Why are people embracing astrology in an age of science?

An age of unparalleled progress

Though many do not recognize the fact, behind the disturbing headlines that dominate the news today, scientific progress marches forward, unabated and undiminished. Just within the past 100 years, researchers have discovered the theory of relativity, quantum mechanics and the standard model; unraveled the structure of DNA; sequenced the human genome; discovered the accelerating universe; observed extrasolar planets orbiting thousands of distant stars; and detected the collisions of black holes. See this Math Scholar article for additional details.

Spurred by these scientific advances, human technology has advanced at an astonishing pace: advances in medical technology and living conditions have increased worldwide life expectancy from 29 years as recently as 1880 to 71 today; transportation has advanced from horse-and-buggy to jet airplanes within the lifetimes of people still alive (currently 4.3 billion airline passenger trips are taken worldwide each year); Moore’s Law has advanced by a whopping factor of 80 million since 1965, propelling computer technology to devices and capabilities unthinkable just 20 years ago; the internet now brings the entire world’s knowledge to one’s smartphone, one of which is now in the hands of roughly 50% of the world’s population; and genome sequencing (which has advanced even faster than Moore’s Law) and artificial intelligence are just getting started. See this Math Scholar article for additional details.

This same spirit of relentless scientific progress has extended to a broader range of social and economic indicators: crime is down significantly over the past few decades (in spite of headlines to the contrary); so are deaths in war worldwide, normalized to the Earth’s population; many diseases and medical conditions have been conquered or controlled; hundreds of millions fewer worldwide live in extreme poverty (the number in extreme poverty drops by approximately 700,000 every day); and many more are living in democratic societies. See this Math Scholar article for additional details.

Yes, progress is real. Ours is truly a scientific age.

Challenges: Pandemics, global warming and more

But none of this is license for complacency, since human society faces truly daunting problems in the years ahead, ranging from growing levels of income inequality to looming environmental and even biological threats.

As this is being written (March 2020), the entire world is gripped in the throes of the rapidly spreading and deadly COVID-19 pandemic. International travel has been greatly curtailed worldwide; many businesses, large and small, have shut their doors; many K-12 schools and universities have closed; and entire regions and nations have been ordered to remain in their homes. Sadly, given the more connected nature of modern society, we may well face similar pandemics in the future, and so we need to formulate better means to prevent them and deal with them. This will require a substantially greater level of scientific literacy in the general population worldwide, so as to appreciate the threats of mutating pathogens and the challenges of countering them.

At the same time, we face the ever-growing peril of global warming, which is even more potentially destructive and threatening to human life than COVID-19, because many of the potential long-term consequences of global warming may be irreversible.

There is no question about the scientific consensus here. At least 97% of climate science researchers agree with the central conclusion that the Earth is warming and that human activity is the primary cause. Further, this consensus is supported by official statements from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Chemical Society, the American Geophysical Union, the American Meteorological Society, the American Physical Society, the Geological Society of America, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and numerous other scientific societies worldwide.

But sadly, in spite of years of public discussion, somber warnings by scientists, countless nature shows showing the effects of global warming, as well as severe wildfires, storm surges and hurricanes (which are likely exacerbated by climate change), large numbers of the public simply do not regard global warming to even be real, much less a major threat. In a 2017 Pew Research Center survey, 23% of Americans denied that there is any solid evidence that the Earth has been warming, and of those who acknowledge warming, nearly half doubted that it is due to human activities.

What’s more, the public remains hopelessly misinformed as to the extent of the scientific consensus on the topic. According to a separate Pew Research Center survey, only 27% agreed that “almost all” scientists are in agreement; 35% said only “more than half,” and 35% said half or fewer. But even more disturbingly, only 32% agreed that the “best available scientific evidence” influences the climate scientists’ conclusions; 48% said only “some of the time”, and 18% said “not too often or never.” These results underscore a severe level of distrust of scientists in general and climate scientists in particular by the public. For additional details on the urgent challenge of global warming, see this Math Scholar article.

The need for a scientifically informed public

In short, it is abundantly clear that society today, at all levels, is more dependent on science and technology than ever before, both in everyday life and as a source of economic growth and stability. And society, more than ever before, also faces grim threats and challenges, which must be addressed soberly and scientifically if we are to find workable solutions. To deal with pandemics, we must develop a broad range of new vaccines and antiviral agents, and do so on a much more rapid time scale than in the past. To deal with global warming, we must develop new clean energy technologies, inexpensive and easily deployable, which can meet the energy needs of both the major industrialized nations and very poor regions. And hundreds of other challenges could be listed, including some that we can only dimly foresee at the present time.

Embracing astrology in an age of science?!

Incredibly, just as modern society faces these daunting challenges, which, more than ever before, require a scientifically literate and scientifically involved public, millions of reasonably well-educated and otherwise intelligent people in highly industrialized nations are embracing astrology — yes astrology, the absurd and utterly unscientific notion that one’s personality and future life are determined by the positions of a few stars and planets at the moment one is born, in an enclosed hospital room, months after one’s genome was biologically set in place at conception!

According to a 2018 Pew Research poll, 29% of U.S. adults believe in astrology, and 61% believe in at least one of the following: “spiritual energy can be located in physical things”, “psychics”, “reincarnation” and “astrology”. Surprisingly, the percentages are substantially higher (47% and 78%, respectively) among those adults who list a religious preference “nothing in particular.” The paradoxical conclusion is that the “nones,” in current parlance, may be turning away from traditional Judeo-Christian monotheism but are embracing astrology and other pseudoscientific worldviews [Gecewicz2018].

Other polls have found similar results. A 2018 poll published by the U.S. National Science Foundation found that 37% of Americans view astrology as “very scientific” or “sort of scientific,” a percentage that has increased in recent years, up from only 31% in 2006. While these increase are seen for all age groups in the survey, they are particularly pronounced among the younger set. Among 18-24-year-olds and 25-34-year-olds, respectively, the figures were both 44%, up from 36% and 33%, respectively, in 2006 [NSB2018].

In short, there has been a significant increase, not decrease, in acceptance of astrology as “scientific” in U.S. society, with the increase particularly pronounced among the younger “Millennial” and “Gen X” age groups. Studies have found similar trends in other nations, including the U.K., for instance.

In a 2018 article in The Atlantic, Julie Beck describes this “New Age of Astrology” [Beck2018] as having been greatly facilitated by the rise of the internet. One can find astrology-related websites to fit almost any hobby, interest or lifestyle, including cat breeds, types of French fries and poetry. Beck quotes Lucie Greene, director of a cultural innovation tracking group, saying, “Over the past two years, we’ve really seen a reframing of New Age practices, very much geared toward a Millennial and young Gen X quotient.” She quotes a senior editor at one of the more popular horoscope websites who says that traffic “has grown really exponentially.” Another editor says that their site received 150% more traffic in 2017 than the year before.

Pseudomedicine

Along this line, there has been a significant increase in what might be termed “pseudomedicine” — the promotion of pseudoscientific medicinal products promising to treat numerous ills and conditions. One movement here is “essential oils” — the claims that certain fragrant essences have a broad range of medicinal powers. One catalogue used by essential oil devotees includes treatments for hundreds of conditions, covering hundreds of pages. Needless to say, such claims are utterly without peer-reviewed scientific basis.

In 2014, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued a warning letter to the CEO of one of the companies selling these products. The FDA letter cited numerous violations in marketing materials by this firm and its multi-level marketing agents, including claims that the Ebola virus cannot survive in the presence of certain oils; that regular use of a certain oil may help prevent conditions including cancer and heart disease, and can treat cognitive impairments; and that components of one particular essential oil have an anti-tumor effect on various cancer cells, including cancers of the prostate, colon, cervix, bladder and brain, as well as leukemia cells and fibrosarcoma cells.

Along this line, Hollywood actress Gwyneth Paltrow has been promoting numerous products via her lifestyle brand “Goop” as having medicinal effects. For example, Goop has promoted stickers to be attached to one’s body, called “Body Vibes,” which Goop claims can “rebalance the energy frequency in our bodies.” At one point Goop even claimed that these stickers are constructed out of material used by NASA to line space suits, but NASA quickly denied this. Other products marketed by Goop include objects the size of a small egg that are to be inserted by women for medicinal value, again an utterly unscientific claim for which Goop was fined $145,000. But Goop continues, even thrives. Its latest venture is a Netflix show Goop Lab, which presents hours of pseudoscientific discussions and promotions.

A failure of scientific communication

Why in an age of unparalleled scientific progress, and unparalleled scientific challenges as well, are so many turning to utterly pseudoscientific pursuits and products? While many can point fingers to various public leaders who are indifferent, if not downright hostile, to science and technology, scientists themselves (encompassing a broad range of mathematical, physical, biological and social science disciplines) must shoulder some of blame.

Indeed, while many of us have been successful in various battles — proving theorems, computing simulations, performing laboratory work, analyzing data, authoring journal articles and obtaining grants — we are badly losing the war for the hearts and minds of the public.

What can be done? Here are some suggestions:

  • Start or contribute to a blog.
  • Visit schools and give public lectures.
  • Write articles for science news forums.
  • Study creative writing, arts and humanities to sharpen communication skills.
  • Ensure that those researchers who are effective communicators are properly recognized in hiring, promotion, tenure and research funding decisions.
  • Promote interdisciplinary coursework and studies at universities that combine the arts with science, working in synergy rather than in opposition to other fields.
  • Find ways to involve the public in research projects, for example by inviting the public to help with field studies or lending home computer cycles for data analysis.

Scientists have a great story to tell. What could be more exciting than the history of breathtaking progress over the past years, decades and centuries? Let’s share the excitement!

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