It’s in the stars

September 2nd, 2006 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, mail | 53 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Saturday September 2, 2006
The Guardian

I see an angry balding premium-rate phoneline multi-millionaire… Of course, Daily Mail astrologer Jonathan Cainer will already have predicted that I was going to write about him here today, so as you read this, I will be chewing my muesli and reading a simultaneous rebuttal to my comments in his own column. Spooky.

The simplest test of any prediction, you might think, is to look back at whether it came true or not, as long as the prediction was precise enough. Phoneline mogul Cainer’s last major coup came at the very end of last year. The Mail crowed triumphantly when Darren Nash, who is a “Libra”, won the £15m Christmas Eve lottery jackpot, because Cainer had written to Librans (get ready for this, because it will make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck): “You may like to know that Venus, your ruler turns around this week – as will your fortunes.” No shut up. Stuff like that really scares me.

Usually, of course, the prediction is to vague to assess in retrospect. Cainer – who describes himself as an “unreconstructed hippy”, writes for the Daily Mail, and has taken in millions of pounds on expensive premium rate phone lines which some might consider exploitative – bucked that trend in his column last week: “As I predicted on BBC2 a few weeks ago, scientists have accepted as a planet the new discovery 2003 UB313… They have also reclassified Ceres, the asteroid, as a planet – and declared that Pluto’s Moon Charon, is a planet too.”

Which would all be very impressive except, in fact, the International Astronomical Union decided at the last minute not to designate Ceres, Charon, or 2003 UB313 as planets. So not only was Cainer’s original prediction wrong, his magazine column celebrating the accuracy of his prediction was wrong too (it turns out this was written and printed over-confidently before the final decision was made).

Cainer seems to have a difficult relationship with science. In the past he has written: “Some scientists claim to have a truly open mind. The sorry truth though, is that most scientists hate astrology with a vengeance. Academics who ever dare to remotely suggest a finding in favour of astrology have their work torn to shreds, their lectures met with howls of derision and their grants mysteriously ‘cut off’’”

Now personally, I can think of few things more exciting and interesting than discovering that Cainer could, for example – and I realise this is beginning to seem less and less likely – genuinely predict my future, even if it did cost me 60p a minute. I would be blown away, and love every minute. In fact, research has suggested that scientists in general welcome surprising results.

Polish researcher Michael Jasienski reported in the journal Nature recently how he searched for words indicating surprise in 30 million abstracts of English-language scientific papers from the Science Citation Index; he then compared them with 8 million academic articles from the Social Sciences and Arts & Humanities citation indices, and with some samples of standard English.

The word ‘surprising’ appeared 12 times more frequently in the natural sciences than in standard English, and 1.3 times more frequently than in social sciences, arts and humanities research; and the word ‘unexpected’ appears 39 times and 2.2 times more frequently in the natural sciences than, respectively, in standard English and in non-science academic writing. Obviously humanities graduates don’t find their “discoveries” as surprising as scientists do. It must be a dreary life.

But in the meantime, if surprises make you nervous, and you want the inside track before they sneak up on you, then Cainer has just the thing to calm your fears: “I have just recorded your latest in depth week ahead prediction. I really think you need to hear it! Call 0906…”

Please send in your bad science to


I have no idea what Cainer’s star sign is but I went to this page on his site,

typed his name and “sagittarius” in, and this is what I got back:

jonathan cainer
A very special Sagittarian

jonathan cainer is a great intellectual. He is also a great adventurer, a great party animal, a great judge of character, a great conversationalist, a great comedian, a great philosopher and a great self publicist. Indeed, jonathan cainer is rather of the opinion that if anything in this world is ‘great’ it must have his name on it and if it isn’t, maybe he will try it anyway and make it great by the simple act of lending his name to it. jonathan is a Sagittarian and there are two things that no Sagittarian can resist. The first is a challenge. The second is a tendency to exaggerate. Therefore whatever jonathan cainer sets out to accomplish in this world must be: a) difficult and b) big. Why set out to climb a piffling little hill like Everest when there are mountains on Mars that are truly steep? All you need is a rope, a pick and a spaceship. In jonathan’s mind, this (or something not far from it) represents a perfectly logical thought process. Who cares whether he actually manages to get to Mars? He will have fun trying and at least, if he tells enough people that this is his plan, nobody will ever think of him as boring.

Here we have the essence of jonathan cainer’s biggest secret fear. jonathan cainer is absolutely terrified that one day someone will rumble him. He will be revealed as an ordinary person who thinks ordinary thoughts. Oh shame of shames, what will he do then? To keep this dreadful possibility at bay, jonathan will go to any length, he will climb any mountain (even if it does happen to be on Mars) and he will swim any sea (even if he can’t swim yet – he’ll learn how to one of these days – you just wait and see). Or perhaps, more realistically (but only a bit) jonathan will set out to prove that he really is a great intellectual\adventurer\philosopher etc. etc. Much to everyone’s surprise (including his own) in the fullness of time… it will all turn out to be true!

If you like what I do, and you want me to do more, you can: buy my books Bad Science and Bad Pharma, give them to your friends, put them on your reading list, employ me to do a talk, or tweet this article to your friends. Thanks! ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

53 Responses

  1. Robert Carnegie said,

    September 12, 2006 at 1:54 am

    Tides, loosely speaking, are caused by the difference in gravitational pull of a neighbouring large object between one end of, say, a sea, and another. In your cup of coffee, this will be not very much.

    I thought you might be about to describe your own gravitational pull on your beverage, and not the moon’s. I’m not sure offhand which is the greater, although it’s been pointed out that the gravitational effect of the sun, stars and planets on a newborn child is less than the graviational effect of the midwife. He or she is lighter but is closer.

  2. Melissa said,

    September 22, 2006 at 7:48 am

    My father’s freakish girlfriend thinks that because her birthday is one day before mine, we’re “the same.” Um, no, we’re not, because I hate people who judge me by the day of my birth.

    But then, we Cancerians hate to be categorized and all like porridge with butter, salt and honey.

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