Press and Pop Culture

“Science Vs” — Celebrating Ignorance?

The podcast “Science Vs” promises to take “on fads, trends, and the opinionated mob to find out what’s fact, what’s not, and what’s somewhere in between.” It covers a range of predictable, conspiracy tinged and fad issues and pressing issues, e.g., episodes on ancient aliens,[1] snake oils and essential oils, and bigfoot, intermingle with episodes on opioids, renewable energy, and vaccines.[2] So it is unsurprising to see an episode on astrology: “Astrology: Are Geminis the Worst?”. Equally unsurprising, was the facile and misleading way the episode discussed astrology.[3]

“Science Vs” tries to discuss astrology.

The episode does not discuss astrology so much as discusses the ways people tend to invoke or use their zodiac sign, particularly in looking for a romantic partner. The host does not deny her focus:

Now astrology lovers will tell you that there’s way more to your chart than your basic Zodiac sign — but that’s what we’re focusing on today. And I’m not going to apologize for it – probably because I’m a Capricorn

Let’s for a moment ignore the condescending and dismissive “astrology lovers” comment, and pause instead on the host‘s admission that she will not discuss astrology but what she wants astrology to be:

  1. I am focusing on your “basic Zodiac sign.”
  2. Astrology is way more complicated and includes something called a chart.
  3. But I am focusing on your sign.

For the history of the zodiac and the signs, the host interviews a professor of astronomy at IU Bloomington. A better choice would have been to interview an expert. There are hundreds of historians of astronomy and dozens of historians of astrology who could have spoken with expertise and authority about the history of the signs and their use in early astronomy and astrology. And they would have helped the host and the show avoid a number of trite mistakes, e.g., the old chestnut about there being 13 signs instead of 12. And then the exhausting fantasy that somehow the precession of the equinoxes disproves astrology.[4]

The episode doesn’t improve from there. An interview with a professor of organizational/corporate communications seems an odd choice to discuss the ways “people use astrology every day” and the ways that “science has taken this [By which I think the host means astrology or maybe the way people use astrology, but it’s unclear.] seriously enough to test it.”[5] We then get versions of common stories that circulate as proof that astrology is hogwash.

While we don’t learn anything about astrology, its practice or theory, or how any of that might relate to science, we do get another example of how many science popularizers and many scientists react when confronting astrology:

  • They seem compelled to attack as irrational both astrology and people use astrology to inform their lives.
  • They caricature astrology and set up the simplest of straw man opponents.
  • They denigrate and mock people those people who do use astrology in their lives.
  • They deny expertise by looking only to sympathetic voices of authority, usually astronomers.

What we might ask is: Why? Why does astrology elicit such antagonism and frustration? What threat does astrology pose? What harm does it cause? And equally, what benefit do these science popularizers receive from these attacks?

  1. Seriously? How has the fantasy that aliens built the pyramids and otherwise roamed the earth in antiquity become a thing?  ↵

  2. From back when the most talked about vaccines were those given in childhood  ↵

  3. Standard disclaimer here: I am not arguing for or against astrology. I am rather pointing out the ways that people who claim to be guided by evidence and logic so quickly retreat into dogma and prejudice as they deny or explain away evidence and logic.  ↵

  4. Recycling these claims undermines the host’s and the show’s authority by illustrating that they don’t understand the basic definitions of terms used, and have no interest in understanding those definitions.  ↵

  5. Apparently, this professor did a study on astrology, but I can’t really tell because the links to various “studies” have been hijacked so they redirect to some fishing site and demand that I update my version of Adobe Flash. So, if you find the transcript to the show, beware of the links. Note to ”Science Vs”: You might do some housekeeping so you don’t risk infecting people’s computers.  ↵