America and India love their antiscience

By Phil Plait | February 3, 2011 2:31 pm

It occurs to me that young-Earth creationism and astrology are very similar (it’s occurred to creationists as well). Both have no evidence to support them, have tons of evidence against them, and have people who adhere to them like zealots despite this, pushing these ideas on others.

Sadly, some of these people are in the government.

Creationism

In Oklahoma, two state lawmakers are creating (haha) legislation that will basically attack the teaching of evolution:

Sen. Josh Brecheen, R-Coalgate, and Rep. Sally Kern, R-Oklahoma City, have filed legislation designed to undermine the teaching of a fundamental of modern science, the theory of evolution.

Kern’s House Bill 1551, called the Scientific Education and Academic Freedom Act, says students cannot be penalized for subscribing "to a particular position on scientific theories."

So this is saying you can’t grade a student down for giving the wrong answer in science class. Remember when school was about learning stuff?

This type of thing is very dangerous for students, because then they can claim they don’t have to learn anything that is against their religious belief. Well, I suppose they don’t have to learn anything in that case, but then they should fail the class. Seems pretty straightforward.

But not to everyone, I guess. One of the Oklahoma politicians, Sally Kern has tried to pull stunts like this before. Let’s hope this legislation fails again.

Sadly, though, this kind of stuff does get traction in some areas… like New Mexico, which is trying to protect the teaching of antiscience ideas as well. The irony is head-explodey; they claim they’re trying to protect teachers, but again this is typical Orwellian creationist-speak for attacking science. That article gives the chances of the New Mexico bill passing as slim, but creationists are nothing if not stubborn (which they kinda need to be, I guess). If it doesn’t make it this time, it’ll be reworded and resubmitted in the future. Bet on it.

Astrology

In India, the courts have ruled that astrology is a science. Seriously.

"So far as prayer related to astrology is concerned, the Supreme Court has already considered the issue and ruled that astrology is science. The court had in 2004 also directed the universities to consider if astrology science can be added to the syllabus. The decision of the apex court is binding on this court," observed the judges.

Public Interest Litigation was filed by a non-government organization in India, hoping to ban such things as astrology, feng shui, tarot, and others, which is what led to this declaration. I don’t think such things should be outlawed — free speech and caveat emptor* and all that — but I also strongly suspect those judges don’t really understand what science is. Defining it can be a little difficult, but here’s one way of thinking of it: it’s a method of self-correcting investigation that compiles evidence describing how the Universe and things in it behave, makes predictions based on that evidence, abandons bad ideas when they don’t pan out, and seeks further evidence for those that do.

Astrology doesn’t exactly fit that description. Or at all.

And as far as Universities actually teaching astrology as a science? Sounds like a load of Taurus to me.

Tip o’ the mortarboard to Christopher Hanley, Stuart Robbins, and my sister Marci.


* Yes I do know it’s a different country than the United States, but that doesn’t mean freedom of speech shouldn’t be a universal right for all humans. When you shut down someone’s right to support or oppose an idea, you get stuff like creationism in the classroom. As awful as I think creationism is, censorship is far, far worse.

Comments (53)

  1. sargas

    In the Bombay court’s defense, they are correct. They have to follow the Indian supreme court’s decision that astrology is a science from 2004. They didn’t rule on the question of it being a science.

    Hopefully the organizations can successfully argue in the appeals process that the previous supreme court ruling was dead wrong, but I don’t think anyone here knows enough about the legal process to know if a lower court could have decided that.

  2. Bob_In_Wales

    “Defining it [science] can be a little difficult.” Two fun definitions and one comment.

    Def 1: Science is organised knowledge.

    Def 2: Science is defined uncertainty.

    Comment: I may not be able to define an elephant, but whatever it is, when I see a cat, I know it ain’t one.

  3. John

    Why does it not surprise me both the Oklahoma lawmakers are republicans. It seems like the majority of anti science news comes from the republican side. Not even going to go into how stupid I think it is to have astrology as a science any where on the planet.

  4. Chief

    Umm. Phil, just means that they can take the degree they earned and work at the local burger joint. Once they are in a interview for a scientific position, the exit door will be offered right quick.

  5. KeithLM

    It seems to me these kinds of bills have one major problem. An argument can easily be made based off these that the same standards should apply to history and social science classes. That would pave the way for Holocaust deniers, moon hoaxers, 9/11 truthers, etc., to all insist that their viewpoints be allowed in class.

    And, of course, you cannot forget about the stork theory of child birth. That will have to be allowed in health and sex-ed classes.

  6. Shawn

    I can’t adequately express my anger and pessimism concerning the future of biology (until the pendulum swings fully back their way, then presumably history and geology too) in schools. I’m glad BA and other science/skeptic bloggers have taken up the gauntlet.

  7. Belfagor

    Purely theoretically, for the purpose of science instruction, it doesn’t really matter what a student believes to be true, as long as he or she can demonstrate proficient working knowledge of the idea (of course practically, this is all an exercise to prevent that from ever happening). If you could get the politician to stick to the idea that the student can’t be penalized for failing to believe in evolution, that’s fine, as long as he or she still has to learn it and demonstrate an understanding of it. If it weren’t so tragic, it’d be funny that biblical literalists should refuse the metamorphical fruit of the tree of knowledge.

  8. Other Paul

    Is that true, @Chief? Can’t they just see “Look – I have this degree in Science” without any obligation to name the particular area of study? If the employer probes the interviewee no further than that, then I’d imagine they’d be in danger of employing someone they’ll probably deserve.

    I find I don’t actually know an awful lot about astrology but it seems to involve consistent application of a set of rules for drawing up charts based on a date of birth (time, too, if known) and no further information. Sounds like an algorithm to me. The output clearly has no predictive power whatever, and tells you nothing useful (save, I assume, a date of birth), but – hey – at least you can claim you’ve learned the appreciation of systematic method. Ideal for people at front of house desks who can react to complaints with steadfast responses like “It’s not our policy to give refunds.” – an algorithm in action.

  9. Grizzly

    I seem to remember a Calvin comic strip where he refuses to do math because it is based on faith.

    I wonder what would happen if someone fought a failing mark in math or chemistry because “students cannot be penalized for subscribing “to a particular position on scientific theories.”

    I believe that there is no such thing as multiplication, there’s just adding.

  10. Coyote Bongwater

    As a native of Oklahoma, I am fairly confident that this bill will fail, just as the last one did. However, there’s no way to be sure – the state legislature has an enormous Republican majority this year, the largest in the state’s history, and there might simply not be enough sensible people left in the state government to defeat it.

  11. Andrew

    Texas science teacher here!

    This bill is stupid, of course you can’t REQUIRE students to adhere to a position on a theory. But that doesn’t mean you can’t ask them factual questions about the theory. There’s no test question that would ask “do you believe in evolution?” A question would ask, “Which of the following pieces of evidence is used to support the theory of biological evolution?”

    I don’t see how this can be used as an excuse not to learn or give correct answers about a scientific theory. You don’t have to believe it to learn or answer questions about it. If that truly is the intent of the bill writers, they are going to have a bunch of teachers laughing at them.

    I reference evolution, the age of the Earth, etc, in my middle school science classroom in Texas (just finished up the plate tectonics unit). So far I’ve had no objections from parents or students, though I’m sure there are a small minority who don’t “believe” it. You don’t test students on what they believe, you test them on what they know and can do.

  12. John Matthews

    KeithLM has a point. If nonsense like creationism/ID ever really gets into an education system, look out. We’ll have all sorts of blather being pushed as “Alternative ‘Theories’ ” into our science and history curriculum.

    I’m surprised we haven’t seen the UFO/ancient astronaut nuts start campaigning to get their “theories” pushed into biology and history also. I guess they’re waiting to see if their pushing-essentially-the-exact-same-nonsense “friends” in the creationist/ID world get their way.

    Soon, we’ll have our education system turned into what the History Channel has become. And our children will be blithering idiots compared to the rest of the world.

  13. Andrew, glad to have your voice in the chorus of reason and sanity.

  14. Nullius in Verba

    The legislators have a problem in that they have to protect science education, but also the human right of freedom of belief. The compromise they reached was that students had to correctly understand, and be tested on, the scientific evidence and argument for/against particular theories, but that they were not required to believe them. Creationist students would have to learn, be able to accurately explain the mechanism of evolution, and the evidence for it logically, and they could be penalised if they came out with any of the usual errors or distortions, but they could still say at the end of it all that they nevertheless chose not to believe it.

    It’s actually perfectly scientific, from a pure philosophical point of view. The scientific method does not require your prior (or even posterior) belief in the hypothesis being proved – in fact, is specifically designed to work despite your preconceptions. It’s only a problem if your approach to science education is to rely on scientific authority instead of scientific method.

    All the bill actually says is that some topics (examples given) have led to controversy and pressure to avoid discussing them and hence uncertainty amongst teachers about what they were allowed to cover in science class. The bill forbids any interference in teaching students scientific and critical thinking, or the topics to be taught, and allows the understanding of it to be tested, but does not allow schools to require belief in any particular position.

    It’s actually a pretty good bill for the science. It’s interesting that people’s reflexes are so tuned to creationist attempts to introduce loopholes that they’re starting to see them even when they’re not there. I’m sure the creationists are secretly very amused.

  15. amphiox

    So this is saying you can’t grade a student down for giving the wrong answer in science class. Remember when school was about learning stuff?

    I agree with #11. A properly phrased question, such as “What, according to the theory of evolution, happens in scenario X” gets around this problem.

    Similarly if an atheist student takes a comparative religion course, he or she would still be required to accurately answer questions about what, factually, is stated in the bible, or other holy text.

  16. QuietDesperation

    I seem to remember a Calvin comic strip where he refuses to do math because it is based on faith.

    My favorite was where he refused to solve an equation and preferred to “savor the mystery.” :-) Genius.

  17. Brian Too

    Turn it around. I can take a religion class, learn all the material and pass all exams and the course. It matters not a whit what I believe about the curriculum. My beliefs are not at issue, or should not be.

  18. JLE

    Mark Twain has a good quote on this:

    In religion and politics people’s beliefs and convictions are in almost every case gotten at second-hand, and without examination, from authorities who have not themselves examined the questions at issue but have taken them at second-hand from other non-examiners, whose opinions about them were not worth a brass farthing.
    - Autobiography of Mark Twain

    Interesting how things just don’t really change even after 140 years or so (estimating). These people’s opinions (creationists and astrologist) aren’t worth a brass farthing then, aren’t worth it now. The real question is what are we, the voting public going to do about people like this?

  19. Messier Tidy Upper

    Would I be too optimistic in thinking the whole Creationism -ID~iocy in the States has now peaked (with the Dover trial as its highwater mark) and is now in decline and starting to enter its death throes?

  20. Jeffersonian

    No surprise it’s the GOP.
    If a Democrat cured cancer the GOP would say that curing cancer steps on the freedoms of Americans who want to chose cancer, and then claim the cure is unconstitutional.

  21. Gonçalo Aguiar

    It is simple: the government and those 1% that own 40% of the world’s wealth, want the rest 99% of people, which belong to middle and low classes, to be dumb. When a person is utterly stupid is easy to shut up and to control. An uneducated individual will believe anything you throw at him as true. So, conspiracy theories apart, this is actually their plan to “dumb down” people so we can do their bidding.

    1% enslaves the 99% – makes sense to me…

    If you look closely to recent data, schools all over the world have been dumbing down their evaluation methods. It is easier to get higher grades nowadays. But guess what: it is harder to enter university and high school.
    As a proof of it: England just rose their university tax to 10 000 pounds per year!!!!
    The only conclusion I can take from here is: they want rich people to be intelligent and qualified, while poor people get more dumb, hence even more poor…

  22. On the Indian case, you have to be careful about language, unless the whole thing was conducted in English (and even then there are problems — some Indian English idioms are very unlike British or American ones). Not all languages have two neatly circumscribed words for “astronomy” and “astrology” in the way that present-day English does.

  23. Alan D

    It’s quite clear what motivates this bill…
    http://preview.tinyurl.com/365wyuq

    Clear skies, Alan

  24. Hi,

    I’m a college student writing from India, and the latter observation is something that has amazed me all my life. So I’ve thought about it quite a bit.

    There is some substance to what John W. Kennedy says above. It need not be the language, but also the way things are perceived. We must keep in mind that a lot of advances in Astronomy happened very early in India, and it’s influence on cultural practices often got mixed up with astrology. In my opinion, a lot of “astrology” that’s being peddled today, is just cultural practices that were sensible(scientific) a few centuries ago, but are completely out of context today. The border between traditional practices (which are based on astronomy) and astrology is quite blurred.

    Coming to how astrology is followed in India… As I explained above, it is strongly entrenched into our culture over many centuries. There are some people obsessed with it, but by and large, over the years, people have less and less time for it. When astrology is followed, people don’t completely give in to it. It’s more like a prayer/wish for mental comfort, and then you go about doing your work normally.

    All that said, there are many who blindly follow astrology, but when it’s mixed with culture and religion, you can’t be too critical of it in public, given that practitioners might often be uneducated. :P The only real solution is education, and as I see it, a slow but steady change is happening.

  25. Ashish

    In Indian case the issue is that Astronomy and Astrology both are so much intermingled that it is very difficlut to distinguish. It is called ‘Jyotish’ in Hindi Language which comes from Sanskrit language.

    In ancient days Jyotish used to be pure astronomy. All old indian astronomers such as “Aaryabhatta” or “Varahamir” wrote their work under name “Jyotish”. Later astrological pseudo-science got intermingled with “Jyotish”. Now “Jyotish” became synonym of Astrology.

    Indian astrological pseudo-scientist misuse the name of Jyotish and if you oppose them, they put “Aaryabhatt” or “Varahmir” to defend themselves.

  26. Eric

    Ugh! Another “Academic Freedom” bill, a 2008 creation of Seattle’s Discovery Institute. Thankfully, versions of this bill are usually shot down in flames. In the past three years only one has made it through, signed into law by Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal. I’d be curious to see how Louisiana teachers have dealt with it the past few years.

  27. Cosmonut

    The fact that astronomy and astrology is historically tied up is not special to India, but true of cultures worldwide.
    Most pre-modern cultures studied astronomy primarily to “get guidance” for worldly actions.

    But instead of using historic excuses to call astrology a science, we should focus on distinguishing the two.

  28. @Cosmonut : That will happen only when people get educated, and there’s enough technological penetration. That will take a few decades in India (and some other places). It seems to me that the situations in US and India are subtly different in this manner, with different ideologies driving the trend.

  29. Lucas

    it’s hard to belive that we’re living in XXI century… here in Europe I guess situation seems to be a little better. Churches became empty. Even in typical catolic Poland a number of young people who don’t want waste their time with christainity is rising each year. especially after last year presidelntal aircraft crash we’ve get wave of protests against superstition.
    but unfortunatelly religion is still present in schools. and there’s not alternative for non christian kids. but peolpe slowly are loosing their patience for such situation.
    greetings from Warsaw

  30. Michel

    I love Taurus! On my plate that is.
    Here in Spain their b*lls are a delicacy.
    Yummie.
    And I like picses too.
    And virgos.

  31. DrFlimmer

    To quote Joseph G from a comment yesterday:

    [...]“Freedom” is the magic word in the American mind. If you’re a lobbyist and you can attach your interests to “freedom” or “liberty” in some way, you’re always going to have support. People will line up to vote against their own best interest if you can convince them that they’ll be more free… somehow.

    See? You’re right!

  32. Sion

    Nothing wrong with saying that students cannot be penalized for subscribing to a particular position on a scientific hypothesis, but they should be able to be penalized for subscribing to easily falsifiable positions on scientific theories and laws.

  33. Ian S

    #21
    England does not have a £10,000 (or any other amount) university tax.

    What they do have is tuition fees. A university can charge an amount upto a maximum of £9000 per student per year for any of its courses, it is quite at liberty to charge nothing at all should it wish.

    To pay the tuition fees most students take out a loan from the student loans company (a government owned finance company), interest is charged on the loan at the rate of economic inflation so that in real terms it is interest free. You do not have to start paying back that loan until you are earning £15,000 per year, if you don’t earn that much you don’t pay..

    I should also point out that for the last decade the policy of our goverment has been to raise university attendence from less than 10% of school leavers to 50%+, a policy which is now getting remarkably close to being fullfilled. Whether this is a good thing or not is up for debate but you certainly can’t use the situation in England to support your idea tha “elite” are trying to dumb down the population and stop them going to university.

  34. Brice Gilbert

    Students being penelized for not believing in evolution hasn’t happened and doesn’t need such obvious condemnation. Like Phil said, this bill isn’t about what students believe it’s about what they put as an answer to a test. In which case they are wrong.

    @amphiox
    What’s funny is I think you might find many believers on a test about the bible giving answers that are either not in the book or are wild interpretations.

  35. Phil, your definition of science says it all, in fact, it should be the definition for ALL TEACHING across all disciplines. Period.

    “it’s a method of self-correcting investigation that compiles evidence describing how the Universe and things in it behave, makes predictions based on that evidence, abandons bad ideas when they don’t pan out, and seeks further evidence for those that do.”

    Why can’t we just apply this simple definition to everything we do? Correct when things go awry, continue to always investigate, learn, uncover more knowledge … it just makes so much sense.

    Sadly, humans haven’t always shown that they do things that make sense.

    Thank you Phil for being one of the few who do!!

  36. Jim

    re: #4

    Unfortunately, in the US you can do that with a science degree too, with GOP Congresses holding the pursestrings. Reagan’s “why should we subsidize intellectual curiousity?” is religion for them.
    It feels almost like such measures are pure defensiveness against those Reality-Based folks telling them different things about the world than their pastor and making them feel dumb.

  37. James

    #33

    The point regarding interest rates on English tuition fees applies to current loans, but not to the new loans to be introduced from next year, which will charge up to 3% above inflation.

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-11483638

  38. arvind mishra

    In USA and India one or two things is surprisingly very common – most of the judges lack scientific temper and have longings for astrology and other similar unscientific practices and they are worlds biggest democracies !
    I fail to predict what future has in store for these two nations! Luck or ?

  39. Kern’s House Bill 1551, called the Scientific Education and Academic Freedom Act, says students cannot be penalized for subscribing “to a particular position on scientific theories.

    So if I believe that the Universe was created when Satan killed God, I can’t be punished? *GASP!* Do Sen. Josh Brecheen and Rep. Sally Kern endorse Satanism? ;-)

  40. Sam H

    @11: Agreed all the way Andrew. I’m not going to bring up ID again (even if there is evidence, I do NOT support it’s teaching in public schools at all), but I have noticed some saying that they would fail a student even if they got all the right answers, but still personally believed in creationism or ID and refused to believe the science is true (or astrology, in India’s case).

    This is obviously going too far. And that kind of thinking is only contributing to this pathetic culture war that crossed the line decades ago. It will only widen the divide, not bridge it. You cannot grade a student because of his/her personal beliefs, no matter how much you disagree with them. You only grade their answers and work.

  41. Ian S

    #37
    the situation becomes more complex next year I agree, the interest rate will be means tested and variable, if you earn 21000 (the new threshold for repayment) you pay inflation only. This rises to inflation + 3% for those earning 41000 or above. Interestingly if you were paying back a student loan on a salary of 41000 I think you would drop out of the higher tax band since the loans are paid from your pre-tax salary, in this scenario paying back inflation +3% would save you a lot of tax..

  42. TechyDad:

    Kern’s House Bill 1551, called the Scientific Education and Academic Freedom Act, says students cannot be penalized for subscribing “to a particular position on scientific theories.

    So if I believe that the Universe was created when Satan killed God, I can’t be punished? *GASP!* Do Sen. Josh Brecheen and Rep. Sally Kern endorse Satanism? ;-)

    There was a cartoon several years ago that poked fun of just this sort of thing. Too bad I can’t find the original page, but here’s a web page with it on it:

    http://members.cox.net/johnparadox/horsey.jpg

    Now, to be honest, I haven’t read the bill in question yet. However, if it’s anything like previous “scientific freedom” bills, I would have to agree with Phil on this one. And I wonder if it protects the teacher’s “freedom” to teach their particular “position on scientific theories”? Perhaps the link between global warming and the decline in the number of pirates?

  43. Two years back, the noted Indian astrophysicist Jayant Narlikar published a statistical test of astrology. He and his colleagues tested astrological predictions for 100 children with normal brain function and 100 mentally retarded children. As the paper shows, the abilities of the horoscopes to predict the mental proclivities of the children were no better than chance.

  44. Robert E

    I live in Oklahoma. Rep. Sally Kern could be the poster child for wacky beliefs. This is someone who recently (and on her part sincerely) tried to link the “homosexual agenda” to the Illuminati.

  45. PeteC

    Oooooh! Anybody want a load of PhDs in pretty much every science from the big Oklahoma universities (I suppose they have some)?

    I’ll start a religion with the appropriate doctrine. Every question on every exam and test can then be answered by “This action is impossible by my religious beliefs.”

    Since you can’t be penalised for “subscribing to a particular position” then it’s full marks for everyone!

    The only way to fail is to try to do it honestly and make a mistake.

  46. Joseph G

    @31 DrFlimmer: Hmph. I’ve never been so disappointed to be proven right :)

  47. DrFlimmer

    @46 Joseph G

    Yeah, I’m not happy either!

  48. mike burkhart

    Humans have a need to beleve in things.I disagree with you Phil about freedom of speach,I think it is a human right ,if you study history most atroctys have ocured because of people trying to controling ideas,The inquations of the middle ages of witch Conpurnaus and Galalio were victums of is an example ,thats why the founding fathers put freedom of speach in the constiution

  49. J. P.

    Some good points are expressed here. Phil, I suggest you have a look at this:

    What Exactly is Accomplished by Asserting “Astrology is Rubbish”?

    http://www.pachs.net/blogs/comments/what_is_accomplished_by_asserting_astrology_is_rubbish/

  50. Jess Tauber

    In South and East Asia there is apparently a great deal of pressure on scientists such that much more fraudulent results get published. Maybe in India there really isn’t that much difference between astrology and astronomy. Love to chat, but I’ve got to go fake 1200 new extrasolar planets I’ll be divining with my crystal occulus, paid for by a nice government grant predicted for me by my horiscope-telescope.

  51. Mark Hansen

    J.P., One of the “good points” over at the page you linked to reads;

    …Given the characterization of astrologers and believers in astrology as simple-minded, uneducated, irrational dupes, what threat do these people pose to astronomers and scientists?…

    If we do assume that believers are dupes (and they most definitely are not in most cases) why wouldn’t we want them to be better informed?

  52. Keith Bowden

    @Belfagor (#7): Of course, one has to remember that eating the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge (of Good and Evil) was forbidden and is the reason Adam & Eve were cast out (and humanity condemned). Therefore, a different meaning to “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing”.

    @John Matthews (#12): Honestly, I’m a little surprised the creationists haven’t embraced the “ancient astronauts” to add to “Intelligent Design” in order to appear to avoid accusations of bringing religion into classrooms… knowing, of course, that the Chariots of the Gods? aspect would be ignored, with the focus on the “creator”.

  53. J.P.

    @ Mark Hansen

    I hear you.

    Allow me to quote another “good point” from the same page:

    “And what is served by the denigrating rhetoric typically used to brand astrologers frauds and charlatans? Surely it would be more effective to adopt a more conversational approach rather than labeling astrologers and their customers irrational, superstitious dupes”.

    Educating people, I’m all for it. Ostracizing people, total no go. For every action, there’s an equal opposite reaction. Physics (and good ol’ psychology) 101. When push comes to shove…where does it end?

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