There are two words that will upset most astronomers – ‘astrology’ and ‘aliens’. Although searching for extraterrestrial intelligence has embraced the scientific method in recent times, (Area 51 memes aside) and the consensus amongst historians and astronomers is that human beings built the pyramids, astrology becomes more mainstream by the day. A recent video clip from The Bachelor Australia that has been making the rounds perfectly captures how most astronomers feel about this situation. So it got me thinking about pseudoscience and astrology in particular.
On the one hand, things like astrology are pretty harmless and have helped people with things like self-improvement and introspection. All of us (including myself) have beliefs that we follow that aren’t scientific at all but improve our lives. On the other hand, we have climate change denialism and the anti-vaccination movement that are causing serious harm to us as human beings and the planet as a whole. The trouble is figuring out where to draw the line.
Something else that bothers me about astrology is how it is specifically targeted at women. Young women who are interested in stars and space might be directed to a Refinery29 article about ‘black hole astrology’ (I refuse to link to it) instead of an article talking about the amazing scientific achievement that several women were involved in. Because astronomy is a field where women are underrepresented, it can be frustrating when you want to encourage girls to become scientists but all of the content targeted towards them is about astrology instead.
My natural reaction to these posts is usually ‘No!!! You’re wrong!!! That’s not how this works!!!’ and panic, rather than taking the time to stop and listen to the other person and understand their reasons for following whatever they are following. Maybe they’re concerned about their children’s health. Maybe the politician that they trust told them that there are more pressing matters – like poverty and a weak economy – to worry about besides carbon emissions. Sometimes – like in the recent debates about plastic – people are living with disabilities and other concerns that you haven’t taken into account.
Added to all of this is that science is complicated. Many people have been told that they are not smart enough to understand something difficult or that ‘Western’ scientists aren’t to be trusted.
While explaining complicated scientific concepts in a simple way is a challenge science communicators embrace, science remains intimidating to many people. And it is very easy to insult and belittle people – especially when you are (like I’m sometimes guilty of) coming from the ‘I’m a scientist who knows everything’ perspective.
Like any good scientist, I am trying to figure out a methodical way of engaging with people around controversial topics. So far, I’ve come up with a few different questions to ask myself: ‘Does this belief cause harm?’, ‘Is this a stranger on the internet or someone I know?‘, ‘Am I educated in this topic well enough to properly counter their argument?’, ‘Would I be insulting a traditional/marginalized belief system?’ and ‘Have I listened to their reasoning behind these claims?’. I think framing my responses to situations with these questions in mind will help my science communication be a little less frustrating and a lot kinder around controversial topics.
How do you deal with controversial topics and pseudoscience that overlaps with your field? If you have any advice or questions that you ask yourself, please let me know!