February 16, 2014

Most young Americans think astronomy is science

And they’re right.

The problem is they don’t know the difference between the words “astronomy” and “astrology”. So we get survey results like this,

A study released by the National Science Foundation finds nearly half of all Americans feel astrology—the belief that there is a tie between astrological events and human experiences—is “very” or “sort of” scientific. Young adults are even more prone to believe, with 58% of 18- to 24-year-olds saying it is a science.

Richard N. Landers, a psychologist in Virginia, thought the name confusion might be responsible, and ran a survey using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, where you pay people to do simple tasks.  He asked people to define astrology and then to say whether they thought it was scientific.

What he found, is shown in this graph based on his data



People who think astrology is about horoscopes and predicting the future overwhelming don’t think it’s scientific — about 80% are in the ‘no’, and ‘hell, no’ categories. People who think astrology is about the solar system and stars  think it is pretty scientific or very scientific.

The data isn’t perfect — it’s from a much less representative sample than the NSF used — but there’s a very strong indication that confusion between “astronomy” and”astrology” could explain the otherwise depressing results of the NSF survey.


(via @juhasaarinen)


Thomas Lumley (@tslumley) is Professor of Biostatistics at the University of Auckland. His research interests include semiparametric models, survey sampling, statistical computing, foundations of statistics, and whatever methodological problems his medical collaborators come up with. He also blogs at Biased and Inefficient See all posts by Thomas Lumley »


  • avatar
    Jim Lindgren

    I replicated Landers study using the two NSF questions actually used, rather than questions that Landers made up. I then asked two followup questions designed to probe what the respondents meant by astrology.

    If you ask the actual questions used in the NSF study and probe further than Landers did, you get completely different results from Landers’. In my sample, only 1 of 108 respondents seemed confused in the way that Landers hypothesized.

    You can read about my replication in my blog post at the Washington Post:


    James Lindgren, JD, PhD

    4 years ago