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«A L I V E LY E L E C T R O N I C C O M P E N D I U M O F R E S E A R C H, N E W S, R E S O U R C E S, A N D O P I N I O N Astronomy Education ...»

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A L I V E LY E L E C T R O N I C C O M P E N D I U M O F R E S E A R C H, N E W S, R E S O U R C E S, A N D O P I N I O N

Astronomy Education Review

2011, AER, 10, 010101-1, 10.3847/AER2010040

Astrology Beliefs among Undergraduate Students

Hannah Sugarman

Department of Astronomy, University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona 85721

Chris Impey

Department of Astronomy, University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona 85721

Sanlyn Buxner

Department of Astronomy, University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona 85721 Jessie Antonellis Department of Astronomy, University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona 85721 Received: 11/2/10, Revised: 02/16/11, Published: 04/14/11 V 2011 The American Astronomical Society. All rights reserved.

C Abstract A survey of the science knowledge and attitudes toward science of nearly 10000 undergraduates at a large public university over a 20-year period included several questions addressing student beliefs in astrology and other forms of pseudoscience. The results from our data reveal that a large majority of students (78%) considered astrology “very” or “sort of” scientific. Only 52% of science majors said that astrology is “not at all” scientific.

We find that students’ science literacy, as defined by the National Science Foundation in its surveys of the general public, does not strongly correlate with an understanding that astrology is pseudoscientific, and therefore belief in astrology is likely not a valid indicator of scientific illiteracy.

1. INTRODUCTION Astrology is pervasive in Western society. Nearly every major newspaper and many magazines publish daily or monthly horoscopes; dating websites allow users to search for romantic partners by supposedly compatible “Sun signs;” and numerous prominent celebrities and politicians consult professional astrologers. Astronomy educators frequently encounter confusion between astronomy and astrology, and many dedicate course time in introductory classes for nonscience majors to “debunking” astrology.

However, despite the general awareness that astrology is prevalent and a frequent assumption that pseudoscientific beliefs must be inversely related to scientific literacy, very little research has been done to actually examine what characterizes student belief in pseudoscience. Is belief in astrology an accurate barometer of scientific literacy?

Surveying college nonscience majors is particularly relevant to this debate, as a recent increase in the general public’s scientific literacy has been ascribed to courses like those that served as the setting for the study presented in this paper (Hobson 2008). This results described in this article derive from the results of a study of the science literacy, attitudes, and beliefs about science of nearly 10000 undergraduates. A number of items on the survey instrument were designed to probe pseudoscience beliefs, two of which relate directly to the question of astrology. By examining students’ performance on the science literacy items and their beliefs about astrology, we can determine whether these two constructs are in direct conflict, or if scientific knowledge can coexist with pseudoscientific misconceptions. A better understanding of patterns in students’ belief in pseudoscience may help educators learn the best ways to combat pseudoscience in the classroom, or even if it is necessary to combat it at all.

2. BELIEF IN ASTROLOGY Although astrology has roots in positional astronomy and was historically considered a science (much as alchemy was), under current constructs of what constitutes science, astrology has no scientific validity. However, astrological beliefs are still very popular with many educated members of modern society. Despite this, surprisingly few rigorous studies have been performed to investigate why astrology is so appealing and persistent. A summary of some of these studies follows, in an attempt to explain the psychological basis for astrological belief.

One of the most frequently referenced causes for belief in astrology is the so-called “Barnum Effect,” which is named after the famous American showman P. T. Barnum. Commonly used in psychology, it refers to a tendency for people to accept vague and general characterizations of themselves as accurate. Forer (1949) found that vague statements such as “at times you are sociable, while at other times you are reserved” tended to impress people as accurate personality descriptions. Glick, Gottesman, and Jolton (1989) demonstrated that although believers in astrology were more likely to accept any type of personality description as accurate, regardless of whether it was positive or negative, skeptics also were likely to fall prey to the Barnum effect, especially if the personality descriptions they were given were positive. Moreover, even astrology skeptics were more likely to call a description accurate if they were told it was based on their sign of the zodiac. Finally, skeptics who were given a flattering horoscope demonstrated an increase in their favorable attitudes toward astrology.

This result is backed up by research that has shown that people are more likely to pay attention to and remember feedback that verifies their positive self-conceptions, and interpret negative or contradictory feedback so as to minimize its impact (Swann 1990; Markus 1977), which may begin to explain how belief in astrology emerges in the first place. If we assume someone is initially neutral toward astrology, exposure to positively slanted horoscopes and personality descriptions may influence that person toward belief in astrology. Lillqvist and Lindeman (1998) explained in more detail how verification of positive self-concept may influence belief in astrology.

In addition to susceptibility to vague but positive personality descriptions, there is evidence that people may be more inclined to seek astrological explanation for life events when their personal life or the cultural climate is particularly stressful or uncertain. Lillqvist and Lindeman (1998) surveyed adult students taking an astrology class and compared them to students taking nonastrology related classes (German language and psychology).

They asked the students about personal crises that they had experienced recently, such as divorce, unemployment, menopause, or economic difficulties. They found that the students who had enrolled in the astrology class had experienced more crises recently than the control group of students. Additionally, the control group was asked about interest in astrology, and those students who demonstrated interest also reported more personal crises in their recent pasts.

In a similar vein, Padgett and Jorgenson (1982) found that during the most chaotic political and economic years in Germany between the two world wars interest in astrology, as measured by published astrological articles, increased with increasing economic and political threat and uncertainty. Similarly, Sales (1973) found an increased interest in astrology during the Great Depression in the United States. In these situations of personal and national crises, astrology may give people an (illusory) sense of control, which is otherwise often absent from stressful situations. Indeed, Lillqvist and Lindeman find that participants reported increased perceptions of control in their lives after taking a class in astrology.

Finally, people may use astrology for much the same reasons as carrying a good luck charm to a high-stakes job interview—as a “just in case” strategy. This may especially be true during stressful times in life, when there is much to gain and very little to lose. Tolbert (1990) framed this as a “cost-benefit” analysis. For most people, there is very little time, effort, and money involved in belief in astrology, so the “cost” is very low. The benefit, even if it is only to your self-concept, self-esteem, and sense of control, might be worth the low investment. (Professional astrologers, of course, put a lot of time and effort into the field, but they also reap a benefit, usually in the form of income.) Shermer (1997) discussed the same basic concept in the framework of evolutionary psychology. He posited that it was beneficial to survival to make connections between things and events in the environment (red spiders are poisonous), and that there was little to be lost by making too many connections or by making false positives (blue spiders are also poisonous). In contrast, false negatives (red spiders are not poisonous) might be fatal, while false positives are at worst unnecessary (avoiding all spiders). Therefore, Shermer believes humans might be naturally inclined toward superstition, and consequently belief in astrology. After all, a belief in astrology is not likely to have any negative impact on your day-to-day survival.

3. THE SURVEY The survey instrument used in this study was designed to measure attitudes about science, perceptions of pseudoscience, and general scientific knowledge using forced choice and open-ended questions. The two parts of the survey are set of 21 knowledge-based questions, four of which are open-ended with short written answers and 17 of which are true/false or multiple choice, and a set of 24 statements about science, pseudoscience, and technology where the responses are on a five-point Likert scale. The survey has been administered to students in General Education astronomy lecture courses for freshmen and sophomores at the University of Arizona since

1988. The survey is given in the first week of class, generally before any discussion of astrology or pseudoscience has taken place; it is anonymous, voluntary, and does not count for any part of a student’s grade.

Typically 10 to 15 min are allowed for its completion. Although the survey is anonymous, demographic information is collected: gender, major, class standing, and number of science courses taken at the university.

The instrument is administered on paper, and subsequent data entry and coding are done by hand.

There is a vigorous debate about the definition of scientific literacy and its societal importance, but there is general consensus in the literature that science literacy is composed of (1) knowledge of basic scientific concepts and principles, (2) an understanding of how science works and how it differs from other modes of knowing, and (3) an ability to apply that knowledge and understanding to evaluate science and technology in everyday life (Bybee 1997; Miller 2002; Hazen and Trefil 2009). Our survey attempts to measure some aspects of science literacy with 17 “knowledge” questions with true/false or multiple choice answers. These questions cover a broad range of scientific subjects, from physics (“Which travels faster, light or sound?”) to basic biology (“The oxygen we breathe comes from plants, true or false?”). To obtain a “science literacy score” for each participant, we used 15 of the 17 questions, in order to have maximum overlap with the biannual National Science Foundation (NSF) Science Indicators survey. From the answers to these questions, each student is given a score on a scale from 0 to 15, with each correct question worth one point. For a more detailed discussion of the entire survey, plus a description of the data entry and coding process, see Impey et al. (2011).

Of special interest to this discussion are the two Likert-scale items related directly to astrology. Students were asked to respond to the statement “The positions of the planets have an influence on the events of everyday life.” While this is not the only principle of astrology, it is the most well-known aspect of astrological predictions because of its ubiquity in the mass media. Additionally, we asked students the forced-choice question: “Would you say that astrology is very, sort of, or not at all scientific?” This question is identical to the question asked by the NSF in its biannual surveys, and allows for direct comparison between our results and the national average.

There are some potential problems with the questions as they appear on the survey. As many authors have noted (i.e., Stehling 1990; Thorndike 1955; Cohen 1985), the early history of astronomy is as intimately tied with astrology as alchemy is tied to chemistry. Kepler, Galileo, and Brahe routinely cast horoscopes for prominent politicians of their time (Cohen 1985). Even today, astronomers still refer to the zodiacal constellations when mapping the sky. Additionally, a signature of pseudoscience is that it presents itself with the trappings of science (Shermer 1997), while not subjecting itself to rigorous scientific tests. Knowledge of the historical ties between astrology and astronomy, and/or the fact that astrology presents itself as science, might even cause some professional astronomers to declare astrology “sort of” scientific, despite their awareness that astrology does not adhere to the modern scientific method. The Likert-scale item that specifically talks about planetary positions affecting everyday life should control for this issue to some degree. It also does not contain the word “astrology,” in order to avoid any potential confusion that students may have concerning the phonetic and morphological similarity of the words “astrology” and “astronomy.”

4. RESULTS BY DEMOGRAPHIC Figure 1 presents the overall results to the two astrology items, broken down by gender. Only 22% of all students state that astrology is “not at all” scientific. Similarly, only 29% of students “disagree” or “strongly disagree” with the statement that the planets affect everyday life. There is a slightly greater tendency for females to adhere to the principles of astrology, a result that has been duplicated by the NSF and others researchers (e.g., DeRoberts and Delaney 1992, 2000).

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