Rudolf Smit loved astronomy as a child, and now he loves astrology… but he no longer believes it’s real. There was a time when he was a full-time consulting astrologer and widely admired astrology author. Founder of the Society of Practising Astrologers in the Netherlands and deeply passionate about a belief he found quite beautiful, Smit authored an astrology handbook and wrote popular articles for Dutch astrology publications like Earth & Cosmos and The Planets Speak.
The planets failed to reveal the shock that was to come.
In a moving autobiographical essay on his website Astrology and Science, Smit tells his story. Born in 1942, he began to fall in love with astrology in the late 1960s, but not without a healthy dose of skepticism:
[I] bought myself a booklet about my Sun sign… [M]uch of what I read did for a great deal pertain to me. I was truly astonished… 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…
But then I happened to visit the parents of someone I knew… Two days later I found in my mail a nicely drawn up horoscope… 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.
Smit began casting horoscopes for himself and his friends, who were impressed with his accuracy. This comes as no surprise today to those familiar with the now-famous Forer (or Barnum) Effect in psychology.
[T]here was that wonderful feeling…of having encountered a miracle…This was truly astonishing, and I felt elated.
He began taking clients and plunged into astrology as a profession:
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.
One day, a very strange thing happened during a client session:
All seemed to go pretty well; she was nodding all the time while saying, “yes, yes, you are so right…” 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.
But this was his life. His livelihood. His very human brain pushed away doubts sufficiently to allow him to practice for a while longer… but his early skepticism was returning. Through the 1970s, he worked to examine systematically just how well horoscopes correlated with reality, desperately hoping to prove astrology worked:
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.
Still, the love of his beloved practice remained strong, and Smit continued casting horoscopes until a fateful friendship began with another research-minded astrologer. Geoffrey Dean, whose later work disproving astrology makes him well known today in skeptical circles, was speaking at an Australian astrology conference with Smit. Dean gave Smit a draft paper of his to review, which impressed Smit with its objective, rigorous approach. But his pleasure was soon shattered:
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…
In this chapter Dean discussed about 20 factors that affect “personal validation” or the way a client personally assesses or validates an astrological reading… 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.
Smit then quotes from a chapter in Dean’s paper on “Cold Reading” about tricks not widely known in those days before the Internet. It was a great shock to see these laid out so bluntly:
- Watch the eyes and hands for signs that they say yes and no.
- Make the reading happy and positive.
- Be a good listener.
- Loosen the client’s tongue with flattery.
- Discover the problem and then tell the client what she wants to hear…
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.”
For Smit, those words struck a harsh blow. It felt to him as if “the bottom had been kicked away from under” his existence. He knew at that moment that his life’s work had been an illusion:
[Without] ever having been consciously aware of it, I had been an excellent cold reader… 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.
There were more shocks to come. Dean showed Smit letters from clients praising the accuracy of his horoscopes – “So true it is amazing!” “You know me inside out!” But Dean had stumbled upon the same discovery as Smit, causing him to give up his practice:
[I]n 1980 [Dean] 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.
Smit was plunged into depression. It took sizable strength of character to close his practice and start completely over in life. His painful emotional struggle was eased somewhat when he learned he was not alone, that other honest astrologers had discovered the same phenomenon and given up their practice. These included David Hamblin, one-time chair of the Astrology Association of Great Britain. Ever the researcher, Smit now had to know…
…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 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…
Though no longer a believer, Smit remained drawn to astrology, conducting investigations as editor of Correlation – Journal of Objective Research into Astrology. He is now retired from a career as editor and translator at a scientific and technological laboratory, and has created the website Astrology and Science as a research archive.
“[A]strology has undeniable appeal,” Smit writes, that “satisfies the longing… to feel part of the universe.” I hope he’s remembered his childhood love of astronomy, and discovered how to satisfy that longing in ways that fulfill his truly courageous demand for truth.