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Friday, February 13, 2015

Is astrology science?

Many of you have heard stories about Micheal Behe's testimony in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District. Some of you have even made fun of him for saying that astrology is science.

The transcript of Behe's testimony is here. The important bits are when the lawyer for the plaintiffs is discussing the definition of "theory."
Q But the way you are using it is synonymous with the definition of hypothesis?

A No, I would disagree. It can be used to cover hypotheses, but it can also include ideas that are in fact well substantiated and so on. So while it does include ideas that are synonymous or in fact are hypotheses, it also includes stronger senses of that term.

Q And using your definition, intelligent design is a scientific theory, correct?

A Yes.

Q Under that same definition astrology is a scientific theory under your definition, correct?

A Under my definition, a scientific theory is a proposed explanation which focuses or points to physical, observable data and logical inferences. There are many things throughout the history of science which we now think to be incorrect which nonetheless would fit that -- which would fit that definition. Yes, astrology is in fact one, and so is the ether theory of the propagation of light, and many other -- many other theories as well.

Q The ether theory of light has been discarded, correct?

A That is correct.

Q But you are clear, under your definition, the definition that sweeps in intelligent design, astrology is also a scientific theory, correct?

A Yes, that's correct. And let me explain under my definition of the word "theory," it is -- a sense of the word "theory" does not include the theory being true, it means a proposition based on physical evidence to explain some facts by logical inferences. There have been many theories throughout the history of science which looked good at the time which further progress has shown to be incorrect. Nonetheless, we can't go back and say that because they were incorrect they were not theories. So many many things that we now realized to be incorrect, incorrect theories, are nonetheless theories.

Q Has there ever been a time when astrology has been accepted as a correct or valid scientific theory, Professor Behe?

A Well, I am not a historian of science. And certainly nobody -- well, not nobody, but certainly the educated community has not accepted astrology as a science for a long long time. But if you go back, you know, Middle Ages and before that, when people were struggling to describe the natural world, some people might indeed think that it is not a priori -- a priori ruled out that what we -- that motions in the earth could affect things on the earth, or motions in the sky could affect things on the earth.
I've seen lots of people mock Michael Behe for saying that astrology is science but I doubt they have read the actual transcript. Even if they have, I doubt that they appreciate the difficulties in deciding whether something is science or not.

These days, there is general agreement that astrology, homeopathy, etc, are examples of pseudoscience. Pseudoscience is something that masquerades as science. The proponents claim that their "theory" is supported by evidence and the conclusions are arrived at by a process of rational thinking. The reason we dismiss these views as pseudoscience is because they have been subjected to the rigors of scientific investigation and found to be false. The overwhelming majority of the scientific community agrees with this conclusion.

Bad science doesn't always become pseudoscience. Most bad hypotheses just die a quiet death when they are discredited. The transition to pseudoscience only happens when the proponents refuse to give up and insist that their theory is still valid science.

The point is, bad science and pseudoscience are science or at least they were accepted as possible scientific explanations until they were discredited. If they weren't within the realm of science then they could never have been falsified by science.

If you think you know how to define science in a way that eliminates all those ideas that you don't like then read: Is Astrology a Science?

You might not be so inclined to make fun of Michael Behe after that.


  1. I don't make fun of Behe. I enjoy his questions, and I think he has prodded researchers into answering them, He doesn't seem to like the answers.

    1. In most cases, however, those answers already existed before he asked them.

    2. I'm thinking about the work of Lensky and Thornton. And lots of others. Perhaps they weren't doing research because of Behe, but it is relevant nevertheless.

      It's one thing to assert that chemistry permits random walking; it's another to demonstrate it. It's a bit like arguing from geometry, as opposed to circumnavigating the globe.

    3. Neither Lenski nor Thornton challenge Behe's claims.

  2. If they weren't within the realm of science then they could never have been falsified by science.

    But they remain falsifiable (and falsified) by science after being classified as pseudoscience, correct?

    Would you consider pseudoscience not to be science, or still science, but bad science whose "proponents refuse to give up"?

    1. It's bad science. We don't cast it out of the realm of science because we have to maintain our vigil and keep beating it down whenever it pops up again.

      Also, there's always the remote possibility that we are wrong and the idea will turn out to be true after all.

    2. Conjectures about ESP, ghosts, dowsing, remote viewing and UFOs are all capable of being studied by science. But I don't think the court was charged with deciding whether the subject matter is "scientific." I think the court was charged with deciding whether a particular textbook and its accompanying curriculum embody a scientific approach. Science as an activity.

    3. No, the court had to decide that ID was religion, not science. The court can't ban astrology or homeopathy.

    4. In a previous thread I defined the difference between bad science and pseudoscience, then I divided ID assertions into two groups (which I call "Teleological ID" and "Non-teleological ID"), and I showed that Teleological ID is bad science, while Non-teleological ID is pseudoscience. So by my definition, you're part right.

    5. Teaching astrology or homeopathy as science have not been practical problems in U.S. science classes. Teaching religion under the guise of science, and insinuating religion into the classroom in various ways, with the power of the state behind it, has been. This practical problem has led to the U.S. federal courts, led by the Supreme Court, attempting insofar as possible to caution the states and local school districts about what is *not* legally permissible by drawing a "bright line" rule between what the courts call "science" and what they call "religion." So the discussions in U.S. courts about this topic are driven by the felt need to discourage state and local governing bodies from using their authority to force particular majoritarian religious views on children legally required to be in the classrooms those bodies govern.

    6. Teaching religion under the guise of science, and insinuating religion into the classroom in various ways, with the power of the state behind it, has been.

      Yep. And it's still a problem today in spite of many court rulings.

      Does that tell you anything?

    7. Yep. And it's still a problem today in spite of many court rulings.

      Does that tell you anything?

      Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty? Some problems can't be cured, only dealt with? I'm guessing your moral is that the way we're trying to do it is wrong, but that certainly doesn't follow from its persistence.

    8. What it tells me is that teachers can teach anything that doesn't offend the parents. If I were running things, I would teach what the Discovery Institute calls for. I would teach the history of evolution as an idea, and how Paley wrote an influential book that inspired Darwin and his intellectual descendants to search for the facts. A search that is ongoing. Plenty of work top be done. I don't think DI would like it, but it's what they are asking for.

      On slightly off topic thing. Teaching science as a list of facts does not imply that there are still lots of problems to solve. Why would a kid be inspired toward a career in science if it looks like all the good stuff has been done?

    9. @John,

      The goal is to change American society so that more people accept science/evolution. When that happens, there will be fewer politicians trying to force creationism into the schools.

      There hasn't been much progress in the past 30 or 40 years even though few other Western industrialized nations have this problem (an excess of creationist politicians).

      I think it's quite reasonable to conclude that whatever strategy the good guys have beeb pursuing, it isn't working. Time for a change.

    10. Why don't you guys just tell the truth? That being that evolution is NOT being debated. What is being debated is two fold-

      1- Is evolution telic or blind and undirected?

      2- What is the extent evolution can change a population? If it can't get beyond prokaryotes, as the evidence suggests, then your position is a non-starter.

      So stop with the lies that everyone who disagrees with evolution agrees to the fixity of species.

    11. No, the court had to decide that ID was religion, not science.

      The Court isn't qualified to do that. Science cannot be legislated nor adjudicated and only morons think otherwise.

    12. Ah, but you, a bratty, incorrigible, ignorant, stupid, unaccomplished, thoroughly dishonest, malignantly narcissistic, foul, cowardly, bluffing, threatening, two-faced, bumbling, stumbling, deluded, drooling, unscientific/pseudoscientific, homophobic, falsely accusatory, science bashing, reality denying, ronery muslim-christian-YEC-autocrat-theocrat-dominionist-IDiot-creationist fool, are eminently qualified to decide (and force on everyone by law) what is or isn't 'science', eh joey?

      So, when are you going to start your promised lawsuit (the one where you try to get a judge to "adjudicate" that evolutionary theory is a religion and not science/scientific but 'ID' is purely science/scientific and that 'ID', or at least your version of it, should be forced, by law, into public schools and everything else)?

  3. I think there was an opportunity here for Dr. Behe to distinguish ID from astrology under his definition, had he wished to. Perhaps he didn't wish to, or perhaps he simply didn't think of it on the witness stand, which is easy to do when you are under sharp cross-examination. Or perhaps he'd testified with regard to astrology at his expert deposition or in his expert witness report and didn't want to contradict what he'd said there. I don't know.

    [A] scientific theory is a proposed explanation which focuses or points to physical, observable data and logical inferences.

    Dr. Behe might easily have said ID's inferences from "gaps" in the Theory of Evolution were logical, whereas inferring causation of Earthly behavior from the positions of astronomical bodies would not be logical, and thus astrology would not meet his definition, while ID would.

    But for whatever reason, he didn't.

  4. I don't think we need to be terribly concerned with coming up with the right categories for propositions about the natural world, its better to evaluate them on a case by case basis. But if we are going to come up with categories we need to recognize that there will be a continuum between science, bad science, pseudoscience and ideas-so-bad-they-don't-qualify-at-all and there wont be a consensus about any of it. That doesn't mean its not useful to have idealized definitions for the extremes.
    Do we need to recognize any proposition about the natural world that cites evidence as 'science' or a 'theory'? What if we recognize that the evidence is not in fact evidence for what is claimed? For example, some unsophisticated creationists cite as evidence that evolution didn't occur ( and by default God made everything) the fact that they've never personally witnessed a monkey transform into a human being. Do we need to accept this in the category of 'evidence' and elevate creationism to a scientific theory? Is this just bad evidence or not evidence at all?
    I suppose its easier to just call everything science. The word then becomes useless and we're back to evaluating everything on a case by case basis.

    There are many brilliant people who believe in God and I think most of the main ID proponents are very very smart. When I see how completely they're fooling themselves I wonder what I'm fooling myself about. What things that I'm absolutely sure about are completely wrong? Is the evidence cited for the existence of God really good evidence and there's just some flaw or blind spot in my thinking that prevents me from seeing it? I always come back to 'no' but that doesn't stop me continually considering it.

  5. Historically, I'm not sure if astrology can be considered science, even of the discredited type. Astrology goes back to the earliest civilization that we have written records from (Sumerian), well before people understood the need of testing the validity of ideas. It was tied in with religious beliefs and like them were simply accepted because the priests and leaders (who were often the same people) said so.

  6. There is a real sense in which Behe's openly embracing of astrology on the witness stand is a perfect strategy. His intention clearly did not appear to be demonstrating that ID was a theory in the same way we think of evolutionary theory. What I thought he was doing was appealing to that broad swath of the Discovery Institute's Christian base who almost never read a Bible, but who read astrology columns almost daily, and who constitute the target market for Deepak Chopra, Sylvia Browne and the rest of the gang. Make them feel good about themselves for consulting the astrological science columns on a regular basis, then let them, profoundly steeped in the rigorous discipline of astrology, march that scientific knowledge, experience, and wherewithal into school board meetings across the US to demand that the just as well-evidenced discipline of ID be added to science curricula.

    I don't think Behe was confused by the potential difficulties of deciding if astrology is science. I think he and his marketing firm were simply hoping to add numbers to their school-board storming throng.

  7. I don't make fun of Behe, I mock him and scorn him. Behe is a dishonest hack who has done more damage to science education than promote it. There is a reason his department has a disclaimer decrying Behe as an idiot. Sure, Behe is ignored by the scientific community not the least of which is because he has not contributed one jot to it, but because of his blatant dishonesty.

    It's not the bad science that gripes me, it's the dishonesty and Behe is about as dishonest as they come. At least Kurt Wise who Dawkins described as a "disgrace to the human species" has the honesty to declare that no evidence will shake his conviction that the Christian God created the universe, etc.

    Behe has said the same to discrete groups, but publicly puts on this dishonest pseudo-scientific front.

    No, I say fuck Behe and fuck the Disco Tute and all their fellows. They damage science education with their dishonest tactics, they are liars and frauds and should be called out as such. Shame of Behe for what he has done to trash his career. Shame of Behe for what he did at Dover which was to cause damages to a poor school district of $2 million dollars, reduced to $1 million only because the plaintiffs took pity. Shame of Behe for ruining the lives of the former Dover board members and plaintiff families who were disrupted and in some cases destroyed by his nonsense. Shame on Behe. He doesn't deserve courtesy; he forfeited that privilege when he joined the Disco Tute and their quest to overturn "materialism" and replace it with Christian theology.

    As for astrology, that was pure mysticism. There was no "science" to astrology, only hocus pocus, however it is correct to equate ID to hocus pocus.

    1. And we say fuck you because all you have is scorn- you definitely don't have any evidence nor model.

      The ONLY reason Jones decided against the Dover school board was the board's overt religious motivation. The BOARD's. Had the school board been agnostic the decision would have been different.

      Jones still doesn't know what science is. He doesn't know what ID is nor what ID is an arguing against. And he believed the defense's bluff wrt the evolution of the immune system.

      Thankfully that decision only applies to a small insignificant school district.

    2. Had the school board been agnostic the decision would have been different.

      Had the school board been comprised of agnostics it is highly unlikely that the suit would have been brought in the first place.

    3. Hey joey, in your most recent post on your blog you say:

      "...Special Creation has always stipulated that the universe and our place in it, were Specially Created. The book "The Privileged Planet" goes over the scientific evidence for the design of the universe, solar system and planet in great detail. And there isn't anything else but "sheer dumb luck" to explain our existence. The nebula hypothesis? Sheer dumb luck.

      So yes, both IDists and Creationists say the earth was created/ designed for a purpose. Duh

      For Creationists Genesis 1 talks about the Creation of the universe and earth"

      So, joey, are you and your IDiot-creationist ilk agnostic about how the universe came about?

      Are you agnostic about 'why' the universe came about?

      Are you agnostic about 'who' designed and "Specially Created" the universe?

      And, specifically, are you agnostic about how and 'why'
      humans came about and 'who' "Specially Created" humans?

      Describe what you believe is the "purpose" of the universe and humans and present your scientific evidence that supports your description of that alleged "purpose".

      You said:

      "And we say fuck you because all you have is scorn-..."

      That's pretty funny, especially coming from you.

      " definitely don't have any evidence nor model."

      That's also funny. Present your scientific evidence and model for 'Special Creation' by allah-yhwh-jesus-holy-ghost (the so-called 'Abrahamic God' that you believe in), joey. You do have scientific evidence and a model, don't you, or do you have only "scorn" for anyone and anything that doesn't agree with and promote your muslim-christian-YEC-IDiot beliefs?

    4. Ho Allan- I am agnostic and will bring it up. I can't wait to see what the Court does then.

    5. Hi TWiT- I have presented the scientific evidence for ID. YOU are just too stupid to understand anything science.

    6. joey, as usual you are all bluff and "scorn" and have no evidence or model to support your muslim-christian-YEC-IDiot claims.

      You're agnostic? Yeah, about as agnostic as Osama Bin Laden was.

      So, you "can't wait to see what the Court does then", eh? What "Court", joey? When will you bring up in court whatever it is that you're allegedly going to bring up? And what are you waiting for since you "can't wait"? Come on, joey, get crackin' and take your non-agnostic, non-evidential, non-modeled muslim-christian-YEC-IDiot claims to "Court". Don't wait!

    7. Ho Allan- I am agnostic and will bring it up. I can't wait to see what the Court does then.

      Heh heh. Neither can I :)

    8. I apologize profusely for lifting the rock underneath which JoeG lives.

    9. LoL! If your mind was TNT you couldn't use it to move a pebble.

  8. If Michael Behe were an honest seeker of the truth taking a principled stand in a quest to bring a greater understanding of reality to human kind regardless of any personal cost one could hardly fault him for that.

    But the fact of the matter is that Behe is a paid hack of the Discovery Institute whose purpose is to advance their agenda of injecting creationist claptrap into the educational science curriculum and as such is no better than any other religious zealot who would sacrifice their own children in a quest to rationalize an irrational philosophy.

    Motives matter, and Behe's are patently obvious.

    1. Yes, Behe wants to know the truth behind our existence because it matters. You and your ilk don't have any answers so perhaps you should focus on that.

    2. Hey Joe,

      Please prove you're not a robot.

    3. Hey Steve,

      Please prove that you are not an ignorant asshole.

    4. Joe G,

      Yes, Behe wants to know the truth behind our existence because it matters. You and your ilk don't have any answers so perhaps you should focus on that.

      Working under a statement of faith is not a very good stance for figuring out "the truth about our existence." Hehe is trying to validate his religious inclinations, and "God-did-it" does not explain anything.

      While we indeed have lots of answers, if we didn't have any answers at all, that still would not mean that "God-did-it" is any more of an answer than thinking that the volcano killed everybody because it was an angry god.

      Grow up already.

    5. LoL! Your position has nothing so you need to grow up already. "The blind watchmaker didit" doesn't explain anything

    6. "LoL" Back at you,

      You just validated my position. If something that actually has evidence, like "the blind watchmaker" does not explain anything to you, then your "God-did-it" "explanation" is pathetically ridiculous by comparison. You refuted yourself. Keep at it.

    7. I don't have a goddidit explanation. Saying something was the product of intelligent design explains quite a bit. For one it eliminates entire classes of causes and for another tells us how to conduct our investigation

  9. Thank you Larry. This is a great OP and exactly what I have been telling the morons since they started trying to mock him with it..

  10. And it's still a problem today in spite of many court rulings.

    Does that tell you anything?

    Sure. It's of a piece with the following stories:

    Despite the fact that the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled a year earlier that it was illegal, my third grade teacher insisted on the class rising every morning to recite the Lord's Prayer. My parents had told me we didn't believe in that, so every morning I remained seated quietly and didn't say the prayer. The first time it happened the teacher asked me about it, I told her, and she didn't press the issue further, at least as to my having to rise to say the prayer. But she got back at me - this snotty little kid, who did he think he was? - in other ways. In first and second grade, after I showed I was able, I'd been allowed to read any book in the school library I wanted. I used to love Isaac Asimov's science books, like World of Carbon. I'd draw the little stick-figure molecules from the figures in the books and think about how carbon was able to make so many structures with hydrogen and oxygen. No more. She told my parents I was a third-grader and should be reading third grade books. So I waited until I got home to read science and interesting literature. In those days we took aptitude tests every year, called the Iowa Tests. My scores on those tests were consistent, except for third grade. That year, they ranged from 75-85% of what they were in all the other years. And of course my classmates on the playground knew what to do about the "different kids."

    I was very lucky. This didn't happen the year I took the SATs. My family wasn't wealthy, and I needed a scholarship to pay for school. If my scores had been 75-85% of normal that year, I wouldn't have had a way to go to college.

    In the 1980s, living in Oklahoma, I listened to co-workers complain to me about the school system having Baptist ministers visit classes regularly to preach to the kids.

    In the 1990s, schoolchildren in Mississippi had morning prayers recited over the intercom to them by administrators. A 7-year-old who had made the mistake of being a Lutheran rather than a Baptist complained. His teacher's solution was to make him wear headphones, leading to his being bullied by other children. His mother sued the school district, which had three immediate results: The enmity of the other members of the small community; her "attitude" being criticized by the town's mayor; and the Mississippi Legislature quickly passing a bill legalizing the reading of prayers by school administrators throughout the state at any time during the school day.

    Lawsuits regarding prayers over public address systems before school sports events, and regarding posting of Biblical commandments in schools and local government buildings, continue through the present day. The plaintiffs in those suits, as with Judge Jones and Ms. Kitzmiller, as a matter of course receive death threats from the loving Christians in the community.

    This is a determined, concerted, widespread and well funded effort that is damaging the lives of students every single day. Many of them aren't as lucky as I was to get this crap over with in 3rd grade; it affects their academic performance in high school as they're trying to get into college - as they're trying to get scholarships to *afford* college. Meanwhile, fellow students, encouraged by administrators, learn to bully these "different" kids, in preparation for growing up and learning how to make death threats against parents some day in the name of the one true and loving God.

    The only scientific questions running through these cases are not definitional ones; rather, they concern mass psychology and tribalism.

    1. I'm sorry to hear that a ruling by the Supreme Court didn't change the behavior of people in the society where you lived. I think this happens a lot.

    2. It changes, but very slowly. :) I remember an interview with Judge Frank M. Johnson, Jr., who made many of the decisions that desegregated southern schools in the U.S. He'd been subject to the usual death threats and scorn from the community (sad to have "usual" as an appropriate adjective there). But he said that he felt people were basically good and wanted to obey the law, and pointed out that over decades, the standards of the society had indeed changed.

      Today we can't look at the old photos and videos of adults (having been taught in their churches that segregation was Biblically ordained) shouting threats and vile insults at little African-American children filing into grade schools through National Guard cordons without feeling that was morally reprehensible, and *should* have been made illegal.

      In the northeastern U.S. district where I went to school in the 1960s, if a teacher now tried to make a class stand and recite the Lord's Prayer every morning, it would soon be stopped, with the support of the school administration and most of the parents. It's now understood to be legally wrong by most people, and many people even understand religious indoctrination by the state is morally wrong. This is the case with creationism brought into the classroom for religious purposes as well, though occasionally religious extremists through concerted political effort will "pack" a local government body that doesn't ordinarily get a lot of attention, like a school board, and attempt to do what occurred in Dover. Recall that the old Dover school board was overwhelmingly voted out at the next election - people in the U.S., at least in the most highly populated areas, resent religion being forced on their children in the classroom and their science education weakened when education is the path to success.

      Yes, there are still entire regions of the USA where people have not stopped bringing state enforcement of religious practice into school functions, and where they see it as a way to elevate morality. But I am optimistic that history is on the side of the parents and children who would rather not have the state pushing a religious agenda at them in schools, including science class.