My degree is in geophysics, so it might seem a bit unnatural that I was asked to be a teaching assistant (TA) for my school’s introductory astronomy class while I pursued graduate work. Nevertheless, it’s a subject I enjoy (as you can probably tell from my previous columns on Mentellect and Adventures in Poor Taste), so I was enthused at the opportunity to help educate others on the topic and to learn a little more myself.

Upon returning home one evening, and deciding I wasn’t feeling quite happy enough to turn in yet, I popped into the nearby watering hole, the closest to campus, for one(?) final nightcap. The bar was more congested than I expected for mid-week, especially at that late hour, and it just so happened that one of my students was there. About a hundred were enrolled, so I embarrassingly didn’t recognize her, but she and her MORE THAN happy friend were excited to see me, and the hickey my girlfriend had slapped on my neck the night before.

“Astrology TA has a hickey!,” the friend loudly announced to the crowd. She then offered to deliver her own, um, “oral presentation” to ensure that her buddy got an “A” in the class. I politely declined and got the hell out of there, but looking back now, it’s kind of amazing all the things this poor, inebriated soul failed to understand in such a short span:

1. I was in fact in a relationship and not out just trolling for strange.

2. I didn’t have the power to grant her request even if I was that academically dishonest.

3. Did she really believe that this expensive, highly-regarded university taught fucking astrology? Despite the similar sounding names, it wasn’t just a slip of the (ahem) tongue; I corrected her more than once.

While not the case there and then, sadly, crazy does get funded in more institutions than it’s comfortable to think about. Check out Eugenie V. Mielczarek’s article in the May/June issue of Skeptical Inquirer to see how far “alternative medicine” has pushed its way into our higher education facilities. These and other “pseudosciences” sometimes get a pass because they cloak themselves in professional sounding language even though their methodologies fall far from the mark of genuine, rigorous disciplines. Let’s examine a couple, paired off with their legitimate counterparts, to illuminate the differences.

Astronomy vs. Astrology

Astronomy, one of the oldest sciences, is the study of celestial objects and their physical and chemical make-ups and interactions. It’s inspired some of the deepest insights in human history, such as when Isaac Newton realized the same gravity that makes objects fall on Earth also holds the planets in their orbits high above. Newton knew that just ideas weren’t enough, though, and he and other legendary figures like Johannes Kepler did the dirty work of applying mathematics to observations to make specific, highly accurate models. Today similar number-crunching is used to send spacecraft to other worlds and determine if our own might be in danger from potential extraterrestrial impactors.

An astronomer’s tools.

Astrology utilizes celestial bodies too, but rather than teaching us more about them, it claims that their relative positions, especially where they were at the time of your birth, can affect your daily life down here on terra firma. That might seem plausible on first blush; hey the Moon creates tides, right? Well, if you use those spiffy Newtonian equations, you can prove that the doctor performing the delivery exerts a greater gravitational attraction on a newborn than the Moon does. Ack. Maybe astrological influence is due to some other, heretofore unknown force?

An astrologer’s tool.

Pump the brakes for a sec, ‘cause before you look for an explanation of how something works (astrology proponents still haven’t offered one, for what it’s worth), you first need to make sure it does in fact work. Newtonian mechanics (modified by relativity) makes falsifiable, highly accurate predictions. Either it’s in the spot you called, or it’s not. Tests of the Forer effect have shown that more than 80% of people tend to think a boiler plate, generalized horoscope describes them well. Not very specific. And when Shawn Carlson conducted the largest scientific examination of astrology for Nature, the purveyors were not able to match birth charts to their owners’ personalities any better than chance. If there’s no phenomenon in the first place, there’s no reason to invent an entirely new branch of physics to describe it.

Zoology vs. Cryptozoology

Zoologists study the behavior and evolution of animals, and try to classify them into groups based on their genetics and morphology. Cryptozoology, a term meaning “study of hidden animals” coined in 1955 by Bernard Heuvelmans, tries to apply these inquires to creatures yet to be identified. Bigfoot, the Chupacabra, the Loch Ness Monster and others fall into this category of would-be beasts.

But again, cryptozoologists kind of put the cart before the horse when trying to figure out the behavior of things never proven to actually exist. They start with a hope and work backwards to fit the evidence to their pre-formed, desired conclusion. That’s not how science works, as I’ve pointed out in my personal blog at What Does This Mean?

Preliminary looks at evolution and the fossil record should show Bigfooters that apes have likely never been indigenous to North America. And what we know of animal behavior suggests a whole host of things that haven’t been observed. A population large enough to support genetic diversity should be sighted more often. There is no scat. A rabid or hungry Bigfoot has never wandered into town or stolen a farm animal. All pretty good evidence for the null hypothesis, that there’s nothing there to begin with, that isn’t overridden by some eyewitness accounts and possibly fabricated footprints.

An equally convincing study of Bigfoot behavior. And a fun movie.

I don’t mean to pick on Bigfoot in particular, but it’s the most popular topic, especially lately with the much ballyhooed Melba Ketchum “DNA paper.” I won’t get into too much detail here, as Sharon Hill and Doubtful News have had this one on lockdown since the beginning, but the gist is that the Texas veterinarian had more than a hundred potential Bigfoot DNA samples sequenced and found evidence for a “novel, unknown hominin.” A discovery so stunning… that she had to literally invent her own journal to have it published. That’s a bad sign. Scientific work has to be reproducible, too, and some of the first reexaminations of the DNA have come up mostly possum. Check out the links for more of Melba’s shady, procedure-eschewing antics.

The Difference

Many pseudoscientists have their hearts in the right place. Like Mulder on the X-Files, they just want to believe. Others, like some astrologers, just want to steal your money by spouting off about star signs. The above are just two topics of an endless myriad, but they all have several things in common:

1. An overreliance on confirmation rather than refutation, as described above.

2. A lack of openness to testing (Many astrologers, particularly in India, where the practice is prevalent, refuse to participate in experiments. Melba Ketchum originally would not allow others access to her samples.)

3. An absence of progress (Why is my future still so uncertain? Where’s the body already?)

It’s okay to want things to be true, but if there’s a heap of contradictory evidence, you can’t simply wish it away. Science adapts, reconnoiters and moves on when new evidence is presented. Pseudoscience tries to mold the information itself into something more palatable to their entrenched position. Despite all their attempted trappings of rigor and honest inquiry, that’s where the difference lies. And it’s an important one.