inoculated mind
The Inoculated Mind — An analytical point of view
By Karl J. Mogel - California Aggie Science Columnist, February 27, 2003 - original

I have focused my attentions each week on various topics in science and debunking pseudoscience, but without really addressing what separates the two. Astrology is thought by some to be a science, while the scientists disagree. Why? The answer is rooted in what makes a science.

Science and mythology have their roots in basic human curiosity. A question such as “Why does the sun rise every day?” would be trivial today, but thousands of years ago we could only guess with stories and myths. Until the Copernican Revolution, the Aristotelian view that the Earth was the center of the universe was the popular viewpoint.

It was at this time that science diverged from mythology when Galileo argued that observation was the key to understanding the universe. He made use of the telescope, a new tool (which he did not invent) that allowed him to see what no one was able to observe before. Authoritarianism dissolved to make way for observation as the basis for knowledge. The sun doesn’t rise — the Earth rotates.

Science” means knowledge. If we know something, it is a scientific fact, and in order to know something there must be evidence. If you claim that W causes X, the burden of proof — of evidence — is on you. Statistics can be of some aid to discovering associations, but they do not prove that W causes X, and they are often misused to prove false claims.

Science is a methodology. Observe, hypothesize, test, retest, and modify the hypothesis. It can be carried out in a laboratory under controlled conditions, or out in the field recording the current state of a system. But in any case, science is the study of the natural world, the refining of our understanding of natural laws.

There are some misconceptions about what science is. I often hear half-baked challenges like “science cannot define life.” Well, it is the domain of philosophy to define terms such as life, not science. Science can demonstrate whether or not something is alive once life itself has been defined.

Science is not based on authority, but on peer review, where anybody can evaluate the evidence for or against a claim. A self-proclaimed “New Galileo” will tout their degree as a basis for the veracity of their claims, but even the most accomplished of scientists may believe something that is false. Galileo could not accept that the moon caused the tides, and Einstein did not accept quantum mechanics.

I called and interviewed The California Aggie’s horoscope writer, Michael Mercury, to get his opinions on the matter of astrology. Although we disagree on its accuracy, we both agree that it is not a science. But he said that thousands of years of “mere trial, error, and observation” produced astrology, which sounds very much like the scientific method. Though he said it was not, in other statements he showed that he considered it to be the equivalent of a science.

At the least, statistical studies of astrology are inconclusive, and at the most, disprove some aspect of it. Mercury said that the institution of medicine refuses to acknowledge astrology in their “sacred science.” This attack on the methodology of science is what usually happens when science disproves something.

What astrologers are most at a loss in explaining is how the positions of celestial bodies actually affect us. Gravity and magnetism were postulated, but those influences from objects on the Earth have greater effects. Mercury did not want to propose how the planets affect us, nor did he think it mattered, which reflects a fundamental difference between the motivation of a scientist and an astrologer.

Whether or not some claims made by astrologers are true, the methodology is the wrong kind for fostering knowledge. Predictions are based on myths and they are written up in “Barnum statements,” which can apply to almost everyone.

But the myths were based somehow on observations, albeit primitive ones. The moon at night was thought to directly cause crops to die, when it was the clear night itself that caused frost damage. The time in which you are born might affect your life, but as far as Jupiter, Pluto and the newly discovered Kuiper Belt object, Quaoar, are concerned, there’s no connection.

Whenever the facts change, scientists have to change their views, and they are almost never certain of anything but the most well-supported theories. The North Pole, in a 26,000-year cycle, changes the direction it points relative to the stars, due to orbital precession. Since astrology was started, the positions of the zodiac signs along our equator have changed, but astrology has not changed to reflect that. Until there is in inherent desire to find out the truth through an analytical point of view, astrology will be just another pseudoscience.