Horror scoped

By Phil Plait | January 22, 2011 7:00 am

The wonderful website Information is Beautiful does terrific work taking interesting data and turning into easy-to-grasp information. They recently turned their attention to astrology — guess why — and did something truly cool: made a word cloud of the most commonly used terms in horoscopes. The sample was pretty big, comprising 22,000 horoscopes taken from Yahoo (which itself got them from astrology.com). Here’s what they found:

Heh. Note that the common words appear over and over again in all the horoscopes despite the sign. Feel, keep, life, sure, energy, better, and of course love… you see these in all the signs. Why, it’s almost as if the signs make no difference!

And what I found more interesting is what you don’t see: words with significantly different descriptive power. If different signs tend to describe different personalities, why don’t I see unique words like angry, powerful, extroverted, introverted, and so on? They scraped the most commonly used unique words for every sign, and they’re really not very predictive (scroll down to the Word Analysis 2 section on the Information Is Beautiful page to see). Again, it’s almost as if astrology isn’t really terribly descriptive of different people.

Whenever I write about astrology, I get comments from astrologers (and believers) who say that the type of astrology I’m describing is wrong, but their type, of course, is accurate. But these horoscopes were supplied by astrology.com, which claims to describe various types of astrology.

Of course, this is also the website that features "Heather the Cosmos Gal" who wrote about the recent sign mix-up, "…try not to worry too much right now about what scientists are saying."

Hmph.

She also mentioned that we get our zodiac signs from the Greeks, not the Babylonians; however, even if true it doesn’t change anything! The constellations have still drifted since that time, and the problem with star sign astrology remains. Well, all the problems still remain. By the way, if she looks familiar, it may be because she’s the same one who achieved internet infamy a couple of years back when she was filming the daily horoscope but somehow didn’t manage to predict an earthquake hitting while she was on camera! You’d think her horoscope might’ve predicted that.

Now, I suppose you could argue that by collating so many different horoscopes cast for so many different types of people it’s not surprising the predictive power, if any, were diminished. But the folks at Information Is Beautiful took the most common words and created a metahoroscope:

That sure sounds a lot like every horoscope I see!


Related posts:

- Wacky astrologer is wacky
- Mike Adams fails again: astrology edition
- Astrologers jump on Cox
- Dear media: Hello, it’s me, science


CATEGORIZED UNDER: Antiscience, Debunking, Humor, Skepticism
MORE ABOUT: astrology

Comments (63)

Links to this Post

  1. Astrologers keep feeling sure « Cubik's Rube | January 24, 2011
  1. Sir Chaos

    I predict that believers are not going to agree with you. It´s written in the stars.

  2. Ricky

    I’m sure I feel better already. It must be working :)

  3. sHx

    Visited astrology.com for the first time. (Thanks, Phil!) My impressions?

    Well, the dominant colours on their page are light turquoise (calm, serenity, sophistication and femininity) and pink (love and romance).

    They may not be scientists but they do know something about the demographics of their consumers.

  4. Sili

    Why, it’s almost as if the signs make no difference!

    Given that they’re averaging over a whole year, that’s hardly surprising. Not even astrologers claim that one’s life is unaltered in the course of a year. In fact, given their insistence on the planets affecting life, it’d be damn odd if life didn’t ebb and flow with the yearly movement of the planets.

    Not that that doesn’t mean Astrology isn’t still bunk.

  5. Everything of value we possess – starting with independent thought, privacy, and an evolving future – traces back to the serpent and his pomegranate in Eden. Ophiuchus! Ouroboros! Ophiuchus! Ouroboros! Ophiuchus! Ouroboros! Ophiuchus!

  6. PayasYouStargaze

    Hi Phil, have you seen the Astrological Association of Great Britain’s little petition against the BBC for something Brian Cox said on a recent programme.

    http://www.astrologicalassociation.com/pages/bbc/submit.php

    Dara O’Briain’s twitter has suggested filling it with the name Astrologyis Myarse.

  7. After 51 years of being a Gemini, I have suddenly been demoted to a Taurus. Oh, the humiliation!

    Seriously, though, I couldn’t care less. Phil is right: Astrology is 100% utter and complete nonsense.

  8. Daniel J. Andrews

    The metahoroscope sounds a bit like the Desiderata. Family, friends matter. Enjoy everything. Help others, talk to others, this too will pass, etc. Personally, I rather like the National Lampoon’s Deteriorata more.

    youtube.com/watch?v=D1NAwlepnSs

  9. Alan D

    John Sherffius has an excellent summary…
    http://www.creators.com/editorialcartoons/john-sherffius/18392.html

    Clear skies, Alan

  10. Chuck, with me it is 59 years. Oh, the vexation to learn that my belief (well, actually it wasn’t) that I was a twin is just a bunch of bull. And to think that astronomers, those pesky scientists, have known this all along, is just appalling! (;^}

    Gemini or Taurus, crap by another other name will still be crap.

  11. J23

    Heh, that meta-horoscope (metaoroscope?) sounds convincing enough that it makes me want to try James Randi’s horoscope experiment again, and seeing how many people think the metascope applies to them….though I suppose if they buy it as a real horoscope believers might claim it has the magic chi energy of all the horoscopes put together to make it…or something, but some people just don’t care about the truth. They just want some comforting BS to believe in…

  12. Helmut

    Actually, after reading a couple articles on astrology.com, it sounds like they know what they’re doing.
    Heather the Cosmos Gal

    If you’ve been reading your rising sign like me, and it works, continue that. If you feel your “new” zodiac sign coincides more. You just may even want to give that a whirl! Astrology is a psuedoscience, and by most people, it is more often than not, a guidance to follow that’s FUN!

    Kay Taylor

    Each astrologer has already chosen whether we prefer to use (and believe in the results of) the sidereal zodiac or the tropical zodiac — although I know a few straddling types who like to look at both. The sidereal zodiac is where the the constellations of stars really are so naturally this is what the astronomers study. Vedic astrology is based on this system. I like the western tropical system. It works for me. It resonates with the clients I talk to.

    and

    There is a very great difference in qualities between a Cancer and a Leo, or a Sagittarius and a Capricorn. But when we look at the whole chart, often there are mediating factors. Your Sun might have moved back into a grounded, earthy sign, yet your earthy moon has moved back to fire. It’s like musical chairs, and the whole chart taken together can often seem at least sort of true in either system.

    They both have some mumbo-jumbo about energies as a cause, but ultimately agree that the effects aren’t deterministic.

  13. chris is texas

    So my horoscope is 2000 years out of date!?

    I knew I had terrible timing but really…my horoscope never said anything about this.

  14. mike burkhart

    One thing about forturne tellers is they never seem to predict bad news.No one would pay if they said:I see that in 5 years you will be broke.They will only pay if you say :In 5 years you will be very rich.

  15. Nathan

    I love how Information is Beautiful will include the Python code so if you want to reproduce their results, you can. Thanks, Phil!

  16. Other Paul

    PayasYouStargaze – I thought I’d take the Astrological Association of Great Britain’s petition template and – since they encourage you to modify it yourself – took them up on their generous offer. So, here’s the reworded meat of it.

    RE: Wonders of the Solar System, 28th March 2010 and Stargazing Live, 3rd January 2100

    Dear Secretary

    I would like to take this opportunity to express my support for the BBC in allowing the entirely appropriate ridiculing of astrology by Professor Brian Cox and Dara O’Briain, aired during the programme Stargazing Live on the 3rd January 2011.

    Their comments were a fair and reasonable dismissal of the twaddle to be found in astrology and I would request that that the BBC ignore any calls for public apologies. Indeed I’d welcome a statement that they do not regard the claims of Professor Brian Cox or Dara O’Briain on the subject of astrology as being merely personal matters of opinion with no more weight than anyone else’s, but instead back them as being simply the general, impersonal, global consensus of the scientific and rational community that they actually are. I would also request that the BBC commit to making the very idea of fair and balanced representations of unprovable assertions such as those found in astrology a ludicrous imposition by the scientifically illiterate in this, the 21st century.

  17. mike burkhart

    Off topic Phil will find this interesting: A survey by US Catholic magazine about Catholics and Science shows: 95% accept evolution,93% feel evolution should be taught in Catholic school science class and 95% feel that Religon and Science are compatible ways to look at ourselvs and the universe. I think this shows that Religon and Science don’t have to be enemies , both are compatble and a person can beleve in both.

  18. Thameron

    I am sure that the chance and temporary arrangement of enormous and unimaginably distant spheres of fusing plasma as well as the more local (but still very distant) balls of rock and ice care very deeply about my emotional and financial success.

    Makes perfect sense really.

  19. Chief

    I ignore all the hype on the astrology bandwagon but having been born 2 months premature, I have to wonder what they would try to read for me being possible under two signs. I’m glad Phil has answers to this question and it turns out I’m equally “gifted” by the stars in either case. I examined the finding above and was surprised that the most common element of the astrologers mantra wasn’t obvious. ie. FEE.

  20. Sam H

    Interesting – Horoscopes all boil down just to the plain-ol-feel-good-Julia-Roberts-style-reckless-optimistic outlook on life! The things we do to find fulfillment in our day and age… :roll:

    Anyway, I know this is off-topic but in regards to the recent news on GL581g, if it’s existence is confirmed will any observatory currently on Earth or in it’s orbit be able to obtain the planet’s light (and thus deduce the chemistry of the atmosphere)? We already know the 581 system is not aligned for transits, which means the only way to block the star’s light is via coronagraph or interferometric nulling. This was the original purpose of the Terrestrial Planet Finder (which may never fly :( ), so in its absence is there anything we currently have capable of those methods? All I can think of is Keck in Hawaii, the ESO VLT in Chile, the LBTI, and possibly Hubble, Spitzer and the JWST. Phil, what do you think?

  21. Tom

    Could someone dig out the horoscopes from any New York newspapers for Sept 11, 2001? I want to see if there is ANYTHING in them about fire, death and destruction, or even if they just say ‘today will be a bad day for you’

  22. Other Paul, your letter is pure win! I think I shall follow your lead even though I didn’t see the programme in question.

  23. Martha

    If the BBC has to give astrology equal time in the name of balance then they should also interview a flat earther whenever an astronomer mentions that the Earth is round.

  24. It’s a shame that Bad Astronomy resorts to Bad Statistics here. Because you believe the conclusion (“Astrology is bunk”) you lower your standards for the assessing the study.

    Obviously the most common words in any text are not going to words that mean a great deal. When Google analyzes a page to find out what it’s about it, it drops those generic words.

    Here the words that crop up are a bit less generic than the stop words Google would mostly ignore like “how”, “but”, “therefore”. But considering that there is a shared subject matter and intent it’s not surprising that words like “feel” and “love” would crop up a lot.

    What went on here is like saying: “Analysis of a bunch of articles on Macs and PCs proves there are no differences between the two, because terms like mouse, click, program, menu, and user crop as the most frequent words in both of set of articles”.

    Now I’m not not saying that astrology is not bunk.

    But I am saying you passed over sloppy work without exercising critical thinking because you liked the findings. Which is what leads people to Bad Conclusions in all fields.

  25. Bart

    “If different signs tend to describe different personalities, why don’t I see unique words like angry, powerful, extroverted, introverted, and so on?”

    That in particular isn’t surprising; daily horoscopes mostly describe events, not personalities. You’d have to word-cloud a different subset of astrological silliness to expose those anthropomorphims.

  26. lydia

    I saw this on McCandless’s blog, and I’m confused about the data.

    This project scrapes DAILY horoscopes for text, right? If there are differences among the signs, and these differences predict events on a daily basis, you would expect that averaging them across time would yield similar words across the horoscope. An analogy: if you took weather predictions for two cities with similar climates and make a word cloud of the words used in those predictions OVER THE COURSE OF A YEAR, you would find a lot of similarity. This doesn’t mean that meteorology doesn’t work, or that there aren’t differences between those cities. Just that the things that weather reports are meant to predict (e.g. rain, sunny, temperature) are things that occur in both cities.

    Note: OBVIOUSLY astrology is crap. I in no way intend to defend astrology. I just don’t see how this pretty picture has any bearing on the crapness of astrology.

  27. thetentman

    Of course when anyone asks what sign I am I tell them that I am a ‘Feces’. Most don’t get it thinking I meant Pisces. “No” I tell them ” I was born under the sign of the outhouse.”

  28. andy

    Talking of various kinds of astronomy-related woo, check out this recent Space.com article on religion and astronomy

  29. Charlene

    The problem is, this article (which has been circulating everywhere) doesn’t actually debunk anything. You could take twelve articles from the eminently reputable emedicine.com and find the same repetition of word use. (Also, many of the horoscopes on astrology.com come from newspapers and were generally originally written by the paper’s intern off the top of his or her head.)

    Astrology is bunk, but this proves nothing.

  30. Naomi

    Oh, huh! I’m apparently no longer a Sagittarius. Well, that’s good, Sagittarius didn’t even remotely fit me.

    …Now I’m a Scorpio. Which also doesn’t fit me. At all.

    Actually, I once found a list of keywords attributed to different zodiac signs, bolded the ones that fit me, left the ones that SORT of fit, and struck out the ones that didn’t fit me at all. Turns out, I have very few traits for Sag and Scorp (despite those two being the most prominant on my chart), and I’m most similar to Taurus and Virgo (which aren’t on my chart at all).

    It’s almost like astrology is completely arbitrary! :o

  31. While I am not a believer in horoscopes, I don’t think this cloud proves anything. Your daily horoscope usually discusses how you “feel”, tells you to be “sure” and do or avoid something, often addresses “love”, “life” and things are always getting “better”. Energy” is one of those words that, despite having a specific meaning, has become vague in pop culture and so is often used in horoscopes. Basically those are words that not unique to a particular sign because they are universal in the areas of life that all horoscopes pretend to predict.

    I think it would far more interesting to see the clouds of personality descriptions for those signs to see the overlap of descriptive words. That is where people are often caught off guard. Read someone the “wrong” sign horoscope personality description and tell them its theirs. They will happily claim more than 50% of the traits.

  32. Agustín

    Great article, as usual, Phil.
    But… you are neglecting your cats… I have not seen a Caturday post for ages ;-)
    I am sort of addict to cats, sorry.

  33. Tobin Dax

    I agree with everyone who says that this word cloud itself is not sufficient. I would like to point out that the original article goes a little more in-depth by looking at two sets of commonly appearing words that are unique to each sign. That may not be enough to disprove anything, but it’s step in that direction.

  34. Joseph G
  35. pk_boomer

    Aw don’t be so hard on CosmosGal Phil… she’s cute!

  36. TheBlackCat

    @ philipy: did you read the article? Because the do exactly the analysis you suggest.

  37. TheBlackCat

    If they have python why the heck are they using a CSV file? It took me all of about 10 seconds to find a python module that can exclude irrelevant words, and the rest can be done easily in python.

  38. DLC

    I think it was Isaac Asimov who lamented that there were some 22 magazines about Astrology and only 2 on Astronomy. He was right.
    Oh, and :
    Don’t forget to take your Homeopathic Pills on 10 23.

  39. sHx

    CosmosGal is a such a gorgeous girl that I can’t help but believe in astrology.

  40. sHx

    The astronomy of Phil Plait is old hat. I’d much prefer to go with the sexy boots of Astrologers, since they are the ones that set the trends.

    See why here:
    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/2010/12/15/comic-takedown-of-global-warming-denial/

  41. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ ^ sHx : Well, I don’t believe in astrology but I do belive in gorgeous girls! ;-)

    @1. Sir Chaos :

    I predict that believers are not going to agree with you. It´s written in the stars.

    Or human nature more like! ;-)

    @32. Agustín :

    Great article, as usual, Phil. But… you are neglecting your cats… I have not seen a Caturday post for ages. I am sort of addict to cats, sorry.

    Seconded by me. No need to apologise either. :-)

  42. sHx

    Now now, MTU! You may like gorgeous girls but you don’t get to bite the cherry without bending a knee.

    BTW, have you read Cosmos Gal’s latest article?

    “It’s probably no coincidence that three of my exes are now trying to befriend me on Facebook all in the same week. I’m a Water Bearer, of course, and with the love planet lounging out in my 11th house of friends, this makes complete sense to me!”

    The competition is intense. And all because she is an Aquarius.

  43. Diederick

    Hi Phil,

    I really hate to go off-topic here, but I use a feed reader to read your (awesome) blog, which is very convenient. Since a few days however the feed only has the first few paragraphs of every post, so I have to click and load the actual page to read it all. Could you please correct this, or is this something Discover magazine is in charge of?

  44. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ 42. sHx : And all because she is an Aquarius.

    All because she’s gorgeous you mean! ;-)

    As a mere male, I know a gorgeous girl can be forgiven almost anything. ;-)

    As for “cherry” .. nah, I’m NOT going there! ;-)

  45. sHx

    Re: “cherry”

    According to the urban dictionary, that’s a bad joke. Sorry. As Big Arnie would say, “Arrrgh! My English!”

    Cosmos Gal, of course, couldn’t possibly have any cherry left to bite. But she’s gorgeous. I wish she were my facebook friend, too.

    Indeed, I’d be delighted to free fall into her arms, without any possibility ever of bouncing off her bosom.

    Did I say she is a great astrologer, too? And that I am really interested in her mind? Just because I don’t use similies doesn’t mean I am serious. :)

  46. mike burkhart

    21 Tom ,No Astrolger predicted 9/11 but all of them claimed after the attacks that they did .This is the way they opperate ,it’s only after a major event they claim to have forseen it not before ,thats how they get people to beleve(,,or so they think).

  47. Gary Ansorge

    Astrology vs cold readings,,,eh, about the same.

    Gee, I wonder, if I’m no longer a Libran, does that mean I’m now slow, short and lacking in all charm?,,,and I guess I no longer have to seek balance,,,

    Astrology. Something for everyone , just not something that’s fraking real.

    Gary 7
    PS. “Wow! Reality. What a concept.”
    Thank you, Steven Wright,,,

  48. Steve

    Reminds me of all the SPAM I get offering me free ‘palm readings’ or ‘astrological forecast’…. if their talents really work, wouldn’t they know I won’t respond?

  49. Bianca

    I think astrology is a funny thing. I don’t care if it is considered a pseudoscience or not.
    The article is pointless. The predictions are almost the same for all signs because there are the same planets and possible relative positions between them!

  50. Keith Bowden

    @Gary 7 – Not to take away from the comedy of Steven Wright, but “Reality, What a Concept” is from Robin Williams (1979 album of that name). :)

  51. Keith Bowden

    “I guess I wouldn’t believe in anything anymore if it weren’t for my Lucky Astrology Mood Watch.” – Steve Martin

  52. Tom Cowell

    Heather the Cosmos Gal does not know what “in lieu” means.

    Cheers
    Tom

  53. Nigel Depledge

    @ Other Paul (16) -
    WIN!

    Where do I sign up?

  54. Nigel Depledge

    Bianca (50) said:

    I think astrology is a funny thing.

    What, you think it’s funny that people demand money for making stuff up and pretending it’s real?

    I don’t care if it is considered a pseudoscience or not.

    It’s not a question of what it is considered to be – it’s a question of whether or not it does what it claims. And astrology really doesn’t do what it claims.

    The article is pointless.

    Why?

    The predictions are almost the same for all signs because there are the same planets and possible relative positions between them!

    Nope. The predictions are almost the same for all signs because astrologers just recycle the same words over and over again. The predictions of actual astrologers are almost the same for all signs – you only have to look in half a dozen newspapers on the same day, or the same newspaper several times over the course of a month to see this.

  55. Lila

    I LOVE this website. Awesome. Thanks Phil.

  56. Gunnar

    Unfortunately, astrology has one frustrating advantage that is quite difficult to overcome. The late Isaac Asimov, perhaps, stated it best. “The advantage of mysticiscm is that having no logical content to begin with, it cannot be further damaged by any further increase in nonsense–no matter how great.”

    I wonder, though–when Cosmos Gal admitted that astrology was a pseudoscience, was she also admitting that it is all bunk, or was she implying that pseudoscience deserves to be seriously considered as equal or superior to real science as a valid source of truth?

  57. Gary Ansorge

    51. Keith Bowden

    Oops! Bit bucket overflow error,,,

    Thanks!(for the memory)

    Gary 7

  58. WJM

    Well, they obviously did this wrong, because I’m an Ophiuchus now, and they don’t even have Ophiuchus on their thingie. Us Ophiachans can see through methodological errors like that, what with our attention to detail and all.

  59. Merle

    John Paradox wrote: I remember years ago, I read an astrology book that insisted that there should be 14 (?) signs, adding both Ophiuchus and Cetus, The Whale.

    Don’t tell anybody… but yes. according to the Starry Night planetarium software I use, the Sun grazes Cetus for about 13.5 hours on March 27th – 28th each year. The Sun is also VERY close to Orion on June 19-21 (less than the moons diameter). According to the software, by 4300AD the Sun will begin grazing Orion and around 6500AD the Sun will be “officially” within the constellation Orion between Aug. 18 – 21. Now, by that time, Polaris would have long since vacated the north celestial pole and will reside nearly 24 degrees from it’s current prominent position. I’d love to be around when the 15 signs of the zodiac are “announced”

    Now, from the “devil’s advocate” position… simply change the constellation boundaries and it will be 12 zodiac constellations forever.

    Clear Skies,
Merle

  60. Once, when working for a magazine and writing the scientific column, the astrologer lady quit and I was asked to write temporary her column too. I accepted and I have used exclusively
    my imagination to compose the daily horroscopes. Nobody has observed the change from professional astrology to a fake one- the number of readers raised. All I had to take care was
    to respect a specific Pareto Rule: 80% positive predictions, 20% slightly bad, nothing really bad.
    Astrology is actually the most stupid shortcut to the Interestingness of the world, see please
    my paper “My favorite I-word” in my blog http://egooutpeters.blogspot.com
    But it is an excellent business.

  61. Brian Too

    Experimental proposal for the astrologers:

    Have the clients describe their personalities, then have the astrologers predict their sign. Hypothesis: The astrologers will do no better than random chance.

    Meta-prediction: Only the most flawed, profoundly broken astrologers will accept the experiment. If the astrologer wins they earn nothing. If astrologer loses they earn nothing. The experiment only appeals to people who are not in the astrologers target market!

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