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NSF Report Flawed; Americans Do Not Believe Astrology Is Scientific 326

RichDiesal writes "A new report (PDF) from the National Science Foundation, which we discussed a few days ago, states that roughly 40% of Americans believe astrology to be scientific. This turns out to be false; most of those apparently astrology-loving Americans have actually confused astrology with astronomy. In a 100-person Mechanical Turk study with a $5 research budget, I tested this by actually asking people to define astrology. Among those that correctly defined astrology, only 10% believe it to be scientific; among those that confused astrology for astronomy, 92% believe 'astrology' to be scientific."
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NSF Report Flawed; Americans Do Not Believe Astrology Is Scientific

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  • Really good question (Score:5, Informative)

    by sideslash ( 1865434 ) on Friday February 14, 2014 @03:34PM (#46248955)
    I searched/skimmed the NSF paper, and it wasn't obvious that they took any pains to define astrology for their interviewees. So you very well may be right; good job.
    • by sunderland56 ( 621843 ) on Friday February 14, 2014 @03:39PM (#46249019)
      So instead of 40% of Americans having a poor concept of science, it looks like 40% of Americans have a poor concept of English. Is that any better?
      • by dreamchaser ( 49529 ) on Friday February 14, 2014 @03:43PM (#46249065) Homepage Journal

        Well, duh. We don't speak English here in the States. We speak 'murican.

      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by sideslash ( 1865434 )

        So instead of 40% of Americans having a poor concept of science, it looks like 40% of Americans have a poor concept of English. Is that any better?

        In terms of measuring the level of acceptance of pseudoscience, yes, it would be a favorable adjustment to make. But it's perfectly OK with me if you want to change the subject and rant about (lack of) English skills in the general population.

      • by smartr ( 1035324 ) on Friday February 14, 2014 @04:00PM (#46249273)
        I imagine most just don't know what "Astrology" means off the tops of their head, and they probably think it's some scientific term for astronomy... "Horoscope" is probably a more familiar term. Furthermore, if you asked someone if "Scientology" was science based, if the interviewee doesn't know what Scientology is, they would probably say it was science based... Entomology, Arthropodology, Herpetology, Aerobiology, Virology, Phytopathology, Psychobiology, Ethology, Kinesiology, Neuroendocrinology, Psychophysiology... what?
        • Psychophysiology is about psychos, right? And Herpetology is... well, yeah.
        • by mark-t ( 151149 )

          The thing is, originally, astrology *was* a very scientific term. It refered to the practical application of astronomy to predict natural phenomena, such as when eclipses would occur, what time of year a partiicular star would be at its highest position in the sky, when planetary conjunctions would occur, etc.

          Somewhere along the line, somebody got it in their head that the events which happen on earth and in individual people's lives are somehow causally connected to the movements of celestial objects a

        • by budgenator ( 254554 ) on Friday February 14, 2014 @04:30PM (#46249647) Journal

          The horoscope is simply a diagram of the position of the major planets, moon and Zodiac constellations, as such is quite scientific. Astrologers often make predictions of future events based on a person's birth horoscope and the current horoscope which is quite unscientific. Historically astronomers would cast horoscopes and do such saying for their rich patrons to fimance their scientific endeavors

        • I imagine most just don't know what "Astrology" means off the tops of their head, and they probably think it's some scientific term for astronomy

          All pseudo-science tries to utilize scientific sounding jargon in an attempt to sound more credible.

          Therefore, if we are to to better educate Americans to prevent them from falling prey to pseudo-science mambo-jumbo, it is equally important to sharpen their vocabulary skills. Those who push astrology deliberate try to capitalize on it's perceived confusion with astronomy. Astrologers would probably look at the fact that the majority of people confuse it with astronomy as a positive. We shouldn't take any

      • by Tridus ( 79566 )

        Not knowing the difference between two similar looking words isn't that uncommon. Average people don't have to pay attention to astronomy or astrology on a daily basis, and stuff is going to get forgotten.

        It doesn't mean anything except that people got the meaning of the word confused with another word. That happens pretty much everywhere on the planet, and says nothing about Americans.

      • So instead of 40% of Americans having a poor concept of science, it looks like 40% of Americans have a poor concept of English. Is that any better?

        Oh, I'm certain it's much higher than that; all this proves is that 40% of the people polled don't know the difference between these 2 particular terms.

      • by smartr ( 1035324 )
        I think one might argue, it's more that the NSF either sucks at common sense or intentionally makes misleading surveys.
      • Eh – the words are reasonably close. Personally, I always get cosmetology and cosmology mixed up.

      • You can't paint them all with that brush. I'm pretty sure I have a decent concept of English, and even a decent understanding of English (you used 'concept' wrong there, for what you obviously intended it to mean) and sometimes I have to stop and look twice to see if 'astronomy' or 'astrology' is being used where it's meant to be. It's just one of those weird word pairings that trip people up: two similar words relating to two broadly similar things. It's not like people insisting Austria is Australia.
      • by O('_')O_Bush ( 1162487 ) on Friday February 14, 2014 @04:11PM (#46249419)
        40% of Americans don't care enough about astrology or astronomy to learn the difference.

        That is probably most accurate.
      • So instead of 40% of Americans having a poor concept of science, it looks like 40% of Americans have a poor concept of English. Is that any better?

        With the number of supposedly educated people on /. who don't know the difference between "their", "there", and "they're", or "its" and "it's", or "your" and "you're", this doesn't surprise me at all.

      • Having a poor concept of a word you rarely use isn't a sign of bad English skills. How many Americans wouldn't get the correct meaning of "Want to go suck a fag?". A part of learning English is learning the Roots and inferring meaning from those roots if you don't know the actual meaning of a word. Astro - relating to the stars ology is a branch of learning. Astrology based on the Root meaning of the word is Study of the Stars like how Geology is the Study of the Earth. Astronomy is actually the odd duck be
      • Do you know the difference between psychology and psychiatry? Or the difference between ophthalmology and optometry? How about the difference between the Internet and an intranet? Or even the difference between affect and effect? And you've never confused any of these terms, nor known anybody of intelligence to confuse these terms?

        Similar sounding words for similar concepts cause confusion. This is not particularly surprising, nor is it particularly indicative of intelligence. Language is complicated,

    • by icebike ( 68054 )

      I searched/skimmed the NSF paper, and it wasn't obvious that they took any pains to define astrology for their interviewees. So you very well may be right; good job.

      Exactly what I thought, but there was no chance of making that point in the prior post due to the overwhelming piling on of "Dumb Americans" posts.

      Still confusing that term isn't smart, but not recognizing that people "skim" when reading or listening to poll questions is equally dumb.

      Then again, mechanical turk is hardly something to attract the Average American, or the Average Adult Human for that matter. It is already pre-selected for reasonably educated people who are at least quite computer literate.

    • by msauve ( 701917 )
      But, they stressed the change:

      In 2012, slightly more than half of Americans said that astrology was "not at all scientific," whereas nearly twothirds gave this response in 2010. The comparable percentage has not been this low since 1983.

      ... more than the absolute figures. Of course that could simply mean that fewer people know the difference between astrology and astronomy, but that still indicates a dumbing down.

    • by AK Marc ( 707885 )
      Or if they did define it, they defined it as the "scientific study of the effects of season and tides on biometrics". A reasonable, if slightly strained, definition of Astrology. Originally it was science, at least as much as amateur astronomy is today. That it's not always clear what is meant (often because the reader is unfamiliar or unsure of the term) doesn't help.
      • Another factor may be the context of the interview. You will get different responses if you quickly pull someone aside and start in on your questions, versus a scheduling a volunteer.

        Late night comedians prey on this. Find a person on the street, perhaps on their way to work, then ask them some random questions. The results can be funny, but the person isn't stupid, just not in the right frame of mind, worried about how they look in TV, etc. Phone surveys must suffer from the same thing. It was just s

    • It seems like such an obvious thing to test for, if you are the kind of person who creates surveys, that it makes you wonder what motivated the NSF. Surely they know how to make a decent survey, and didn't do this by accident?
      • It helps to remember that all scientists are not alike, and they break down into various highly diverse groups. Over on one end you have the hard sciences like physics, where if you put out a bunch of baloney, people will point it out (very loudly), and you will be held accountable in your field. On the other end you have the soft sciences like sociology, where putting out baloney with highly political motivations is more the norm than the exception. If you have any doubt at all of what I just wrote, you
      • by jythie ( 914043 )
        Something to keep in mind, giving definitions also skews results. One of the things that makes this particular bit of research tricky is that the definition of 'astrology' is not as clear cut as people outside that community think. Many see astrology as applied astronomy, or astronomy as the cargo-cult version of astrology or astrology with the natural insight removed.

        Which means there is a bit of a flaw in the person's experiment. Those definitions of astrology are ones that would mostly be used by pe
        • The NSF people may have had a good reason to leave it out, that's not the problem. The problem is the definitely had reason to believe that their data didn't support the conclusion.

          If the data didn't support the conclusion, and they should have known it, and they published it anyway, that is bad science. I don't think anyone disagrees with that.
  • Yes, but (Score:5, Funny)

    by nani popoki ( 594111 ) on Friday February 14, 2014 @03:34PM (#46248957) Homepage
    How many who could correctly define astronomy still believe that it can be used to predict your future. Because that's astrophysics.
  • by Narcocide ( 102829 ) on Friday February 14, 2014 @03:35PM (#46248965) Homepage

    Even more of them will confuse cosmetology with cosmology. Someone trying to weigh a poll to make Americans look uneducated could have done much better.

    • by Sique ( 173459 )
      Americans would not be the first to make this mistake. When Lise Meitner in 1922 (after habilitating) anounced her first lecture in "cosmic physics", one reporter later wrote that Ms. Leitner would lecture about "cosmetic physics".
    • by SecurityGuy ( 217807 ) on Friday February 14, 2014 @04:10PM (#46249411)

      They probably cut science class one too many times and never took the make-up tests.

    • Hmm, I was getting this close to finishing up my Doctorate in Cosmetology.

  • by gurps_npc ( 621217 ) on Friday February 14, 2014 @03:37PM (#46248985) Homepage
    I thought this was the case.

    The problem is not that we are mystical idiots, just that we are can not spell and are not sure of the correct pronunciation of words.

  • by msobkow ( 48369 ) on Friday February 14, 2014 @03:39PM (#46249025) Homepage Journal

    Given the state of education, what else would you expect? We're talking about a nation that doesn't even know it's own geography, much less that of neighbours in the world. If they think Toronto or Vancouver are the capital of Canada, how can you expect them to know something like astrology vs. astronomy?

    Regardless of whether the majority of the population believes astrology is "scientific" or not, one thing is clear: the population as a whole has a shitty education.

  • by Skiron ( 735617 )
    99% of Americans are idiots; 1.0% run the Country. Much like the UK.
    • 99% of Americans are idiots; 1.0% run the Country. Much like the UK.

      Of course, the 1% who run the show are primarily derived from the 99% who are idiots, so... you know...

    • Is that 1% separate from or included in the 99%?
  • by joe_frisch ( 1366229 ) on Friday February 14, 2014 @03:40PM (#46249037)

    It is easy for surveys to give very misleading results if the questions are not well thought out, or if they have intentionally been designed to produce some result. The media tends to pick up on the more surprising results from surveys so that magnifies the effect in the public perception.

    "do you believe in evolution" "do you believe the current theory of evolution is correct" "Do you believe that god was involved in the creation of life" "should students be taught to question scientific theories like evolution". "do you think evolution likely is a correct description of the species we see on earth now" These may seem to be asking the same question, but are really quite different.

    • Even worse is "do you believe that evolution is just a theory".

  • by swb ( 14022 ) on Friday February 14, 2014 @03:43PM (#46249061)

    40% of Americans can't differentiate astrology from astronomy.

    When you don't know one of those from the other, what does it matter how you think about their scientific merits?

    • 40% of Americans can't differentiate astrology from astronomy.

      Worse, 40% of Americans don't have the critical thinking skills to understand why that can't be inferred from the data. Confusing two very similar words isn't the same as not understanding the difference between the two areas. Worst of all is the 40% of Americans base their false sense of superiority on knowing some terminology, rather than a substantive understanding.

    • Look on the bright side, it could be 40% of Americans have never heard of astrology. It's a dying field, after all.
  • by Moof123 ( 1292134 ) on Friday February 14, 2014 @03:48PM (#46249123)

    A friend of mine in 7th grade signed up for a cosmetology class thinking it was cosmology, and boy was he surprised. At least it was only one of those 1 hours per week deals to fill in a gap with our weird rotating schedule (7 classes for 6 periods).

  • by Overzeetop ( 214511 ) on Friday February 14, 2014 @03:50PM (#46249155) Journal

    Adam Corrolla and Jimmy Kimmel (and many, many other pranksters) have proven that people really don't know the language, but will gladly treat a misconception with confidence when given just a little nudge.

  • by wired_parrot ( 768394 ) on Friday February 14, 2014 @03:51PM (#46249157)
    So you're saying that it's not that Americans are prone to believe in pseudo-science, but that they lack basic English comprehension skills? Even if I were to believe that this unscientific internet study with a small sample size somehow trumps the observations of the National Science Foundation's wide ranging academic study, the conclusions derived are equally troubling. It's not that they're scientific illiterate - they're simply illiterate! Either conclusion indicates a serious deficit in US education standards, and rather than trying to justify the survey results away, we should be looking at ways to improving American education standards. If they can't distinguish between astronomy and astrology I'd be worried about their English vocabulary.
    • It's not that they're scientific illiterate - they're simply illiterate!


      we should be looking at ways to improving American education standards.

      "We should be looking at improving American education standards."

      Or "we should be looking at way to improve American education standards."

      In any case, our thanks for the case in point.

  • by FilmedInNoir ( 1392323 ) on Friday February 14, 2014 @03:53PM (#46249183)
    Friend of mine use to get these Fan boy catalogs for Star Trek/Star Wars trinkets. (ie. Stuff people made in their basement)
    One of the ads was for "Official Star Trek Badges". Engineering, Command, Medical, Security, and Astrology.... and it took us 10 mins to explain to him.
  • Please stop trying to spoil a fun narrative that gave the rest of the world a chance to reaffirm their feelings of superiority. If they ever stop believing Americans are stupid, they might start making it harder for us to tap their phone lines and "secure" communications.

    By the way, we have a picture of you and that Buttercup All Grown Up doll, dated last February 17.

    Thank you,

    Your friends at the NSA

  • 'Astrology' means 'the study of stars'. When real scientists began to study stars, this term had already been taken over by crackpots.
    So, they adopted 'Astronomy' which is the NAMING of stars, because the more correct term now meant something else.

    So, really, astronomy should be called astrology, and astrology should be called bunk.

  • by stenvar ( 2789879 ) on Friday February 14, 2014 @04:09PM (#46249399)

    People have actually looked at overall scientific literacy in the US, and it compares favorably to the EU (and the rest of the world):

    Jon Miller of Michigan State University reported the numbers at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting, this afternoon, during a session on civic science literacy assessments around the world. The new U.S. rate, based on questionnaires administered in 2008, is seven percentage points behind Sweden, the only European nation to exceed the Americans. The U.S. figure is slightly higher than that for Denmark, Finland, Norway and the Netherlands. And it’s double the 2005 rate in the United Kingdom (and the collective rate for the European Union). []

    Of course, it would be nice if scientific literacy were higher everywhere, including the US.

  • ...these people are confusing astrology with astronomy, then it indicates that they are as stupid as they would be if they thought astrology was scientific.

  • Thank heavens!
  • At the risk of receiving flames of /. hellfire, I'll admit that I am a professional astrologer. Any astrologer that actually understands the art knows that it's not a science in the conventional definition of the term. It is something between science and art, as it contains elements of both. Observation and correlation play a major part, then so does the harmonization of conceptual understandings, since it is impossible to empirically verify every possible combination of planet, sign, house. The number of v

    • No, you are just a liar and a charlatan. If you are using your "magic powers" to bilk money out of clueless people, eventually you will get thrown in jail with Rose Marks.

      • Interesting. Is that your open minded scientific reasoning? Or are you such an expert in the field of astrology that you have the authority to come to this enlightened conclusion?
    • The most sympathetic skeptical take on it would probably be: []
      "The rules just kind of got there. They don't make any kind of sense except in terms of themselves. But when you start to exercise those rules, all sorts of processes start to happen and you start to find out all sorts of stuff about people. In astrology the rules happen to be about stars and planets, but they could be about ducks and drakes for all the difference it would make. It's just a way of thinking abo

  • by __roo ( 86767 ) on Friday February 14, 2014 @04:37PM (#46249721) Homepage

    If the NSF Report actually stated "that roughly 40% of Americans believe astrology to be scientific," this would be an interesting use of five bucks. But that's not what the report says.

    Here's what the NSF report acually writes—and it's actually interesting:

    Fewer Americans rejected astrology in 2012 than in recent years.
    * In 2012, slightly more than half of Americans said that astrology was “not at all scientific,” whereas nearly two-thirds gave this response in 2010. The comparable percentage has not been this low since 1983.

    Page 7-6 of the report gives actual details about the survey—speciically, the Science and Technology portion of the General Social Survey" []. You can search the GSS survey for the word 'astrology' [] to see the actual question:

    ASTROSCI : ASTROLOGY IS SCIENTIFIC - 1037. Would you say that astrology is very scientific, sort of scientific, or not at all scientific?
    0 NAP
    1 Very scientific
    2 Sort of scientific
    3 Not at all scientific

    The whole point is that they're asking Americans if they know what the word 'astrology' means.

    If there was a mass epidemic of amnesia between 2010 and 2012, I don't remember it. So what caused the reversal in a steady trend that lasted from 1983 to 2010? Why did the number of Americans who know the definition of the word 'astrology' make a sudden and very large negative drop from 2010 to 2012?

    This is an interesting result, and to their credit the authors of the NSF report do a good job of accurately reporting their finding without resorting to hyperbole or finger-pointing.

  • by dkf ( 304284 ) <> on Friday February 14, 2014 @05:06PM (#46250063) Homepage

    When I was an undergraduate, the telescope a few miles away was listed in the phone book (remember those?) as the National Radio Astrology Observatory. Nobody really felt like correcting it.

Did you hear that two rabbits escaped from the zoo and so far they have only recaptured 116 of them?