In a recent article bemoaning the pseudoscientific attitudes of the public, I was struck by the following result: When given the question...
- sort of scientific
- not at all scientific
…more than half think astrology is either "scientific" or "sort of scientific". At first I was dismayed, but then when I thought about it, I honestly wasn't sure what to answer. My immediate impulse was to shy away from the "not at all" designation - that wording seemed too strong for anything in science. Then, upon further reflection, I realized that what I didn't like was actually the term "scientific", in this context. What does it mean exactly? Is it really just a synonym for "supported by the evidence"? If so, then the "not at all supported by the evidence" would indeed be too strong - there is at least some evidence for astrology, albeit so meager and terrible that no one should be convinced or take it seriously. I have a similar response to the hyperbolic statement that "there is no evidence for god". It's not that there is no evidence, it's simply that the evidence is not convincing.
Thinking further, I wondered can a topic be scientific or not scientific, when science really refers to a process? Is the spontaneous generation of life not scientific? It can be investigated, and shown to be both unlikely and unnecessary to explain the data, but does that make it unscientific? Or is it just that believing in it strongly, despite the evidence, is unscientific - in which case it is really the process that is being labeled unscientific. Not proportioning ones belief to the strength of the evidence is unscientific (and by definition irrational). Not following the processes of science is unskeptical and unscientific, but the topic itself cannot be "scientific" or "not scientific".
Perhaps a topic could be not scientific if it is untestable, like deism. However, astrology does not fall into that category either. In fact one student, when I implemented the survey in class, later admitted that they voted for "scientific" because of the detailed tests that could be done for astrology. So if you are testing the claims of astrology, and following scientific procedures, does that make astrology scientific or not? Does it even make "scientific" a coherent label for a topic of inquiry? I don't think so. I think the term scientific must refer to a process, not a subject.
Perhaps a better wording would be 'well supported by the data', 'not well supported by the data', and 'barely to not at all supported by the data'. Where it says data here, replace with evidence if that reads better. I'm no expert on survey wording, but this one must be improved, I believe.