Newsflash America: Astrology is Not Scientific!

800px-Ecliptic_path-300x225Nearly 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!

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  1. Funny, I really don’t think I in any way inferred the Humanities were science. I have no idea why you would take that and use it to make me sound foolish. Clearly, this is your playground and real discussion is not welcome. I will not be back.

    1. Mitchell, Amazing is everyone’s playground.

      Scientific inquiry is separate from Amazing and it does have certain rules of engagement that everyone must follow. So there can be a discussion of the application of those methods to an inquiry into astrology – in which case that discussion has to follow the rules for scientific inquiry (otherwise such a discussion would be pointless) or there can be a discussion of astrology absent a connection to science, in which case the comments on an article challenging the scientific accuracy of astrology is probably not the right place.

    2. Mitchell – While I strongly agree with Mike’s viewpoint on astrology, I also appreciated the fact that your opposing response was measured, obviously thoughtful, and you didn’t resort to invective in defending your views. I think this type of discourse is what we should strive for here, and I’m sorry to read that you won’t be coming back. Knowing Steve, I don’t think his intent was to dismiss your response. I hope you can give him some slack on this one. He’s caught in terrible weather after a long st7int at the Convention, and he responded to your post at 5:57AM. Come back, okay?

    3. Mitchell, you said some things about soft sciences I agreed with to some extent, but didn’t directly compare astrology to those, and pivoted and wrote:

      “For Astrology, It certainly falls with in the Humanities as something to study that has theory, history and profound influences withing several other fields such as art and mythology.”

      How does me agreeing with your comparison to the humanities is valid (but not a science — still MY point) constitute taking away a real discussion? You leaving, apparently insulted, removes real discussion. My intent was not to insult you.

      You get to say anything here just like me. It’s OUR playground, to talk about topics of mutual interest. We don’t have to agree. In fact, if we agreed 100%, what is there to discuss?

      You know what’s the greatest strength of something being scientific? It’s the set of protocols like editors and peer review, as well as the willingness of scientists to give and take criticism without taking it (too) personally.

  2. I have seen this done many times. It is easy to debunk ‘Horoscopes’ which are decidedly generic in a snake-oil sales kind of way – from the view of a stage magician’s trick. Unfortunately, just as there is a difference between Astronomy and Astrology, there is also a difference between Astrology and Horoscopes, and I think you have made a classic assumption here – as did the study; it made no differentiation whatsoever, was very generic in its assumption of what people of equal ignorance assume and looked only with regard to the populist notion, not the actual study of Astrology… then applied the rules of only one side of science – physical, evidential causality by way of experimentation.

    Additionally, not all ‘science’ is based entirely on the scientific method and causality. It seems to me the correlation of data and observed behavior constitute a soft science like psychiatry, psychology, sociology, political science or other relational and data collected sciences if you will. Sorry, I used to know the term for that type of relational methodology, but I have forgotten. For Astrology, It certainly falls with in the Humanities as something to study that has theory, history and profound influences withing several other fields such as art and mythology.

    To be honest, it is the original basis of astronomy; it is based on observation and centuries of collected correlation recurrences. I am not an Astrologer myself, but I have seen the process of very detailed charts made for individuals and couples, witnessed the consultations and it is far more detailed than the common ‘Horoscope’ variety most people believe is ‘Astrology.’ When done correctly, Astrology involves a good bit of mathematical calculation and correlation of information. Moreover, we (humans’ collected knowledge) do know that light and other forms of radiation effect all life in different ways and we know that the Earth moves through overlapping fields of radiation all the time. So there may be room for a variety of scientific methodologies to be brought to bear for continued inquiry. Granted, it uses a 2-D model – it IS a very old ‘science’ and has not been properly updated in a long time, having been relegated to non-science areas, but it is largely unexplored with any real scientific method as you have pointed out. Frankly, I thought the whole point of scientific methodology was inquiry – not ridicule.

    I think it is a shallow definition (looking only at the populist ‘understanding’) that dismisses all of Astrology as pseudoscience, out of hand with no regard for real inquiry or consideration.

    1. Citations please! (I warned you.)

      The fact that astrology may be worth studies as a humanity doesn’t make it a science, does it? There’s a missing point in your argument: evidence that scientific methods are used to test tenets of astrology and our “astrological knowledge” is then developed based on repeatable phenomenology that yields consistent results that cannot be accounted for other than by the positions of objects in the sky. Anecdote, opinion, or belief need not apply.

      Math and statistics are tools of science — but they are not in any way science or sufficient for something to be “scientific.” I’d agree that some practice of astrology could be legitimately described as “technical,” but that is not the same thing as scientific.

      I’m actually a great fan of applying science to pseudoscience like astrology. I love to see a new field of inquiry opened — but these old things like astrology are really just ripe for debunkings, unfortunately. And actual astrologers making money at the game they play have no real incentive to open themselves up for the falsifications surely to emerge.

      Again, citations please. Offer up a specific astrological claim that is testable, and the results of the well defined and reviewed experiments testing it, and I can acknowledge that there’s a scientific element to the stuff.

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