“What’s your sign?”  When Good Conversation Goes Woo

May 18, 2009

So I’m at this social gathering last Friday evening, meeting new people who all seem much cooler than I am.  But I’m wearing my new cool-person dark-wash Levi’s, so I’m feeling pretty confident there as I lean against the wall, coolly, beer in hand.

I get into a conversation with one of a pair of friends there:

Girl 1: "So, what were you guys up to before I got to the party?"
Me: "We were just going through some Trivial Pursuit cards for fun."
Girl 1: "Oh, that does sound like fun!  So…what do you do for a living?"
Me: *pause* "I work for the Center for Inquiry in Amherst."
Girl 1: "The what?"
(Brain: Yeah, try to sum THAT up in a casual conversation.)
Me: "It’s a non-profit educational organization that promotes and defends science and secularism."
Girl 1: "...That sounds interesting.  Um, so, what do you guys actually   do there?"

So, I start in on the   Committee for Skeptical Inquiry , the   Council for Secular Humanism ,   CFI in Amherst , the   international Centers ,   campus groups ,   Office of Public Policy ,   Jesus Project ...

Ten minutes (at least I   hope it was only ten minutes) pass.

Me: "...and, we even have a   full-time paranormal investigator on staff!"
Girl 1: "Wow, that’s awesome!  You’re actually doing important stuff.  Religions try to force such crazy ideas on people, but you’re actually working to try to make the world a better place!"
Me: *ego inflates a little, but playing it cool*  "Yeah, it’s a great place to be, and I work with fantastic people."

The party continues on.  About half an hour later, the pair of friends is sitting on the couch chatting with the evening’s host while I casually listen to their conversation.  (I don’t remember the finer details, but I’ll try to relay the gist of things.)

Girl 1: "...I really miss being in a relationship with Eric.  But I’m much more outspoken than he is."
Host: "That’s because you’re an Aquarius.  Both of you (gestures to pair) are Aquariuses."
(Brain: ...Uh oh.)
Girl 2: "Heh, yeah.  And he was what, a Sagittarius?  Yep, that’s usually trouble."
Girl 1: "You’re right, I don’t usually get along with them.  But our moon signs were compatible, so I thought it might work out.  What’s your moon sign?"
Girl 2: "Scorpio, but I’m an Aries mask."
Girl 1: "That totally makes sense.  My moon sign is Gemini, which is really true!"
(Brain: Whaaa…?)
(Me: Shush, Brain.  Stop making my face look skeptical!  Neutral face, neutral face.)
Girls 1 and 2 turn to me: "What about you?"
(Brain: Tell them you think it’s bunk!)
(Me: Quiet!  I’m trying to be social here!)
Me: "I, uh, don’t really go for that stuff.  Everything I’ve ever read about my sign hasn’t described me very well anyway."
Girl 2: "So, what   is it?"
(Brain: It’s a load of crap, that’s what it is!)
(Me: Stop being antagonistic!  I just met these people and you’re trying to ruin it for me!)
Me: "Well, see if you can guess."
(Brain: Good move.)
Host: "Wait, wasn’t your birthday just two weeks ago?  You’re a Taurus, right?"
Girls 1 & 2: "Oh, yeah, that makes sense."
Me: "No, it was in mid-April.  But it doesn’t matter anyway."  *pause*  "April 16th."
Girl 1: "So, you’re an Aries?  I never would’ve guessed that.  I don’t usually get along with Aries."
Me: "Well, considering these Zodiac signs were calculated thousands of years ago, and the Earth’s alignment with the constellations has shifted since then, they don’t really line up anymore.  So I might actually be a Pisces by now…not that it matters much…"
Girl 2: "Well, what’s your moon sign?"
Me: "My what?  I’m sorry, I don’t know what that is."
(Brain: I do!  It’s a steaming pile of horsesh—)
(Me: SHUT UP!)

Girls 1 and 2 proceed to explain "moon signs" and "masks" to me while I try to figure out how to politely ask them why in the world they might think that 1/12th of the world’s population could possibly exhibit eerily similar personality characteristics because of the date of their birth, or what they think the mechanism might be for constellation arrangements and sun position on the date of birth to impact future behavior, fortune, and personality (perhaps slightly different gravitational pulls on amniotic fluid?), or whether Chinese zodiac mythology also figures into these calculations; or maybe I’d tell them about James Randi’s classic horoscope experiment in which he gives everyone in a classroom the same horoscope and each person thinks it applies specifically to him, or…

As I’m plotting my next move, trying to figure out how to be a good skeptic without alienating new potential friends I’ve known for all of 45 minutes, more people come into the apartment, which ends the conversation on zodiac signs.  But that voice inside my head keeps nagging me:

(Brain: Ask her why she believes in astrology!  Ask her why she thinks religion is crazy but is willing to think that her birthdate might have something to do with her breakup with Eric!  Ask her what she thinks astrology’s mechanism is!  C’mon, just one little question!)
(Me: That’s enough, Brain!  I warned you.  Now I’m just going to have to put more beer in you.)
(Brain: Phooey.  You just wait.  You won’t be able to hold back for long.  Trust me, I know you too well.)
(Me: What?  I can’t hear you over the sound of this beer I’m chugging.)
(Brain: Damn it!)



#1 Jason (Guest) on Tuesday May 19, 2009 at 5:43am

I had a similar experience with someone who believed in the spiritual energy of stones.

You know, oddly enough, I can talk with the most fundamentalist religious people I can find for hours. Yet, when it comes to this tomfoolery I freeze up and it gets very awkward.

She even gave me one of her stones as a gift, and my response was “...oh, uh, thanks, I guess”.

Maybe a good CFI student conference topic in the future would be “How to talk to People You Think Are Crazy, and Not Look Like a Jerk”.

#2 Randy on Tuesday May 19, 2009 at 6:39am

For the crazy folk, you just have to talk crazy back at ‘em.  You might consider informing them that all Zodiac signs exhibit criminal behavior, so you avoid all of them.  (Hey, it makes as much sense as they do). 

In order of most to least criminals (according to The Internets):

Cancer: violent, passionate multiple murderers
Taurus: dangerous, temperamental, get caught, money-laundering
Sagittarius: hard to capture, con-artists, robbers, thieves
Aries: armed, hired
Capricorn: all-around criminals, get caught, organized crime, sadistic
Virgo: armed, get caught, burglars, hackers
Libra: armed, dangerous, corrupt
Pisces: high temper, drugs
Scorpio: high temper, contract killers
Leo: dangerous, getting recognition
Aquarius: revenge, hackers, hustlers, con-artists
Gemini: fraud, con-artists, thieves

#3 Dan Riley (Guest) on Tuesday May 19, 2009 at 10:17am

First of all, I am quite happy to hear that the people you work with are fantastic.  Secondly, dousing your brain with beer to shut it up can actually backfire in situations where your peers are buying into superstition.  I know from experience.  I have lost amicable relationships this way.  Third, your piece has enlightened me as to why you, Lauren, and myself all work for CFI: our birthdays all fall between April 15th-18th.  That’s called solid science right there.

#4 Roy Natian (Guest) on Tuesday May 19, 2009 at 10:53am

I have been in similar situations. It’s always saddening to speak with someone and think “Hey, this person is a skeptic and freethinker!” and then suddenly they have some sort of woo belief that shatters that view of them.

Best thing to do, I think, would be to attempt to trick them somehow and demonstrate how fallacious their thinking is. Of course, I’m sure this won’t convince them though… :(

#5 Debbie Goddard on Tuesday May 19, 2009 at 10:56am

Dan: you, Lauren, and I are also all middle children, and all three of us have two-syllable last names with the stress on the first syllable…it was destiny that we would be in CFI Outreach together! 

#6 moizkhan on Tuesday May 19, 2009 at 11:29am

I’ve had similar situations with many of these “spiritual but not religious folk”... and it does get annoying… especially when you actually like the person. What I’ve found is that, one shouldn’t necessarily enter in a “debate mode” especially in public as that just leads to bad situations. Instead, I make an attempt to develop a relationship with them and then slowly poke holes in their belief system….that seems to work with moderate success.

#7 Jen Davis (Guest) on Tuesday May 19, 2009 at 12:15pm

A seemingly skeptical person or anti-religious person will explore avenues like this a lot of times because it is in our nature to search for patterns inside our lives and find reasons outside of ourselves to explain them. It’s a common psychological dilemma. I had a very large interest in Astrology for a while because it’s seemed to be based on an ancient form of science, and that alone is enough to intrigue me. I went from being raised christian, to devil-worship, to a period of wanting, astrology and then paganism, and then back to nothing, because nothing was what was there all along. There is a science behind it, if not a misguided one, but like with so many other things, there seems to be no middle ground in observations of it. You have people who believe beyond all reason and people who dismiss it immediately.  If you look at astrology as nothing more than an interesting way to break some ice, just some people trying to find things in common with one another, then you shouldn’t have any problem dealing with this situation reasonably without compromising your own good sensibilities.

#8 Beacon Schuler (Guest) on Tuesday May 19, 2009 at 12:52pm

This is what I tend to do in that situation. Not sure if it’s the right thing, but it gives me at least the illusion of safe territory. I talk about the research that has been done into how personality is affected by when in the year you are born, which is in turn based largely on seasons as this is reversed depending on which hemisphere you’re in. I talk about how people who believe in astrology are more likely to match their sign’s description and how this in turn is likely due to both a) people who outright believe in astrology and adapt their personality or the view of their personality to match their sign or b) people who choose to believe in astrology because they already match their sign and take this on as some kind of proof.

I try and discuss these things without getting into whether or not astrology is real in part because it’s socially easier, and also I feel like I’m sneaking rational discourse in through the back door.

On the alcholo + skepticism thing, I did find myself shouting at someone (jovially, I add) “well I’m not going to trust you, am I? You believe in homeopathy for horses!” The shame!

#9 xenmurok (Guest) on Tuesday May 19, 2009 at 3:47pm

That is golden—a fine and entertaining blog, indeed.  I recommend the path of manipulation in maintaining your friendships while disabusing them of their faith in astrology.

#10 no2religion (Guest) on Tuesday May 19, 2009 at 9:40pm

Interesting and fun story. I never thought about Astrology like that. I’ve always considered it junk but I am not sure if I know too many people who don’t talk in these terms at some level.

#11 Jerry Buchanan (Guest) on Tuesday May 19, 2009 at 10:32pm

When asked *that* question, I usually answer with, “I don’t know. I was born on Friday; what does that make me?” That usually defuses the situation. I’ve had some, though, explain to me, the dim bulb in the room, that the sign is determined by the date, not the day of the week.

#12 Roy Paterson (Guest) on Wednesday May 20, 2009 at 7:36am

Thanks for the laugh.  In situations like this I like to use the quote “I’m a Gemini, and Geminis never believe in astrology” - Raymond Smullyan, which I read in “Innumeracy” by John Allen Paulos.

#13 Joel Guttormson (Guest) on Wednesday May 20, 2009 at 7:54am

This isn’t as bad as it sounds.  Take heed in knowing I talked to a Biology major who doesn’t believe in Dinosaurs, accepts Evolution and thinks Dinosaurs are a great big scientific conspiracy!

#14 Vadjong on Thursday May 21, 2009 at 2:12pm

If somebody would ask me for my sign (I should go to more parties, I guess), my prepared statement would be something like:

My personality is well-rounded enough and my life interesting enough that I can relate to all 13(*) signs at one time or another, thank you very much.
If you insist on my birthday, it is April 15th and it is an observed astroNNNomical fact that the sun comes up in Pisces on that day. Go figure.

(*)[sic: between Scorpio and Sagittarius there is also Ophiuchus, Serpent Bearer.
If you want some ammo, here is the IAU zodiac for you:
Aries, Apr 18-May 14
Taurus, May 14-Jun 21
Gemini, Jun 21-Jul 20
Cancer, Jul 20-Aug 10
Leo, Aug 10-Sep 16
Virgo, Sep 16-Oct 31
Libra, Oct 31-Nov 21
Scorpio, Nov 21-Nov 29
Ophiuchus, Nov 29-Dec 18
Sagittarius, Dec 18-Jan 20
Capricorn, Jan 20-Feb 17
Aquarius, Feb 17-Mar 13
Pisces, Mar 13-Apr 19

The number of days vary, basically because the constellations are different sizes.]

#15 ckoproske on Sunday May 24, 2009 at 9:14am

I recently had a professional symphony conductor and graduate of Oxford tell me that London was a ‘Scorpio City.’  She said this in response to some comment I made about the subway.  I was absolutely dumbfounded at the idea of a city having an astrological sign, and at the idea that the sign would conveniently explain the city’s traits.  I just stood there with a blank look on my face.

#16 Moody (Guest) on Saturday May 30, 2009 at 10:35pm

You have my empathy. I’ve had similar experiences, and what amazes me is how often the people who ask “What’s your sign?” also call themselves “Christian”, apparently oblivious to passages in their own so-called sacred text that prohibit divination for being a diabolical practice. In any case, the evidence points toward a general level of ignorance that is sad and a little frightening.

Now, here’s the thing. The last bits of woo I gave up on as I came to embrace what I knew for some time, included astrology. I had all kinds of excuses for my belief in it. In the end, though, I came to understand what confirmation bias is and that I was not immune, and I let go of defending it. Once one understands a little science, a lot of woo falls flat on its face. I still feel embarrassed about my having believed in something so untenable as the idea that collections of stars light years apart have the power to somehow dictate (or represent the power that dictates) personality traits and destiny, but I also have a certain sympathy for those who don’t see how they’re fooling themselves.

A corresponding issue I’ve frequently found myself dealing with is that of “End Times” quasi-paranoia. Often this is linked to astrology, and always it is linked to some variety of woo. And so, then, I’ve had coworkers ask me if I’m aware that the Aztec calendar runs out in 2012 and that that’s when the world will end, etc. And I’m always made sad by these questions, and embarrassed on behalf of the questioner. I always try to convey, respectfully, that life is an amazing thing, certainly, but such magical thinking detracts from what’s really beautiful about being alive because such thinking is not at all based in the real world. This tack is not always appreciated for what it is.

#17 Astroloji (Guest) on Wednesday June 03, 2009 at 7:07am

Thank you very much…

#18 Jasmin Wilson (Guest) on Friday June 05, 2009 at 8:28am

Thanks for sharing nice information. Good job! Interesting and fun story. I never thought about Astrology like that. I’ve always considered it junk but I am not sure if I know too many people who don’t talk in these terms at some level.

#19 Astroloji (Guest) on Saturday June 06, 2009 at 7:36am


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