Press and Pop Culture

Astrology: Bugbear of Science

A recent survey of the “Conceptions of Science in Byzantium” opens with a general comment about the term “science”, and by extension the concept “science”. The author roots “science” in the culturally specific values of any given moment, values that are “constantly developing and changing.” These values determine what was and what was not, or what is and what is not “science” and “scientific.” Then, as an example:

Thus, applying the norms that prevail today, we might say that astronomy is a “science” but astrology is not.

Here we go again invoking astrology as the paradigmatic non-science, standard bearer of pseudoscience. Why does astrology occupy such a privileged place? Of all the non-sciences, why scholars (historians, scientists), journalists, and pundits keep coming back to astrology? It’s not like they couldn’t mix things up a little without even leaving the constellation of associated practices, e.g., palm reading, tarot cards, and psychic readings all of which have equal name recognition.[1]

A well-done art nouveau inspired deck of tarot cards by Matt Hughes. Unlike most art nouveau tarot decks, this one is really well done and nicely captures the art nouveau aesthetics.

If somebody wanted to be bold and topical, perhaps use polling, political or otherwise, as an example of neither a science nor scientific. The last two presidential elections in the U.S. have demonstrated clearly that political polling is less a science and probably less scientific than reading entrails. Yet no amount of post–2016 handwringing and pre–2020 assurances to have learned from 2016 improved the polling predictions.[2] Or use an unambiguous example, such as fishing (angling if you wanted to sound British and not lose the alliteration). Astronomy is a science but angling is not.

What set of norms and values compels us to return again and again to astrology. Why is astrology the bugbear of modern science?

  1. By associated practices I mean only that we often encounter this constellation of practices in the same space, offered as a form of service by the same person. I am not implying that these practices share an intellectual or methodological foundation. Nor am I making any claims about the rigor and quality of the services offered by these people.  ↩

  2. If only polling were as scientific, and self-aware and self-critical as astrology.  ↩