Yesterday while I was working on things, my phone went off, saying I had a call from Alberta. I’m pretty sure this is the first time I’ve received any calls from Canada on my phone, so it was surprising. But more importantly it wasn’t a crank call; rather, it was a radio station in Calgary that was going to be talking about a new study on how many people in the US think astrology is legit science. You can look at this study here.
It is part of a larger science literacy study by the National Science Foundation, and they ask about astrology as a benchmark for the acceptance of pseudo-scientific beliefs. Why astrology? In part because it is very much bunk, and numerous studies show that astrologers cannot predict personal characteristics better than chance, and the agreement between astrologers, even using the same astrological methods, agree little more than at the level of chance. (I discuss this a bit in my book, The Star of Bethlehem: A Skeptical View). In part also because the idea of astrology is nearly omnipresent; a horoscope is found in just about every major newspaper, it’s on the front pages of other news sites, and it has a fair bit of popular press because of celebrity endorsement, such as pop singer Katy Perry. So belief in astrology as scientific or a useful practice can be a good barometer for non-scientific belief acceptance.
The recent study shows that still a small majority of Americans think that astrology is “not at all scientific”, but it is at a recent low. Over at Mother Jones, Chris Mooney provides these graphs for how rejection of astrology has changed over the years and how acceptance of astrology appears among different age demographics.
The thing to note is that astrology has a far greater acceptance among millennials verses other age demographics.
So, what is going on here?
Back to that phone call, I was invited onto 770 AM CHQR for a chat with hosts Angela Kokott and Dave Taylor about this new finding, why people buy into astrology, and why it seems to be growing. You can listen to the whole show by going to this website and picking the date of Feb 13 and at 3 PM to listen to the right show. I get on the air about 11.5 minutes in, give or take. The audio file will not be up for long, so go get it now!
To explain the growth, especially among young people, I said that it may partially be explained by the changing religious demographics. Millennials are more willing to reject traditional forms of religion, and branches of evangelical Christianity usually have only bad things to say about astrology, keeping their flocks away from it. Another factor, that I didn’t mention on the air, was that there has been recent economic and political stress, and such things often cause people to look for answers in domains that are outside what is mainstream or accepted by the elites (i.e., scientists). Compare the data from the late 1970s/early 1980s. The US had gone through the terrible Vietnam War, the Nixon resignation, stagflation, and failures of foreign policy under Carter in both Iran and Afghanistan. No wonder it was boom times for pseudo-science in that period, not to mention the counter culture movement that grew up in the 1960s. So, with the current issues of the sluggish economy after a world-wide banking debacle, the bailout of the super-rich, the continuing flat wages of most workers who can even get work, and a gridlock federal government, it isn’t looking like the elites of the country can do anything right. That makes things rife for pseudo-scientific ideas to gain a foothold.
This is also frightening because the decline in belief in astrology through the 1980s and 1990s was in part because of the organizing of skeptical groups to show it doesn’t work. In Nature, there was a paper published showing astrology didn’t work, and other well-designed studies showed similar results. The group CSICOP (now CSI) was getting well-organized after earlier issues dealing with astrology. But now a lot of that progress seems to have been reversed. This certainly will require a lot of work on the part of skeptic groups, but it won’t be easy considering that there is usually not the best amount of communication between believers in astrology and its detractors.
It’s not something that needs more study. Astrology has been shown by dozens of well-designed studies to not work better than what is expected by chance. Moreover, the apparent successes of horoscope “predictions” can be seen as either using statements that fit anyone (called Barnum statements, see the Forer Effect), or there is the use of cold reading, where the participant is asked by the astrologer vague or leading questions for the participant to place their answer in such a way as it appears that the astrologer knew the answer from the horoscope. And let’s not forget that for astrology to work you have to break the fundamental laws of physics, a non-trivial issue. But for someone that really believes, that won’t change things. Just like with creationists, it isn’t the evidence for astrology that attracts people but some other need it apparently fulfills, such as telling you something about yourself or your purpose. I recommended some ways of talking to people to get them to reason out of astrology before, but I may need to do something more in depth to really make it work. And it looks like of people my age and younger, they need to hear it.
(Also note: one of the authors of the study is John Besley of Michigan State University, my alma mater. Go Green!)