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Oh My Stars


Dear Skeptic, Part Two: Please Curb Your Dogma

posted by Matthew Currie

(Part One is HERE)

Last time, I voiced some objections to the James Randi Educational Foundation’s booklet “Astrology: Superstition Or Science?” For those of you who have an appetite for extensive detail, here are my notes on it. If you recognize the value of astrology, you should really see what these folks are saying about you. For the rest of you: my apologies for the necessarily long-winded digression. We’ll get back to your regularly-scheduled astrology next time.

If you want to play along at home, feel free to download a copy of the booklet I’m talking about HERE.

Since the stated purpose of JREF is to encourage “critical thinking,” I applied some to the booklet in question and discovered errors on pretty much every page. If anyone from JREF is reading this, and since I think critical thinking is awesome, I hereby volunteer this blog entry as an addendum to your booklet, because re-writing your text to take out the errors would leave two blank pages for notes and a couple of reproductions of old woodcuts… unless of course the whole point of the booklet was to have students do a little research on their own and figure out how riddled with faulty thinking, misleading statements, and outright untruths your whole booklet is.

 

***

 

Page 1: Hey, who wrote this thing? When I was in school all our textbooks had an author or an editor or someone who got credit. Not knowing who wrote this doesn’t make it invalid, but it seems bad form not crediting the author. As a writer myself, I’m sensitive to that sort of thing.

beliefnet astrology matthew titian woodcut

Human anatomy doesn’t required Venice in the background. Ha! Debunked!

Page 2: Yes, when it comes to astrological rulerships of the body parts, that’s roughly how it works. But your usage of the term “fanciful” seems a bit disparaging. Woodcuts like this were hand-made by artists, and they tended to be a little… well, fanciful. Nobody slapped together a PowerPoint Presentation from clip art back then. As an example, over to the left I’ve included a woodcut by Titian from a few centuries earlier showing the muscles of the body. It’s pretty fanciful too (what is that in the background, Venice?) but being “fanciful”  doesn’t make it inaccurate.

Question For The Class: Does the age of a visual representation necessarily dismiss the validity of the information being presented? Does misleading information become any more “true” when presented in a neatly desktop-published form?  Discuss.

Now that we’re done with the nitpicking, let’s move on to the stuff that’s really worthy of our skepticism.

Page 3: Ah, The Million Dollar Challenge. For those of you not familiar with it, that’s the challenge to provide proof of the paranormal that no one ever wins because JREF sets ridiculous standards, then moves the bar when you achieve them anyway. Are you guys looking for donations from high school students? Good luck with that. Even the classes I enjoyed in high school never prompted me to mail twenty bucks to Dr. Erno Lampert for his excellent work promoting geography, or whatever. Of course, being a non-profit, I can understand why you’re asking for money.

Question For The Class: Dennis Rawlins, a former associate of James Randi, quoted James Randi as saying “I always have an out” when it comes to not paying off the Million Dollar Challenge. Randi countered by saying his full quote was actually  “Concerning the challenge, I always have an ‘out': I’m right!” Does either version of the statement indicate a pre-existing bias on the part of James Randi? Discuss.

Page 4: Nice wood cut. No objections here.

Page 5: “Astrology is one of the oldest thinking errors of our species.” Well, there goes “critical thinking.” But in all fairness, I realize you guys have a horse in this race and you’re going to back it, just like I do.

“Astrology, though thoroughly debunked in so many ways, still attracts a large fraction of our planet’s people, unfortunately. But don’t just accept my word for it. Here you can have a really scientific method by which you, yourself, can examine the evidence about astrology and arrive at your own conclusions.”

What, no “Is it all a crock, or could there be some truth to it?” at the beginning like so many badly-written “documentaries” on The History Channel about the paranormal, that always conclude with something like “well, there you go, figure it out for yourself?” Where’s the encouragement of critical thinking skills here? Perhaps JREF should branch out into Film Criticism: “Citizen Kane actually sucks, but don’t take our word for it… here’s a list we assembled of all the reasons it sucks, so we could spare you actually having to watch a sucky movie like Citizen Kane, because it sucks. You’re welcome.”

Page 6: “Astrology started with calculations and observations, then filled the gaps with assumptions of the supernatural.” Now, are you saying that there’s no way an astrologer could have used observation to come to any of their conclusions, or are you just assuming that if it isn’t astronomy, it’s superstition? Or are you simply decrying the human urge to say “God knows”? Isn’t this an example of  you making some dodgy assumptions about who’s making dodgy assumptions?

Page 7: No complaints here. Nice woodcut.

Page 8: “Do you think it would be fair to judge someone based on his or her zodiac sign? If it is not okay to refuse to hire someone because of their gender or race, is it okay to refuse to hire them because of their sign? Why or why not?”

Well, um, okay. Obviously that wouldn’t be fair. But I haven’t heard of whole lot of people who’d refuse to hire a well-qualified Leo because of their Sun Sign, or whatever, but I’ve heard there’s a whole lot of people who wouldn’t hire a well-qualified Asian or Mormon or whatever because of their race or religion. It seems to me that what you’re actually complaining about here is bigotry, not astrology.

Question For The Class: According to a Gallup Poll, about 9 in 10 Americans believe in God in some form or another. How many people who work for The James Randi Educational Foundation believe in God, and if that figure is less than about 90%, does that represent a form of bigotry on the part of JREF, or is it merely a statistical anomaly? Discuss.

Student exercise: Name three forms of bigotry that have nothing to do with astrology. Do you think the forms of bigotry you named are more of a problem, less of a problem, or the same size of a problem as Sun Sign bigotry?

Bonus Question: If your ancestors have been in the country three generations or less, ask a parent or grandparent if anyone discriminated against them because of that, or if they faced discrimination because of their Sun Sign.

Page 9: “Heliocentrism completely changed our view of the universe and our place in it. It left little room for astrology.”

Heliocentrism was an important intellectual leap. And yes, an astrological birth chart might make it look (at first) like astrologers think the Earth is at the center of the Universe. In fact, however, a birth chart looks like that because that was the perspective from Earth at the time of birth of the person in question.

Question For The Class: Imagine you are driving through Wyoming. Your road map shows Fremont County at the center. Does this imply that map-makers think Fremont County is the center of the Universe? Discuss.

Page 10: “More than 400 years ago, astrology was considered obsolete.”

Johannes Kepler was an astronomer and mathematician who lived in the 1600s (which was about 400 years ago, for those of you who don’t like math), who discovered the laws of planetary motion and laid much of the foundation for Sir Isaac Newton’s work on gravity.

Johannes_Kepler_horoscope

Read it and weep.

Pictured at right is an astrological birth chart drawn by Johannes Kepler.  We have on record two letters from Kepler discussing his family’s horoscopes and the astrological reasons for his son’s death. That was in 1611… two years after Kepler published his Astronomia Nova, which demonstrated how the planets orbit the Sun in elliptical orbits… thus confirming the validity of Heliocentrism. Surprise!

Question For The Class: Define “obsolete.”

“Hundreds of millions of dollars each year are spent consulting with astrologers in the United States alone.”

I know a lot of astrologers, and believe me, when we get together to discuss business we don’t congratulate ourselves on our wildly profitable cunning and bust out the top hats and monocles like capitalists in a 1930s editorial cartoon from Bolshevik Worker’s Weekly. Pretty much any form of work you can name is some combination of more lucrative and/or easier than being an astrologer.  If there’s Big Money to be had feeding people’s preconceptions back to them, I don’t personally know of any astrologers doing so.

Question For The Class: The James Randi Educational Foundation is a non-profit organization is funded through member contributions, grants, and conferences, runs a summer camp for skeptical kids, maintains a paid staff, and occasionally provides scholarships. Does the fact that JREF makes money off of its activities necessarily invalidate its member’s beliefs? Is there Big Money to be made feeding people’s preconceptions back to them?

Pages 10 and 11:  “Even before we test whether the descriptions and predictions astrologers make are accurate, we should evaluate the theory itself. Doing so brings up a number of problems.”

“Most astrologers cannot explain how astrology works. The few explanations proposed are not consistent with our current scientific understanding of the universe and its natural laws.”

Here’s the problem with that: you can develop a theory and then test it… but that doesn’t mean you can’t learn anything without a theory explaining how it should work out. That’s called “observation.” Most astrophysicists believe in the existence of “dark matter,” which is an unseen force or substance that determines how much of the Universe hangs together. Thus far, most theories and conjectures as to what “dark matter” actually is haven’t paid off in terms of actual results, despite lots of testing.

This doesn’t necessarily invalidate the concept of “dark matter.” The existence of something like it is implied, based on actual observations of how the Universe works. Not knowing what a thing is doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, or doesn’t work.

Question For The Class: Does not knowing exactly what “dark matter” is or how exactly it works mean that astrophysicists are superstitious or conning us?

cute kitten

Congratulations on having read this far! As your reward, here is a kitten.

Also Page 10: “All astrologers claim to make important predictions based on planetary positions. However, astrologers do not agree on which planetary positions cause specific traits or experiences. Whose system is correct, if any? Without a consistent set of rules about what the positions mean, predictions will not be consistent.”

Oh come on, guys: you really didn’t talk to any astrologers when you wrote this, did you? Can you folks name one of those planetary positions causing specific traits that astrologers disagree on? Personally I can… the same way different doctors can disagree on how much a factor heredity is on weight gain, for example. But you aren’t even trying now, are you?

Question For The Class: An astrologer asserts that members of The James Randi Educational Foundation regularly congratulate themselves on their cunning and bust out the top hats and monocles like capitalists in a 1930s editorial cartoon from Bolshevik Worker’s Weekly. If the astrologer in question doesn’t know anyone who is a member of JREF, what is that assertion based on?

Page 11: “Astrologers have only recently recalculated the dates and have added a 13th sign, Ophiuchus (o-FY-a-kus).”

Sadly, we now pass from faulty reasoning based preconceptions to actual untruth. No, we didn’t “just recently” rediscover precession, and no, astrologers did not just add a 13th Sign. Shame on you. Also: Most people don’t pronounce “Ophiuchus” that way either.

***

And oh my, it goes on and on and on well past my allotted word count for this blog (which I have already stretched to the breaking point) and we’re only on Page 11. I haven’t even gotten to the false equivalency on Page 12, the deceptive test results on Page 13, the phony take-down based on The Forer Effect on page 14, the stunning irony of the invocation of Confirmation Bias on Page 15, and the ridiculous misuse of Sun Sign Forecasts on Page 16 and 17 and 18.

Pages 19 and 20 are left blank for notes, and are thus the most honest pages in this entire booklet. Please note the lack of a page 21, citing your sources. It’s pretty obvious to me you don’t really have any… certainly none which know much about astrology, which is odd given that astrology is what you’re trying to debunk. I’d like to think that if I was trying to debunk your debunkery, I’d do some research… which of course, I did.

In conclusion: This.

(Finally, before you leave any of your “well if you’re so smart go get the James Randi Million Dollar Prize already” comments, please read THIS.)

 



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  • Anonymous

    You write: “Can you folks name one of those planetary positions causing specific traits that astrologers disagree on? Personally I can… the same way different doctors can disagree on how much a factor heredity is on weight gain, for example.” You are confused. Astrologers differing on planetary movement and charts would be like medical doctors differing on the locations of organs in the body or how the respiratory system works. And real doctors do not differ like that.

  • Anonymous

    Lol, I guess even idiot publicity is still publicity…

  • Anonymous

    I haven’t even read Randi’s booklet on astrology as I already have absolutely zero reason to think that there is any validity to astrology. I have read the actual studies myself and know the history of astrology.

    you state that the million dollar challenge is rigged BUT you also claim that you are not actually out to prove anything. See, here is my issue. We, meaning those of us who see no evidence to support the validity of astrology, are calling astrology bullshit. I, for one, would love to be proven wrong. I would love to live in a world where an old tradition that science has failed to explain turns out to be true. New mysteries to explore and solve are wonderful. Surely there is a forum where someone such as yourself can give an exhibition that will satisfy both you and someone like myself who does not believe but who is open minded and would love to be proven wrong?

    If you are going to call skeptics out, I just wish you would be willing to put up or shut up. For me, being a skeptic means doubting the truth of all claims without evidence. The greater the claims, the greater the evidence needs to be. Is that unreasonable?

  • spookiewon

    Do you accept money for astrological reading? Then you’re one of those charlatans you spoke of.

  • http://matthewtheastrologer.com/ mcurrie

    As for the whole matter of the Million Dollar Challenge… the problems with that have been well documented elsewhere. Since even my comments will end up in the spam filter if I try to post a link here, please feel free to Google “The Myth of the Million Dollar Challenge” on dailygrail dot com. It addresses the problems with the Challenge pretty thoroughly.

    Further: it wasn’t my intention to provide “proof” that astrology works… if you’ve spent much time looking into the matter, you’ll find that establishing “proof” to the satisfaction of most people who call themselves “skeptics” isn’t going to happen in one blog entry, any more than the average Creationist can be talked out of their beliefs by one blog entry debunking a Creation Science Institute student handout.

    My main purpose here was to point out that, in an attempt to “teach critical thinking skills” to students, there doesn’t appear to have been any actual research done on the author(s) part as to the subject being debunked.

    If you advertise yourself as a proponent of thrilling gladiatorial combat, you should do better than provide yourself with a Colosseum full of Straw Men to knock down, but that’s exactly what the booklet in question does.

  • http://matthewtheastrologer.com/ mcurrie

    Thank you for writing. I wasn’t able to contend with any of the facts he presented on Page 5 because, frankly, there aren’t any. Seriously. I’d honestly LOVE to be able to have a real discussion about the merits (or lack thereof) of astrology, but the way this particular booklet is presented, it’s pretty much impossible. The booklet doesn’t really start presenting facts until page 6… and that’s where the wheels really start falling off the wagon. I recommend downloading the thing and having a look for yourself.

    It seems pretty obvious that anything JREF produces to “encourage critical thinking” about astrology will be written by someone who has already made up their mind about it — just like if you read something meant to “encourage critical thinking” from the Creation Research Institute about evolution, you’d expect it to end with a dismissal of evolution. That’s pretty much a given. But imagine a 20 page booklet from the CRI that is a take-down of evolution based almost entirely on Piltdown Man, Nebraska Man, and the argument that “if humans evolved from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?” It would be enough to make anyone reasonably familiar with evolution begin to wonder if the CRI wasn’t deliberately leaving out facts, or at least never bothered to do any real research.

  • Anonymous

    As a skeptic, I also disagree with some of what Randi wrote and his tone (I haven’t read the booklet and I’m assuming he is not quoted outside of context). But I’ve opened this page with hopes of finding something to let me change my mind and at least increase my probability estimate of astrology working.

    In particular, on Page 5, although I agree with your comments, you did not comment the ‘facts’ he showed. Also no comment on the important claim against astrology that it loses all its properties in a blinded experiment – where the astrologist party cannot see any of the subjects, and then someone gives the information to the subjects in such manner that he won’t know which one corresponds to which subject (the subjects don’t know either).

    I agree that many skeptics lack critical thinking and that very often people like James Randi persuade them using dishonest methods. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean they are wrong, and sadly too many people just cannot arrive at the correct conclusions from the actual evidence.

  • http://Anonymous Anonymous

    test (sorry, this page doesn’t display well on Chrome)

  • Anonymous

    As a skeptic, I also disagree with

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  • Anonymous

    Wow…I am totally unswayed by your false equivalencies and flat arguments.

    Question for the class: How big of an axes does Mr. Currie have to grind with the JRF? Does this act make him look more foolish, or has his level of apparent foolishness remained unchanged.

  • Anonymous

    the rule for starting to investigate anything is to start with an open mind. Have questions but no pre judged answers. A skeptic is supposed to be able to start with the statement, “I do not know”.

  • Anonymous

    If the million dollar challenge is rigged, go in and document the process. Reveal to the world that JREF is fraudulent. After all, you have the facts on your side!!

  • Anonymous

    I don’t think I need to add anything here. Each point you make needs to have evidence provided so that the refutation can be considered and tested. Your diatribe is devoid of any such processes.

  • Anonymous

    I just wasted 10 minutes of my life…

  • http://Labelyourformfields-I'mguessingthisissubject? Kevin

    “you can develop a theory and then test it… but that doesn’t mean you can’t learn anything without a theory explaining how it should work out.”

    Astrologists claim to observe data (a correlation between positions of celestial objects and events on Earth). They also claim to predict future data.

    Data cannot predict future data. A theory, which is an explanation for data, can predict future data. If it can’t, it (or your data) is wrong.

    Observing the motion of objects in space gave astronomers data which their theories did not predict. Thus, either a theory, or their data, was wrong. Many scientists believe the data concerning what matter was present was wrong-that there was additional matter present which we could not see. They dubbed the unseen matter “dark matter.”

    Lack of an agreed-upon explanation does not disprove astrologists’ claimed observations. It disproves their claimed ability to predict future data.

    “Can you folks name one of those planetary positions causing specific traits that astrologers disagree on? Personally I can… the same way different doctors can disagree on how much a factor heredity is on weight gain, for example.”

    Any doctor would agree that, however you calculate the number (average across the population, precise impact for an individual, etc.), there can only be one correct answer, and anyone using any other number would make erroneous predictions.

    The value of a doctor, or any other specialist, is how much of the knowledge in his field he knows.

  • Josh

    I took a look at the “Conclusion” link, which leads to a page on 7 surprising facts that astrology really works. My favorite is this:

    Dr. Eugene Jonas sought to find a way to avoid unnecessary abortions, and came up with a startling finding (startling unless you were an astrologer, that is): fertility is affected by patterns in the mother’s birth chart relative to where the Sun and Moon are in the sky at any given time. Many people still swear by his methods of calculating fertility…

    Um…no. Its pretty well known that ovulation is a monthly cycle controlled by hormones interactions.

    The best thing these people could probably do for their case is just to keep their mouths shut.

  • Anonymous

    Well, I played along as requested in part 1 of the post, downloading and reading the resource from the JREF site, and tried to spot the errors that you had promised to reveal in part 2. When I couldn’t see any obvious errors, I followed your link to the post on “Eight Things That Skeptics of Astrology Don’t Get” in the hope of finding some clues, but all I found there were a series of refutations based on false equivalences, none of which seemed to address the points raised in the workbook.

    So it was with great interest that I began to read part 2 of your blog, in order to identify the errors I’d missed. However, it seems that what you meant by “errors” was in fact “points with which I disagree”. I don’t believe this is a valid use of the term. The basis of your objection to the points raised seems to be the same as the classic objection raised by Jim Carrey’s character in Liar Liar: “Because it’s devastating to my case.”

    I don’t have the time or space to address each of the points you raise, but there are a couple I can’t leave unchallenged.

    First, there’s the false equivalence you cite with respect to dark matter. This is almost exactly the opposite of the supposed phenomenon with which you hope to equate it. The existence of dark matter was not proposed on a whim; it is theorised based on observational data. The data identifies an observed effect inconsistent with previous models of the expansion of the universe, and so the theories are revised in line with the data. The “not knowing” is about the exact nature of dark matter, and therefore which of various competing models best describes the observed effect.

    In contrast, astrology starts from the claim that the relative positions of the sun, moon and planets at the time of a person’s birth can have an effect on that person’s personality and fortunes, despite a complete lack of any observational evidence to support this. In this case, the “not knowing” is not about the exact mechanism; it is about how there could even be a mechanism. Comparing it to dark matter is only valid if you first demonstrate that an effect exists, then if becomes valid to try to find ways in which that effect works.

    Secondly, there’s the issue you raise with the difficulty in achieving the standards for the million dollar challenge. The points raised in the linked article would be valid if the JREF were a casino, and the challenge were a game of chance. In this case, odds of a million to one would seem unfair. However, the challenge is not intended to be a game of chance, and the odds are not aimed at measuring statistical significance. Rather, they are a way of ensuring that an ability is actually demonstrated, not just the appearance of an ability due to a challenger having a lucky day. If, for example, I claim to have the ability to identify a playing card drawn at random from a deck and shown to me (not a particularly rare ability, I admit) then I should be able to perform this ability a thousand times in a row without fail, 100% of the time. However, if I were actually blind, and just guessed the cards, I might be expected by chance to be right a little under 2% of the time. If, under testing, I was found to be correct 3% of the time (say, thirty times out of the thousand) I could reasonably claim to have had a statistically significant result, such that in scientific terms further investigation would be justified. However, I could not reasonably claim to have demonstrated the ability to see the cards. Exactly the same principle should apply to anyone claiming a paranormal ability, such as being able to identify the cards by “clairvoyance” or “telepathy”.

  • TRIALNERROR

    Congratulations. You did a superlative job of reminding me why I reject unfalsifiable pseudo-science like astrology, homeopathy or acupuncture. I just spent half an hour combing through your writing trying to find anything to convince me that there is even a grain of empirical evidence supporting astrology. Nothing. Nothing nothing nothing. Well done.

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  • Anonymous

    I love how the author of this piece is all for critical thinking until his pet beliefs are the ones being put to scrutiny. That always seems to be the way. “Oh of course everyone knows ghosts aren’t real… But my beliefs. Those are spot on.” Skeptics don’t have an entrenched world view. If you state an opinion then they will ask for proof. If you are unable to provide repeatable independently confirmed proof, then your claim can reasonably be put in the untrue box.

  • Anonymous

    That’s a cute dissection of a leaflet but astrology is still bollocks.

  • Anonymous

    Is this supposed to be a refutation? All you’ve done is bitched and moaned, there is nothing that even begins to shed light on the evidence base nor even touch upon critiquing Randi’s approach. You said you haven’t even started on the test results on page 13, which you insist are faulty – why not start there, instead of spending ages on what, in internet slang, we’d call “butthurt”?

  • Anonymous

    Two blog entries from a butthurt astrologer who disapproves of the way reputable skeptics describe his trade. Business as usual.

  • Anonymous

    This is about the worst attempt at debunking a debunker I’ve ever read. It reminds me a lot of the childishness and pomposity of a creationists arguments against evolution. You literally just danced around each page’s topic like a jester without actually rebutting anything.

  • Anonymous

    What a tedious crock. Nothing in this supposed argument presents any reasonable retort to the JREF, nor does it deliver the slightest bit of evidence or reason for reconsidering astrology as anything but horsedump.

  • Diabalein

    Regarding dark matter, there is this little problem you fail to note, that is the evidence for the existence of something causing the universe to behave the way it does…unlike astrology.

  • Anonymous

    This is the most ridiculous critique ever, or should I say attempt of a critique

  • Anonymous

    If this guy were any dumber, he wouldn’t be able to leave his house without supervision. He did not prove one point, or show any facts. He simply repeated the booklet and said “discuss”.
    I can see why he makes no money at his “profession”.

  • Anonymous

    Other than picking apart the wording of the booklet, you provide absolutely no proof of your claims that astrology works.

    Is that because it is a “spiritual” thing, and in no way scientific (or indeed valid as anything other than entertainment)?

    I would have no problem with astrologers making their silly predictions on future events & describing personality traits based on the location of a planet or two on one’s birthday if it weren’t for the fact that so many people spend SO much money. Anyone who charges for this nonsense should hang their head in shame to be taking advantage of the weak-minded, superstitious people out there.

  • Dusty

    I thought you might have some interesting evidence-based rebuke to astrology, instead this is just a dismissal of the work of others. Extraordinary claims need extraordinary evidence to be believed. Astrology is certainly such a claim, but there’s no such evidence to back it up.

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