The growing trend of confusing astrology with science

Astrology is the fatally-flawed idea that the location and movement of stars and planets influence our lives here on earth. It’s the epitome of a NON-scientific idea that has been discarded centuries ago. No scientist studies it. However, a recent survey shows almost all population segments, especially young people, mistakingly think this field is considered “scientific”. Are we failing in science education or are pop cultural influences to blame for this disturbing development?

More and More Americans Think Astrology Is Science | Mother Jones.

I believe in a lot of astrology.” So commented pop megastar Katy Perry in a recent GQ interview. She also said she sees everything through a “spiritual lens”…and that she believes in aliens.

According to data from the National Science Foundation’s just-released 2014 Science and Engineering Indicators study, Americans are moving in Perry’s direction. In particular, the NSF reports that the percentage of Americans who think astrology is “not at all scientific” declined from 62 percent in 2010 to just 55 percent in 2012 (the last year for which data is available). As a result, NSF reports that Americans are apparently less skeptical of astrology than they have been at any time since 1983.

So, this is not good. Most people think of astrology as sounding VERY sciencey – stars, planets, formulas, charts, etc. Those features are iconically “science”-oriented. Sadly, the public learns ideas about science from pop culture – TV, movies, stereotypes and visual tropes. Those are rarely accurate. Sounding sciencey is not actually proper practice of science. It’s typically trying really hard to look like it but it abysmally fails.

The truth is, astrology is just about as fake science as you can get. It’s more like a religion, based in long rejected natural beliefs and replaced by the scientific study of ASTRONOMY.

ASTRO-logy vs ASTRO-nomy. (Maybe I should call myself a geonomer instead of geologist!)

There is a HUGE cavernous difference between these two fields. Of course, astrology – reading charts, getting your fortune predicted, and such, has experienced a resurgence in popularity thanks to new agey celebrities who subscribe to such things and are happy to endorse them. Uncertain times and people who rely on the whims of fortune tend to use superstitious beliefs as a means of feeling in control. The entertainment industry is rather steeped in pseudoscientific beliefs. They sound good but there is no substance under the hood.

Belief in astrology rises and falls across time. In a way, some who spend money on it may find it useful to assess their life choices and major decisions. But, I wouldn’t recommend it. I would recommend reasoning and asking advice from people who really are experts in the subject you are concerned with – finances, medicine, relationships and the like. Is astrology belief harmful? Not usually life threatening, just expensive, but making decisions based on nonsense is really not a sound way to move ahead in the world.

Educators who are disturbed by this trend (and all of you should be) might make a point to describe the clear DIFFERENCE between astrology and astronomy to kids. It’s a good story and, because this topic is popular, kids will probably listen.

  18 comments for “The growing trend of confusing astrology with science

  1. J
    February 12, 2015 at 6:39 PM

    Reminds me of Megan Fox’s attempt at explaining astrology to Conan O’Brien back in August or so.

    http://teamcoco.com/video/megan-fox-assigns-conan-his-spirit-animal

    From what little I’ve read about Perry’s background, I’m not surprised she’s let her brain fall into such nonsense.
    Perhaps being easily believed means it’s okay to tell others what they want to hear? And one’s self?

  2. Ronald H. Pine
    February 12, 2015 at 7:51 PM

    Some time ago, the Skeptical Inquirer also defined astrology as the mistaken idea that the location and movement of stars and planets influence our lives here on earth. In response, I wrote a published letter to the editor pointing out that the location and movement of stars and planets do influence our lives here on earth. Things here in the universe are connected in cause-and-effect ways. I assume that the location and movements of the planets, especially the big ones, influence the orbits of chunks of junk in space, such as meteoroids and asteroids, and whether and where they might impact earth, for example. People looking up at a starry night, and musing at the patterns they see, form trends of thought based on these patterns, and trends of thought affect what these people might say to their companions at the moment and their later actions. What astronomers see in the way of the location and movement of planets and stars certainly has effects on their research and careers. An astronomer friend of my family named Clyde Tombaugh was enabled, because of its location and movement, to discover Pluto, which had a profound effect on his career. Every now and then people read online or in the newspaper about unusual planetary juxtapositions, which cause them to get up and go out to take a look for themselves. That’s more than enough examples–sorry to belabor the point. The issue is that the locations and movements of the stars and planets do not affect the lives of people here on earth in the mystical and supposedly predictable ways that astrologers say that they do.

  3. Ronald H. Pine
    February 12, 2015 at 8:21 PM

    I discovered a while back that a certain percentage of people in this country are confused by the similarity of the words “astrology” and “astronomy” and that when they use one of those words they may mean the other, or when they hear you use one of the words they hear the other, or they may be unaware of the existence of one or the other of the two areas of endeavor and think that both refer to the same thing, etc. As is so often the case, the specific wording of a question on a questionnaire and the information provided (or not) with it can sometimes result in significant numbers of answers appearing to indicate things that they really don’t. I’ll bet that some of the people who answered this questionnaire read “astrology” and thought they’d just read the word for the actual science of studying the heavenly bodies. Maybe not a significant number did this, but the people who wrote the questionnaire should have foreseen this possibility and taken steps to keep it from happening.

  4. Peebs
    February 12, 2015 at 8:37 PM

    Citations please Mr Pine.

    I ask primarily for proof and secondly to enjoy the posts which will follow.

  5. Ronald H. Pine
    February 12, 2015 at 8:41 PM

    Poor reading skills or careless reading could also cause problems with people answering that question–they might think that they’ve just read the word “astronomy.” Astrology should have been defined in some neutral fashion.

  6. Ronald H. Pine
    February 12, 2015 at 8:54 PM

    As noted in my comment–I was the person who discovered this fact–it was not something that I learned about by reading citable literature. I discovered it in the course of teaching college students from a great variety of backgrounds, high school students from a great variety of backgrounds, and people from a great variety of backgrounds who I dealt with as a naturalist in a lot of nature-related recreational pursuits. I had one college student who was still calling astronomy astrology at the end of a semester’s earth science course, which included many days of instruction in astronomy.

  7. Peebs
    February 12, 2015 at 9:05 PM

    An ad hom so early? Disappointed Ron.

  8. Ronald H. Pine
    February 12, 2015 at 9:42 PM

    You lost me. Who was the ad hominem directed at and what was its nature? And should I engage in ad hominems only later on in discussions, where they would be OK?

  9. Lagaya1
    February 12, 2015 at 11:02 PM

    Isn’t that just being pedantic? Although we here know what you mean, if you tell your students that, most will just think you’re telling them that astrology is real, and as a teacher you must be right.

  10. CimPy
    February 13, 2015 at 12:42 AM

    I must endorse mr Pine argument – during a TV show on science, an interviewer introduced Margherita Hack as “one of the most famous Astrologist”. It is reported ( http://tv.fanpage.it/margherita-hack-mi-chiamavano-astrologa-credevano-leggessi-la-mano/) she was used to be appelled as “astrologist” by people who confused terns or thought the two things were the same.
    It is, of course, a matter of ignorance, though it might not be a matter of faith if you *simply* mistake on terms…

  11. CimPy
    February 13, 2015 at 12:47 AM

    Ps:italian tv show – I am not able to find it now, but I can add some more references on that kind of mistake:
    http://www.fotolog.com/cosmi/54371687/

  12. Blargh
    February 13, 2015 at 8:16 AM

    “Maybe I should call myself a geonomer instead of geologist!”

    Geomancer!

  13. February 13, 2015 at 10:59 AM

    Ronald, here’s a post (from the Washington Post) exploring exactly that (good) question.

  14. the14thListener
    February 13, 2015 at 1:21 PM

    My undergrad Astronomy 101 class had an Astrology unit. The instructor made clear it was more for historical purposes and not support by research. I found reckoning of signs relative to star and planet positions more confusing than real empirical astronomy.

  15. Richard
    February 13, 2015 at 1:38 PM

    St Augustine of Hippo (354-430 CE) wrote the most devastating and accurate condemnation of Astrology: not based upon Theology, but Reason & Science.

    In the Confessiones (Confessions) he wrote a reminiscence about two wealthy landowners in Hippo (North Africa, near modern Tunis) who were great believers in Astrology. It turned out that the wife of one of this members of the aristocracy and the slave in the other’s household were pregnant at the same time, and they intended a life-long experiment to prove the accuracy of astrological divination. It turned out that as near as they could tell with the calendar & timekeeping systems of their time, the slave child (also a slave) and the aristocrat’s child (heir to a fortune) were born at the same moment and would have the same horoscope. Both of the landowners gave up their belief in Astrology because obviously a slave and a scion of a wealthy family cannot have the same future.

    People today who believe in Astrology do not appreciate how BIG the Earth is, how many children are born every moment — and some will be wealthy, some will die tragically young from disease or war, some will be in incredible wealth and opportunity, some will be in ghettos looking to prostitution or the drug trade to earn a living. To think what the remote formations of the constellations have any influence on any of those lives is just beyond absurd.

  16. Votre
    February 15, 2015 at 11:39 AM

    I was taught that a good preliminary test to see if an oracle was actually saying anything was to take the advice being presented, and then try standing it on it’s head to see if the opposite were equally likely to be true. Astrology often offers faux advice such as “clear thinking is called for” and “caution needs to be exercised due to he period of uncertainty you are entering.”

    Is there any time when sloppy thinking would be called for? Or caution not be exercised since uncertainty is ever present in our lives?

    About half the horoscopes I’ve seen contain mountains of advice which would be equally valid without needing the ‘science’ of astrology to prop them up. A rather neat dodge that. Because if the relatively few “out on a limb” predictions turn out to be wrong, an astrologer can always point to the preponderance of “correct” things in the reading to “prove” the validity of the forecast, and by extrapolation, astrology as a whole. The argument usually runs along the lines of: “Well yes. That part was wrong. But the rest of it was spot-on. About 95% accurate from what you’ve said.” Next comes the false scientific support: “Consider, that 95% is about as close to 100% as it’s possible to get. Even the quantum physicists have established there’s always going to be some uncertainty in any measurement or physical system that can’t ever be completely eliminated.”

  17. Rolly Leclerc
    February 15, 2015 at 4:29 PM

    Reply to Votre : You have perfectly described the so called “Forer-Barnum effect”, into which one can recognize himself even though one thing ant its opposite is writen…

  18. Loren Petrich
    February 16, 2015 at 4:58 PM

    The terms “astrology” and “astronomy” date from antiquity, and it’s a historical accident that one term got attached to star divination and the other to star science. It’s disappointing that “astromancy” never caught on for astrology, though it would be a much better name.

    Astrology is based on correspondences between celestial and terrestrial entities and events. Like between signs of the zodiac and parts of the body, and between planets, openings in the head, and metals. When Galileo discovered Jupiter’s four big moons with his telescope, a certain Francesco Sizzi wrote a book called Dianoia Astronomica in which he argued that those moons cannot exist because there are no openings in the human head for them to correspond to. In the sky, there are two favorable stars, two unfavorable stars, two luminaries, and unique Mercury, erratic and indifferent. In the head, there are two eyes, two ears, two nostrils, and one mouth. What better evidence could anyone need?

    Steve Farmer at safarmer.com has argued that “correlative cosmologies” were common in premodern societies. Astrology is an obvious one, with ancient and medieval European and Islamic astrologers going into incredibly gory detail about celestial-terrestrial correspondences. Likewise, ancient and medieval European medicine featured a “doctrine of signatures”, which stated that medicinal herbs resemble parts of the body that they are useful for. Premodern Chinese also had similar sorts of beliefs, like the numerous correspondences in the Wu Xing.

    But all those correspondences are pure woo-woo, as far as anyone can tell. There is absolutely zero direct evidence for forces that can cause those correspondences, and absolutely zero empirical evidence of such correspondences. Astrologers like to say that the stars incline but do not compel, but there is a big branch of mathematics designed for testing for the presence of effects that incline without compelling: statistics. Yet astrological predictions have yet to pass statistical-significance tests.

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