40% of Americans say astrology is science. Or did they mean astronomy?

In a survey by the National Science Foundation, 40% of Americans said that they believed astrology was a science. But, is the issue not that Americans believe that horoscopes are scientifically defined, but that they simply misheard "astrology" as "astronomy"?

Unfortunately, probably not.

A small survey, as detailed below, posits that the problem was simply one of mixing up the terms for "astronomy" and "astrology", not confusion over the fundamentals. While the explanation is definitely more appealing than the alternative, it's probably not true.


Why? Before the question about astrology was asked, the interviewer had asked questions about attitudes towards science. Then they threw this out: "Now, for a new subject. Do you ever read a horoscope or your personal astrology report?"

Only after that asking about horoscopes did they ask about whether astrology was itself a science, making a mix-up with astronomy much less likely.

Image: Star making region, shot by the Hubble / NASA, ESA

Very few Americans belive astrology is "scientific" (UPDATE: MAYBE?)

There is an update at the bottom of this post, where it will make more sense than it would at the top here.

When Ria Misra posted a couple weeks ago that more than 1/3 of Americans believed that astrology was a science, my first thought was "surely not!" Certainly the question itself must have been confusing, a sentiment shared repeatedly in the comments below.

Well, we commenters weren't the only ones who had some faith in the American people. Richard N. Landers, on his NeoAcademic blog, recently shared the results of his own little survey—which first asked people to define "astrology", and then asked if they thought astrology was scientific.


Landers' results were pretty much what we all suspected: that only those people who confuse "astrology" with "astronomy" thought that "astrology" was very scientific. Of those who correctly defined the term "astrology", only about 13% thought it was "somewhat" or "very" scientific . . . a far cry from the 42% found by the National Science Foundation.

His numbers track closely with those found by a 2005 European Commission study, which asked half its participants "is astrology scientific" and half "are horoscopes scientific". Forty-one percent of those asked about "astrology" thought it was scientific, versus 13% who were asked about "horoscopes".

So what can we learn from this? At the very least, that the National Science Foundation is bad at conducting rigorous surveys. If you want to know what people think about X, you can't always ask "what do you think about X" . . . sometimes to get the real answer, you have to ask about Y or Z instead.


(And perhaps that it wouldn't hurt for the media to show a little more skepticism about "studies" that find surprising and counterintuitive results.)

UPDATE: A second micro-study has challenged the conclusions of the first micro-study. It claims that, when asked the NSF question in the context it was originally asked, very few people would actually confuse astrology and astronomy. (This was also a point brought up in the comments under Ria's article, by people who thought the NSF results might be valid.) A third micro-study is apparently being performed (by somebody involved in the above-mentioned European study) to specifically address the differences between the first micro-study and this new second micro-study, but this third micro-study isn't done yet. Also apparently somebody created a Kinja account just to reply to me! That's kinda flattering, even if it was just to tell me I'm wrong.