The Latest NSF Survey on Science Literacy and Astrology: Interpreting Results Required Critical Thinking

The National Science Foundation has just come out with its latest periodic survey on the public understanding of science, and yet again, shown that most people don’t have a clue. An embarrassingly large fraction discounts evolution. Some respondents also inevitably answered that the sun revolves around the earth rather than the other way around, though this is an odd question considering that motion is relative. A much better approach would be to ask which body is at the center of the solar system. Such a question would more accurately measure whether people really do prefer Ptolemy to Copernicus.

But the big news this year was that more people than ever said they thought astrology was “very scientific” or “somewhat scientific”. It was up to more than half, from about a third in previous surveys.  

Several people covered the findings. Chris Mooney wrote about the results for Mother Jones with More and More Americans Think Astrology is Science.

The Daily Mail chimed in with One in Four Americans do not know the Earth circles the Sun and fewer than half know humans evolved from earlier species.

And UPI offered a similar story: Majority of Young Adults Believe Astrology is Science

A lot of eye rolling genernally follows such results, as well as harsh judgments about lack of critical thinking on the part of the general public. But the true meaning of critical thinking is not the ability to pick the designated right answers on a multiple choice test. That doesn’t require much actual thinking. Instead, it’s the ability to consider different explanations for the same phenomenon and weigh them in a rational, evidence-based way.

Now the obvious explanation for the survey result is that 55 percent of the people really believe the stars influence our futures and people born under Taurus really are all stubborn. But is that the right explanation? There is another possibility that someone pointed out here, and once you see it you will realize this may more closely fit with what we observe around us in the general public: Most people don’t know what astrology is.

Psychologist Richard Landers from Old Dominion University conducted a follow-up survey to test his hypothesis by asking 99 people to answer a somewhat similar question and to define astrology first. And indeed, he found the problem was not in our beliefs but in our definitions. He concluded that many people don't know the difference between astrology and astronomy.

Landers’ mini survey got picked up here in Universe Today.

In a law-oriented Washington Post blog called the Volokh Conspiracy, Jim Lindgren, a Law Professor from Northwestern University, questioned Landers’ finding and launched another mini survey of his own. His results showed Americans were not necessarily mixing up astrology and astronomy, but the responses suggested widespread confusion and cluelessness of a more diffuse nature.

Do People Confuse Astrology and Astronomy in NSF Study?

On the face of it, people shouldn’t be too seriously hampered by not knowing what astrology is. But the confusion is a problem because it means people may not have much of an idea what astronomy is.

Besides, astrology has a role in history, as does alchemy. Educated people shouldn’t mix these things up with areas of modern science. But sad is it may seem, most people just don’t pay much attention to either astronomy or astrology. They don’t care about stars or planets one way or another, and that probably includes the planet we happen to live on.

We should consider the point of the survey. If the point is to allow science literate types to slap their palms against their faces and make all kinds of noise about the stupidity of the public, then the whole thing is a waste of good NSF money. But if the point is to seriously address and improve science literacy, then the questions should be phrased and interpreted carefully so that we correctly diagnose what’s going wrong. Kudos to both academic bloggers for questioning the easy, face value interpretation. 

However the survey results are interpeted, it would seem evident that many Americans are getting cheated out of a decent education.

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