Materialism and Abstraction, or, Why Will We Believe Almost Anything Before We Believe Ourselves?

An article published last week in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune (available online here) caused a hubbub that quite probably tops the list of hubbubs caused by any story coming out of that revered Minnesotan publication in the past decade. Due to a “wobble” that has shifted the earth’s alignment over the past several thousand years, the piece revealed, the whole system of zodiac signs and charts initially created by ancient Babylonians is—prepare yourself—wrong!! You thought you were a Pisces? Surprise! You’re an Aquarius! Most Virgos are now Leos, most Libras are now Virgos, and most of the poor shmucks walking down the street thinking their sign was Sagittarius are stuck with a brand-new sign, the nearly-unpronounceable Ophiuchus. (For the record, I think it’s pronounced oh-FEE-yew-kus.)

Well. As you may imagine, such shocking news caused no little distress among the people who care about such things—including, apparently, at least one out of every five people with tattoos. Responses ranged from the excited (rock on! My new sign is, like, waaay cooler!) to the rebellious (heck NO I’m not a freaking Gemini!) to the understandably indignant inked ones (what am I supposed to do with my Cancer tat?!?!?!?!?!?!). As far as I can tell, even articles from such highly respected bastions of journalistic integrity as CNN assuring readers that the zodiac news is not really news! and that their signs haven’t changed at all!—something to do with the difference between the tropical zodiac and the sidereal zodiac, apparently—have failed to completely appease the troubled masses.

The thing that amazes me the most in all of the hullabaloo is the fact that, when confronted with what they may or may not still believe to be a shift in their cosmic identity, the thing that people seem most willing to doubt is not, in fact, the actual legitimacy of a system that could potentially have been mis-describing them to themselves for the entire tenure of their astronomical self-awareness, but…themselves. Witness this actual response from a zodiac-believing American as quoted in the Star-Tribune article:

“Darn it, the whole time I thought I was an introvert, now to find out that I’m an extrovert. I’m going to need awhile to unravel my life.”

Uhhhh…what? I’d like to comment on that, but I fear I couldn’t do it without falling into uncharitable speech, and since I’m writing piece this on a Sunday, I really ought not. Happily for me, this whole unfortunate zodiacal situation reminds me—as almost all things in life do—of something Walker Percy once said. And Percy, being one of the last gentlemen, has expressed my thoughts on the topic with less snark and far more eloquence than I could muster. These are the opening paragraphs of Lost in the Cosmos:

Imagine that you are reading a book about the Cosmos. You find it so interesting that you go out and buy a telescope. One fine clear moonless night you set up your telescope and focus on the brightest star in the sky. It is a planet, not a star, with a reddish spot and several moons. Excited, you look up the planets in your book about the Cosmos. You read a description of the planets. You read a sentence about a large yellowish planet with a red spot and several moons. You recognize both the description and the picture. Clearly, you have been looking at Jupiter.

You have no difficulty at all in saying that it is Jupiter, not Mars or Saturn, even though the object you are looking at is something you have never seen before and is hundreds of millions of miles distant.

Now imagine that you are reading the newspaper. You come to the astrology column. You may or may not believe in astrology, but to judge from the popularity of astrology these days, you will probably read your horoscope. According to a recent poll, more Americans set store in astrology than in science or God.

You are an Aries. You open your newspaper to the astrology column and read an analysis of the Aries personality. It says, among other things:

You have the knack of creating an atmosphere of thought and movement, unhampered by petty jealousies. But you have the tendency to scatter your talents to the four winds.

Hm, you say, quite true. I’m like that.

Suddenly you realize you’ve made a mistake. You’ve read the Gemini column. So you go back to Aries:

Nothing hurts you more than to be unjustly mistreated or suspected. But you have a way about you, a gift for seeing things through despite all obstacles and distractions. You also have a desperate need to be liked. So you have been wounded more often than you will admit.

Hm, you say, quite true. I’m like that.

The first question is: why is it that both descriptions seem to fit you—or, for that matter, why do you seem to recognize yourself in the self-analysis of all twelve astrological signs? Or, to put it another way, why is it that you can recognize and identify the planets Jupiter and Venus so readily after reading a bit and taking one look, yet have so much trouble identifying yourself from twelve descriptions when, presumably, you know yourself much better than you know Jupiter and Venus?

Good question, Mr. Percy. Good. Question.


  • January 18, 2011

    Bryan Wandel

    Good question, Ms. Thomas.

    And might we apply this analysis further, to personality tests?

    (“Bill Gates is an ENTJ?! I’m an ENTJ!!”)

  • January 18, 2011

    Miriel M. Thomas

    Interesting question, Mr. Wandel. My instinct is to say no–at least, not in the same way. I might need you to expound a bit on what you think the connection is, but on first blush there seems to be an important distinction between horoscopes and personality tests: one is based on purely external factors, while the other involves some level of introspection and self-evaluation. If Myers-Briggs types were determined by date of birth (or height, or hair color), the analysis would map. To the degree that they result from the person’s thoughtful answers about his own characteristics and thought processes, though, they lack (at a minimum) the *purely* material derivation of horoscopes.

    An interesting intermediate case might be birth order typing, right? First-borns are bossy, only children are selfish–except even there, the analysis is based more on insights about the way that circumstances shape personality than on the fact of birth order per se, which is why (by its own admission) the study of birth order personality traits is an inexact one, intended more to grant insight to the individual about his patterns of thought and behavior than to tell him what he is like *in blatant contradiction to his own observations.* (This is why birth order typing admits of anomalies, incidentally…I’m the third of six kids but fit 95% of “firstborn” traits…which is another way of saying I’m a bossy overachiever.)

    Let me go back to the point I emphasized above, though, because some conversation about this post in another medium made me realize that perhaps in my eagerness to avoid snark, I failed to achieve clarity. I do find the entire mentality of horoscope believers silly; the idea that the positions of stars and planets on the date of your birth can determine your personality and the events that occur in your life seems untenable, at a minimum, because it would imply that everyone born on the same day in the same place would have the exact same personality and life history, which is clearly untrue. But my particular interest in the tropical-vs.-sidereal zodiac and the Star-Tribune article has more to do with the conflict of authority and observation. It seems genuinely unreasonable to me that people would believe that a source which they had believed to be authoritative and which then turned out to be incorrect could be equally authoritative in a new iteration, TO THE POINT THAT it would override their own perceptions of themselves. “I thought I was an extrovert (because my horoscope told me so); now it turns out that my horoscope was wrong; my new horoscope tells me that I am an introvert; therefore, any observations I may have made about myself that were previously in concert with my horoscope-inspired belief that I was an extrovert must have been wrong, and the new horoscope is right.” I don’t see how that can be a reasonable train of thought.

  • January 18, 2011

    Bryan Wandel

    Most people I know that read horoscopes do so because they like hearing things about themselves.

    I think that’s the key to horoscope popularity – not what is learned, but that it is personalized.

    That’s the lens through which I see a lot of personality tests. They end with an individualized description that you are told. Watch the reactions people have as they hear the results of their personality tests. “That is so true.” “I do struggle with that.” “I never feel like extraverts understand me.”

    So there might be some helpfulness to some personality tests. Regardless, I think the primary attraction to them is the same as the attraction to horoscopes.

    I’m not all against Meyers-Briggs. But kind of.

  • January 18, 2011

    Bryan Wandel

    On your last point in the comment, though:

    Would you say that’s the very nature of authority, to override what you know by your senses?

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