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Saturn Return isn’t a thing – but here’s why people continue to believe in astrology anyway



Do you ever get the feeling we’re living in the Age of Aquarius… and Aries, and Taurus, and Capricorn, and in fact all the other astrological signs?

Astrology seems to be everywhere. Popular websites and massive social media accounts discuss the influence of stars and planets on our lives and personalities; shelves in mainstream bookshops are stuffed with volumes on birth charts; lifestyle magazines carry stories about celebrities and their star signs.

And those celebrities talk about astrology a lot: for example, Harry Potter actress Emma Watson hit the headlines this week for telling her Instagram followers that she was now “well acquainted” with the astrological concept of a “Saturn Return”.

Watson is far from alone. Polling by YouGov in 2022 indicated that 15 per cent of people in the UK – 9 per cent of men, 22 per cent of women – believe that “a person’s star sign genuinely impacts their personality and compatibility with others”. Of the rest, a further 16 per cent said they didn’t know whether this was true. In the US, the numbers who state they believe in astrology are even higher – 27 per cent in general (25 per cent of men and 30 per cent of women). The US National Science Foundation’s polling shows that the percentage of US adults who say astrology is “not at all scientific” was at 50 per cent in 1979, climbing as high as 66 per cent in 2004, before dropping to 58 per cent in 2018.

So, just like Watson’s “Saturn Return” – the idea is that the ringed planet returns to the same celestial position it was in when you were born every 29-ish years, coinciding with adulthood, middle age, and very old age – astrology seems to have its own pattern of waxing and waning.

Which might be frustrating for those who view astrology as a pseudoscience. Unlike other ancient but now-debunked beliefs like alchemy, or the reality of the city of Atlantis, astrology remains stubbornly with us into the 21st century. And unlike existing pseudosciences like Flat Eartherism, which are believed by only the tiniest minority of cranks, as we’ve seen astrology is surprisingly popular.

So it’s useful to be reminded that the central tenets of astrology are false. The claims about the physical movements and positions of the planets themselves are often totally wrong. In fact, given the way the Earth “wobbles” on its axis, changing the way the sky looks compared to the way it did back when astrological signs were first calculated thousands of years ago, very many people actually have a completely different star sign to the one they thought they had.

Whenever scientists have tried to investigate astrology, they’ve come up with nothing. Predictions from different astrologers tend to be wildly different from each other. The relation of birth charts to people’s actual personalities is effectively random. Any resemblance between your horoscope or birth chart and your life is either coincidence, or the result of the predictions being written using “Barnum statements” – descriptions that apply to almost everyone, everywhere at some time or another. These are the sorts of statements magicians use when doing mind-reading magic tricks: for example, “you are often outgoing, but sometimes prefer to be alone”. Of course it applies to you – because it applies to us all.

And “Saturn Return”? Your life changes a lot as you reach your thirties (maybe having kids and getting married), your sixties (maybe preparing to retire) and your nineties (maybe getting poorer health and losing independence). I don’t see why explaining this requires us to invoke the influence of a planet 1.55 billion kilometres away.

So why do people believe in such obvious pseudoscience?

Maybe, as has been argued here and elsewhere, this question is missing the point. Maybe astrology isn’t really about believing the literal claim that the position of the planets in the galaxy affects our personalities. Maybe even asking people whether they “believe” in astrology, like in the polls referenced above, isn’t that useful. Instead, people’s views on astrology are far mushier than this: it’s more like something that can be gestured to or brought up in casual conversation rather than a solid scientific claim.

In that respect, astrology might fill a niche that scientific psychology fails to cover. With modern, scientifically-derived personality tests, you might glean insights like “you could be depressed because you’re very neurotic”, or “you probably enjoy going to parties due to your high degree of extraversion”. It’s realistic, given that we’re not very good at making individual-level predictions. But it’s hardly very exciting – and can hardly compare to the feeling of being caught up in the grand, mysterious sweep of the cosmos that astrology provides. And when the statements from science are so vague, what’s so wrong with a vague statement from astrology?

And it doesn’t always seem so vague. Many people who only know newspaper horoscopes might be surprised at how complex and arcane astrology can get. You will have seen statements like “if you’re a Gemini, you’re very analytical” or “if you’re a Sagittarius you’re very cheerful”. But there’s way more to it than just the Zodiac: take a look at any major astrology website and you’ll see endless, baroque details about “houses”, “planets in retrograde”, “rising signs”, and “elements and modalities”, all of which can apparently help illuminate your life, your diet – and even the personality of your dog.

It’s possible that the existence of all this complexity – and a general confusion about what astrology is – makes people more likely to believe in horoscopes, or even to believe they’re scientific. Even if you don’t follow all the details, just the feeling that there’s so much stuff out there could help reassure you that, if you looked into it, you’d probably find an explanation for what’s happening in your life.

That latter idea – the idea of wanting an explanation – is a major possibility for why people cling to belief in astrology. It’s been suggested that astrology is a way of explaining and organising our lives, which can otherwise be disconcertingly confusing and random.

Similar ideas have been advanced for why people believe in conspiracy theories. The president gets shot. A new virus appears and kills millions. For many people it’s simply hard to believe that these things are chance occurrences: how could something so consequential have its origins in something so random? Surely there must be a secret plan – a conspiracy – from people behind the scenes who are running it all (by the way, whereas women are much more likely to believe in astrology than men, it’s the opposite way around for conspiracy theories, where men are more susceptible).

Astrology isn’t a plan as such, but it is an explanation – or at least, it looks like one. Why has my mood been so low over the past few weeks? Why did I argue with my best friend? Why have things been going well at work this year? Well, it’s all to do with the way the planets are moving. Not something I can control, but something that, with a little bit of reading of star charts, I might be able to understand. Again, how can the true explanation – which probably involves a large dose of inexplicable randomness – compare to that?

You might’ve noticed that all of the above possibilities are reasons why people might believe in astrology in general, but not why they believe in astrology now. What explains the recent seeming increase in popularity? Some have suggested it’s due to growing uncertainty in the world: with financial crises, pandemics, and wars, people are converging on something, anything that might provide a comforting explanation. In this sense astrology is a kind of self-help, or even therapy.

It sounds intuitively plausible, but I’m not sure it explains astrology specifically: why aren’t we seeing a resurgence of, say, Christianity? Why not some other “spiritual” belief system? Just like we’ve learned from looking at astrology itself, we shouldn’t be fooled by seductive-sounding explanations for what might be entirely random events. It’s just as likely that we’re seeing a fairly arbitrary upswing in the popularity of one complex meme that spreads well and is easy to market online. In a few years it could easily be something else.

That doesn’t make it less frustrating for scientists – such as those at Nasa, who have gone to great lengths to debunk astrological claims – to see that so many people are believers in astrology. For me personally, it’s hard to disagree: it certainly makes me wish people had a higher degree of critical thinking.

But maybe I would say that. After all, I’m a Gemini.

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