Jun 19 2018

New York Times and the Return of Astrology

A recent opinion piece in the New York Times by Krista Burton is perhaps one sign of recent social trends – increasing belief in things like astrology, especially among millennials. Burton provides some insight into this phenomenon, but then also makes some horrible justifications for it.

Belief in astrology, the notion that the relative positions of planets and start affect our personality and perhaps our destiny, has been measured at about 25% in the UK, Canada and US in recent decades. However, as researchers, Nicholas Campion, points out, the number depends greatly on what exactly you ask:

In one of my groups – of mostly male students aged 18 to 21 – I found that 70% read a horoscope column once a month and 51% valued its advice. Other questions produced a huge variation: 98% knew their sun sign, 45% thought it described their personalities, 25% said it can make accurate forecasts, and 20% think the stars influence life on Earth. The higher figures are close to previous research which showed that 73% of British adults believe in astrology, while the lowest figures are similar to those found by Gallup’s polls.

It’s difficult to know how to parse all of that, but it seems like about half of people take astrology seriously to some extent, and 20-25% very seriously. That is a significant percentage of the population to believe in something which is 100% superstitious nonsense. Let’s get this out of the way now – there is no plausible mechanism by which astrology could work, there is no evidence that any form of astrology does work, and it is structured and functions like a classic pseudoscience. A moderate amount of scientific literacy, and a trace of critical thinking skills, should be enough to purge any belief in astrology.

It has been so thoroughly debunked, in fact, that skeptics often debate whether or not we should continue to expend any further energy on astrology as a topic. I would be nice to say that belief in astrology has been dealt with, relegated to the fringe, and move on. But the numbers, unfortunately, tell a different story.

The popularity of specific pseudosciences tend to wax and wane over the decades. It seems that each new generation has a flirtation with an appealing pseudoscience, and then most people realize it’s bunk or simply get bored, while skeptics point out that it is old nonsense, and then the popularity wanes only to come back in 20-40 years. Astrology, UFOs, Bigfoot, the healing power of magnets – all seem to follow this long term trend.

Astrology was very popular in the 1960s-80s, then waned in the 90s and 2000’s, and is now apparently making a comeback. According to a recent article in the Independent:

According to a study, 58 per cent of 18-24-year-old Americans believe astrology is scientific.

The study also revealed that skepticism of astrology is decreasing, and indeed you don’t have to look far online to find the strong community of young, cool, perfectly normal people who obsess over their zodiac signs.

Perhaps that is enough to explain the phenomenon, but perhaps there is more. Several writers attribute the recent popularity of astrology, especially among millennials, with the increased stress and uncertainty of life recently. Political turmoil, the disruption of social media, the polarization of society lead people to turn to something to help make sense of the chaos, whether it is legitimate or not. This is fairly well established – that people turn to superstition in response to anxiety and stress.

Another possible factor is our “post-truth” world. You can reasonably argue that claims were are in a post-truth world, or that this is anything new, are overblown, but there are some clear troubling recent trends. The basis for a shared grounding in established facts and expertise is definitely under attack. Ideological inconvenient facts are easily dismissed as “fake news”, the product of a shill or conspiracy, and “alternative facts” are ready at hand. Faith in institutions and experts has declined, while access to information has exploded.

There has not been enough time for this to all sort itself out, and we don’t know what the world will look like on the other side. But there is also evidence that during times of institutional disruption, charlatans and pseudoscience thrive. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, for example, there was an explosion of pseudoscience in Russia to fill the vacuum.

This also brings up another factor often pointed to in trying to explain the rising popularity of astrology – declining faith in traditional religious institutions. The rise of the “nones” among millennials is well documented, the lack of any identification with mainstream religions. The spiritual yearning is still there, but churches no longer fill that void, and so new age religion seeps in.

This where the insight from Burton’s article comes in. She writes from the perspective of a member of the queer community. She says that mainstream religions have largely rejected her community, but they have found a home in the crystal shops and astrology parlors. They find it not just a refuge, but empowering.

Further, millennial culture has largely embraced the LGBTQ community and rejects (correctly) intolerance of sexual preference and gender identity as incomprehensibly cruel and ignorant. As a result, many aspects of queer culture are now cool and hip. That culture embraces astrology, and so the broader millennial culture also embraces it.

I don’t know how true that cause and effect is, but it is an interesting hypothesis, and shows how complex cultural factors can be. In short, therefore, there is a complex mix of many historical and social factors leading to a recent uptick in acceptance of astrology, new age spirituality, and some classic pseudosciences, with things like alternative medicine coming along for the ride. Savvy marketers, like Paltrow and her Goop, have tapped into this phenomenon and help to enlarge it.

Skeptics who think that we were done with things like astrology may want to rethink that assessment.

All of this is extremely unfortunate. It means that, to a degree, we (scientists, skeptics, critical thinkers, children of the enlightenment) are losing the culture war. We are fighting the good fight, and having an effect, but we are swimming against powerful cultural and historical currents.

Burton closes with a frustrating justification for nonsense:

Now, I’m not stupid. I may be a woo-woo, crystal-worshiping homosexual, but I know that a polished red rock is not going to heal my tailbone. It’s not going to bring my mom back either. It may not do a thing. But none of us know anything about anything, really. So why not be open to the possibility of hope?

She is trying to have it both ways – convincing herself that she is “not stupid” but also leaving the door open for anything. I find this typical of millennial culture, kneeling at the alter of tolerance, and taking on a persona of “chill”, to such a degree that it just feels wrong to condemn anything, even pure nonsense. These are virtues, but as Aristotle figured out thousands of years ago – everything in balance.

It is simply not true that “none of us know anything about anything.” This is a false equivalency, a rejection of knowledge and expertise, and a hypertolerance that erases all enlightenment and hard-won knowledge. We do know stuff, even if all knowledge is partial and tentative. Not knowing everything is not the same thing as knowing nothing. And when you take knowing nothing as a premise, then, of course, you can believe in anything. Reality is then whatever you want it to be. All news is fake news.

Then your only criterion becomes – what feels good. If it gives you hope, then that’s good enough.

This rejection of reality is extremely dangerous. That is the path back into darkness, tribalism, feudalism, superstition, and belief in magic. You cannot have it both ways. You cannot see yourself as a smart educated person, and then justify all superstition in the same go.

That, of course, is where critical thinking comes in. Burton’s article is yet another great example of why critical thinking is so important. Scientific literacy is good, but not enough. Education is not enough. General intelligence is not enough. You need to know how to think.


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