See if this sounds familiar:
“There’s a chance you’ll make a decision today that will be followed by a consequence – which may lead to you having to make another decision. The planets also indicate that most people would rather avoid you so consider changing your shirt.”
Assuming you’ve lived the majority life outside of a hole, you might have noticed such statements tend to congregate near the funnies section of most newspapers, shady personal ads, and, more recently, the happy little news ticker at your local Tim Hortons; presumably so you can decide whether to throw in an extra espresso shot upon discovering that “turbulent times are ahead.”
If that introductory prediction seemed especially relevant to you, that’s because I occasionally don large hoop earrings and moonlight as a travelling fortune-teller named Madame Xanadu. It’s also because I utilized a handy little strategy known as the “Barnum Effect.”
The Barnum Effect is so-named after the late circus purveyor who, reportedly, had “something for everybody” (if that everybody’s something happened to be clowns and airborne knives) and refers to those so-called prophetic statements which at first glance appear to be tailor made, but that are actually generic enough for nearly everyone to read their own circumstances into the predictions.
Astrology is based on methods known as pseudoscience. The pseudosciences are beliefs which basically amount to using big words and complicated processes – like emum coelis, cosmograms and vitaspheres – in the hopes of disguising the fact that nobody really has a clue as to why the orbit of Saturn has any bearing on your love life.
But then, we’re pretty impressionable people aren’t we?
Imagine a complete stranger walks up to you wearing mittens on his feet and a yellow No-Frills bag hat. Greeting you a little too eagerly, he proceeds to explain why he feels you are a good person and that good things must be ahead for you today. Initially you write him off as something for somebody else but – and did you watch Inception? – ideas, once planted, are extremely hard to uproot. Suddenly you are reminded of all the things that make you a great person, and how unlikely it would be that anything other than greatness is in store.
Now, transmute that stranger into a “qualified” astrologer named Dunevale Wakeraven who claims to have the solar system as a character reference, and it turns out that most of us are not only impressionable, but also desperate. Desperate for some kind of assurance that things will be better in the future.
And in the end, even if the predictions do turn out to be about as valuable as a fistful of hair in your bathtub drain, they do give us something right? Some kind of hope that there is more than blind, impersonal force governing our lives (although that is exactly what astrology is – there are no sentient, benevolent beings behind the goings – on of the gas giants.)
The continuing popularity of these blind leaps into Deep Space 9 remind us that, for all the empowering promises of naturalism, there persist a deep and prevailing notion that we cannot be it. In fact if we’re honest, the prospect of life in a purely empirical world is about as compelling as a frozen moon spinning out near the edge of space. And that ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids.
But how humbling, and inconceivably more comforting, is the truth of the matter as revealed in Psalm 19:1:
“The heavens proclaim the glory of God. The skies display his craftsmanship.”
Yes, the stars testify – through leagues of light-years their cosmic hymns descend – but not as it concerns your destiny. Listen. Strain. Can you make out the theme?