“A lie can stride seven times around the world, while the truth is still putting on its boots.”
This old “13 misaligned astrological signs” hoax is still being reported in the mainstream news media. Touted as sensational news, it relies on omitting details and fudging facts that have been known by astrologers for more than 2,000 years.
This time the big lie re-surfaced in an article on the new BBC iWonder information site entitled “Which Stars were you really born under?” As the ‘astounding’ news spread virally around the world, the story inflated. Le Monde in France excelled itself by declaring “Les signs astrologiques sont faux” – the Signs of the Zodiac are bogus.
The BBC article starts out with the claim that in the UK “86% of us were actually born under a different constellation to our star sign.” It then attempts to explain precession of the equinoxes. This is accompanied by an interactive table where you can discover your ‘correct sign’ from your date of birth. Finally, it dramatically reveals that “The astronomical zodiac actually contains 13 star signs – the 12 that we’re familiar with plus another one, called Ophiuchus.”
Confusion between Signs and Constellations
The BBC made one correction after astrologer Deborah Houlding was able to show that Ptolemy was aware of precession when the Zodiac, as we know it, was formulated.
However, the article still fails to mention the key fact that western astrologers do not use the constellations as markers – and with sound reason. The stars were and are moving out of alignment with the seasons. For over 1,800 years western astrologers have used the Tropical Zodiac, while Hindu/Vedic astrologers used a Sidereal (star based) Zodiac. The Tropical Zodiac starts from the 0° Aries point marked by the position of the Sun at the March Equinox and divides the annual path of the sign into twelve 30 degree signs. It was firmly established by Claudius Ptolemy, a founding father of astronomy and astrology, in the second century AD. It was never intended to be tied to the constellations – other than the legacy of the same or similar Latin names. So since western astrology jettisoned the stars aeons ago, the constellation of Ophiuchus is totally irrelevant. For a more detailed explanation read Diana Rosenburg’s article Tyson’s Zodiac. Are there really 14 Signs? published by ANS.
So from the time of the Roman Empire, the Tropical Zodiac has been used by astronomers, navigators and astrologers. By the end of the 18th century, astronomers modified the technique to record planetary positions by celestial latitude, and dropped the additional internal demarcation of the twelve signs. This became known as the Ecliptic Coordinate system. When writing astrology software, I use the same absolute latitude to calculate planetary positions and then simply convert the data into degrees and minutes within signs. Since the advent of clock-driven telescopes astronomers locate stars in right ascension and declination using the Equatorial Coordinate System. However, the Tropical Zodiac remains a universal and accurate measuring system for planets.
So the names of the signs and the constellations are homonyms. Most are spelled the same and sound the same, but they mean different things. Why is that so hard to understand? To conflate the two is like claiming that because Fahrenheit temperatures differ from Centigrade, one must be wrong. Is an Imperial gallon more accurate than a US gallon? Is Rock Music about rocks? Pretty crazy – huh?
This misunderstanding is perpetuated because a few popular British newspapers print “Star Sign” columns even though astrologers know they mean Sun Signs. Well, … more correctly, the sign of the tropical zodiac where the sun was located at the time of birth. Ok, it’s a mouthful, and like precession this cuts no ice with the press who want to excite their readers with snappy headings. Why let truth and accuracy come in the way of a good story?
The BBC article tries to play on this celestial misnomer. Even so, it still manages to get it wrong with terms like your ‘astronomical star sign’ and announces that there is a new sign on the ‘astronomical zodiac’. Is it claiming that the astronomers from the IAU are reading “star signs” to advise people on their lives to raise money for another ultra large telescope? No western astrologer claims that someone is ‘born under a constellation’ or ‘born under stars’.
In the accompanying video, astronomer Dr Radmila Topalovic, Astronomy Programmes Officer at the Royal Observatory (Museum) in Greenwich states, “Let’s say you were born towards the end of January, the sun should be in the constellation of Aquarius.” Who says this? No one – the sun should be where the sun is. In late January, the Sun is currently moving through the constellation of Capricorn and in the sign of Aquarius. It’s astronomy101.
Why did this old hoax resurface?
So how is it that this old hoax keeps coming up and the media unquestioningly recycles it as news? Astrologers try hard to explain the difference between the signs of the tropical zodiac and the constellations. Why is our message not getting through?
Perhaps the answer lies in the author of the BBC article. It was written not by an astronomer, nor by an astrologer – not even by a scientist, but by an Irish comedian, Dara O’Briain. Surely not? Well, lurking in the background is astronomer Professor Brian Cox. The two co-host a BBC astronomy series entitled The Sky at Night.
Cox has already had a few run-ins with astrologers after his famous assertion that “astrology is rubbish” in his BBC educational series, Wonders of the Universe. Many people complained and the BBC was good enough to make an apology saying the comments were the views of Professor Cox and not the BBC. Cox has yet to present any plausible argument or evidence that he has investigated astrology. Evidently, he knows zilch about astrology, but since Cox hasn’t stepped in to correct his mate Dara, he too may be ignorant of the history of astronomy. Or are the two of them being disingenuous and the BBC is being played to indulge Cox’s personal prejudice? The BBC has a history of making people into stars and then pandering to their inflated egos until it reaches a crisis point. Think of the recent ‘Top Gear’ fracas or look it up on the web
Even skeptics consider the use of precession as an argument against astrology is a straw man fallacy as it attempts to refute a principle to which astrologers don’t subscribe. To make this phony case, this BBC article misrepresents astrologers, introduces false and misleading claims, covers up key points and redacts the history of science.
Shame on all those involved in this hoax! It lets down all scientists, genuine sceptics, historians, astrologers and the public who, regrettably, increasingly distrust the claims of scientists and question their funding.
So what’s the take away from this? Signs are not constellations. Your sign (Sun Sign) has not changed; and for future generations it will not change unless the Earth alters its orbital tilt and path around the Sun. And that’s an unlikely scenario over the next few billion years.
Note: The quote “A lie can stride seven times around the world, while the truth is still putting on its boots.” is often attributed to Mark Twain, though the originator was C.H. Spurgeon in 1859.
For a more detailed explanation of the Tropical Zodiac and this debate:
Diana Rosenburg (2011) Tyson’s Zodiac. Are there really 14 Signs? Astrology News Service
Darin Hayton (2011) Science Historian Questions Need to Ridicule Astrology Astrology News Service
Deborah Houlding (2015) Understanding the Zodiac. And Why there REALLY are 12 signs, not 13.
Robert Currey (2015) Are the Signs of the Zodiac Wrong? Is Ophiuchus the 13th sign?