Saturday, May 7, 2011

Students and pseudo-scientific beliefs

"The Dean insists that we add creationism and crystal theory and spiritualism to the curriculum."

"They already have those--"

"Not as equal time in the physics and chemistry departments"

Fallen Angels (Niven, Pournell and Flynn, 1992)
Luckily, chemistry and physics departments aren't forced (yet) to add these kind of courses to their curriculum, but that doesn't stop the students from believing in all sorts of pseudoscience, from astrology to faith healing. Since 1988, students (mostly freshmen and sophomores) at the University of Arizona were given a questionnaire in order to determine their attitudes toward science and pseudoscience, as well as examine their basic scientific knowledge. Normally, the students take the survey during the first week in General Education astronomy courses, before any discussions in class about astrology and/or pseudoscience.

Do students consider astrology a science?

Less than a third of the students "disagree" or "strongly disagree" with the statement "The position of the planets have an influence on the events of every day life." Female students tend significantly more to believe that astrology is "sort of" or "very" scientific.

Students majoring in science did better than students studying non-scientific majors:

Strangely, the findings of the National Science Foundation (NSF) in the U.S. regarding astrology are considerably better: in 2006, 65% of the Americans said that astrology was "Not at all scientific", in comparison with 5% who thought it was "Very scientific", 26% who thought it was "Sort of scientific" and 4% who didn't know. Female respondents tend to think more than male respondents that astrology is "Sort of scientific" (29% and 23% respectively). Five percents of both genders believe that astrology is "Very scientific".

The authors aren't sure why the NSF results and their differ so much. They mention that the NSF survey takes place over the phone, as opposed to their paper-based survey. Also, the survey is given as a part of an astronomy course and the similarities between "astrology" and "astronomy" might have confused the students. While the NSF survey population comes from all over the U.S., this survey's population is mostly for the Southwest, so the sample might be location-biased.

Science literacy and astrology

There is a negative correlation between belief in astrology and science classes. The more science classes student take, the less they tend to believe in astrology.

On the other hand, there was only a small (though significant) difference in the number of correct answers to the scientific knowledge questions between those who thought astrology wasn't scientific and those who did. Out of 15 questions, the former answered, on average, 12.5 questions correctly (83%), while the latter answered 11.6 correctly (77%).

Pseudoscience and scientific knowledge

Nearly 39% of the students think that "Some people possess psychic powers". About 32% have no opinion about the matter, and only about 29% "Disagree" or "Strongly disagree". Things are a bit better with "Some ancient civilizations were visited by extraterrestrials": only 15% or so said they "Agree" or "Strongly agree". More than half of the students (51.66%) didn't have an opinion about the subject. Less than 40% "Strongly disagree" or "Disagree" that "Faith healing is a valid alternative to conventional medicine".

In conclusion, it seems that scientific knowledge doesn't necessarily make people (at least Arizona students) disregard pseudoscience beliefs. However, studying science correlates positively with rejection of pseudoscience such as astrology.

Sugarman et. al (2011). Astrology Beliefs among Undergraduate Students Astronomy Education Review


  1. Was a possible confusion in terminology accounted for? I have been surprised to learn that a lot of people don't know that 'astrology' is about divination--they assume since it ends in 'ology' it must be the scientific study of stars, since it matches the other 'ologies' like geology, archaeology, etc.
    I can imagine those who actually study science are far less likely to make that mistake.

  2. The authors definitely considered the possibility of astronomy/astrology and it's mentioned in the paper. It's important to note that the students usually take the questionnaire during the first week of the astronomy course, before their professors have a chance to discuss with them the differences between the two.

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