Sunday, 16 March 2008

What's in a name?

As someone to whom etymology is endlessly fascinating, I've often wondered at the misnomers inherent in the distinction between "astronomy" and "astrology". I understand it's a leftover from the times when astrology really was the "authority" on the stars, but I think it's doing a great disservice to the hugely successful science that studies the cosmos. What these people do is so far beyond "naming the stars" it's untrue.

If such things were possible, I'd suggest swapping the names around - the study of the stars should be known as such, and the nature of the pursuit which is hardly more than naming them likewise should be reflected in its title. I can't help but think it's giving them undeserved legitimacy to refer to their delusions as an "-ology", a study. Not that astrology is alone in this, of course.

Is it just me, or does this hint at the possibility of a wider "reclamation" campaign in scepticism and science? Already we have Professor Ken Miller arguing for science to reclaim the "design" terminology so widely used by proponents of creationism. One might be forgiven for thinking these to be relatively trivial matters; certainly a scientific mind would not usually consider the terminology to be a defining characteristic of whatever pursuit might be in question, but rather the methods, aims and results. However, this overlooks the increasingly important question of public perception.

One of the greatest challenges for science and scepticism is essentially public relations. Richard Dawkins is a very well-known proponent of atheism and science (and rightly so, he doesn't hold the Charles Simonyi Chair for the Public Understanding of Science for nothing); but despite his great successes like the bestselling The God Delusion, he is sometimes - perhaps typically - seen as a negative force, only denying what others believe and attacking sources of comfort. As legitimate as this endeavour may be, it doesn't help the general public's perception of science and scepticism.

Of course, we're up against some pretty stiff competition in this area - religions and other delusions like astrology have been practicing manipulation on an enormous scale for thousands of years. Reason is still a bit of a newcomer in this field. I think one of the first steps we need to take in this pursuit is to counter some of the tactics of the opposition - particularly their clever use of misleading language. This is why I'm in favour of Ken Miller's stance, and also why I cringe every time I consider the meaning of the word "astrology", and the use to which it is put.

No comments: