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Astrology my passion
My life, my personal disaster

Rudolf H. Smit

A slightly expanded version of an article due to appear (in German) in a German anthology.

Abstract -- Rudolf Smit, founder of this website, describes how, as a teenager, he was an ardent amateur astronomer with many technical books on astronomy in his library. Nearly all of them stressed that astrology had no scientific validity, which led him to believe that astrology was nonsense. Later, in his first job, he argued with his boss about astrology, and was told that he should first study astrology before opening his mouth. So he read about his sun sign and was astonished to find how accurate it was. He then had his birth chart read, not once but twice, and in each case was astonished to find how well it fitted his character and circumstances. From then on astrology became his passion. He taught himself how to read charts for his friends (everything fitted perfectly), formed the first society of professional astrologers in the Netherlands (this was in 1977), and set up as a part-time professional astrologer (he soon had many clients and the future looked rosy). But one day he accidentally used the wrong chart for a client, who was nevertheless happy with the reading. Two years later it happened again. Very puzzling -- weren't horoscopes supposed to be unique? Later, with a computer, he spent several years testing the statements made in astrology books, especially statements about events, and found to his horror that almost all could not be confirmed. But he had many happy clients so why worry? Then in 1984 came the crunch. He became aware of the many ways in which clients could be convinced that astrology was true even if it wasn't. And all of them were used by him. Just being warm and caring would do the trick. Worse, any chart would do, hence also the wrong chart. So his happy world of astrology collapsed. He closed his practice and fell into a clinical depression that lasted three years. Without astrology his life had lost its meaning. Afterwards he regained his interest and became editor of the research journal Correlation for six years, trying to find out which statements of astrology were true. Then in 2000 he set up this website for those who wish to know more about scientific findings in astrology, but always remaining sympathetic to its beauty and appeal. This is a true story that anyone interested in astrology should read.

Astronomy has been part of my life since I was a boy of nine growing up in several towns and cities in the Netherlands. In our living room there was a big bookcase, and since my parents were not so fond of novels, it contained above all popular scientific works. One of these books was titled Mijn Sterrenwacht [My Observatory]. It was a lucid account by P.G.Meesters, one of the well-known Dutch amateur astronomers of that time (I am talking about the 1930s and 1940s).

Thanks to his enthusiastic writings I became an ardent amateur astronomer. I began asking my parents not to give me toys for my birthdays but, instead, books on astronomy. When I was 12 years of age, I had already about 20 books on astronomy and quite a few of them contained pretty heavy stuff.

Anyway, virtually all of those books had one thing in common: They told readers that although astrology was once an offshoot of astronomy, in our modern times it has no basis in scientific fact, therefore its practitioners are, at best, gullible but well-meaning people or, at worst, hopeless and dangerous charlatans.

Since I was only 12 or so I was quite willing to believe what all those illustrious authors had written, so I sincerely believed that astrology was hogwash and astrologers were dangerous charlatans. And if anybody at the time would have said "mark my words, you will soon be an astrologer yourself, and an ardent defender of astrology at that", no doubt I would have thought "you must be nuts".

But although nobody had ever pronounced such a prophecy, it did happen anyway. This is the story of how it all began, how it unfolded, and how it ended in disaster.

My story begins
It was 1968 and in that year I became technical editor of a journal on photography. My immediate boss was the editor of this journal. He was an academic with a distinguished background in chemistry and (photographic) education. A highly critical and erudite, warm and humorous person for whom I soon developed great regard.

But one day, this same man said something that made my stomach turn in disgust. The director of our publishing company had come into our office, apparently with the only purpose to blow off steam -- he was grappling with a problem, but could not decide what to do, and so on, and so on. When he had left, my boss said: "See, a typical Libra, finds it hard to make decisions". I could not believe my ears and was horrified. My boss, an academic of some standing, was daring to say such silly things! So I pulled out all the stops and argued that this was all nonsense, because the stars were too far away to exert any physical influence whatsoever on human lives, and so on, and so on.

My boss listened to me patiently and then asked: "have you ever studied the subject?" I was utterly astounded: "Of course not, why would I waste my time with such silly stuff?!" His answer was: "If I were you, I would devote some of your time to astrology, because only then can you start to judge it properly."

I discover that my Sun sign fits me
This was a crucial moment in my life, because I realised that he was as right as one could be. I was judging with lots of authority something I had no real knowledge of. This kind of attitude is, indeed, quite irresponsible and also somewhat reprehensible.

So, in the end I overcame my disgust and bought myself a booklet about my Sun sign. It was from a series of twelve booklets written by the well-known French astrologer Andre Barbault. And yes, I have to admit that much of what I read did for a great deal pertain to me. I was truly astonished. Inspired by this unexpected positive outcome, I made the relatively simple calculation for the Ascending Sign, which as a matter of fact seemed to be right on the cusp between two signs. I bought Barbault's description for these two signs, and yes, it was "me" again! (Actually the consecutive sign seemed to fit me better, and a year or so later I found out that it was in fact my Moon sign. So there you are!)

But at that point some skepticism crept in. What if I would buy all the other nine star sign booklets? I took a personal bet that after reading those booklets I would discover in each of them descriptions that would fit me. And indeed, so it occurred, although I had to admit that the fitting descriptions were not equally divided over all twelve signs. That is, some signs fitted me much better than others. In any case, it was reason enough to shelve the lot for a while. This all happened in the late 1960s.

And so does my horoscope
But then I happened to visit the parents of someone I knew. In their living room was a big bookcase, and having in mind the famous adage "show me your books and I know who you are" I began inspecting the content of this bookcase, and soon discovered two text books on astrology. Pleasantly surprised I asked the couple which one of them was interested in astrology. The woman confirmed her interest, and she and I had a brief exchange which led to her promise to cast my horoscope. Two days later I found in my mail a nicely drawn up horoscope figure, as well as a few written lines, which made me feel flabbergasted. She had written things which were quite specific to my character and situation in life, and which she could not have known.

But I was still not fully convinced. So I did something else: I sent my birth data to a well-known astrologer and asked him to write an analysis purely based on those data, hence without ever seeing me. Six weeks later I received his nicely structured, six-page description which fitted me miraculously well. I was elated and the die was cast: from now on astrology had me firmly in its grip! This was the beginning of an exciting time.

In those years astrology text books were fairly hard to come by, but after some searching in shops for secondhand books I found a few and also an ephemeris. Next I taught myself the casting of horoscopes, and of course the first thing I did was casting my own. Again, there was that wonderful feeling (which I have discussed further in Moment Supreme) of having encountered a miracle.

The elation of seeing astrology work
But I did not limit my investigations to my own horoscope. Virtually everyone else in my circles became victim of my thirst for knowledge about astrology. I asked them to provide me with their birth data, calculated and drew up their horoscopes on the spot, and began to interpret them using the recipes in those old text books. To my great satisfaction virtually everyone agreed with "their" descriptions. Occasionally even the profession of such person was written up in the textbooks! This was truly astonishing, and I felt elated.

It went further and further. During 1975 and 1976 I even wrote articles on astrology for the popular magazine Aarde & Kosmos [Earth & Cosmos], which were re-published in November 1976 in a book called De Planeten Spreken [The Planets Speak]. It included what I thought at the time was good evidence for planetary influences such as the findings of Gauquelin, and had over 300 pages.

To cut the story short, I had sought contact with the few astrologers that, at the time, were active in the Netherlands, and found out that in particular one of them was making predictions of the worst kind and with dire consequences, namely that his clients got upset and so terrified with fear that they had to seek help elsewhere. I felt that this was highly unethical, and I decided to mobilise the few good professional astrologers I had met, and asked them to help me set up what was to become the NGPA, the first Society of Practising Astrologers in the Netherlands. In other countries such as Britain and the USA, similar societies concerned with ethics had been existing for many years, but until now in the Netherlands there had been little concern.

My astrological handbook for beginners
Not only would this society make sure that its members would deal with their clients in a truly professional manner, but their behaviour in this regard would be based on a properly designed ethical code. And so it happened. This society was founded in 1977 and I was appointed its first chairman. I also wrote an astrological handbook for beginners and became founding editor of the magazine of NVWOA, the Dutch society formed in 1976 for the critical study of astrology.

A wonderful time followed. Everybody was full of optimism and felt that it would be only a matter of a few years before astrology was fully accepted by society. As for my own astrological endeavours, I had set up practice as a part-time professional astrologer and was receiving many clients, so the future looked rosy.

It turned out greatly different.

Being right with the wrong charts
It was in this period (around 1978) that I had my first major mishap. I had a client, let us call her Ms Johnson, for whom I did a reading. All seemed to go pretty well; she was nodding all the time while saying, "yes, yes, you are so right" or words of a similar meaning. But then I said something like: "well Ms Johnson, we...." She interrupted: " Sorry, my name is Petersen, not Johnson." I then experienced a terrible sinking feeling, because I then saw before me the horoscope of a Ms Johnson, but the person before me was surely not this Ms Johnson! Apparently I had taken the wrong chart from my file cabinet!

Truly, I have forgotten how I got myself out of this most embarrassing terrible mess, but apparently I had managed the situation pretty well, because she went away a happy client.

After seeing her out I sat in my study, confused thoughts racing through my mind. How is it possible to do a correct reading based on a wrong chart? Did not all textbooks tell us that a horoscope is unique, that is, only fitting its native and no one else? If so, how on earth could I have made correct delineations based on a totally wrong chart? I was completely puzzled. In the end I let the matter rest, but from now on I was on the alert! And not without reason, because a few years later a similar mistake occurred to me, but then I noticed it in time.

My dormant skepticism reawakens
In any case, it won't come as a surprise that from that moment onward the skeptic who had been dormant within me for several years, was about to wake up again. No matter that I had many clients whose satisfaction was loudly proclaimed after I had done an astrological reading for them. Despite all this positive feedback I felt that I could not trust any longer the astrological text books I had consulted. They were too often in disagreement.

As a matter of fact, my whole attitude towards astrology was gradually changing to the extent that I was becoming a pain in the neck for my fellow astrologers. I was now critical of the "anything goes" attitude of so many of them, and of how they tended to believe anything that prominent astrological authors had written, be they ancients or from more recent times. For example, whenever I questioned a particular astrological statement, their response tended to be: "It is so, because (famous author) says so." (Note the present tense: says so, not said so, even when the famous author had been dead for many years!) If I asked: "how does he know?", they replied "well, er, by experience". If I then asked: "Experience, based on what? On empirical research?", their eyes usually went blank."

Enter the computer
It was also the time (the final three years of the 1970s) when the first home computers entered the scene. I bought one of them, the Commodore PET 3032 (a forerunner of the later famous C64) and the astrological software for it was developed by a friend of mine, who had also bought such a machine.

With my Commodore PET computer

With my Commodore PET computer at the FAA Conference in Melbourne 1984

Thanks to this machine and its software I was able to test a multitude of horoscopes on a great variety of astrological statements found in astrological text books. It took me a number of years to carry out these projects. I succeeded, but to my great chagrin the test results were contrary to all hopeful expectations. One did not have to be a professional statistician to find out that many, if not all, statements in astrological text books, fell flat when tested on a great number of horoscopes.

For example, I tested the statement that in the charts of people who had died an accidental death, there would be a remarkable incidence of Progressed Ascendant to Mars, or of Progressed Mars to the Ascendant. Sure, there were a few (but the word says it all: a few), hence not an overwhelming number which could confirm the textbook statement. And so it went on and on. And one can imagine that my views on astrology had sobered down somewhat. Yet, I was still a believer, simply because I had happy clients, who tended to come back. So why complain!? Until the day when the penny dropped.

I meet Geoffrey Dean
In February 1984, I met face to face with Dr Geoffrey Dean, a man whose researches into astrology were already having an impact on the astrological scene. In 1979 I had bought a copy of the book Recent Advances in Natal Astrology that he had compiled with Arthur Mather and many others, and was deeply impressed by it since, for one thing, its findings corroborated my own investigations.

Anyway, we both had been invited to lecture at the yearly conference of the Federation of Australian Astrologers, and I took the opportunity to ask him to stay at my home. (Since 1980 I was living near Melbourne, where I took on the agency for Matrix software until 1985.) We had many inspiring discussions and during those he showed me a fairly thick packet of paper; in fact, a long draft article on astrological counselling that he was circulating for comment. In it he had brought together much relevant information taken from orthodox sources (it had 87 references) that was almost never found in astrology books. It also incorporated comments on two previous versions from about a dozen astrologers and psychologists

He asked me whether I was willing to give it a thorough read and then forward my comments. Of course I agreed. Accordingly, shortly after Dean had left for his home town Perth in Western Australia, I began reading this paper. As usual his writings were highly informative. One chapter though gave me that terrible sinking feeling again.

Not because he had written something wrong, but because there was the sense of immediate awareness that he was so right! And that was the moment when the penny dropped. The sudden realisation how I had been doing my readings and why I had been so successful. And that was not thanks to astrology, but instead thanks to various things that I seemed to be pretty good at. Let me explain.

Ad for my astrological services

A typical ad for my astrological services in Astrological Monthly Review August 1982

The art of "Cold Reading"
The chapter that affected me was called Chartside Manner: Non-astrological Factors in Personal Validation. In this chapter Dean discussed about 20 factors that affect "personal validation" or the way a client personally assesses or validates an astrological reading. (The number of factors later reached 34, see Artifacts in reasoning on this website under Doing Scientific Research.) These factors included things like the Barnum effect (seeing specifics in generalities) and selective memory (ignoring errors), most of which I did recognise, that is, I had the strong feeling that indeed I myself had been a victim of most of them. However, the things that gave me that terrible sinking feeling were the effects described under "Cold Reading", and now I quote Dean in full:

"Cold Reading Effects, or how body language tells the story. Here the reader uses non-verbal cues (eg pupil dilation and hand movements) leaked by the client to home in on the truth. In a counselling session a great deal of non-verbal communication goes on, often without anybody being aware of it, so obviously it pays to give added weight to what is sensed. [Dean later told me that "paralinguistic cues" (the tone and loudness of the voice, and the effect of anxiety on the voice owing to constriction of the throat muscles), can be just as important as non-verbal cues.]

"The intuitive astrologer will attend to client reactions automatically, which helps to explain why many astrologers claim that intuition is important for maximising accuracy.

"The key points of cold reading are as follows:

1. Watch the eyes and hands for signs that they say yes and no.
2. Make the reading happy and positive
3. Be a good listener
4. Loosen the client's tongue with flattery
5. Discover the problem and then tell the client what she wants to hear.

"Of course an astrologer may be using cold reading without knowing it. Neher [here there is a reference to The Psychology of Transcendence, McGraw-Hill 1980] concluded from observations of astrology/palmistry/tarot/etc readers that they were often 'astute, sensitive individuals who pick up subtle clues leaked by the client. Usually neither the reader nor the client is consciously aware of this communication process, which therefore can result in a reading that seems mysteriously perceptive.'

"The point is that a skilled cold reader can produce a totally convincing reading very similar to a chart reading (and probably more accurate) but without using a chart. In which case it cannot be claimed that astrology plays an essential part in the reading process."

So far Dean et al.

The penny drops
Well, apparently, but without ever having been consciously aware of it, I had been an excellent cold reader -- which is what I realised on that fateful day in February 1984. It was mainly thanks to these cold-reading skills and to my unfailing desire to help my clients that I had an excellent rapport with them, and thus had sessions which were, almost without exception, successful in the sense that both my client as well as myself were happy. So, the only good thing supplied by astrology was the beautiful mandala called horoscope and its symbols. The rest was due to my being caring, attentive to the client's needs, and sensitive to what Dean calls the client's "paralinguistic and non-verbal cues".

Now it also became devastatingly clear why I had had excellent sessions based on the totally wrong chart. Sympathy, cold reading, and the nice astrological symbolism had done the trick, not astrology itself. Conclusion: A warm, caring, perceptive reader can work with any chart, hence also the wrong chart. Thus, in reality, I had been dealing with a beautiful and perfect illusion. Yes, perfect and grandiose, but an illusion, no matter how beautiful, remains an illusion.

My happy world of astrology collapses
This harsh realisation, on top of all the negative statistical results of the many serious studies (including my own) into astrological claims, had a devastating effect on me. My happy world of astrology collapsed. It felt as if the bottom had been kicked away from under my existence.

This was the beginning of a terrible time. First of all, due to this awful new knowledge that it all had been an illusion I felt compelled to close my astrology-practice. After all, I had been dealing in illusions, and hence felt it unethical to continue selling such illusions.

If that had been all, it would not have been so bad. But since astrology had been my great passion, which now all of a sudden had turned into a great disappointment, it was as if I had fallen into a big black hole. When trying to look forward, I saw no horizon, no future. I had invested my whole existence on the rosy promises of astrology, and on its certainty that one's life has a definite meaning and is inseparably linked with the universe. But now I saw only a terrible never-ending blackness. A clinical depression ensued which would last for some years and which, for one thing, cost me my marriage.

Only after I had returned to the Netherlands in 1987 and had to find a way to begin a new life (I found a new wife and a good job) did my sorrow about the loss of astrology slowly fade away.

I was not alone
It was little consolation that I was not alone is discovering that astrology was an illusion. When I was living in Perth I visited Geoffrey Dean many times, and he showed me letters his clients had sent him when he was a practising astrologer in the late 1970s. They said things like "very accurate" and "so true it is amazing" and "you know me inside out". One letter I remember especially was from a lady client who had found an hour or so of chart reading more helpful than six months of psychiatry, and voluntarily doubled his fee. His clients were every bit as happy as mine had been.

Then in 1980 he found to his amazement that clients were just as happy with a reading that was the opposite of the authentic reading. Like me he had discovered that any chart would do provided the astrologer is sensitive and caring. And like me he immediately stopped reading charts for money. Later I discovered that one or two other astrologers had abandoned their astrological practice for the same reason as I had (for example David Hamblin, a former Chairman of the AA, see Astrology as Religion under Philosophy). So I was not alone.

In my Netherlands office 1995 with Geoffrey Dean

In my office in the Netherlands in 1995 with Geoffrey Dean (right)

A new beginning
It seems to happen quite often that people who have lost a belief, whether it is a religious belief or say a belief in astrology, tend to develop a revulsion against their former conviction. Not so with me. Astrology still has my interest, but the focus is now mainly on the big question why astrology still exerts so much attraction to so many people. In other words, why do astrologers still go on believing whereas the evidence against it is mounting and mounting?

I have discussed this question at length in my article Moment Supreme, where I conclude that astrologers go on believing because the apparent match between horoscope and client is such an extremely persuasive situation that it is easy for them to ignore every evidence against astrology -- as indeed it seems they have always done.

Other factors may also apply depending on the astrologer. Thus astrology has undeniable appeal, and satifies the longing of many people to be part of an all-encompassing whole, to feel part of the universe as a living entity, and to know that one's life has a definite meaning since it is part of that living entity. For is this not exactly the Big Question for most people -- has my life meaning, why am I here, where am I going? For many, and that included me, astrology seems to provide an answer. My devastation when I discovered that this answer was a Grand Illusion should therefore not come as a surprise.

The pleasures of astrology re-visited
I have learned to live with this sobering knowledge. And, in addition, I have set up my own website (Astrology-and-Science) which is a fountain of knowledge for all those people, astrologers and skeptics alike, who wish to know more about recent scientific findings about astrology. In contrast to what hostile skeptics do, we (that is, my collaborators and myself) do not ignore the good side of astrology. We simply supply the facts as they are. And as regards astrologers, we do not consider the great majority to be charlatans, since most astrologers tend to be nice people whose only sincere desire is to genuinely help their clients.

As for me, after twenty odd years I have taken up again the reading of charts (now and then, that is), if only to experience again the wonderful feeling when such a reading turns out to be successful. However, I am not asking money for such sessions, and I tell my new "clients" in advance that I am offering them a Grand Illusion, which may be helpful nonetheless. If it is helpful, it is not because astrology itself is helpful, but because astrology sets a scene that helps me to be helpful.

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