astrology

From http://www.motherjones.com/blue-marble/2014/02/public-opinion-astrology-dumb

Astrology is the study of how the position of the stars relative to us on Earth have a supposed effect on people here, primarily based on their date of birth. Of course, most (or all) astrological predictions are worded so vaguely that anyone looking to see themselves in the statement would do so, for instance “you have a creative side that you don’t spend enough time nurturing” or “you have a tendency to sometimes be critical of yourself” would apply to pretty much everyone who wants to find the key to their lives in a tabloid prediction.

The effect behind astrology “fitting” so well, for so many, is known as the Forer effect and is defined as “the observation that individuals will give high accuracy ratings to descriptions of their personality that supposedly are tailored specifically for them, but are in fact vague and general enough to apply to a wide range of people.” It leads people to think statements to which almost everyone could agree with are specifically tailored to them, and it makes the reader feel, ironically, special.

The National Science Foundation study actually brings up a more important point than a growing misguided belief in astrology, and that is the growing belief in pseudoscientific principles. We all have that friend, the one who continues to claim studies and science support their beliefs but can never actually say which studies or scientific theories support these beliefs. To most of us, this seems harmless, except that this very type of person is making use of social media and YouTube to gain cult-like followings. Without naming any names: these types of people are actually doing far more damage than we tend to believe.

The increasing belief in pseudoscience like astrology is, in my opinion, directly linked to the increasing dominance of social media as a source of information. The fact is that the type of algorithms that Facebook and others use actually give an advantage to factually wrong but exciting texts. The scary part is that a large number of people who see these essentially false or misleading headlines, or read the pseudoscientific articles, are not exercising sufficient critical thinking to grasp the real picture. These people then perpetuate their false impressions further, causing all the bullsh!t to float to the top and be believed by even more people.

This is not just some abstract threat, some theoretical loss: I meet people perpetuating disinformation, even within my university, relatively often. When I discuss topics like biosphere stability or species loss, I am very frequently greeted by relatively easily disproveable excuses as to why this is no reason to worry. The majority of these people base these beliefs on articles they read on Facebook or beyond, almost always shared by their friends or into groups they belong to, and which in their eyes warranted no further investigation.

Part of the problem is that human evolution did not anticipate the emergence of science, empirical data, and statistics. Most of us primarily rely on our intuition and accept the beliefs of our friends because, in the history of humanity, that was usually the best way to understand the world around us. Unfortunately for all of us alive today, our friends are no longer the best source of information. In fact, the many views held by members of the media are vastly divorced from available statistical data: leading them to continue misinforming even those who have reason to consider themselves well-informed.

The problem is not insurmountable, but solving it does require us to exercise a degree of discipline and critical thinking: not simply believing an unnamed study or completely unsourced claims. Many websites make more money than any of us by simply writing what people already believe, want to hear, or are excited or upset to hear. A lot of readers simply bite this bait hook, line, and sinker: upping its online relevance and oftentimes pushing misinformation into popularity.

The world of online media is both a blessing and a minefield. It enables the skilled seeker to find a wealth of information far beyond the dreams of even the most resourceful librarian of 100 years past. Unfortunately, it also has the capacity of making liars look like heroes and trick well-meaning people into arrogantly defending disinformation.