Thursday, January 2, 2014

Belief in Pseudoscience Runs Rampant as 2014 Dawns

Happy New Year 2014! It's a new year and, despite the progress in science and technology, two things I've seen in the past day serve as clean-cut evidence that belief in baloney continues to run rampant. First up: a new Pew Research Center poll has found that a third of Americans deny the scientific fact that is evolution and the morning news featured a 10-minute segment with an astrologer making predictions for 2014.

This is 2014 AD, right?

First up: evolution. Yesterday, I read in the news that on Monday, Pew released a new poll about Americans' belief in the theory (virtually the fact by now) of evolution. The finding: on average, a third of Americans refuse to recognize the fact that present life forms have evolved over time. The belief in evolution varies over demographics. Age wise, the young are most likely to believe in evolution. Politically, far more Democrats and Independents believe in evolution than Republicans, among whom belief in evolution is falling. Religiously, two thirds of white evangelical Protestants deny evolution while nearly 80% of white mainline Protestants believe Darwin's theory. Additionally, when it comes to belief in evolution among the religious, most groups represented in the survey show nearly a 50/50 split over the question of whether evolution is purely natural or guided by a supreme being, with only the religiously unaffiliated showing a clear majority believing that evolution is purely natural. As for education, the more schooling one gets, the more likely one is to believe in evolution.

For many scientifically literate people, these findings are troubling.

While there is no such thing as an absolute truth in science, that's not to say that there can't be mountains of evidence that, when looked at collectively, pretty much prove something is true beyond reasonable doubt. Such is the case with evolution. Ever since 
Darwin's 1859 theory first hit the press, evolution has been a touchy subject, with researchers all over the world wanting to study this, at the time, heretical idea for themselves. Result: over decades of study, evolution has evolved from a single man's hypothesis into a virtually unassailable theory, one that can be observed to be at work in the present.

Now, what does all of this have to do with astronomy and space? Answer: plenty.

Like biology, astronomy is a subject that has had a history of conflicting with religion and, even now, can shock the sensibilities of some, particularly religious fundamentalists, who continue to cling to the belief that the world was created in a matter of days and that the age of the Earth can be determined by counting back the years as given in holy books. Just as anyone committed to the correct teaching of science would be appalled at the lack of evolution in biology, a same revulsion would occur if the Big Bang along with solar system formation were taught side by side with the account in Genesis, or skipped altogether, in astronomy. Needless to say, omitting these two most basic of processes would do as major a disservice to any astronomy student as glossing over evolution or teaching it in tandem with a most nonscientific idea as creationism would do to anyone learning biology.

Unfortunately, thanks to the social climate of the country we live in, being that the U.S. is an anomaly in the Western world wherein belief in creationism, depending how it is defined,  far outweighs that in evolution, it is not uncommon for people to cherry-pick what scientific facts they choose to believe. Example: someone may have a purely scientific mindset except for a denial of evolution.

As a final thought, consider the following: in science, if there is any commandment, it is this: respect the facts. No matter what we want the world to be or what our preconceived notions are, the world is the way it is, inflexible to human will. If one truly wishes to assume a scientific mindset, he/she must have respect for facts, no matter how contrary to personal beliefs they are. In the case of both evolution and the Big Bang, all facts point towards the scientific theoriesnot the religious dogma, being the truth. Yes, there are many great things about religion, such as ethical principles, its function as a social bonding agent, influence on the arts, and many others. However, religion is not science and it should not be a substitute for science.

Next up: astrology.

Astrology is the ancient belief that the stars and planets shape one's personality and fate. The ancients believed that the zodiac constellations (the ones through which the Sun passes) hold special powers that can shape personality. Also, it was believed that any given constellation was at its most influential when the Sun was present within its boundaries. As the final astrological commandment, the planets themselves have special traits that they can pass on to individuals.
Take these three tenants, combine them with the logical fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc (false causal relation) and one gets astrology, the long since debunked belief that planets, stars, and the Sun can impact the fate of humans.

So why do people continue to believe such nonsense? The theories are many.

One belief is that humans like to be part of something bigger than themselves. That's why we have families and join social clubs, we want to belong. Taken to the extreme, some people like the idea that their personal fates are tied to the celestial realm, which seems like the ultimate way to belong to something. Unfortunately, these people are wrong when it comes to the heavens impacting their lives. However, on a much more basic, wondrous level, we are all
part of the cosmos in that every atom in our bodies was formed either in the Big Bang or in the cores of stars.

Another (false) idea is that astrology provides answers as to why things happen. Put it this way, some people would rather believe that a bad alignment of, perhaps, Mars and Venus is the reason that he/she had a blowup with a significant other. To put it bluntly, some people just hate taking responsibility for things and the heavens can provide an easy scapegoat for life's misfortunes.

A third idea of why people believe in astrology is because those daily astrology columns really serve as an advice column. Want proof? Find and a horoscope. If you read the message closely, you'll see that the predictions aren't predictions at all, but merely suggestions, and rather vague ones at that. For some people though, any advice is good advice. Personally, if you must have advice from strangers, stick to your local Dear Abby-esque column.

A final reason that people believe in astrology is that old habits simply die hard.

So, back to the new year. 2014 is here and, if you're looking for a new year's resolution but just can't seem to settle on one, why not make it a point to kick irrational beliefs like astrology to the curb? Oh, and while you're at it, be sure to toss those lucky shirts, magic charms, and any other object that has potential to harm sound judgment out the door, too.

Needless to say, while we've come a long way, there's much to be done when it comes to getting the word about science out to everyone.

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