Is There a Rational Way to Discuss Health and Astrology?

Dr. Oz's interview was a lost opportunity.

Posted Jun 13, 2018

Last week, Dr. Oz, the world-famous physician and TV personality, simultaneously enticed and enraged audiences. All he did to achieve this was to tweet about an older episode of his program, on which he had invited an astrologer to discuss the supposed links between health and astrology.

People reacted strongly. The tweet received hundreds of frustrated comments arguing that the segment was not based on scientific evidence, and hence misled people about their health and well-being (so much so, that the tweet has since been deleted).

We (the authors) also got frustrated as we watched the story unfold, yet in a slightly different way. We believe that this episode was, in fact, a lost opportunity.

A possible alternative discussion

The doctor is very popular. He has a TV show watched by millions and is a member of President Trump’s Council on Sports, Fitness, and Nutrition. Regardless of recent controversies about his weight-loss claims and how one feels about him, nobody can deny his influence on public opinion.

So, he invites an astrologer on his program. Before the interview, he asks members of the audience if they check their horoscopes. A lot of them raise their hands. This is, in fact, compatible with many statistics on people’s beliefs in astrology.

The astrologer has been in this business for a long time and is knowledgeable about the domain. And people do pay attention to it, so, regardless of its scientific validity, she is an expert in a field that a lot of people care about. But can we actually learn from the experience and expertise of these two individuals in a way that is both reasonable and useful for the audience?

Here are some questions and issues that could have been discussed:

Self-fulfilling prophecies.

Can people change their behavior in ways that affect their health, because of astrological predictions? If that’s the case, horoscopes might actually matter for well-being. In particular, if people’s actions are affected by the predictions they are exposed to, those who believe in astrology might be more susceptible to self-fulfilling or self-defeating prophecies.

Imagine, for example, a scenario in which an astrologer tells a person that they are more inclined to lose weight at this time of the year due to their sign. If this provides the person with some added motivation to eat more healthily than usual, then the prediction just caused itself to become correct. And if such a self-fulfilling effect is present, that may also partially explain why people believe in horoscopes.

Impulsive and risky behavior.

Is there a relationship between a person’s belief in external predictions and their impulsivity? Experimental research indicates this may be the case. Results suggest that, in attempts to compensate for predictions of bad outcomes, believers engage in indulgent behaviors. If such impulsive reactions involve eating unhealthily or taking other unnecessary risks, then horoscopes could be (scientifically) bad for their health.

Dozens of other relevant links.

A quick search reveals a long list of important potential impacts of belief in astrology on one’s health. Some hypothesize positive effects, such as increased comfort, confidence, and social interaction. Others are more negative, such as illusions of control, stereotypes, and fatalism.  Ultimately, we would have loved to have seen a physician question an astrologer about zodiac signs, and then relate the specific predictions to people’s perceptions of themselves and their subsequent behavior with genuine health implications.   

Soyer 2018
Source: Soyer 2018

Instead of such a sobering discussion, what we got was:

     “People that fall under the Aries sign are known for being resourceful, assertive, and headstrong. An Aries can tend to 'ram or dive in to things head first.' When an Aries feels blocked, this pent-up energy may appear in the form of migraines, sinus issues, or even jaw tension.” 

That’s a lost opportunity for good television.