Is astrology scientific?

To most readers of this blog, this question has all the relevance and importance of “Is water dry?” Nevertheless, this post at “Understanding Science,” a site hosted at the University of California-Berkeley, provides a nice checklist of criteria for determining whether a concept or discipline can properly be called scientific. These include:

  • Does it focus on the natural world?
  • Does it aim to explain the natural world?
  • Does it use testable ideas?
  • Does it rely on evidence?
  • Does it involve the scientific community?
  • Does it lead to ongoing research?
  • Do its researchers behave scientifically?

At a glance, this looks like a list someone would have created after regarding the world of Intelligent Design creationism and picking out precisely those things that are most lacking. As for astrology, it obviously fails with flying colors.

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  1. #1 by jrshipley on March 26, 2009 - 11:00 am

    One thing I don’t like about the approach to demarcation used in this checklist is that it doesn’t leave much room for there to be such a thing as “bad science”. Practitioners of astrology DO think that they get confirmation of their theory. It’s just that they rely too much on anecdote and are bad about recording and seriously analyzing data. Furthermore, the questions about the scientific community seem to me to be entirely beside the point. Failure to publish could be for any number of reasons. The astrologist will claim that it’s because of bias. We know it’s not for that reason, of course, but the point still stands that failure to publish is not by itself a reason to say something is not “scientific”. (I have water coming into my basement. I test several hypothesis about how and why. I do not publish an article. Nevertheless, I approached the problem scientifically.) In general, the fixation on questions of demarcation seems to me to be a distraction, especially when criteria are sociological rather than evidential. I don’t think there’s any nice neat demarcation between science and non-science, in fact. As far as I can tell, astrology, creationism, etc. are just bad science. I don’t feel compelled to label them “unscientific”. They are attempts to explain the world that failed, like flogiston theory for example, and why astrology is wrong is a much more interesting question than why it is “unscientific”.

  2. #2 by TomS on March 26, 2009 - 1:03 pm

    It is widely accepted among philosophers of science that we don’t have any clear way of drawing a line between science and non-science. There are always problematic cases. But that doesn’t mean that there are some clear-cut cases. Whenever I try to think of what might count as a clear-cut case of non-science, I start out with astrology – and then think, “you can probably come up with a better example” – and then I get to various sports, but no, a sportsperson can use scientific principles – and, eventually, I end up with what may be the clearest possible example of non-science: Intelligent Design.

  3. #3 by Kevin Beck on March 26, 2009 - 1:21 pm

    “Practitioners of astrology DO think that they get confirmation of their theory. It’s just that they rely too much on anecdote and are bad about recording and seriously analyzing data.”
    I’m not sure what data they would record. Do you mean keeping track of successful and failed predictions? Even were someone to do this with a large sampling of the astrology-loving population, the claims are so hazy and subjective that merely keeping track of whether something proved accurate or not would be fraught with fuckery.
    “…failure to publish is not by itself a reason to say something is not “scientific”. (I have water coming into my basement. I test several hypothesis about how and why. I do not publish an article. Nevertheless, I approached the problem scientifically.)”
    For one thing, you’re really the only one concerned with what’s going on with your basement (no offense!). For another, you are analyzing something that has already taken place. Astrology is a multifrigtillion-dollar enterprise involving a megatude of people, rendering its scrutiny farmore important than an event in any one of out lives, and it makes truth claims (predictions) while offering no formal follow-up. So in a purely philosophical sense I agree with you about scientific endeavors that aren’t published existing, but when you’re talking about an “-ology,” the equation changes.

  4. #4 by megan on March 26, 2009 - 1:48 pm

    I took a sociology research statistics class and for my final thesis chose to write a proposal to measure personality profile tests versus the ‘hokey’ astrology personality typing done through charts. The reason I did so is that interestingly enough Jung, based much of his psychoanalysis profiling and theory opposing Freud’s from studying aggregate data collected by astrologists but was never scientifically categorized and rigorously repeated. Much of the scientific discoveries published and ‘discovered’ today were ancient field observational researched findings that mostly had wrong conclusions. Because of that whole concepts were summarily dismissed as superstition and the data discounted. Alot of animal behavioral studies results replicate observed animal sentient levels and consciousness that indigenous native peoples have known for eons, but Western/Caucasian researcher stamp of approval is needed for full veracity otherwise dismissed – ie great ape, wolves and bears studies.
    Thus my research testing proposal (graded on proper research practices) stated that the various tests for modern personality type theories result in the same quadrant groupings with same 3-4 types within each that match with the convoluted astrological personality profiling of basic charts. I posited that there is a high correlation of the results between taking a daylong Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test and getting a detailed astrology chart done and the reason is due to the centuries accumulation of field observation of human behavior by ancient counselors/advisers who tied their findings erroneously to astronomy/calendars to get repeat calculations than make a 100-200 question test.
    What is interesting is that increasingly genetics and environmental settings are being found by research to set and effect the personality behaviors of humans/animals. Environment can very well be the time of year a person is born and how their parents and surrounding environment effects how they react to stresses, which in turn becomes very similar a basic for all born and raised during that set period of time. It is also being researched how much does the magnetic field of the planet or plain old magnetic fields, can effect the development and growth of cells etc and how some animals respond to the earth’s magnetic poles due to minerals within the chemistry of their brains. Only open minded curiosity and scientific research can find what is there and real than instead apply arrogant ignorance stating believing all has been discovered and anything previously observed was hocus pocus. Quantum Mechanics would be dismissed in the 1900’s based on that attitude.
    Anyway astrology is not a science but it’s observations and underlying theory should be looked into as to how it resulted in fairly similar personality types as today’s more rigorously controlled testing results used by psychologists, psychiatry and group counseling.

  5. #5 by catgirl on March 26, 2009 - 3:07 pm

    Astrology might be considered science in that can certainly be tested scientifically. It has been tested scientifically, and the evidence doesn’t support the idea that astrology is valid. Science is the method, not the subject.

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