Astronomy, Astrology, and Offending Others

18 05 2010

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




8 responses

18 05 2010

Yair, I couldn’t agree with you more! As a behavior analyst in the field of psychology, I often come across this issue. Queens College, CUNY (where I study) is one of a few institutions which list the psychology department under Natural Sciences and not Social Sciences. The two psychology doctoral programs housed at Queens College are “Neuropsychology” and “Learning Processes and Behavior Analysis”. Both of these programs have the same look as a basic science and rely exclusively on experimental manipulations and strong research design to make assertions. Contrast this approach with the more sexy and well-known psychoanalytic psychology (originated by Freud) which looks for unconscious conflicts (often relating to sexual impulses and childhood upbringing) as a cause for pathology. The problem with any approach that revolves around unconscious conflicts is that it cannot be proven or disproven specifically because it is unconscious and invisible to the naked eye. Instead regular people are encouraged to rely on “experts” who will psychoanalyze and uncover the truth underneath. The “expert” and unconscious issues are not unique to psychoanalytic psychologists and can be found in humanistic, existential, social-cognitive and other psychological orientations. Regarding therapies, I have seen sensory integration therapists brush a child for hours on end, nutritionists create all sorts of diets to cure autism (Google Jenny McCarthy and autism to see what I mean), speech pathologists attempt to cure a child with an eating disorder by teaching him to play with his food, and clinicians claim that therapy is a lifelong process (at $300 a session of course), all in the name of psychology. While the treatments above may be popular, they also lack scientific support. Compared to other fields of psychology, behavior analysts are boring, and have been accused of being cold and uncaring. Be this as it may, if it were my child that needed help, I would want a psychologist who was a scientist, so that data would be taken every step of the way, the treatment could be switched immediately if the data indicated that it was ineffective, and whatever treatment was chosen would be supported by a whole slew of experimental (not correlational or survey) research studies. As a field I think we will start to see a slow shift towards evidence-based treatment, largely because insurance companies are starting to demand evidence of improvement, and the government is starting to mandate scientifically proven treatments (i.e., Applied Behavior Analysis) for disorders like autism.

26 05 2010

Thanks for sharing! I recall some other non- evidence-based psychological techniques, such as NLP, rebirthing, etc. I hope you’re right about the direction that therapies are shifting. Go insurance company mandates!

24 05 2010
Allen Strouse

Maybe I don’t understand the way you’re using the word “idea?” Because I would say that clearly an idea can be racist. After all, racism is a set of beliefs, i.e. a collection of ideas. (Sure, an idea cannot occupy a subject position and therefore cannot be A racist, but the idea can belong to a set of beliefs that are racist.) Likewise, prejudices based on sex are not just ideas, but they are the sine qua non that defines sexism.

I wonder if you’re not leaving out how ideas are used to promote certain worldviews? The idea, for example, that Africa is the poorest continent on the planet may be “true,” but what is the social meaning of this idea? Who is putting forward this idea and to what end? To my mind, the facts don’t really speak for themselves. But we interpret them and use them rhetorically for our own ends.

Couldn’t we “embrace scientific inquiry” and still live in a totally unjust world?

Also what are the criteria for deciding if an idea is “less-preferable to an alternative?”

27 05 2010

I disagree. An idea can only be true or false, or more or less preferable to an alternative. It can belong to a set of beliefs that are racist, but that doesn’t make an idea racist. For example, the statement that “Asians are more intelligent than Caucasians” is either true or false – not racist. To me, racism implies generalized prejudice regardless of fact. If a Caucasian were to call the above statement “racist,” I would say – as in the post – that they are trying to stop the conversation before anyone has a chance to examine whether the idea is true or not. And that they are probably afraid that the statement may be true.

Ideas are of course used to promote certain worldviews. But if those worldviews are factual, the only negation of that worldview isn’t that it’s “racist” (to use one of many possible words), it’s that the worldview is less preferable to an alternative. To use your Africa example, perhaps a better alternative approach to that fact would be that more attention needs to be paid to approaches to poverty. You are right. Facts don’t speak for themselves. And that’s precisely why facts are never racist, insensitive, sexist, or anything of the sort. People, on the other hand, are.

Of course we could “embrace scientific inquiry” and still live in a totally unjust world. Scientific inquiry is to me the best way to approach truth – not justice. Scientific inquiry and the pursuit of justice can and should coexist.

As to criteria, that’s the philosophers’ realm, no?

Looking forward to hearing your thoughts.


29 05 2010
Allen Strouse

The idea that “Asians are more intelligent than Caucasians” would probably be racist, even if it were true.

There is no “pure fact,” because facts do not exist independently of human thinkers. If there were facts without human agents, then I would agree that facts cannot be racist, sexist, etc. Facts, however, cannot speak for themselves, and therefore must necessarily be inflected by the prejudices of the thinker, even when they are “true.”

By pointing out an idea’s ideological undertones, one isn’t necessarily trying to “stop a conversation.” Why shouldn’t racism, sexism, and sensitivity be part of the conversation?

It seems to me that many people today are trying to market “scientific truth” as a kind of worldview or philosophy. But this worldview doesn’t ask philosophical questions. Instead, it promotes one way of life as being more “scientific” than others. I can’t help thinking that it’s a cynical attempt to promote western, capitalist “progress.”

30 05 2010

And here we come to heads. I am a philosophical realist. I am convinced that there exists a reality independent of anyone thoughts, beliefs, or conceptual schemes. I am not a positivist.

Pointing out a person’s ideological undertones may be part of a conversation, but they can’t be used to poison the well or as part of ad hominem attacks. In my experience, that is how “conversation stopper” words are most frequently used.

“Scientific truth” isn’t a worldview or philosophy. Scientific inquiry – an approach that requires methodical and replicable examination of evidence – is the best approach to determine what is true about the universe and its contents. I am comfortable with Michael Shermer’s scientistic worldview that “encompasses natural explanations for all phenomena, eschews supernatural and paranormal speculations, and embraces empiricism and reason as the twin pillars of a philosophy of life appropriate for an Age of Science.”

Philosophy (perhaps a part of “reason” above) can exist alongside science and may be the only way to answer questions about the organization of society, morality, and justice. I can’t say more strongly, however, that it is science that has allowed us to better understand our origins, double human life expectancy in under a century, develop the computer, eradicate smallpox, communicate across oceans, and power our lives with electricity. That is progress that I can live with. And it is progress that I promote.

6 07 2010

Yes I agree with you! In this case the horoscope is exactly as you said, I can’t understand why other people consider it differently. Anyway It doesn’t matter.

6 07 2010

Because it helps predict the future, duh! 🙂

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