What’s Your Sign? More Americans Than Ever Think Astrology Is Scientific
Is astrology scientific? A lot of people think so. According to a new study released by the National Science Foundation, Americans are less skeptical of astrology than they have been at any time in the last thirty years. Over that time period, researchers have periodically posed this question: “Would you say that astrology is very scientific, sort of scientific, or not at all scientific?” On the Mother Jones website, Chris Mooney describes the response:
“A substantial minority of Americans, ranging from 31 to 45 percent depending on the year, say they 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.”
“The recent increase in astrological credulity was most dramatic among those with less science education and less ‘factual knowledge,’ NSF reported. In the latter group, there was a staggering 17 percentage point decline in how many people were willing to say astrology is unscientific, from 52 percent in 2010 to just 35 percent in 2012. Also apparently to blame are younger Americans, aged 18 to 24, where an actual majority considers astrology at least ‘sort of’ scientific, and those aged 35 to 44. In 2010, 64 percent of this age group considered astrology totally bunk; in 2012, by contrast, only 51 percent did, a 13 percentage point change.”
How can we dissuade people of notions that hold so much intuitive appeal? I asked that question in a previous post on the Brilliant Blog, noting that researchers are now investigating where such “folk science” comes from and developing surprising new ways to counter it. Such debunking is important not just in terms of relatively harmless beliefs like astrology, but also the more consequential misunderstandings that lead students to fail to learn in their science classes, and citizens to misapprehend crucial issues like climate change. The post continued:
One thing is clear from the outset: traditional teaching methods don’t do much to uproot folk beliefs. Students in conventional classrooms listen to the correct explanation, read it in a textbook and may even produce it on an exam, but their bedrock assumptions remain untouched.
The problem with conventional science instruction, according to cognitive scientist Susan Carey, is that it assumes that its goal is to fill a gap in a student’s knowledge—when really the issue “is not what the student lacks, but what the student has, namely alternative conceptual frameworks for understanding the phenomena covered by the theories we are trying to teach.”
In order to persuade students to embrace new and more accurate ideas about how the world operates, science teachers need to find out which “alternative conceptual frameworks”—myths and misconceptions—they already hew to. To that end, researchers have developed student surveys that can help instructors identify the beliefs their pupils have when they walk through the classroom door. These surveys show the same handful of wrongheaded ideas showing up again and again, espoused by strong students as well as weak ones.
Another promising approach is to directly confront individuals with the differences between their understanding and the correct one: to “offend the student’s intuition,” in the words of University of Wyoming astronomy professor Tim Slater. In a study published in the journal Learning and Instruction, scientists from the University of Pittsburgh asked one group of students to compare a diagram of their own inaccurate conception of the body’s circulatory system to an accurate drawing; a second group was required simply to explain the correct version.
The students who engaged in a “confrontation” with the facts, the investigators reported, were more likely to acquire a valid mental model and a deeper understanding of the material. Researchers are now developing a variety of ways of presenting students with disconfirming evidence, such as live demonstrations, online videos, computer simulations, animated visualizations and interactive tutoring programs tailored to the student’s particular misconceptions.
Brilliant readers, what do you think? What’s the best way to clear up scientific misconceptions?