Science about Science

An an interesting post The Volokh Conspiracy, Jim Lindgren takes Richard Landers to task for some questionable methodology in a check he did on an NSF study that purported to show that a majority of young people believe that Astrology is scientific. If you’re interested in the back-and-forth, or the methologies used, or the specifics of the results, just follow the link to Lindgren’s post. The nutshell version is that Landers believes that respondants to the NSF survey were confusing Astronomy with Astrology, and Lindgren shows (using the same methodlogy as Landers with some minor tweaks for accuracy) this isn’t true.

For my part, I just wanted to note that Astrology IS scientific according to the definition of science that I was taught in (public) school. In public school, year after year, we had to participate in science fairs, and our projects were graded on how well they followed the Scientific Method. For the purposes of North Carolina public schools in the mid-1980s, "The Scientific Method" meant simply that you first did some background research, then you formed a hypoethesis, then you designed an experiement, then you decided whether the results of the experiment confirmed or denied your hypothesis, then you offered some discussion. Done. Schools didn’t go into any great detail about falsifiability or statistical methods. I mean, we used numbers, and the exercise in hypothesis testing certainly implied that falsifiability was an importnat criterion of "science," I’m just saying that lessons didn’t go into any great depth about these things.

So, by what I was taught in public school, anything is a science in which you form a superficially falsifiably hypothesis and test it. By that criterion, Astrology counts, because you can form a testable and even quantifiable hypothesis about it (say, give a bunch of people a personality survey and hypothesize that the people who score high on argumentative qualities are more likely than average to have been born under Aries).

And, you know, for the average bear, I’m not sure that’s a horrible background in science. It covers what an average citizen really needs to know about how scientists do what they do – it just doesn’t necessarily equip anyone to say why Astrology isn’t a science like others.

My bone to pick here is that I wonder what honestly accounts for the respondants to the survey who correctly identified Astrology as NOT science? Because I suspect that they don’t know much more about it than the people who said it was – they’ve just heard somewhere that Astrology is not science and so that’s what they put. In a large number of cases, anyway – I would guess. My point is that to really know that the people responding to this survey know what science is, as opposed to just having stored the fact that Astrology is not a science, you would have to get them to explain to you why Astrology didn’t count, and I strongly suspect you wouldn’t be impressed with their answers. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if you were more impressed with a lot of the answers that people who defended Astrology’s scientific status gave you over those who denied it.

Not that I’ve done a study to prove it, of course; I’m technically just talking out of my ass (yes, yes, "talking out of one’s ass" is a technical term! – like jiggery pokery). But I think the problem with this whole debate is that either Lindgren or Landers expects to learn anything about how scientifically educated the average American is from a survey like that. Like so many things in life, "how well one understands what science is" doesn’t lend itself to superficial quantification on the basis of single questions. It really depends on what you think is salient in scientific knowledge, and to what extent, and that’s NOT an easy topic.

I’m not a big fan of public school, and there are thousands of ways that my scientific education could have been (much) better than it was, but that said, it’s sort of a fool’s errand to expect any secondary school to produce anyone who can get every question thrown at them about science right every time. It’s not even their job to do that – really. In any given society, only scientists need to do anything like approach that level of understanding of what science is, and even they don’t have to be right absolutely all the time. Lots of things in life are such that knowing something better than someone else can lead you to give superficially "wrong" answers about it, even though in general you know better, and I guess "whether Astrology is science" is one of those things.

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