Author and science journalist Chris Mooney recently wrote a very revealing article for Mother Jones in which he showcases the latest analysis of the unsettling extent to which Americans misunderstand science and embrace pseudoscience. Mooney reports on a new survey compiled from a variety of sources by the National Science Foundation, which has found that nearly half of all Americans (45 percent) believe that astrology is either “very scientific” or “sort of scientific.” Astrology, as most people know, is the study of the purported influence of celestial bodies on human behavior and personality and worldly events.
Interestingly, the percentage of Americans who believe that astrology is a legitimate science is about the same as the astounding 49 percent of Americans who, according to a 2010 congressional report presented by the National Academy of Sciences, do not know how long it takes for the Earth to make a complete orbit around the sun. It is thus little wonder that the NSF found that, in the words of Mooney’s report, “The recent increase in astrological credulity was most dramatic among those with less science education and less ‘factual knowledge.’”
The NSF astrology survey was part of a larger comprehensive analysis contained in the 2014 Science and Engineering Indicators study, which has revealed that over the last decade, American attitudes about science have been “moving in the wrong direction.” Skepticism of astrology hit an all-time high in 2004, when 66 percent of Americans said that astrology is “not at all scientific.” But every year since then saw fewer and fewer respondents dismissing the connections between star alignment and human personality as the bunk that it is.
The astrology belief poll was first conducted in 1979, when it found that 50 percent of Americans were skeptical of astrology as a science. Astrology skepticism increased little by little until 2004, when the record high of 66 percent skepticism of astrology among Americans was documented. Then the skepticism began to decline. The latest NSF survey numbers are from 2012, when skepticism of astrology dropped down to 55 percent. This is the lowest post-1979 number since 1983, when 51 percent of survey respondents indicated they were skeptical of astrology.
Younger people seem especially inclined to offer unwarranted scientific legitimacy to astrology. A majority (57 percent) of Americans aged 18 to 24 considers the practice of astrology to be at least “sort of scientific.” The 25 to 34 age group is not far behind them, with 43 percent believing that astrology is at least somewhat scientific.
This is extremely disconcerting in terms of America’s future as a scientific civilization. The survey highlights the pressing need for continuing efforts to improve science and critical thinking education in America. The late physicist Milton Rothman articulated the concern well when he wrote in his 1988 book A Physicist’s Guide to Skepticism, “If the teaching of science is to be dictated by those who understand neither science nor the logic of scientific discovery, then our entire country will suffer from the ignorance of the next generation.” What can advocates of science and skepticism do, and what steps are we not taking? There is much we have to accomplish, and there is no easy solution. But for starters, we might take a look at how China teaches science and critical thinking. The NSF compares the number of people who believe in the legitimacy of astrology in America with the same number in China. Acceptance of astrology is very low in China, with only 8 percent of the populace believing in horoscopes.
In his great book The Demon-Haunted World, the late astronomer and science popularizer Carl Sagan wrote, “Pseudoscience is embraced, it might be argued, in exact proportion as real science is misunderstood.” The National Science Foundation survey strongly supports this succinct statement. Although a decline in scientific literacy and a proportionately rising embrace of pseudoscience in a society may describe more of a curve than a strictly linear relationship, there is no shortage of data indicating a definite correlation between the ability to think critically and rejection of pseudoscience.