Puzzling rise in astrology’s credibility

Chris Mooney quotes from the National Science Foundation’s just-released 2014 Science and Engineering Indicators study that indicates that there appears to be a rise in the number of Americans who believe in astrology and think that it is science.

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Over the years, the GSS and other surveys have asked Americans a recurring question: “Would you say that astrology is very scientific, sort of scientific, or not at all scientific?”

In response, a substantial minority of Americans, ranging from 31 to 45 percent depending on the year, say consider astrology either “very scientific” or “sort of scientific.” That’s bad enough—the NSF report compares it with China, where 92 percent of the public does not believe in horoscopes—but the new evidence suggests we are also moving in the wrong direction. Indeed, the percentage of Americans who say astrology is scientifically bunk has been declining ever since a high point for astrology skepticism in 2004, when it hit 66 percent.

He looks further at the disaggregated data. Most disturbing is that a majority of younger Americans aged 18 to 24 consider astrology at least ‘sort of scientific’, going from around 40% in 2005 to close to 60% today.

This is especially puzzling given the rise in the number of young people who are unaffiliated with religion. Further studies will have to tease out the reasons.

Interestingly, the NSF report also says that 92% of the Chinese public does not believe in horoscopes. NPR had an item this morning that says that the fortune cookie that is a staple of Chinese restaurants in the US are a US creation, like many of the dishes served here.

Comments

  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    They don’t really think astrology is scientific, they just want that chart to look kinda like the Big Dipper.

  2. Z says

    Could it be a literacy issue? Surprisingly, there are quite a lot of people who confuse “astrology” with “astronomy”, probably because “all sciences end in -ology”. :)

  3. wtfwhateverd00d says

    Chris Mooney believes in Patriarchy Theory, so he’s just trading a set of invisible sky demons for another.

  4. Scr... Archivist says

    This is especially puzzling given the rise in the number of young people who are unaffiliated with religion.

    Is it really puzzling? I would actually expect some people who leave religion to fill the gap with woo. “Spiritual but not religious” people don’t reject dogmatic scripture because they are serious rationalists, but because New Age platitudes make them feel better. Other unaffiliated people just “drift away” from their childhood religion, but that doesn’t tell us what they drift to.

    http://www.pewforum.org/2009/12/09/many-americans-mix-multiple-faiths/

    http://www.pewforum.org/2009/04/27/faith-in-flux2/

    I suspect that superstition and spirituality will be a tougher nuts to crack than the traditional big religions have been.

  5. flex says

    Could we see that chart again with the zero indicated? It’s a little miss-leading to show the graph that way.

    But beyond that, going to appendix 7-13, which is not accessible from your report link, there is a 4 point swing from 6% to 10% calling astrology very scientific and a 4 point swing from 28% to 32% percent calling it sort of scientific.

    It does not appear to be age based, the same swing occurs in the 45-54 age range as the 18-24 range, and there are smaller but similar swings in other age ranges. There is also a bounce in the positive responses across the educational ranges.

    The report implies that the question was asked the same way at all times, but I would suggest investigating differences in how the question was asked before leaping to the conclusion that there was a huge change in belief in astrology over the last year. Was the question asked in the same way, and at the same point in the surveys in all cases? These things can make a difference.

  6. doublereed says

    I suspect that superstition and spirituality will be a tougher nuts to crack than the traditional big religions have been.

    Nah, you don’t have that institutional, social reinforcement which is pretty much the only reason why religion gets around.

    I would suspect it’s more of a phase.

  7. tbrandt says

    Only 8% of Chinese have some belief in astrology? Really? After all the hysteria over having children born under the right Chinese zodiac sign, together with innumerable books on choosing lucky dates for moves, marriages, etc.? I call bullshit. Maybe they asked the question in a way that specifically referenced Western astrology. Unfortunately, I could not find a reliable survey giving belief in Chinese horoscopes, so I can’t back up my suspicions with good data.

    I find the constant China scare tactics to be infuriating. China isn’t some super-advanced nation about to displace the US as the dominant world power. It’s a very large, powerful country with enormous pollution, demographic, and inequality challenges, from its hukou system of residence (and access to public services) to its birthrate, maybe 1.5 children/women (1.2 according to the census) with 1.2 boys/girl, leading to successive generations 1/2 to 2/3 the size of the previous ones. Check out this take on Shanghai’s PISA scores. Spoiler/condensed version: your average score goes up if you ship the poor children back to the boonies before they can take the test.

  8. sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d says

    How were people asked the question? Did anyone check that they heard properly if they were asked verbally and knew the difference between astrology and astronomy?
    This isn’t cleverdickery- I’m partly deaf myself and have found I’ve been talking about astronomy with someone who’s talking about astrology.

  9. jamessweet says

    This is especially puzzling given the rise in the number of young people who are unaffiliated with religion. Further studies will have to tease out the reasons.

    There’s a popular slur against atheism that goes something like, “When you stop believing in God, you’ll start believing in anything.” Obviously this statement is both demonstrably false, as well as offensive — but, one of the reasons it resonates with so many people is that it capitalizes on a grain of truth: Pathological credulity and atheism can co-exist perfectly well in the same person, and when that happens, the beliefs of the “Credulous Atheist” tend to be just as wacky and out there as God-belief — except less accepted by society.

    Your right that further study would be needed, but my guess is that a large number of the increase in the Nones is not due so much to better critical thinking skills or any of that, but religion discrediting itself in the context of the modern world. Which, if that hypothesis holds, would mean an increase in the number of “Credulous Nones”. Young people who might have been Bible thumpin’ evangelicals get turned off by religion’s absurd culture war stances, and instead turn to New Age bullshit. Some of them realize during the journey that it’s all bullshit, but many don’t.

  10. smrnda says

    I suspect some of the ‘nones’ are spiritual and not religious, and people who drop out of organized religion may substitute other beliefs.

    It’s probably also wrong to assume that all people who reject astrology are rational secular humanists and atheists. Many religions reject astrology, so it’s totally possible for a fundamentalist Christian who believes in a 6 day creation to then reject astrology for not being scientific, because their church regards it as an inferior competing belief.

  11. says

    I have to wonder if poor education leaves some unable to grasp the question. Most sciences have “-logy” in their names, but astronomy doesn’t because the name was hijacked. Do any respondents lack the knowledge to tell the difference?

    Also of note is how closely the refusal to believe in astrology matches the rise of fundamentalist christianity in the US. Many fundies consider astrology to be “witchcraft”, so their lack of belief isn’t based on rational thinking, it’s based on dislike of competing superstitions.

    Some respondents (e.g. young earth creationists) might be so uneducated that they think astrology is a real science. They “think” they are being asked about astronomy and a 14 billion year old universe, so they ignorantly disagree with it.

  12. Reginald Selkirk says

    Most sciences have “-logy” in their names, but astronomy doesn’t because the name was hijacked.

    “-logy” means study of, “-nomy” means measurement of.
    And then there’s chemistry and physics.

  13. Beth says

    This is especially puzzling given the rise in the number of young people who are unaffiliated with religion.

    In addition to the fact, as pointed out above, that many atheists believe in astrology, I think you make a mistake when you assume that believers would consider it scientific. Belief in astrology does not imply that they also believe it is scientific. My mother tried to teach me that while astrology might work, the power comes from Satan and such things are evil. But even though she believed it would work, she would not have classified it as scientific. She would have classified it as occult, which is pretty far from scientific.

  14. khms says

    I’d really like to see a comparison between asking about astrology, and asking about horoscopes. I strongly suspect there are a lot of people who don’t quite realize these are talking about the ssme things.

  15. colnago80 says

    My experience is that astrology may be widespread in India, even among scientists. When I was a physics graduate student, a number of my Indian colleagues expressed a belief in astrology,

  16. wtfwhateverd00d says

    Some dude reran this experiment, slightly altered using the Mechanical Turk:

    http://neoacademic.com/2014/02/14/nsf-report-flawed-americans-do-not-believe-astrology-is-scientific/#.Uv6MgfldV-Y

    His conclusion is that the questionnaire was poorly worded and that what it showed was a how few people believed knew what the word astrology means.

    NSF Report Flawed; Americans Do Not Believe Astrology is Scientific
    2014 FEBRUARY 14

    A report from the National Science Foundation recently stated that a majority of young people believe astrology to be scientific, as reported by Science News, Mother Jones, UPI, and Slashdot, among others. Troubling if true, but I believe this to be a faulty interpretation of the NSF report. And I have human subjects data to support this argument.

    What the NSF actually did was ask the question, “Is astrology scientific?” to a wide variety of Americans. The problem with human subjects data – as any psychologist like myself will tell you – is that simply asking someone a question rarely gives you the information that you think it does. When you ask someone to respond to a question, it must pass through a variety of mental filters, and these filters often cause people’s answers to differ from reality. Some of these processes are conscious and others are not. This is one of the reasons why personality tests are criticized (both fairly and unfairly) as valid ways to capture human personality – people are notoriously terrible at assessing themselves objectively.

    Learning, and by extension knowledge, are no different. People don’t always know what they know. And this NSF report is a fantastic example of this in action. The goal of the NSF researchers was to assess, “Do US citizens believe astrology is scientific?” People were troubled that young people now apparently believe astrology is more scientific than in the past. But this interpretation unwisely assumes that people accurately interpret the word astrology. It assumes that they know what astrology is and recognize that they know it in order to respond authentically. Let me explain why this is an important distinction with an anecdote.

    It wasn’t until around my sophomore year of college that I discovered the word “astrology” referred to horoscopes, star-reading, and other pseudo-scientific nonsense. I had heard of horoscopes before, sure, but not the term astrology. I had, as many Americans do, a very poor working vocabulary to describe scientific areas of study. Before that point, in my mind, astrology and astronomy were the same term.

    I did not, however, think that horoscopes were scientific

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