Nearly half of Americans apparently think that astrology is “very scientific” or at least “sort of scientific,” and that percentage is higher among the younger generations, and higher than it was a decade ago.
As as scientist working in the field of astronomy, I have spent the last twenty years doing science and think I have a pretty good idea of what is and isn’t scientific. Things that are scientific involve the use of science, a methodology for testing and falsifying ideas and developing the most objective information about how our universe works.
Astrology doesn’t do that. It’s not scientific.
What is scientific is an experiment I do with introductory astronomy students. I write a horoscope that’s very general, with sentences like, “You’re not always as confident as you appear to be.” The kind of things that apply to almost everyone human some of the time. Then I divide the horoscopes into the traditional 12 zodiac constellations of astrology (there are actually 13, don’t forget poor little Ophiuchus). I hand them out to the class by their astrological signs and ask them to read the horoscopes and rate how accurately they describe them. The results are not surprising — to me. Most students think my generic paragraph does a pretty good job of describing them. Then I have one of the students read theirs aloud, and everyone starts to understand the trick.
There are some things that correlate with birthdate, like success in sports. The explanation isn’t astrology, however, but rather something less celestial: the registration deadlines for kid’s sports leagues, which leads to success for the more mature kids who in turn get praise, more attention, and more opportunities. (Be a little careful about swallowing totally this as there are other factors as well — see this article.)
The real problem here isn’t specifically astrology, but recent or increasing trends of people distrusting science, especially when it is not in agreement with their own personal views. Many fundamentalists don’t accept evolution, which contradicts their religious faith. Many libertarians don’t accept climate change, which would require regulations they’re against. Others reject GMOs and vaccines as unnatural, and use flawed or hoaxed studies to support their beliefs. Moreover, there are accomodationists (like the late Stephen Jay Gould) who want to elevate subjective approaches to knowledge to the same level as science with pretentious phrases like “non-overlapping magisteria” that let them hold their faith-based beliefs next to their science-derived beliefs without comparing the methods that have led to each group.
We’re humans. We’re not always intellectually consistent.
Most humans use their intellects to rationalize what they believe, instead of using their intellects to develop their beliefs in objective ways. One of the reasons science is so important is that its methodology in theory and practice is designed to remove the subjective element that is subject to error, confirmation bias, and a whole slate of human shortcomings. We should all be checking our beliefs against science when possible, and consider first that our own ideas are likely the wrong ones when they disagree.
How about astrology “for entertainment purposes only?” Sure. I have a couple of decks of tarot cars — for the art, not because there’s any evidence they can tell the future. I have an Ouiji board — for decoration at Halloween, not because I think I can use it to speak with the dead. And I have all kinds of software for generating star charts — so I can point my telescope at the correct target, not because there’s any credible evidence the detailed positions of objects in the sky have any effect on the personalities of people the moment they’re born.
Sure, we can all tell each other that it’s okay to have faith, to hold any personal beliefs you want to, because usually we ourselves have some irrational ideas and biases we don’t want challenged, but as a science educator I have problems with this. I have students in my astronomy classes who sometimes complain that I take a “scientific approach” to things — in a science class! The fact is that in an increasingly complex and technologically dangerous world, a faith-based approach to life in which the most reliable knowledge is discarded or held to be just “an opinion” is an untenable one. Or one in which we develop a world of Morlocks and Eloi, as we were warned by H. G. Wells. And me, personally, would rather not live in a world in which astronomers literally eat astrologers instead of complaining about the snake oil they peddle.
And if you agree with me, it doesn’t mean you have to be a boring, stuffy, elitist person with a label of “scientism.” There’s a whole world out there full of art, emotions, experiences, opinion, beauty, and more, that science might help explain, but it can’t replace. There’s plenty of mystery left, even with a scientific mindset, and a lot less ignorance.
You can disagree with me if you want, but I’m going to ask for citations!