Astrology and Other Acts of Sedition

Ben Franklin, revolutionary, statesman and renowned inventor. He may or may not have been an astrologer, but it’s clear from his writing that he was very knowledgeable about the subject.

The National Science Foundation, a U.S. Government agency, puts together a yearly report on public views of science and engineering. Among the topics reviewed every year is the public’s belief in “pseudoscience,” which is defined to include astrology.

According to the NSF, at least 25 percent of Americans believe in astrology, most of whom are poor, uneducated, and lacking in critical thinking skills. In past annual reports, the NSF has insinuated that these hapless individuals are being exploited by the media and others who perpetrate such hoaxes. The solution, presumably, is to teach more math and science in the schools.

My first reaction upon reading this was, “What a bunch of bunk,” and then I got a good laugh at the irony. So let’s put on our critical thinking caps and take a closer look at the data for which you and I paid – presuming you have an income, which, according to this study, you don’t.

To start with, we need to look at how the questions are being asked and how astrology is defined. In fact, the authors of the NSF study betray a gross ignorance of astrology by calling it the belief that “the position of the stars and planets can affect people’s lives.” Put that way, I’d say I didn’t believe in it, either!

Also, people are asked to rate how “scientific” they think astrology is, within a given definition of “scientific.” The logical conclusion, then, is that you shouldn’t believe in anything that doesn’t meet the government’s definition of scientific. What we can say with certainty is that astrology doesn’t fit unimaginative government scientists’ outdated view of science.

We might also infer from this study that educated people are embarrassed to admit that they think there might be something to astrology. Think about it: You’re doing your master’s in engineering, and some government scientific type asks whether you believe in astrology. How are you going to answer?

Meanwhile, it’s interesting to note that, according to the NSF’s 2006 report, Europeans tend to believe in astrology more than Americans, even though the public knowledge of science is higher in Europe than in the United States. Another study I ran across shows that 80 percent of British people read their horoscopes (if anyone’s interested, I’ll try to track down the source). The British are among the most highly educated people in the world.

Speaking of the Europeans, they put astrology on a par with economics in terms of how scientific it is. Having minored in economics in my undergrad studies, I’d put economics a step or two lower. It would be fun one of these days to do a study comparing the accuracy of predictions by financial astrologers and economists.

A few more thoughts before I go:

  • Apparently, by perpetrating “pseudoscience” on an unwitting public (i.e., you), I’m engaging in an activity that is frowned upon by the U.S. Government.
  • If only poor, uneducated people believe in astrology, how do you account for the proliferation of astrology on the Internet? Poor people don’t have computers, and people who use the Internet regularly tend to be better educated. Judging from the excellent writing and critical thinking skills of my fellow PiChronics, you are anything but uneducated (I can’t vouch for your income levels).
  • What is the U.S. Government doing wasting my tax dollars on pseudo-research? I’d rather that they put the money directly into inner city math and science programs.

[This article originally appeared on The Pisces Chronicles on August 20, 2006.]