong. At least not to a minor.

  5. says

    Defending a belief system you don’t believe in isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Like ~m said, you don’t want people to attack a strawman version of that belief system.

  6. says

    Correcting people on fictional canon is extremely common, hell I do it all the time! But with Star Wars.For the most part though I suppress the urge to correct people on religious canon because once I got out of my family’s little corner of Christianity I found that there are a lot more than just the KJV and NIV versions of the bible, and they all say pretty much the same thing but in different ways.

  7. Ntsc says

    The news piece I first saw this in credited it to an astronomer.Me, I’m the mechanical sign, which my first wife claimed explained the natural engineer.

  8. says

    I find myself having visceral reactions to religious stuff sometimes as well, so I get it. I can still tear up at aspects of Jesus crucifixion, until I think about it. That may be a big part of woo, it bypasses your rational reasoning and goes straight to the emotional response. Kinda like drugs.

  9. Juliana Marie says

    I’m with you & others on A) having embarrassing episodes in my pre-skeptical life, and B) being an informed mocker of my former beliefs. I’m glad to add this to the arsenal. I’m still compulsive about correcting catholic misinformation; my devout parents made sure their kids were really educated in the doctrine, which kinda bit them in the ass once I concluded their faith is baloney. My pet peeve is the Immaculate Conception: it was MARY, not JESUS.

  10. says

    I think astrology is cool in the same way that nordic gods or celtic paganism is cool, so I wouldn’t beat yourself up about it too much if someone gets it wrong. I know it would bug me if someone said that Fionn MacCumhail was a god or something like that.

  11. says

    But I love Ophiuchus. :(I get super defensive when people incorrectly bash my former religion too. I figure if someone’s going to bash them, they should do it for the right reasons.

  12. Clare says

    “If you were formerly religious, you can probably relate to this feeling.”Annoyingly often! Why do I need to explain or, even worse, correct obscure bits of theology / religious ceremony / etc ? Why?! I don’t even give a shit any more but my mouth starts moving and out it comes :)

  13. Renshia says

    Well I just found out some good news. I am now a Libra, n0t a Scorpio anymore.See I new something was up, I kept telling everyone I am not an asshole any more. No one believed me, but this goes to prove I am right.Can’t wait to rub this in their faces.

  14. benjamin_sa says

    Astrologers (and apparently reporters) just don’t seem to be able get past point 1. It wouldn’t matter if astrologers used super computers and astrophysics to produce N-dimensional life maps based on mapping every celestial object from your birth, if there predictions cannot pass a basic blind predictive test.

  15. Anne says

    “I still have a visceral emotional reaction to people not “understanding” astrology even though I now logically know that it’s all horseshit. If you were formerly religious, you can probably relate to this feeling. Someone says something incorrect about Catholic doctrine, and you feel compelled to correct them even though you’re arguing about something irrelevant because you know the wine isn’t actually blood, or whatever. But you still emotionally revert back to Catholic mode for a second.”Despite never having been religious, I do get pretty upset when people misunderstand religions and I think it’s for some pretty good reasons. One, if you don’t understand a religion properly, you can’t explain why it’s bunk. I know people who run around going “Oh, Buddhism is more of a lifestyle, not a religion,” (actually, John Paul II called Buddhism atheistic!) and every time I face-palm and say “No, Buddhism is a religion. Hello, if believes in an *afterlife!*” Two, one of the biggest ways to rally up support for hate is misunderstanding. Oh, sure, we can burn that woman at the stake- she, after all, is a member of a Wiccan coven and we all know they worship the devil! And that’s bot only wrong, I as an atheist could be next on the devil worshiping list. So promoting accurate understandings of bunk does serve a purpose.

  16. Old Fogey says

    I knew John Sladek a bit when he lived in the UK. His book “The New Apocrypha” debunked a whole slew of woo, from Acupuncture to Zen Macrobiotics.His spoof astrology book, Arachne Rising, was published under the name of James Vogh (it would have been a dead giveaway under his own nmae). It was so successful that he followed it up with The Cosmic Factor, on Astrology and Health.

  17. Ana says

    Report from across the ocean:Most newspapers stopped publishing Zodiac here after, some years ago, Metro (the free newspaper) started to do theirs in mock form. THOSE were amazing, stuff like “Don’t look back today: an angry penguin will be watching you.” So now, unless you read pink magazines, you either get mock Zodiacs or none. And I haven’t been asked my sign since middle school!So it was rather weird and creepy seeing everyone mentioning the news and worrying and whatever on facebook today; and, as you tweeted, the scariest part is most my friends are science/engineering majors. oO

  18. says

    Interesting post — I actually remembered that older post on astrology that you wrote, so when they started hyping up a new Sign on the news I was curious to read what you’d have to say about it more so than the other skeptic blogs.But yeah, as others have said, I think everyone has something silly that they used to really believe in. For me, it was UFO’s — I was totally into those when I was younger. I think I may even still have one or two “Faces of the Visitors” type alien abduction books lying around somewhere.

  19. says

    Ophiuchus is off the ecliptic? Do these guys even look at the sky anymore? Ophiuchus is more on the ecliptic than Scorpio is. I don’t have to rely on what someone heard Ptolemy wrote to know where that constellation is, I can look at an real star map, and if I get up just before dawn I can confirm it with my own eyes! Except, well, fog. Still, I think I’ll trust the charts in my stargazing book over this guy’s hearsay.

  20. Svlad Cjelli says

    When I read all of these “new” signs, I can’t help picturing the commenters as Ents. :P

  21. valdemar says

    To be fair, astrology works – not scientifically, but certainly as part of the consumer society. The average professional astrologer may well be richer than the average professional scientist. While the distinction between scientific truth and earning potential matters to some of us, I think we’re in a distinct minority. Depressing thought, but there you go.

  22. Clare says

    Agreed. Though your example reminds me of a full on rant I had last week watching a TV cop show and they were saying the exact same thing – she’s a witch so she worships the devil, etc. I started explaining to my bf that the “horned one” isn’t actually the devil and that in any case Satan is a construct of the abrahamic religions. I realised it was time to stop when his eyes had glazed over *oops*

  23. says

    “Someone says something incorrect about Catholic doctrine, and you feel compelled to correct them even though you’re arguing about something irrelevant because you know the wine isn’t actually blood, or whatever. But you still emotionally revert back to Catholic mode for a second.”You don’t have to be Catholic to insist that Catholic doctrine be described accurately; it’s just good common sense. Accuracy should ALWAYS be an issue even about things you never believe in.

  24. says

    And I say feh to the hokey BS that is Astrology. Buzz words. That’s all it is. Like the psychics on TV, and the fortune tellers in little shops and at faires. I’ll tell you what I believe in…Science, Daft Punk, and having fun before I die.

  25. quantheory says

    I absolutely agree. It’s much better for skeptics to do some self-policing for accuracy, than to have half-informed people going out and arguing like ignoramuses. If it’s acceptable to rip into how stupid transubstantiation is (and we all know it should be), it’s also acceptable to correct people who don’t understand what they are actually criticizing.

  26. says

    ‘I still have a visceral emotional reaction to people not “understanding” astrology even though I now logically know that it’s all horseshit.’Yep, I too was into astrology, and tarot even more, and can relate to your feeling about it. And I still am intrigued by the sheer complexity of the two systems. Yes, it’s all nonsense, but it’s such elegantly strung together nonsense.

  27. says

    As a skeptic and atheist I often find myself at odds with the unsubstantiated beliefs that I encounter on a daily basis, but when someone starts talking about astrology, or one of its more ridiculous cohorts (such as numerology) I get a stomach twisting desire to set these people straight. I resist because I know that people who buy into these things are generally immune to facts, but I still think to myself “its the 21st century. We know a FEW things now, how can otherwise functional people still buy into these beliefs?” One of the greatest moments in my adult life was when I accepted the fact that I’m just not that important, cosmically speaking.

  28. kendermouse says

    Amusingly enough, I’m one of the few people I know whose sign has not changed for them due to this ‘new’ information.

Leave a Reply