The prestigious National Science Foundation (NSF), a group historically joined at the hip with professional skeptics of all stripes, openly frets that more and more Americans think astrology is science.
According to data from NSF’s recently released Science and Engineering Indicator study, Americans are less skeptical of astrology than they have been at any time since 1983. In 2012, slightly more than half of all Americans said that astrology was “not at all scientific” whereas nearly two-thirds gave this response in 2010.
An article in the Mother Jones online newsletter says data on Americans’ astrological beliefs has been compiled by NSF from a variety of sources, including the General Social Survey (GSS), a research group that has tracked the opinions of Americans over the last four decades. Over the years, NSF supported surveys have asked Americans a recurring question: “Would you say that astrology is very scientific, sort of scientific or not at all scientific?”
NSF reports the high point for those claiming astrology was “not at all scientific” was 2004, when 66 percent provided this response. But the trend has rolled downhill since then, dropping to 55 percent in 2012 (the last year for which study data is available).
The erosion is even more noticeable among younger Americans aged 18 to 24. According to the report, for this age group there was a “staggering” 17 percent decline in the number who said they believed astrology was unscientific. The percentage of those holding this belief declined from 52 percent in 2010 to 35 percent two years later in 2012.
In the latest survey, an actual majority of respondents in this age group say astrology is “sort of scientific.” Which can’t be good news for the professional skeptics groups that have invested heavily in educational programs aimed at saving woolly-thinking college students from themselves.
There’s more bad news for astrology’s critics. In 2010, NSF says 64 percent of respondents in the 35 to 45 age group believed astrology was unscientific. However, two years later, only 51 percent felt this way – a 13 percent change.
So what’s the takeaway from all this?
Public opinion specialist John Besley of Michigan State University has been identified as the lead author for the NSF chapter on public attitudes towards science in the Science and Engineering Study. He says the apparent increase in astrology belief “popped out to me when I saw it. Over the past eight years, the 17 percent rise of those in the 18 to 24 age group who consider astrology to have a scientific element is dramatic.”
“But,” he cautions, “We should wait for further data to see if it’s a real change before speculating.” Which will be less easy for true-believing skeptics who see a meaningful trend moving (for them) in the wrong direction.