Astrology’s claims that the position of the sun, moon and planets at our birth informs our character and future are without evidence, and yet horoscopes continue to be published in national newspapers.
More often than not they appear without any disclaimer. It’s the only section of a newspaper knowingly printed without facts supporting the claims made on the page.
As the war on disinformation has stepped up during the coronavirus pandemic, with “fake news” now potentially risking lives, professional journalism’s basis in evidence is its key weapon in the fight against the tech giants. Horoscopes would seem to undermine this.
But for many horoscopes are seen as part of the fun of the popular press, fulfilling the brief that newspapers should both inform and entertain.
NASA described astrology in a recent blog post as “something else”. “It’s not science. No one has shown that astrology can be used to predict the future or describe what people are like based only on their birth date.”
“Still,” it went on, “like reading fantasy stories, many people enjoy reading their ‘astrological forecast’ or ‘horoscope’ in the newspaper every day.”
Press Gazette polled readers from Monday to Wednesday this week asking them: “Should news publications carry horoscopes/astrology?”
Of the 428 respondents, the majority (50%) said “yes, I don’t believe in them but they’re harmless” while nearly as many (45%) said “no, they’re ‘fake news’”. A further 5% said “yes, I believe in them”.
For those wondering, your Zodiac sign is the constellation the sun appeared to be in, relative to the Earth, when you were born. It was the Babylonians who first divided the stars along the ecliptic – the path the sun appears to take in the sky as Earth orbits around it – into 12 sections.
Victor Olliver, astrologer for the The Lady magazine and spokesperson for the Association of Professional Astrologers International, said: “Astrology is not a science. Therefore it cannot be a pseudo-science.
“It’s more useful to think of it as a symbolic system rooted in ancient ideas and practices. Many, many people relate to astrology through their star sign – but there’s a lot more to astrology than just star signs.
“Media horoscopes offer an opportunity to readers to reflect briefly on their lives – to view situations and events as part of something spiritually bigger.
“This offers a valuable contrast to the world of hard fact that drives a newspaper or magazine – it’s worth remembering that a publication serves many different purposes, as information provider, entertainment and as a thoughtful prompt. Not all life can be driven by literal fact. Sometimes, truths of another kind help to inspire, guide and comfort readers.”
Olliver said media horoscopes have been going since the 1930s, with roots in the 19th Century, and are “part of the success story of popular print media”.
In the UK, the Sun, Mirror, Express, Star, and Mail titles continue to run horoscopes in print and online. They were prevalent across nearly all newspapers at one stage, but seemed to fall out of favour in the 2000s.
But the Sunday Times Style magazine fired its resident astrologer Shelley von Strunckel this month after 28 years. Von Strunckel told Press Gazette that Style editor Lorraine Candy said she no longer wanted the column.
“I’ve worked with editors who’ve ranged from being huge fans to literally being uncomfortable with me in the room but they got that readers liked it and in this case the story is they were cutting back content but it’s just not [Candy’s] thing,” said Strunckel.
Newspapers are also fond of writing about astrology, often with a critical eye but sometimes without any caveats to its unfounded claims.
An article dated 6 July this year on thesun.co.uk stated: “Horoscopes are a prediction of events, offering a fascinating insight into a person’s future, from possible romantic relationships to finance and work issues.”
Neither Reach, publisher of the Mirror, Express and Star titles, the Sun or the Mail provided a comment for this article.
Astrology has long had a role in entertainment – the Sun’s Mystic Meg and Mirror’s Russell Grant were household names in the 1980s and 1990s, with Grant appearing as a contestant on Strictly Come Dancing in 2011.
The practice has had something of a rebirth in recent years, which some tie to millennial meme culture. In fact it was in the news again just this week, with discussions about the so-called 13th sign of the Zodiac.
While horoscopes are still seen as harmless fun by some, a media landscape in which trust is falling and disinformation can reach us all has forced newspapers to restate their value as purveyors of quality information.
Michael Marshall, project director at the Good Thinking Society, said: “It isn’t hyperbole to suggest there’s a crisis in confidence in the media right now, with low public trust in the accuracy and objectivity of journalism.
“It is hard for the industry to argue on the one hand that the public should have confidence in the factual content of their newspapers, while on the other hand knowingly publishing anti-scientific nonsense.
“As someone who has spent over a decade investigating the impact of unscientific beliefs, I would argue that there are no ‘harmless’ pseudosciences – accepting one bad idea softens the ground for other unproven beliefs to take root.
“The UK news media should be aiming to leave their readers more informed; they should not be party to leaving their readers more inclined to believe untrue things.”
We’ll give the last word to Shelley von Strunckel: “Newspapers are relentlessly depressing, even womens’ features are cautiously factual; the stars (in the right hands) are often the only reflective words in print, so serve that purpose.”