The Perils of Astrological Prediction
by Steven Forrest
At the big International Society for Astrological Research (ISAR) conference in California this past October, a panel of astrologers predicted who would win the U.S. presidential election. None picked Donald Trump. Their calculations suggested a Clinton victory, just as the majority of pollsters had predicted.
As they say, “the rest is history.” The astrologers on the panel, along with the majority of pollsters, got it wrong.
This was not a glorious day for our craft. One vitriolic internet article trumpeted, “Astrologers Were Wrong About the 2016 Election, Casting Serious Doubt on Their Predictive Abilities.” The piece opened with the lines, “Astrology is bullshit. But for some reason, many Americans still believe that astrologists have the ability to predict the future.”
You can imagine the rest. Or read it here.
I posted the nasty article to Facebook with the following comment: “I think the idea that ‘astrologers can see the future’ has done us nothing but harm. We cannot see the future! Probabilities . . .yes – that's why our predictions are often correct. Questions and issues, certainly – there is the heart of our craft. ISAR made a mistake simply with the PREMISE of this panel. It is time for a major paradigm shift in astrological thinking.”
God bless ISAR for all the good work it does in bringing astrologers together to learn from each other. I proudly served on the Ethics Committee for about five years. I am not writing to attack the organization. I’d have been speaking at the conference myself except that I had a previous commitment to teach in China. I write these words out of loyalty to the astrological community and a desire to take some responsibility for improving the place of astrology in modern society.
In voicing this criticism, I think that it is also obvious that winning any ISAR-sponsored popularity contests is not my main aim in life. Much closer to my heart is seeing healthy forms of astrology enhancing the mental health and general well-being of far vaster numbers of human beings than it does now. That worthy goal confronts many obstacles: fear-based, control-freak religion and dogmatic science are obvious antagonists. But I think that we astrologers ourselves are half the problem. We make promises we cannot keep. Every time we break one, we lose public credibility.
And false promise numero uno is that we can see the future. That incorrect belief has done more to discredit and misrepresent astrology than every silly semi-annual announcement that “The Zodiac Is Wrong.” Worse, it is we astrologers who perpetuate the lie.
Symbolism is not literalism. And astrology is a symbolic language. If we could truly accept that elemental principle, we would all be better astrologers.
What do we actually see when we gaze into the crystal ball of astrology? One good answer might be probabilities. I think there is an even better answer – one that we will get to soon. But let’s stay with the idea of “seeing probabilities” for a moment.
Say you are planning a picnic for ten days from now. You check the long-range weather forecast. They predict rain. Do you believe it? Do you cancel your picnic? Of course not. Meteorologists are often wrong about tomorrow, let alone over a week into the future.
Literal, back-and-white astrological prediction has a similar level of reliability and it does so for similar reasons. Meteorologists work with statistical models. Astrologers don’t do that . . . not exactly. Better said, the traditions of predictive astrology are essentially “folk-statistics” accumulated through centuries of observation, with one eye on the sky and the other eye on human affairs. As such, they often work – and of course realistically that bad weather forecast probably does mean there is a fair chance it will rain on your picnic. But you don’t count on it. In parallel fashion, if Uranus transits into your House of Marriage, there is an excellent chance there will be significant changes in your primary relationships. But any astrologer who says unequivocally that “you will get a divorce” is abusing astrology.
And abusing you too.
A moment ago I asked, “What do we actually see when we gaze into the crystal ball of astrology?” I said that one good answer was “probabilities.” What are some better answers?
Questions. Possibilities. Potentials. Warnings.
The best answer, in my opinion:
Your Path. The Dharma. The Great Tao. The Will of God.
In my Facebook post, I suggested that astrology badly needed a paradigm shift. Like most true paradigm shifts, it is not difficult to reduce its pivotal premise to a few words. Still, those few words change everything. Earth is not flat, but round. Planets orbit the Sun. Gayness is not a disease. Time and space are not constants. Women are the equals of men.
The astrological equivalent? Your chart predicts questions, not answers.
Prior to the 20th Century, science described a universe governed by laws and logic. Then along came relativity and quantum mechanics. As Sir James Jeans famously put it, “The universe begins to look more like a great thought than like a great machine.” Fundamental to quantum mechanics is the notion of worlds governed, not by immutable mechanical laws, but by probabilities. A ripened apple is highly likely to fall to the ground – but there is a statistical possibility that it will “fall” up. Furthermore, in quantum theory, the consciousness of the observer interacts with every experiment. Consciousness itself cannot be separated from our understanding of any physical process.
That, to me, is astrology’s bridge to the future. We humans are the “unpredictable quanta” in the astrological equation. It is our fate to face certain questions and certain possibilities at certain times. How we respond to them is governed by consciousness, not by the planets. Quantum mechanics, as Gary Zukav wrote in The Dancing Wu Li Masters, “has explained everything from subatomic particles to transistors to stellar energy. It has never failed. It has no competition.” Astrologers simply must cast off the push-and-pull shackles of thinking like 19th-century physicists and enter the quantum universe if our craft is going to avoid the looming trap of being finally and utterly dismissed as an outdated mythology.
So, we assemble a panel of experienced astrologers and ask them the straightforward question, “Who will win the US presidential election?” And, collectively, they all point to Hillary Clinton winning.
Afterwards there is an unseemly scramble to save face. The lack of a reliable, verified time of birth for Clinton was a grievous technical problem. It was trotted out as an explanation for the failure. At least one astrologer on the panel came closest to the truth by predicting that Clinton would win the election, but not be inaugurated. And, OK, Clinton did win the popular vote by three million and of course she will not be inaugurated. I think it is fair to say, “Close, but no banana.” There is some resemblance between the prediction and what actually happened, but there is also the looming bottom line: every astrologer on the panel answered the predictive question incorrectly. And that made astrology look bad.
My point here is not to disparage anyone. My point is that the very existence of the panel did not do any favors for our profession. Stand back from the technical world of astrology and think like “the person on the street” – or, better said, think like the kind of person we astrologers would like to reach and help. The headline screams, Astrologers Predict Clinton Victory. And Trump wins.
There is no way to frame that as a good day for astrology.
In my opinion, the fiasco arose, not from “wrong prediction,” but from prediction itself. We made a promise we could not keep, and the parts of the media that cared about astrology at all savaged us for it.
Victoria Naumann Smoot, an editor with the ISAR technical journal, had submitted a talk for the conference which warned of the “perils of prediction,” but it was not chosen for the conference’s roster. Generously, she writes, “The warnings against the pitfalls of forecasting with astrology were covered or alluded to . . . in more gently titled talks, so no harm and no foul. I know I received some votes, but I did not make the cut with enough to be chosen.”
Victoria goes on to add, “But then, the panels on the presidential elections bore out an instinctive feeling I had when I was writing an editorial introduction to the ISAR journal, The International Astrologer. . . In the latest issue of our journal, I wrote, “Our 2016 Symposium could have been just as aptly named ‘The Power of Choice Meets the Consequence of Forecasting.’”
With those last words, she hits the nail on the head as far as I am concerned. We simply cannot do accurate astrology and simultaneously ignore the power of the human will. And, as this panel demonstrated, “forecasting” has “consequences” – often grave ones.
What if the panel had instead been tasked with “predicting questions?” What if half a dozen intelligent, informed astrologers had been invited to “ask the planets” questions such as these:
- What is the present soul-path for the entity we call the United States of America?
- What is the nation needing to learn?
- What is the direction of maximum well-being for this entity?
- What “shadows” and darkness is it now facing?
- What sage guidance might you offer?
- What kinds of synchronistic phenomena are likely to arise in concert with these planetary energies?
- Which candidate’s birthchart seems most positively aligned with these ideals?
- And finally, any guesses about who is likely to win?
I can almost see the shaking heads and heavenward, hopeless gazes of any conventional astrologers reading these words! That Steven Forrest is such an air head . . . there he goes again. But here is my response: these are questions that astrology can actually answer. Clearly we failed to answer the “practical question” of who would win the election. I also believe that, with the right astrologers on the panel, such an approach would have produced an elegant, intelligent result, full of “quotable quotes” and telling insights – in short, something that would have done astrology proud rather than our walking into a public relations catastrophe that will keep our critics salivating for at least a few more years.
My hope is that the community of astrologers as a whole learns from this failure rather than compartmentalizing it, rationalizing, and ultimately forgetting about the whole embarrassing mess and the public damage it did to our higher purposes.
A fine astrologer, now gone, named Jayj Jacobs once hilariously quipped, “Having Mars in Pisces is like trying to hammer a nail with a fish.” I am not so pessimistic about Mars in Pisces, but I loved the line and will merrily steal it here. Using astrology to see the future is . . . well, you guessed it.
So why does predictive astrology work so well? There’s the “elephant in the living room.” Astrology’s long history of successful predictions seems to undercut my entire tirade here.
Actually it does not. A line from my Facebook post: “We cannot see the future. Probabilities . . . yes - that's why our predictions are often correct.” An experienced astrologer blessed with some common sense can often make an educated guess about the most probable kinds of developments based on current planetary configurations. That system works well a lot of the time. But remember: the hardest errors to detect are the ones that you can usually get away with. Try diagnosing an intermittent bug in a computer program. Or think about this: “I’ve been driving for fifteen years without a seatbelt and it hasn’t done me any harm.”
Prediction is like that. You are often right. And being “right” is addictive, especially when spiced with feedback along the lines of “you are so amazing . . .” Furthermore, people are hungry to feel they have some control over the future. “Prediction” satisfies some of that drive, or at least promises to do so.
Robert Hand and a few others famously predicted the 9/11 attacks. Hats off to them. Almost forty years ago in the pages of a magazine called The Sun, I myself even predicted the break-up of the Soviet Union. Prediction does work sometimes. After the ISAR fiasco, Facebook was festooned with astrologers hooting, “I predicted Trump, I predicted Trump!” And I am sure they were telling the truth. But all of that success is beside the point.
To remain in the framework of integrity, we must also admit that our predictions are wrong a lot too.
When we are right, it is emphatically not so “by chance,” as our critics would claim. We astrologers are correct way too often for “lucky chance” to be the explanation. But when we are right, it is not because the universe is mechanical and we are puppets in it. It is because we placed our bet on the high probability outcome. With experience, an astrologer can get pretty good at doing that. But so much is lost.
Astrologers getting hooked on “being right” in this way reminds me of those experiments where rats die of starvation because they choose cocaine over food.
My own first spiritual teacher, Marian Starnes, once taught me, “The ambition of any true prophet is to be proven wrong.” Her words have never left me, strange as they sound at first. As astrologers, we can sometimes see difficulty looming ahead. Get to the heart of it and you can always find that there is a path forward through it, one that typically avoids pointless crisis and empty drama even though it might not be easy. With a client, I will often lay out the traditional prediction, then I say, “Prove me wrong.” The lazier the client, the more likely the “prediction” will turn out to be true.
Earlier I mentioned Uranus transiting into the seventh house. I can’t remember how many times I have cleaned up after an astrologer who predicted divorce based on that transit! And it can mean divorce, for sure, as well as renewal and other possibilities. This is a big subject and the entirety of a person’s chart must be taken into account, but boiling it down to a question we can reliably predict, here it is:
How can you re-frame your primary relationships in such a way that they do not block the expression of your emerging individuality?
That is the essence of it. That question can trigger creative, clear thought. So often, just coming up with the right question is the first step toward an effective answer. Astrology can do that, in spades. And thus be of genuine help.
After an overcooked mushy dinner, one partner quips to the other, “As a chef, you are a pretty good poet.” In other words, stick to writing poetry. I feel that we astrologers should stick with the messages this divine language is actually sending us – questions, even suggestions, but never fatalistic pronouncements about inescapable, immutable futures.
During that ISAR conference, Saturn was squaring Neptune. The universe was asking us all to do a Saturnian reality-check on our fantasies and delusions – we might say the same for the United States in general. My prayer is that we, the community of astrologers, can rise to this opportunity, re-frame our craft in a way that honors the power of consciousness, and let go of our addiction to the predictive delusion that keeps us increasingly isolated in a fading, self-congratulatory ghetto.
- Steven Forrest
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Just like an individual human being, a nation has a destiny into which it can rise and a shadow into which it can fall. And just like a human being, a nation has karma - antecedent realities which haunt it and present it with soul-cages and, critically, the means with which to resolve them. By transit, the present Plutonian realities facing the USA have brought all those issues to the boiling point. It is time for a breakthrough - or a break down. The ghosts of the past are surfacing.
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