Tag Archives: Stargazine

Masterly science communication—treating your opponent with respect

There are many, many debates to be had about science, not least the debate about how one engages with individuals deemed to be practicing what has been called a ‘pseudo science’, in this case, astrology.  My focus here is on a response to how the debate was conducted and not on the merits of the arguments.

There was a recent kerfuffle about the cosmos shifting around so that the original 12 astrological signs in the zodiac of Western astrology were being displaced by the emergence of a 13th sign. You can read more about the announcement, which was made by astronomer (you read that correctly), Parke Kunkle, in the Jan. 13, 2011 news item in the Huffington Post.

At roughly the same time, there was a ruckus in the UK between astrologers and two astronomers who appear as presenters (hosts) of a BBC programme called, Stargazing. Astrologers were distressed by comments the presenters made about astrology and they wrote up a petition, which occasioned derision.

Apparently, the announcement and the ‘petition’ ruckus provided excuses for scientists, science writers, and science fans to heap scorn on and ridicule astrologers and the ‘pseudo science’ of astrology. It’s the same scornful attitude that proponents of emerging technologies often heap on individuals who are expressing an opinion or an idea usually based on fear about possible consequences.

One of the best responses I’ve seen to this ‘style’ of public debate is a Jan. 28, 2011 posting on Martin Robbins’ The Lay Scientist blog (one of the Guardian Science blogs). I’ve excerpted a few bits by  guest writer,Dr. Rebekah Higgitt, she’s responding to the astrologers’ BBC petition,

Like Martin, I heard about the astrologers’ petition to the BBC and blogged about it, together with another astrology-related story that recently hit the headlines. Unlike him, I was critical of the knee-jerk response of many scientists, science writers and fans of science. I also had some quibbles about his post, so I’d like to start by thanking him for hosting this – and, before you leap to the comments section, making it clear that I do not believe in astrology. However, I do believe that a little knowledge and understanding can help the cause of science communication far more than ridicule.

As is well known to readers of The Lay Scientist, the Astrological Association, prompted by remarks made by Brian Cox and Dara O’Briain, has asked for “fair and balanced representation” (note, not “equal representation”). This has resulted in widespread derision from those who can see nothing wrong with stating that “astrology is rubbish” and “nonsense”. Most, however, have failed to understand exactly what has annoyed these astrologers, or to take the time to find out what astrology actually is. [emphasis mine]

Note her emphasis on finding and understanding the basis of your ‘opponent’s’ ideas.

The Astrological Association is not complaining about a statement such as this. Rather, they consider it unfair that they are represented as having no knowledge of the astronomy and celestial mechanics that Cox and O’Briain are paid to explain on TV. They are annoyed that astrology is considered to consist solely of those who read and write newspaper horoscopes. Serious astrologers often have an excellent understanding of, and respect for, astronomy. [emphasis mine] They are, in fact, a not insignificant audience for astronomy programmes, lectures and books. This is why, as I explained in my earlier post, stories about “changing zodiac signs” and the “13th sign” Ophiucus do no one any favours. While Parke Kunkle’s “revelation” might confuse those with little knowledge of astrology or astronomy, it comes as no surprise to anyone else. The effect of precession has been understood for centuries, and practising astrologers are more than capable of dealing with this recurrent attack.

Which brings me to the history: a little historical understanding should make astronomers and science communicators realise that practising astrologers are likely to have good knowledge of planetary motions. Up until the late 17th century, astrology and astronomy were deeply interconnected. Since then there has been a parting of ways, but astrologers have continued to make use of accurate astronomical data. Astrology is not so much the father of positional astronomy and celestial mechanics as its client, patron and midwife.

Higgitt doesn’t believe in astrology (as she notes) but she extends a level of respect and courtesy that I have too rarely seen in discussions where a socially-defined expert group is effectively dismissing or accusing the other of being uninformed and/or superstitious and ridiculing them for their foolish beliefs and/or fears. By the way, Higgitt is Curator of History of Science and Technology, National Maritime Museum and Royal Observatory, Greenwich.