21Sep2015

Astrology And Astronomy Have More In Common Than You Think

Want to offend an astronomer? It’s easy: Just call her an astrologer. So says the writer of this article Kete Becker. She shows a different slant on what you might commonly perceive.

She writes: It happened to me once, years ago, while I was on a trip home from college. My mom introduced me to an acquaintance of hers at the supermarket: “My daughter is studying astronomy,” my mother told the woman proudly. “Oh, isn’t that nice! I read my horoscope every day,” she cooed. “You will be really in-demand when you graduate!”

(Kate Becker / The Visible Universe)

I was properly insulted, just as, like other science-minded folks, I’m affronted by the results of the regular surveys showing just how much Americans don’t know about science.

One in four Americans thinks the sun goes around the Earth! Almost half of Americans think that atoms are smaller than electrons!

Now, a new Pew Research Center survey pours a little extra gasoline on the fires of scientific indignation: Just like the misinformed supermarket woman, about a quarter of Americans don’t know the difference between astronomy and astrology.

Specifically, 22 percent of the participants in Pew’s multiple-choice survey said that “the study of how the positions of stars and planets can influence human behavior” is called “astronomy.”

Maybe Not Wrong

I could spend the next 300 words or so railing against the ignorance of this unfortunate 22 percent. The problem? I don’t feel the outrage. Here’s why. First, let’s give some of these survey respondents the benefit of the doubt. They picked the wrong name. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they don’t understand the difference between science and pseudoscience: The survey question didn’t go there.

After all, it took many years of schooling before I could reliably remember that “ammonia” was the chemical and “pneumonia” was the thing you got by going outside with wet hair. (Just kidding, put down your hair dryer.) For some portion of that 22 percent, the mistake must be a similar mental “typo” — embarrassing, but not a sign of some deep confusion about the nature of science.

Old Habits

As for the others — those who really do think that the university professors and researchers who devote their careers to studying supernova, quasars, exoplanets and the like do so in service of warning Capricorns to stay away from sharp objects during the month of November — let’s extend a little empathy. Astronomy and astrology were not always separate fields, after all.

Yes…It’s happened to me too!

For centuries, people looked into the sky and saw gods and spirits; they analysed the motion of the stars to predict rain and drought, plan their harvest and to search for signals and signs of things to come. Was this astrology or astronomy? Only with the benefit of scientific hindsight can we draw the distinction.

About Behaviour

But back to the original survey question, which defined astrology as “the study of how the positions of stars and planets can influence human behaviour.” I don’t believe that the position of the planet Mercury has any influence on my behaviour, or yours. But I do believe that, at its best, the science of astronomy can influence how we behave here on Earth. It reveals our true position in the cosmos: fleeting, rare, precious. It enlightens and uplifts.

By looking up at the sky, we see ourselves in a new way. As Carl Sagan put it, capturing the “pale blue dot” of planet Earth from afar “underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot.”

Let’s Get Factual

Astrology isn’t science. Science is rigorous, testable, repeatable; it runs on scepticism. Astrology runs on tradition, mysticism and myth. Yet, looking for answers to our questions, astronomers and astrologers all turn to the sky. To understand ourselves, we all look up.  Source: Daily Camera

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