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The Less Intelligent More Likely to Accept Astrology as Scientific

Over at Culture of Science Sheril Kirshenbaum posts a figure from the NSF displaying what proportion of those without high school educations and those with college educations accept the scientific status of astrology. It’s pretty clear to me that this is the ASTROSCI variable from the General Social Survey. It asks:

Would you say that astrology is very scientific, sort of scientific, or not at all scientific?

It’s also nice that this question was only asked in the latter half of the 2000s. So it’s timely in terms of demographic breakdowns. Speaking of which, here are a whole host of classes and their attitudes toward astrology’s scientific status:

Very scientific Sort of scientific Not at all scientific
Male 5 26 69
Female 5 30 65
Age 18-34 8 34 58
Age 35-64 4 26 70
Age 65- 4 24 72
White 4 25 72
Black 11 38 51
Hispanic 8 40 51
Extreme liberal 7 31 62
Liberal 5 30 65
Slightly iberal 4 28 68
Moderate 5 34 61
Slightly conservative 5 25 70
Conservative 6 19 75
Extreme conservative 6 18 76
No high school diploma 9 41 50
High school diploma 7 32 62
Junior college 4 28 68
Bachelor 2 17 80
Graduate degree 1 13 85
Atheist and agnostic 6 23 71
Higher power 4 28 68
Believes in god sometimes 7 24 70
Believe in god, but with doubts 4 27 69
Know god exists 6 30 65
Protestant 5 27 68
Catholic 5 31 64
Jewish 6 16 78
No religion 7 28 65
Bible word of god 6 31 64
Bible inspired word of god 5 28 67
Bible book of fables 6 25 70
Human beings developed from animals 6 28 66
Human beings don’t develop from animals 5 26 69

But what about intelligence? To look at that I used the WORDSUM variable, which is a 10-question vocabulary test which has a 0.70 correlation with IQ. Below are the attitudes toward astrology by WORDSUM score (0 = 0 out of 10 score, 10 = 10 out of 10 score):

WORDSUM Very scientific Sort of scientific Not at all scientific
0 13 37 50
1 14 35 51
2 14 47 39
3 8 43 49
4 5 43 52
5 4 31 65
6 7 28 65
7 4 20 76
8 4 18 79
9 1 19 80
10 14 86

It’s pretty straightforward, the more intelligent are more skeptical of astrology. I wanted to display this in a graphical format. So I created an “astrology is scientific score” like so:

Score = % very scientific X 2 + % sort of scientific X 1 + % not at all scientific X 0

In other words, the higher the score for a class, the more accepting that class is of astrology’s scientific status. Here are the results:

There’s a pretty clear relationship between being dumb, and being more susceptible to the idea that astrology is a real science. Why? I think it’s because astrology is an eminently intuitive, plausible, and seductive, concept. Modern astronomy grew out of astrology, which is a cross-cultural enterprise which emerges in distinctive and unrelated civilizations. And why not? Most humans experience awe and wonderment when they see the stars. On first blush the idea that they may have something to do with the fates doesn’t seem ludicrous. The less reflective and dull are possibly less susceptible by modernist conditioning toward skepticism of these intuitive concepts which have been banished to the outer darkness of superstition by science.*

* Organized religion has also played a role in this skepticism. In particular, the Abrahamic religions, which evolved in an environment of competition with late antique ‘astral religion.’ But this is obviously not always t he case. Most forms of Hinduism are steeped in astrology as very much a valid and utilitarian enterprise. And in any case the campaigns by Christianity and Islam against astrology has often been fitful and futile.

(Reprinted from Discover/GNXP by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Science • Tags: Astrology, GSS, Social Science 
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  1. in case you’re curious, intelligence, education, and political orientation have independent effects on this in a regression. interestingly socioeconomic status does not.

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  2. It makes sense that people born at different times of the year would have different personalities.. if you’re born in spring you would be more open to the outside world, than if you were born in autumn. so astrology may have some validity. But not in the sense of the influence of the stars, but in the personality patterns people have noticed when people are born in different seasons. that’s why i would have to hold my nose and choose ‘sort of scientific’.

  3. My suspcion is that the situation isn’t really so much that less intelligent people believe that astrology is scientific. Rather, it would appear that people with poor vocabulary skills are confusing the word “astrology” wiht the word “astronomy”.

    I know there is a high level of correlation between general intelligence and vocabulary skill, as you point out, but why is the “belief” in astrology more than 50% stronger in people with weak vocabulary than in people who never graduated high school? Are there other indicators of general intelligence in the survey that could be used to control for vocabulary ability?

    Also, what’s up with the high score for astrology among blacks?

  4. To be fair to those on the less educated end of the scale, you might be running into a linguistic artifact here. “Scientific” is a word that has a very precise meaning for those who’ve learned about the scientific theory, and a very fuzzy meaning for those who haven’t. Just watch the 6 o’clock news sometimes and see how the talking heads blather on about the latest scientific breakthrough, or watch a cable news show where people are arguing about climate change.

    If you drill down, my guess that among those who believe astrology is scientific, there is a concept that something is scientific if smart people think about it a lot. I’ve met a fair share of astrologers who are very rigorous with their observations and hypothese within their rule set. Even the ones who aren’t that bright are very good at appearing that they have a lot of proof to back them up – this is one of the essential traits of anybody who makes a living at conning people (intentionally or not).

    To make a really good case about levels of intelligence and education in relationship to beliefs about things like astrology, I think it would be necessary to really make sure that everybody understands the question. There’s an awful lot of people out there who probably can’t diagram out the scientific method – I have a feeling if they were shown this and then asked if astrology fit with this model, you’d get a different set of results.

  5. Also, I noticed that Libras are more than twice as likely as Cancers to think that astrology is “very scientific”. Curious: I wonder if there is some sort of confirmation bias going on here at a low level.

  6. @Vincent Libras are associated with truth and balance. It is therefore not surprising that they see astrology as “very scientific” :).

  7. @TonyGrimes That’s always been my view on it too. There is a very tiny grain of truth at the core of sun signs (seasons do have some effect on personality, both because of nature and nurture), but the entire prediction sequence built up around that, and associating it with stars in the sky, is as bunk as bunk can get. It should be called “Seasonal Personality Descriptions” if we want to completely disassociate it with astrology.

    I remember the priest in my church lecturing the congregation on not reading horoscopes, since they weren’t Christian. That’s the only time I ever heard someone in a mainstream church even mention astrology, positively or negatively.

  8. As Dan Dennett points out in Breaking the Spell, the evolutionary psychology of believers in the supernatural is science (cit. this study right here). To paraphrase Sam Harris, the appearance of Zeus, Zoroaster and Apollo would signal the start of The Science of Astrology from empirical observation.

    The plural of guessing is not evidence- the plural of guessing is folk wisdom. Do yall boneheads that see ‘a small grain of evidence’ in your folk wisdom see that you are not doing it right?
    “I can see (i.e. I can imagine a possible world) were X leads to Y” is folk intuition. So is seeing the face of the man in the moon and thinking it is, well, a *man* the *moon* is a science fail because we are testing our perception of faces and not astrolology or astronomy. If my perception of the world changes when I read ‘My day as a Leo’ then the freaking process of reading and understanding is the subject for science. Y’all must be born under Cancer, the sign of most losers.

  9. @ Tony Grimes & Cathy:
    Why does the season when you were born matter? For that matter, are you talking about season, or month? Seasons are “flipped” when you cross the equator, whereas the months do not. So if you were born in Australia but later moved to the northern hemisphere, would you look at the horoscope for your actual sign or shift your birthdate by 6 months?

    Even if there was some grain of truth to seasonal correlations with personality, the fact that Astrology tries to explain it using the alignment of celestial bodies makes it not scientific. There is a difference between “sort of scientific” and “sort of truthful”.

  10. It appears to me that the points made by Vince and April are pretty worthy ones while the points made by Tony and Cathy are more dubious (I think Kirk tried to point that out in whatever language it is he communicates).

    I’m open to being proven otherwise however. Does anyone have any evidence or compelling logic to back up Tony and Cathy’s view? (For that matter, does anyone think that Vincent in particular and April to a slightly lesser extent are making non-compelling arguments?)

    As for S’wit, I’m not sure what Judaism has to do with the matter. Jews don’t stand out in this study to nearly the same extent as they stand out in their willingness (as medical professionals) to perform abortions or in their acceptance of adultery as not necessarily immoral yet throughout practically all of history people who believed they were practicing JudaISM considered both of those practices to be highly immoral. — Not to mention the fact that there are hundreds of tomes of sacred Jewish literature dedicated entirely to the study of astrology (thank God there’s always Maimonides to fall back on).

  11. It’d be interesting to know why those who scored 10 on the wordsum still had 14% thinking it was scientific. I think the other explanations regarding semantic misunderstanding (or just having a vague sense of the terms) explains a lot. I don’t think it explains that final bit though.

    Surely the intelligent who believe (for whatever reason) in astrology would at least recognize it’s not science. (Although are there intelligent people who believe that young earth creationism is scientific?)

  12. @ Clark
    I’d venture it’s some mixture of both a vague understanding of the term “scientific” as well as cognitive dissonance. It’s easier to stretch the meaning of “scientific” to cover your beliefs that are not disprovable and/or have no evidence for rather than accept that you might believe in something “unscientific”. Because the latter would be irrational, and everyone knows humans are always rational! ;)

  13. While I know cognitive dissonance is real I tend to think it is a “go to” explanation that tends to avoid issues more than it actually explains. I’m all about people being irrational but typically there’s more going on.

    I saw an article today with Rick Santorum attacking Huntsman’s anti-science comments. It’s interesting when he says,

    “It’s not anti-science. It’s an affirmation of what we view in the world. Which is, we see God.”

    It’s a ridiculous comment that avoids the central issues Huntsman raised. But I think it highlights the phenomena at play. I think what happens is people recognize science is valuable but avoid the issue of what makes something scientific. Of course I bet Santorum is down lower on the wordsum score as it were. What’s interesting to me are more intelligent people who try and deal with it. I think you get into a battle between values (in the strict sense of the word) and reason. That’s no cognitive dissonance though – at least as I understand it. As you get people who understand more arguments one just can’t appeal to ignorance anymore which is why I find such people so fascinating. Some people leap to the “God of the gaps” line of reasoning. But if you look at strict ID proper rather than the Creationism that uses ID as a sign of respectability it really does accept most of scientific history and is really only a minor revision of evolution. It’s a ridiculous one in m y view but at least the people are rational and recognize they can’t discount most of the arguments. Creationists proper end up rejecting a lot out of ignorance or avoidance.

    While I don’t know much about people who believe in astrology I suspect they really are more like creationists. (Astrology is sort of like a “socially acceptable” anti-science superstition for secularists – it’s just as ludicrous as Creationism if not more so but somehow manages to not have the negative connotation in polite society that Creationism does)

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  15. “I think it’s because astrology is an eminently intuitive, plausible, and seductive, concept.”

    Historically astrology only started to be rejected with early modern science. I remember a letter from Descartes to Galileo, IIRC, in which they decided to ignore Bruno, whose science was mixed in with astrology. But for them it was a real question that had to be answered. Kepler worked as an astrologer, though he probably didn’t believe it. Newton had beliefs that we would regard as occult, though not astrological if I remember rightly.

    Astrology is a historically-discredited scientific hypothesis, but people not to all plugged in to general scientific knowledge will not know that. It’s not really fallacious on inspection.

  16. @Clark, depressingly enough, yes, I have known and currently know some very bright people who have at least a little belief inb astrology. While a few examples do not a valid study make, it appears that religious beliefs and the strength with which they’re held may be correlated, with stronger religious belief suggesting a stronger willingness to at lest accept the possibility that astrologers are really on to something. I suspect thatmay be, if it’s true, based on a fear that if they reject astrology as just a bunch of hocus-pocus, smoke-and-mirrors, then their *own* religious beliefs may get dissed, too. I’ve known highly educated professors, including in the sciences, who were strong proponents of their faiths — Christians, Jews, Muslim, Buddhists, Hindus, Brahmins, etc. etc. etc.

    I’m suggesting that only as a starting point for discussion, and am not proposing it as an actual hypothesis — I have no actual scientific (there’s that word again!) support for it.

  17. John, my memory on Newton here is pretty fuzzy. But wasn’t he influenced by the same neoPlatonic/astrological views that Bruno was? Just that Newton was a much less fuzzy thinker? In the old neoPlatonic cosmological systems the planets were simultaneously physical planes and daemons in the psychic planes transmitting power via the One. So if you bought into the ontology and cosmology of neoPlatonism it made a lot of sense. Newton wasn’t a pagan neoplatonist of the sort Bruno more or less was. For him it was all a sign of a kind of pre-established harmony by God. Thus his almost insane (IMO) writings on the secret codes in Revelation and so forth. It all arose out of reason and there was a pattern. Which, while not astrology proper, really is the main sort of thinking in astrology.

    Wasn’t there a bit of an issue between Boyle and Newton over separating out alchemy from science? Boyle wanted to compartmentalize the two fields whereas Newton saw it as one integrated whole. It’s hard to say which is worse since compartmentalization really opens a kind of cognitive dissonance. Unifying the whole seems weird at first but if you approach it rationally eventually you’d think they’d falsify all the strange beliefs.

    Mekhong, I’m pretty skeptical that strong religious belief ends up entailing a kind of uncritical openness. That’s for two reasons. The first is that I think strong religious belief entails actually believing ones beliefs and thus disbelieving those claims that obviously contradict them. So I’d expect an inverse relationship just from that. The second reason is that as you note there are very intelligent critical rational people with strong religious beliefs. So while I’m open to there being a correlation between uncriticalness and strong religious belief I don’t think it’s a causal relationship.

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