dragon.gifThe scientific method requires good scientific theories to build theories based on observations/experiments that make specific predictions about the outcomes of future observations/experiments. It’s okay if we don’t currently have the technology to make an observation. Theories are perfectly capable of sitting on shelves waiting to be proven right or wrong. What matters – what makes the theory science – is that the theory is eventually provable (or disprovable).

For instance, what makes astrology not science is that it doesn’t make specific predictions that are testable. For instance, for my 12/12 birthday I find the following horoscopes for the day that has already transpired:

From Horoscope.com

The ability to be thankful for our position in life is a rare gift, but a valuable one. Today you will feel particularly aware of all the small things that may not be much on their own but add to make you the person that you are. This will give you a wonderful boost of optimism to help with any difficulties that appear today.

From Astrology.com

Pursue your goals with fierce determination. Distractions have no place in your life at this moment; all you can think about is the desired outcome. With that kind of attitude, success is pretty much assured.

From MSNBC.com

Today there are many areas that you can shine in, dear Sagittarius. You need only be yourself to win over the hearts of others. There is a graciousness about your manner that draws people close to you, whether you’ve ever noticed it before or not. Realize this, and know that it is not a fluke. You need not take much action; everything you need today will come to you.

What was today actually like? Well, I slept in late, stayed home, putzed online, and recorded Astronomy Cast. I then went out for Chinese and to an art opening with close friends. I don’t see the science of Astrology specifically predicted any of this.

A favorite student activity I’ve seen people do with students is to hand out a bunch of horoscopes and have them guess which is their horoscope. There is a 1/12 chance they will get the right one, and indeed, about 8% of the students get a match. But, if astrology was predictive, we’d expect something other than a random match. After all, hindsight is 20/20. And, if you go back to horoscopes for 9-11-01, death wasn’t predicted for a large section of New York City. “Stay home from work – it will be good for your health” would have been a valuable command to anyone reading the papers that day. But, that command wasn’t there. (For a skeptic discussion on 9-11 and astrology, see this article at Skeptico.

So, it is easy for me to, as a scientist, say that astrology does not meet the standards required of a science. It is a theory, but it does not make specific predictions, and it doesn’t match specific past observations. Q.E.D.

But, lurking in physics departments are people called string theorists who write theories on string theory that are published in peer-reviewed physics journals. These theories do match past observations/experiments. Unfortunately, while they make predictions, to my knowledge they do not all make testable predictions (although some do make predictions in particle physics).

Now, I have to admit that I am not smart enough to understand the differences between flavors of string theory. I do not understand the details of their mathematics, and I have to rely on the translation of others. But, as near as I can tell from my reading, string theory is not always predictive.

So, is it science?

Lurking in physics department there are also people who work on things like inflationary multiverses and the cosmic landscapes. Again, these are theories that require brilliance to understand, that match the current universe, but don’t make predictions.

Is this science?

I don’t know. Logically – no. They aren’t. I used to think of them as pretty mathematical art work, but I’m told by people who do theoretical math that they aren’t even that. They are just math.

And this leaves me in an uncomfortable place. I work really really hard to teach my students what makes good science. Do I teach them these are not science and thus fall in the same bin as astrology? Or…?

Until I understand more, I’m going to simply say, “here be dragons” and wait and hope for predictions to be made.

Image credit: Hoover Archives