I am a skeptic. I am convinced that science is the most reliable method to discover truths about nature. I am a proponent of scientific skepticism. I also teach astronomy to non-scientists. Astrology is a pseudoscience (more on this later). A troubling 2003 poll showed that 31% of Americans believe in the efficacy of astrology. Sorry Europeans, but you don’t do any better.
Astronomy and astrology are historically connected. Funding from astrology historically supported astronomy research, and the most important astronomers before Isaac Newton – Tycho Brahe, Johannes Kepler, and Galileo Galilei – were astrologers by profession. Then came something awesome: the age of reason and the age of enlightenment. Astronomy and astrology began to diverge. By 1600, astronomy had come to be viewed a central science and astrology was increasingly viewed as superstition. I consider astrology to be a pseudoscience, and I’m in good company, including that of the National Science Foundation.
Pseudoscience is an inherently pejorative term. It asserts that something is being inaccurately or deceptively portrayed as science. When I taught astronomy in the Dominican Republic, some of the resort’s guests were inevitably part of astrology’s faithful 31%. They of course came to me, excited to hear my take on their belief. Bad idea, people. I enjoy learning and I enjoy debating, but I’m not terribly good at being ‘sensitive’ to others’ beliefs. And I shouldn’t be. Everyone has the right to speak, but no one has the right to have their ideas respected. Debated in a normal – perhaps tactful – human way, maybe. But respected… no, not at all.
I’m rarely on the attack and I frequently hold my tongue against my better judgment. When I do speak up, however, I express and defend my opinions. Just because something is strongly believed doesn’t make it true. Similarly so with things that are generally ‘immune’ from criticism. Often, ideas that challenge closely held beliefs are referred to as “heretical”, “inappropriate”, “sexist”, and “insensitive” – among other labels. People use these labels most often when they are worried that an idea may hold merit or be true. The purpose of these labels is to stop conversation before anyone has a chance to examine whether the ideas are true or not. If someone has an idea, the absolute worst thing anyone can say about it is that it is untrue or less-preferable to an alternative. (A person can be “racist” or “insensitive” – an idea can’t.) When someone gets upset about an idea or declares it off limits, I recommend that you keep probing, pursuing, and educating yourself. Chances are you’re on to something.
*Thank you to Paul Graham for the thought about ‘conversation stopper’ words
**I’m a bit torn on how far to take scientific skepticism. On one hand I think I’m fine with people believing weird things as long as they keep their beliefs to themselves (and, for example, don’t try to have them inserted into the public school curriculum). On the other hand I think it hugely important that we continue moving forward as a society, refining our critical thinking abilities and embracing scientific inquiry.
posted by jayhorowitz