Picking a fight with astrologers

By Frederic Friedel

As I mentioned elsewhere my intended career as a university teacher of philosophy ground to a halt when I became disillusioned with classical philosophy, and furthermore realized that there would be no vacancy for me at university to get a post — ever. I would need for a professor to die, and would then have to battle it out with a dozen of my best friends for the job.

In the middle of this crisis I executed an audacious plan: I wrote to the very famous science journalist, Professor Hoimar von Ditfurth, who was like Carl Sagan on German TV. I criticized something he had said in his previous show, a logical error regarding evolution (I myself had specialized in evolutionary epistemology at university) and asked for a meeting to discuss the subject. His reaction was atypical — and proof of his extraordinary scientific credentials: he wrote back thanking me for the letter, admitting he had got the detail wrong, and inviting me for a very luxurious dinner in the Atlantic Hotel on his next visit to Hamburg.

Science journalist and educator Hoimar von Ditfurth in German TV in the 1970s.

We hit it off well, at the dinner, and von Ditfurth invited me to join his team as a freelancer. Thus began a wonderful period of my life: I got to work with a lot of very dynamic people, on incredibly interesting projects — like a two-part report on the Egyptian pyramids, which is still available on YouTube (albeit in German). In part one we sort of made a case for how it was impossible for human beings, four and a half thousand years ago, to build such gigantic edifices with such incredible accuracy (in the above screen grab von Ditfurth is telling the audience that the corners of the Great Pyramid of Giza are level to the accuracy of 15 mm, in spite of there being a mound below the base). People had to assume that the Egyptians had had alien assistance. Then, in part two, we explained exactly how each of the architectural feats was achieved, indeed by human beings, at the time. It’s a debate that still rages.

Anyway, I worked with the team of Querschnitt (the name of the show) on a number of projects, one of which was astrology. I cannot locate a video of this show, but there is a full PDF transcript (once again in German) of what transpired, what was said in the show.

At the time there were 4.4 million Germans who were convinced that their lives were directly influenced by the stars, while 13.6 million believed that this was “possible”. And there were many professional astrologers who were regularly consulted on the suitability of managers and job applicants in many areas of industry and commerce. The astrologers provided (expensive) testimonials based purely on the moment of birth of the candidates, and these became a decisive factor in their evaluations.

In our astrology program, after talking about the superstitious history of this field, we demonstrated a number of practical things, for instance the problem of twins. They should have identical character and ability patterns, which was indeed the case in identical twins we had in the studio. But in our non-identical samples the twins were vastly different in character and abilities, although they were born on the same day, within minutes of each other. According to astrological theory there should be no difference.

One of the tests we worked out for the show was particularly impressive: we had the character descriptions of ten persons prepared by a top astrologer, and handed them to these subjects in the studio. They read the testimonials and then moved to one of two areas: to a sign saying “very accurate” or to one saying “not accurate”. Eight moved to under the first sign — clear evidence that astrologers can accurately describe personality purely on the basis of birth data. You would think. But then Hoimar, who had an impish strain, took one of the testimonials we had handed to the subjects and began reading it out loud for the audience. The other subjects looked puzzled and stared at the papers in their hands: we had mistakenly handed the same testimonial to all ten participants.

The point was that the language used by the astrologers looked quite specific, but it was general enough to apply to 80% of any random sample of human beings — or would be accepted as being accurate by them. “The subject has a personality that is primarily concerned with internal independence, the most important factors being the proper comprehension of ideas and a diversity of interests. He has a need for harmony, despite many and sometimes contradictory personal interests, and he strives to keep his circle of activity manageable. He does not adopt nihilistic thinking, but believes in general values, without succumbing to petty bourgeois habits or uncritical and arrogant behaviour.” Etc., etc. This is known as a Barnum statement, characterizations that people find accurate which are actually generalizations that could apply to almost anyone. Wikipedia elaborates: “Such statements are used by fortune tellers, astrologers, and other practitioners of chicanery to convince customers that they are endowed with a paranormal gift.” [See also Forer’s 1948 demonstration of this effect]. The testimonial we read in the studio, and which eight out of ten subjects believed was a very accurate description of their personalities, is given in full in the above PDF transcript.

The show was a great success and a bit of a blow to astrologers, who decided it was necessary to strike back. They demanded (and got) a follow-up debate with Hoimar von Ditfurth. This I helped to prepare. My worry was that these people were experts at debating members of the scientific community, while von Ditfurth, despite his vast knowledge and stratospheric IQ, was quite inexperienced in discussions with pseudo-scientists. I told him about the time I and a number of young scientists had lost a debate against flat earthers! He was impressed. I told him the kind of arguments to expect and the way to repudiate them. And I proposed offering the astrologers a decisive test: we would give them the birth dates of ten people, and they had to pick out the ones that were vastly different to the others: convicted murderers in a group otherwise consisting of great philanthropists; people institutionalized for extreme mental retardation in a group of top intellectuals; or other such contrasts they should be easily able to identify.

Hoimar took my prep quite seriously and withstood the woo thrown at him in the debate pretty well. In the end he said: “Well, we could continue all night in this vein, but how about I propose a bet.” And he went on to describe the challenge described above. “If you are correctly able to identify the people in the groups I will pay you ten thousand Marks,” he said (I suppose that would be like $50,000 today). “But: any astrologer who wants to take up the challenge must deposit $1000 — we don’t want people coming in and just guessing. You stand to win ten times that sum if you are successful.”

One of the astrologers in the debate, the cockiest of the lot (and one with genuinely deep conviction for what he was doing), spontaneously accepted the bet, saying on live TV that is would be trivially easy for him to identify people with such disparate characteristics. The story went through the press, featuring in all the major newspapers and magazines.

In the weeks after the debate I got to work: I had not been seen in the TV shows of Querschnitt so far, and was a relative unknown. So I applied for membership in the Astrological Society, a chapter of which had been formed explicitly to combat Hoimar von Ditfurth. I attended meetings in which they discussed strategy, e.g. a plan that ten or a hundred of them should accept the bet, forcing von Ditfurth to place 100,000 or a million Marks in escrow (or withdraw from the bet). So Hoimar and I went to one of the largest German weekly news magazines, Stern, and they immediately volunteered to cover us for any sum that might be required. Unfortunately when the astrologers called and announced that there were a large number who were willing to take the bet, Hoimar confidently said “Bring them on!” I should have prepped him to sound worried — this way the astrologers smelled a rat. And in the end it was only a couple, mainly the cocky astrologer who had accepted the challenge on live TV, who were willing to proceed.

Then came the next problem: they said they required a full week to do the calculations. And they needed the exact time and place of birth of the subjects in order to calculate the horoscopes precisely. I did not immediately see the implications, but two young Stern journalists did and asked me to give them the birth date of some unknown person. I called my cousin in southern Germany and got her exact date, time and place of birth. This I gave to the journalists, and half an hour later they were back, telling me her name, current address and job, plus family background. I remind you: this was before the Internet. They had called the registry office of her birth town to get her name, and then called around to uncover personal details. They were doing this for the first time, they stressed. “Imagine what astrologers can do, what kind of an infrastructure they have to research such matters. The entire astrological community will work together to find out who the people with the birth dates and places we supply are. They have a week to do it.”

So we discussed isolating the astrologers in a hotel or even on a cruise ship, with no telephones (the chief editor of Stern: “It will be a marvellous show!”). But then came the final hurdle: the astrologers wanted us to give them the birth data in five pairs: in each pair one subject would be the philanthropist and one the murderer; one the mentally incapacitated and one the certified genius. Of course this was out of the question: you have a one in 32 chance of getting all five right, just by guessing; and more importantly, getting just three or four right would be celebrated as a remarkable success. We told them that they would get ten dates, of which some — an unspecified number — would belong to one group, e.g. the philanthropists, and the others to the contrasting group. That reduced the chances to one in over a thousand.

The astrologers balked, and at this stage negotiations broke down. We went on to produce other science programs, and I was having the time of my life doing so. But a few years later Hoimar’s sidekick Volker Arzt wrote a book on the Querschnitt programs, including a chapter on our astrology adventure. And in this section Volker wrote one fateful line: “The challenge was never carried out, because the only person who at the time had accepted the bet had retracted under specious (flimsy) circumstances” (“Die Wette ist nicht zur Durchführung gekommen, weil der einzige, der damals die Wette angenommen hatte, sich mit fadenscheinigen Gründen zurückgezogen hat.”)

For this the astrologers sued us, specifically Hoimar von Ditfurth, and for close to two years he was battling them in court. I was called on multiple occasions as a witness — actually a key witness, as the instigator of the challenge. And although he was very gracious about it, I am sure Hoimar cursed the day he had listened to me. Because in the end he lost five trials against the astrologers, the last one forbidding him from repeating any statements that disparaged the astrologers in the above matter, and threatening him with a fine of 50,000 Marks and imprisonment of one month if he did not comply. And: he had to bear all court costs. My spirit plunges when I read all the judgements passed at the time — they are actually recorded here (in German).

I went on to make a number of further documentaries with Hoimar and Volker, most notably one on computers being able to play chess, but I am sure they were never quite comfortable working with me. And I learned a lesson for life: avoid confrontations with litigious members of the pseudo-scientific community. I even gave up my chairmanship of the German branch of the Skeptical Society, which I had helped to found, after this experience. Too dangerous: costly legal battles are not my kind of thing.

Frederic Alois Friedel, born in 1945, science journalist, co-founder of ChessBase, studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford.

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