Dominic Lawson: No one, no one at all, can foretell the future

Predictions under each and every star sign are equally applicable to all readers
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The Independent Online

Do yourself a favour. Don't bother to read a single new-year article which purports to predict what 2007 holds for the future of the world, or any of the nations therein. The most astute commentator on the French political scene has not the faintest idea whether the next President of the Republic will be Ségolène Royal or Nicolas Sarkozy - or indeed some as-yet untipped other contender. The most experienced member of the Washington press corps has no ability to predict - as opposed to guess- whether or not Hillary Clinton will, by the end of the year, have fought off a challenge from her Democrat rival Barack Obama.

You might also see articles confidently predicting that Alistair Darling will be made Chancellor of the Exchequer by Prime Minister Gordon Brown. It might happen, but the authors of such reports will have been given no such assurance by the secretive Mr Brown on the matter, even supposing he has made up his own mind.

Meanwhile, if you scan the City pages of the Sunday newspapers you will have noticed the various reporters' share-tips for the year ahead. In a bull market, this is easy money for financial hacks. Ditto all those forecasts that "house prices will continue to rise next year". Just be aware that slumps in house prices are hardly ever predicted - either because most of the forecasts come from organisations which have a strong vested interest in a buoyant property market, or, more charitably, because people feel reluctant to shout "fire" in a crowded condominium.

Yet even the most lazy piece of political navel-gazing, even the most self-serving piece of financial guesswork, is a jewel of journalism compared to the efforts of the writers specifically employed to foretell the future. I refer to the nation's newspaper astrologers, for whom the start of the year is the excuse for page upon page of predictions. They are often sneered at by the more high falutin' astrologers who perform only personal consultations, and who argue that the so-called "sun sign" astrologers are spivs who use a bastardised version chosen specifically for the convenience of newspaper and magazine typesetting.

If anything, I regard organisations such as the Association of Professional Astrologers with their ludicrous fellowships - which allow them to place such legends as FFAstrolS on their personal letter headings - as even more reprehensible. At least the News of the World's Mystic Meg, a former subeditor on the newspaper who stumbled into an astonishingly lucrative sideline (with the single drawback of having to be pictured looking like the Bride of Dracula), does not pretend to any scientific credibility.

It could be argued that in such a publication as the News of The World a horoscope column does not actually lower the tone.

It is more disturbing that in recent years even what used to be called the broadsheet press has acquired these purveyors of rank superstition. In 1992 The Sunday Times, presumably out of a desire to capture readers from the tabloid market, took on Shelley Von Strunckel, who also appears in such respectable publications as the London Evening Standard and Vogue. I once asked Ms Strunckel to lunch, in part because I was fascinated by her fabulous name.

It was clear to me that she does genuinely believe in her predictive powers; once, she was provoked to send a critic, at the end of 1999-2000, her forecasts for the start of that year. As Simon Hoggart reported: "She had marked for my benefit her top prophecy: 'President Clinton will continue to skate on thin ice.' Even I could have figured that one out without the help of the planets."

This example shows the newspaper astrologist's true art: he or she specialises in making predictions or giving pieces of advice in so vague a manner that it would be impossible to tell whether they are valid or not. "Don't make the mistake of thinking that, because previously tricky situations are suddenly going smoothly, you're in for a trouble-free run" is a classic Strunckelism.

This is one of the reasons why astrology can be dismissed as non-science. It fails the falsifiability test. That test, devised by the naturalised British philosopher Sir Karl Popper, observed that a truly scientific hypothesis had to be falsifiable: that is, it must be possible to discover whether it could be false. The "predictions" of the newspaper astrologers are carefully constructed to avoid exactly such an outcome; otherwise the suckers - or readers, as they are sometimes described--would begin to question their favourite astrologer's veracity.

What this means is that the predictions under each and every star sign are equally applicable to all readers, regardless of their date of birth. In a way, this must be the outcome. Since it is not only inherently absurd, but has also been demonstrated to be wrong in exhaustive studies that all birth "twins" have identical characteristics, any other approach by astrologers would be commercially doomed.

When I became the editor of a national newspaper I realised a long-held ambition - to publish a spoof astrology column. It went under the byline of Psychic Smith. "Psychic", as he was fondly known in the office, regularly ridiculed the vague predictions of his "so-called rivals", especially Neil Spencer of the supposedly high-minded Observer. Hence the following appeared one week under "Taurus": "Are you a lover or a fighter?" asked Observer stars man Neil 'Clever Chops' Spencer under Taurus recently. Come on, Clever Chops: get off the fence and earn your money! Either that or walk away. What's it to be?" One of my favourite Psychic entries was for "Scorpio" one week in 1988: "My apologies to all Scorpios for last week's misprint, the result of a transcription error. The entry should have read 'fantastic luck ahead' and not as it appeared. Thank you for all those who wrote in. Both the offended and the disappointed."

Richard Dawkins, who is the closest thing we have in modern Britain to a witchfinder general, would probably regard Psychic Smith as insufficiently serious in its contempt for astrologers. He has written that all astrologers should be "jailed for fraud" - presumably after a fair trial. It is true that they can do harm: Jonathan Cainer, who makes improbable sums out of premium-rate phone lines linked to his Daily Mail horoscope, once admitted that a former reader had committed suicide after being told: "If you've got something big in your life go ahead and do it today." And they did it. They killed themselves.

Mr Cainer said he had learnt from this: "Ever since, one of the many filters I put a horoscope through is a 'top yourself' filter." He went on to observe: "Some of my readers are having a crap time and as an astrologer I know this because I study the cycle of crap times."

"Crap" just about sums up the whole business.

d.lawson@independent.co.uk

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