Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Astrology and Science

Lately the results of a survey have been going around the Internet claiming that nearly half of Americans believe that astrology is a legitimate science. The survey's promoters have been arguing that this shows how ignorant Americans are, when in fact the results are being interpreted to support that particular agenda. The results of the survey are quite ambiguous, perhaps even by design.

According to a new survey by the National Science Foundation, nearly half of all Americans say astrology, the study of celestial bodies' purported influence on human behavior and worldly events, is either "very scientific" or "sort of scientific." By contrast, 92 percent of the Chinese public think horoscopes are a bunch of baloney.

What's more alarming, researchers show in the 2014 Science and Engineering Indicators study, is that American attitudes about science are moving in the wrong direction. Skepticism of astrology hit an all-time high in 2004, when 66 percent of Americans said astrology was total nonsense. But each year, fewer and fewer respondents have dismissed the connections between star alignment and personality as bunk.

Not surprisingly, those with less science education and less "factual knowledge" have become increasingly willing to accept astrology as legitimate science, with 65 percent of such individuals considering the pseudo-science credible in 2012, up from 48 percent in 2010. Young people are also especially inclined to offer astrology scientific legitimacy, with a majority of Americans ages 18 to 24 considering the practice at least "sort of" scientific, and the 25-34 age group is not far behind them.

Do you see the problem? I'll give you a hint - the survey was designed with the following options. Respondents had to classify astrology as "not at all scientific," "sort of scientific," or "very scientific." Only 10% of respondents actually selected "very scientific," with 32% selecting "sort of scientific." But the survey promoters group both of them together so that they can breathlessly argue that "42% of Americans think astrology is a legitimate science!"

But what the heck does "sort of" even mean here? Whether or not something conforms to the scientific method is a yes or no proposition. Either a discipline has all the characteristics of a science or it doesn't. Introducing a mushy middle category seems practically designed to troll survey-takers. In fact, I can see where a Michael Shermer or James Randi could answer "sort of," at least if they were being intellectually honest.

The skeptic worldview places science and pseudoscience in opposition to each other. Their working definition of pseudoscience is a discipline that has some but not all characteristics of a legitimate science and may claim to be scientific, but is not a science because it does not possess all the necessary characteristics. So couldn't one easily argue that a pseudoscience is indeed "sort of scientific?" That is, it possesses some but not all characteristics of a science.

Furthermore, scientific studies of astrology have been performed. Gauquelin's work on the Mars effect was definitely a scientific study. There's been some controversy surrounding attempts to replicate it, and it may be that the study's conclusions can't be supported by further research - but it's a real scientific study. So again, it seems to me that a well-educated person could answer "sort of" based on the existence of such research - even if such research winds up producing a negative result because it fails the replication test.

So here's the survey that actually needs to be done. Two options - "astrology is a legitimate science" or "astrology is not a legitimate science." I'd be willing to bet that there's no way 42% of Americans would pick the first option. My guess is that the result would be much closer to the 10% who picked "very scientific." 10% is not some sort of crisis, just the ordinary ignorance that exists in every population.

Technorati Digg This Stumble Stumble

No comments: