Reading Horoscopes in Brazil

In writing about the Asian Tsunami of December 2004 in The Guardian, Catherine Bennett noted:

Why, many formerly trusting followers of horoscopes may be asking, was this colossal event not presaged in the stars? Or, failing that, in someone's palm, crystal ball, tea leaves or chicken's entrails? How, in the circumstances, are they to carry on believing? If an event such as this can go unpredicted by leading, professional astrologers, could it mean the whole edifice of astrology is an abject superstition? That the constellations are not, as previously advertised, heavenly guides to life on Earth, but as indifferent, and as meaningless as "a patch of curiously shaped damp on the bathroom ceiling" (as Richard Dawkins once, unforgettably put it) ...

Karl Popper wrote about astrology:

Astrologers were greatly impressed, and misled, by what they believed to be confirming evidence - so much so that they were quite unimpressed by any unfavorable evidence. Moreover, by making their interpretations and prophesies sufficiently vague they were able to explain away anything that might have been a refutation of the theory had the theory and the prophesies been more precise. In order to escape falsification they destroyed the testability of their theory. It is a typical soothsayer's trick to predict things so vaguely that the predictions can hardly fail: that they become irrefutable."

Is this the way that the world at large feels about astrology, horoscopes, tarot cards and the like?  We will now look at some survey results from the 2004 TGI study.  This is a survey of 5,312 persons between the ages of 12 to 64 years old conducted in Brazil during 2004.  We will first consider the incidence of people reading the horoscope in their weekday or weekend newspapers.  The chart below shows the incidences separately by socio-economic level, education and age/sex groups.  At first blush, this is going against our expectations.  Why is horoscope reading more common among the upper class than the lower class?  And why would people with Doctorate and Master degrees read horoscopes more than people who never completed primarily school?

(source: TGI Brasil)

Here, we have to remind ourselves that "reading horoscopes in newspapers" is really a two-stage process.  Stage 1: You have to go and obtain a newspaper.  Stage 2: When you open up the newspaper, you have to go to the horoscope section.  The chart above shows the net effect of the two stages.  But what we broke the process them by stage.  In the next chart below, we show the incidences of newspaper reading (either a weekday or weekend edition of any newspaper) by the same groups.  As we expected, newspaper readers increases with socio-economic level, educational level and age.

(source: TGI Brasil)

In the next chart, we show the incidences of horoscope reading within the newspaper readers.  This is the stage two result, expressed as a conditional probability.  Now, the results are more consistent with expectations: the reading of horoscopes decreases by socio-economic level and educational level.

(source: TGI Brasil)

Nowadays, there is another way by which the media provides horoscope readings: the Internet.  The first chart shows the overall incidences of reading horoscopes on the Internet by socio-economic level, educational level and age/sex.  By this time, we know what happens and so we will quickly move on to the breakdown of the stages.

(source: TGI Brasil)

The next chart shows the stage 1 results.  As we expected, Internet usage is increases by socio-economic level and educational level but decreases by age.

(source: TGI Brasil)

And finally, in the last chart, we have the conditional probabilities of reading horoscopes given that one is an Internet user.  For socio-economic level, the incidences are essentially flat.  For educational level, it decreases with more education.

(source: TGI Brasil)

This small exercise may not have enlightened the world about astrology, horoscopes and all that.  But it illustrates the role of the media as gatekeeper.  When the media entail some characteristics (such as literacy or economic cost) that do not allow universal access, then an inequality in information access results.  Denial of access to horoscopes may not be so an urgent social issue, but what about access to job opportunities, educational learning, and so on?

(posted by Roland Soong, 9/16/2005)

(Return to Zona Latina's Home Page)