Monday, February 16, 2015
Is Astrology Science?
Here is a story from the Washington Post from one year ago today. According to the National Science Foundation belief in astrology increased “from 32 percent in 2006 and 35 percent in 2010 to 45 percent in 2012.” It is interesting that they use the word belief, usually associated with religion where no proof is required or expected. Is there any basis at all for this belief or is it more evidence that science education in America is falling behind?
From December 1985 this article in the journal Nature describes two double-blind tests designed to validate the thesis that astrological 'natal charts' can be used to accurately describe personality traits. The researcher chose 30 astrologers from American and Europe based on peer reviews of their accuracy. He gave them three charts assigned to each of 116 unseen clients and asked them to choose the one that best described their personality based on the times and dates of their birth. The clients were real people, and one of the charts was the result from a reputable personality profile, California Personality Inventory(CPI), they had taken earlier. The other two charts were results of the CPI for other people not included in the test. Using their skills the astrologers tried to match the birth information with the corresponding personality profile. They made a correct match one in three times, exactly the same percentage as would be expected from guessing. The tests were double blind, meaning neither the astrologers nor the testers knew the correct answer at the time of testing.
In another instance at Case Western Reserve University, a researcher tested an astrological prediction that scientist and politicians tended to be born under two particular signs. He looked up birth dates for over 16,000 scientist and 6,475 politicians and found that their birth dates were distributed throughout the year as randomly as the general public.
Many other such tests have been done as recorded in this Wikipedia page. Despite no proof of the accuracy of astrology and no reasonable scientific explanation as to how the position of the planets could in any way affect the personality or future of anyone, why would this belief persist, and even grow? The answer lies more in the mind of the public than in the skill of the astrologers.
As expected people believe what they want to believe. It’s a phenomenon unflatteringly called the Barnum Effect, named for the showman PT Barnum, “whose formula for success was 'A little something for everybody.'” Much research over the past 40 years found that people will “take the generalized, trite, bogus descriptions, which are true of nearly everybody, to be specifically true of themselves.” It works best if the feedback is positive and believed to come from a reliable source.
A professor at the University of Kansas did a related test. He put together three groups of people and gave them each exactly the same personality description and asked each person to rate it on a scale from 1 to 5 (5 meaning very accurate), as to how well it described him or her. The first group was told that it was a general personality sketch and rated it 3.2 – approximately neutral. The second group had been asked for their birth month prior to receiving the profile and was told that the profile was based on a horoscope for their sign. They rated it 3.76. The third had been asked for date of birth and were told that it was a personal horoscope reading. The average rating for the identical personality profile from the third group was 4.38! This outcome has been replicated many times under similar circumstances.
The conclusion is frightening. In the face of overwhelming evidence and strong scientific arguments to the contrary, nearly half the population persists in believing that astrology is very scientific or sort of scientific. (What does “sort of scientific” even mean?) If America’s science teachers aren’t weeping at this news, they should be. If America is going to be strong in critical thinking, we have a long way to go.
Note: I have heard that people tend increase the use of horoscopes and such when they feel under stress or out of control. Perhaps this indirectly reinforces the polls showing that Americans feel their country is headed in the wrong direction. Remember, the behavioral model is intended to demonstrate how we are in control, how changes in behavior in the key dimensions will lead to better outcomes, and how looking to the government or other supposed saviors is futile.
(Thanks to Ed for the original link.)