Given that 30% of Americans believe in astrology, it’s no surprise that some nontrivial percentage of influential American psychology professors are going to have the sort of attitude toward scientific theory and evidence that would lead them to have strong belief in weak theories supported by no good evidence.

Fascinating article by Christine Smallwood, “Astrology in the age of uncertainty”:

Astrology is currently enjoying a broad cultural acceptance that hasn’t been seen since the nineteen-seventies. The shift began with the advent of the personal computer, accelerated with the Internet, and has reached new speeds through social media. According to a 2017 Pew Research Center poll, almost thirty per cent of Americans believe in astrology. . . .

In its penetration into our shared lexicon, astrology is a little like psychoanalysis once was. At mid-century, you might have heard talk of id, ego, or superego at a party; now it’s common to hear someone explain herself by way of sun, moon, and rising signs. It’s not just that you hear it. It’s who’s saying it: people who aren’t kooks or climate-change deniers, who see no contradiction between using astrology and believing in science. . . .

I did a quick search and indeed found this Pew report from October, 2018:

The only real surprise about this table to me was the religious breakdown. I had the vague sense of mainline Protestants as being the sensible people, but they have the same rate of believe in astrology as the general population. But, hey, I guess they’re normal Americans (on average) so they have normal American beliefs. Also surprising that only 3% of atheists believe in astrology. I guess this makes sense, but it somehow seemed plausible to me for someone to not believe in God but believe in other supernatural things: indeed, I could imagine astrology as a sort of substitute for a traditional religious system. But I guess not.

Also interesting when we think about the promoters of junk science in academia.

I’ve analogized Brian Wansink to an astrologer who can make savvy insights about the world based on some combination of persuasiveness and qualitative understanding of the world, and then attribute his success to tarot cards or tea leaves rather than to a more prosaic ability to synthesize ideas and come up with good stories.

But does Brian Wansink actually believe in astrology? What about Marc Hauser, Ed Wegman, Susan Fiske, and the whole crowd of people who like to label their critics as “second-string, replication police, methodological terrorists, Stasi,” etc? I doubt they believe in astrology, as that represents a competing belief system: it’s an industry that, in some sense is an alternative to rah-rah Ted-talk science. I wouldn’t be surprised if prominent ESP researchers believe in astrology, but I also get the sense that mainstream junk-science promoters in academia and the news media don’t like to talk about ESP, as those research methods are uncomfortably close to theirs. They don’t want to endorse ESP researchers, as that would discredit their own work by association, but they don’t want to throw them under the bus, either, as they are fellow Ivy League academics, so their safest strategy is just keep to quiet about that stuff.

The larger point, though, is not belief in astrology per se, but the state of mind that allows people to believe in something so contradictory to our scientific understanding of the world. (OK, I apologize to the 29% of you who are not with me on this one. You can return to the fold when I go back to posting on statistical graphics, model checking, Bayesian computation, Jamaican beef patties, etc.)

It’s not that, a priori, astrology couldn’t be true: As with embodied cognition, beauty and sex ratio, ovulation and voting, air rage, ages ending in 9, and all the other Psychological Science / PNAS classics, we can come up with reasonable theories under which astrology is real and spectacular—it’s just that after years of careful study, nothing much has come up. And the possible theories out there aren’t really so persuasive: they’re bank-shot models of the world that could be fine if the goal was to gain understanding of a real and persistent phenomenon, but not so convincing without the empirical evidence.

Anyway, the point is that if 30% of Americans are willing to believe this sort of thing, it’s no surprise that some nontrivial percentage of influential American psychology professors are going to have the sort of attitude toward scientific theory and evidence that would lead them to have strong belief in weak theories supported by no good evidence. Indeed, not just support for particular weak theories, but support for the general principle that we should be nice to pseudoscientific theories (although, oddly enough, maybe not for astrology itself).

P.S. In defense of the survey respondents (though not of the psychology professors who support ideas such as the “critical positivity ratio” which make astrology look positively sane in comparison), belief in astrology (or, for that matter, belief in heaven, the law of gravity, or the square-cube law) is essentially costless. Why not believe, or disbelieve, these things? In contrast, belief or disbelief in evolution or climate change or implicit bias has potential social or political effects. Some beliefs are essentially private, while others have more direct policy implications.

I have less tolerance for prominent academic and media figures who aggressively support junk science when they don’t just express their belief in speculative theories supported by no real data, but then go on the attack against people who point out these emperors’ nudity. In addition, even a hypothetical tolerant, open-minded supporter of junk science—the sort of person who might believe in critical positivity ratio but also actively support the publication of criticisms of that work—can still do a certain amount of damage by diluting scientific journals and the news media with bad science, and by promoting sloppy work which reduces space for more careful research.

You know how they say that science is self-correcting, but only because people are willing to self-correct? Similarly, Gresham’s law is real, but only because people are willing to circulate counterfeit bills, or to circulate money they suspect may be counterfeit, while keeping their mouths shut until they can get rid of their wads of worthless stock.

P.P.S. Just to be clear: No, I don’t know that astrology is a waste of time, and it could be that Marc Hauser was onto something real, even while he was fabricating data (according to the U.S. government, as quoted on Wikipedia), and the critical positivity ratio and ovulation and voting and all the rest . . . all these could be real—who knows! Just cos there’s no good evidence for a theory, that doesn’t make it false. I don’t want to suppress any of these claims. Publish it all somewhere, along with all the criticism of it. My problem with the promoters of junk science is not just that they promote science that I and others consider to be junk—we can be wrong!—but that they continually dodge, suppress, and fight against legitimate open criticism.

P.P.P.S. Again, #notallpsychologists. And of course the problem of junk science is not restricted to psychology, not at all. To the extent that professors of political science, economics, sociology, history, are strong believers in astrology or spoon bending or whatever (that is, belief in “scientific” paranormalism as describing some true thing about the natural world, not just an “anthropological” recognition that paranormal beliefs are something that can affect the world because people believe in it), this could screw up their research too. If a physicist or chemist believes in these things, I guess it’s not such a big deal.

And, again, I’m not trying to suppress research into astrology, embodied cognition, ESP, beauty-and-sex-ratio, bottomless soup bowls, spoon bending, Bible Code, air rage, ovulation and voting, subliminal smiley faces, etc etc. Let a thousand flowers bloom! The point of this post is that, given that there’s a large chunk of the population that’s willing to believe in scientific-sounding theories that are not backed by any strong scientific theory or evidence, it should be no surprise that many professional scientists have this attitude. The consequences happen to show up particularly strongly in psychology, as this is a important field of study where theories can be vague and where there’s a long tradition of belief and action backed up by shaky data. That doesn’t mean that psychologists are bad people; they’re just working on hard problems, in an academic tradition that has a lot of failures in its history. Again, this is not a criticism, it’s just the way it is. And of course there’s a lot of great work being done in psychology. You have to work with the history you have.