Humanity’s interest in the so-called pseudo-sciences has not always been bad for science.

In a recent piece on her excellent Guardian Science blog, The H Word, my #histsci soul sister Rebekah “Becky” Higgitt asked, “Is there a rising tide of irrationality?” summarising her opinion with the following subtitle:

Despite claims that pseudoscientific views are on the rise, history shows that belief in things like astrology or the paranormal have always been with us and are likely to remain

Being my usual provocative self I thought I would take the time to point out that not only has the belief in things like astrology and the paranormal always been with us but that this belief has over the centuries made a not insubstantial contribution to the evolution of the so-called legitimate sciences. What follows is not intended to be an exhaustive survey of the subject but an indicator that humanity’s interest in the apparently non-rational has not necessarily been so disastrous as the members of the so-called Skeptical Community would have us believe.

As Ms Higgitt specifically mentions astrology I thought it would make for a convenient starting point. Some form of astrology or more generally a belief in celestial influence was the main driving force behind the development of astronomy from its beginnings in the prehistoric mists of time up to the beginning of the eighteenth century CE. Most if not all astronomers in antiquity were also astrologers a fact best illustrated by the fact that the author, Ptolemaeus, of the definitive account of technical astronomy in antiquity, his Syntaxis Mathematiké, was also the author of the definitive technical account of astrology, his Tetrabiblos.

We find this connection flowering in the Early Modern Period where the principle founders of the new astronomy – Gmunden, Peuerbach, Regiomontanus, Apian, Rheticus, Copernicus, Brahe, Kepler, Galileo et al. – were all practicing astrologers. (The first person in the comments, who claims they only did it for the money gets to clean my bike for the next twelve months) In fact we know that the principle motivation for the majority of them in improving astronomy was to provide a more accurate apparatus for delivering the raw data for astrology. It is first the generation of astronomers active in the latter part of the seventeenth century – Cassini, Newton, Flamsteed, Halley et al. – who abandoned astrology for astronomy qua astronomy, although both Cassini and Newton were motivated to take up the subject by an early interest in astrology.

During the Humanist Renaissance the strong interest in astro-medicine or, as it was know, iatro-mathematics led to the establishment, for the first time, of dedicated chairs for the study of the mathematical sciences at the mediaeval universities.

During the Early Modern Period attempts to establish astrology as an empirical science led to the emergence of the science of meteorology and also made major contributions to a modern fact based approach to history. All in all not a bad record for the most ridiculed of pseudo-sciences.

Sticking with the “A”s we move on to alchemy. Often ridiculed as complete nonsense in reality alchemy made some major contribution, along side astrology, to the evolution of the sciences in the Early Modern Period.

Most difficult to determine is alchemy’s contribution to the development of its first cousin chemistry as the two disciplines were entwined in a close embrace well into the eighteenth century. What is certain is that most of the equipment and the methodology that became standard fare in the chemistry laboratory were developed over the centuries by alchemists.

Paracelsus has been called the father of pharmacy, a term, that regular readers of this blog will know, I detest. However it is a historical fact that the science of pharmacy as we know it has its origins in the activities of the Paracelsian iatro-chemists of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries whose activities were based on a modified alchemy developed by their guru Theophrastus.

Alchemy also played a surprising role in the history of physics in the work of the seventeenth century’s most infamous alchemist, Isaac Newton. To quote I. Bernard Cohen probably the greatest of all Newtonian scholars:

Thus Newton’s acceptance of forces [and also action at a distance] as fundamental entities was conditioned to a significant degree by his studies of alchemy.[1]

In fact Newton’s rejection of the then dominant mechanical philosophy for an alchemy inspired physics of invisible forces acting at a distance led to the Principia being rejected by both the Cartesian and the Leibnizian physicists as occult (read pseudo) science.

Staying with old Isaac for a brief moment, as I have blogged in the past, he and other Bible chronologists, millennialists to the core (and you can’t get more pseudo than that!), in their endeavours to establish the date of the apocalypse made significant contributions to the development of modern historical methodology.

Should anybody jump to the conclusion that with the successful completion of the so-called scientific revolution this unholy alliance between the one pure doctrine of science and its distinctly unsavoury sister the occult had finally come to an end they would be mightily mistaken.

For example in the nineteenth century Vitalism, Naturphilosphie and Mesmerism, all three of which would be decried as pseudo-scientific today, all played important and significant roles in the scientific debates of the period pushing forward the development of various scientific disciplines.

Even the twentieth century was far from immune from the influence of highly dubious subjects within the evolution of the sciences. When he died the scientist, science communicator and novelist, Arthur Koestler left money in his will for the establishment of a chair for the investigation of the paranormal, an act that caused a major outcry within the scientific community. However throughout the twentieth century investigations of supposed paranormal phenomena such as telepathy, telekinesis, out of body experiences etc. have contributed to experiment design and evaluation, the development of statistical evaluation of experiments and made general contributions to the development of the cognitive sciences.

Should anyone believe that twentieth century physics is immune from woo they should read up on the history of the heuristics employed by those who developed the standard model, rational is something else.

Of course I’m not advocating the pursuit of pseudo-science or in anyway supporting those who try to sneak pseudo-science into the school curriculum but as a historian of science I do have problems with the often almost hysterical attitude of the Skeptical Community towards what they see as the demonic forces of woo. On one occasion when discussing the role that astrology played in the evolution of modern astronomy I was told by a leading German Skeptic, who was at that time a physics post doc at my local university and is still deeply involved in science communication, that I should not say such things in public because I would give people a false impression of science. As a historian of science I can only say that it is the supporters of Dawkins, Mayer et al who with their gospel of scientism who give people a false impression of science. Science has evolved over the centuries along a strange and convoluted path and will almost certainly continue to do despite the best efforts of the Hordes of Pharyngula and their ilk to place it in a straightjacket.

[1] Isaac Newton The Principia: Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, A new translation by I. Bernard Cohen and Anne Whitman assisted by Julia Badenz Preceded by A Guide to Newton’s Principia by I. Bernard Cohen pp. 57 – 58


Filed under History of Astrology, History of Astronomy, Myths of Science, Newton, Renaissance Science

58 responses to “Humanity’s interest in the so-called pseudo-sciences has not always been bad for science.

  1. Pingback: Humanity’s interest in the so-called pseudo-sciences has not always been bad for science | Whewell's Ghost

  2. I have long had the impression that much of the early astronomy was paid for by people who thought that they were buying astrology.

    As for a rising tide on pseudo-science — I suspect that what we really have is a rising level of noise emanating from the culture wars.

  3. They only did it for the money [try and make me clean your bike!]

    Athanasius Kircher is an example of religion driving science. In De Arca Noe (1675) he tried to calculate how many “kinds” (Latin: species) of animals could fit on the Ark, leading directly to the first scientific account of what a species was, by John Ray (1686).

  4. suis

    Hi Thony.
    I know this is off-topic, but I don’t know where else to post this question.
    I’ve read a website: can’t be open now,but yesterday I could open it)
    which claims that Taqi Al-Din Ibn Ma’ruf already discovered that colour is produced by refraction and reflection of light, centuries before Newton. Is this claim correct? Or is there more to this claim? I will be very glad if you can explain this to me. Thank you very much.

    • fusilier

      Your URL has three extra characters: ” (it ”
      when I deleted them, the linkie opened just fine.

      James 2:24

    • This article is actually better than some that I have read on this website, which is basically dedicated to proving that Islamic scholars discovered the whole of modern science before the scientific revolution, an unsustainable and fundamentally false claim. However the article does contain several series false statements. The author writes:

      Departing from Ibn al-Haytham’s theory, he produces a correct explanation of vision, showing that light is reflected from an object into the eye.

      This statement is simply bizarre as that is al-Haytham’s theory! He attributes aspects of optical theory to Islamic scholars that originate with Euclid whose work on optics was well known by them. He claims that Taqi al-Din made the first experiments on the dispersion of light into its constituent colours, which is just plain historical rubbish.

      His claim on al-Din’s priority over Newton is interesting because he offers no proof what so ever to back it up. However he obviously can’t do simple arithmetic al-Din was born in 1521 and although his optical manuscript is not dated we can assume it was written at the earliest about 1550. Newton did his work in optics in the 1660s – two hundred years!!

      I could do a full and serious analysis of the article but I think I’ve said enough to claim that you can ignore it as a serious source for the history of optics

  5. This is all true and historically interesting. But there’s a big difference between believing in (say) astrology in the sixteenth century and believing in it now, when we know so much more about how the Universe works.

  6. Rebekah Higgitt

    Thanks for the shout out for my post! Given the importance of astronomy for timekeeping, calendars, surveying and navigation, I’d hesitate to put astrology as the chief driver for accurate astronomy (as I say in the post, though, it’s certainly *one of the* main drivers). *All* of these were things were done for the money.

    • Thony C

      Although there was an ever increasing demand for astronomical data for navigation, surveying and cartography from about 1400 onwards. I would still claim that astrology remained its chief client till at least 1600. Calendars are of course astrological 😉

  7. If we’re allowed to put individual experiences in I’d like to say that a lot of what fueled my early interest in the sciences was pseudoscientific at least: those wonderfully lurid discussions of Nostradamus and flying saucers and telekinetic powers and water-to-fuel pills and telepathy and other spooky occurrences, which it feels to me like we were steeped in in the late 70s and early 80s, made me want to know more of how the universe worked. I’d be shocked if I were a rare case of this.

    I’ve shed that magic-and-woo stuff, certainly from my professional side and mostly from my conscious side, at least when I am not at play; but it can be awfully fun play. Often the easiest way to get me to learn about some subject I wasn’t interested in is to start with some pseudoscientific or pseudohistorical claim that almost begs to be narrated by Leonard Nimoy, and proceed from that to what more respectable researchers have found.

  8. I agree with your general point, but determining the role of astrology or alchemy in the history of science is very difficult because we tend to view these activities through the lens of 19th and early 20th Century appropriations of occultism. It takes some doing to remove Jung from one’s view of alchemy—Lawrence Principe’s very recent book Secrets of Alchemy does a pretty good job. A lot of people are aware of the role of German philosophical romanticism in this sort of thing, but even more recent movements—late 19th Century spiritualism, for example—may be even more relevant.

    History is like a telescope. There are two lenses, one at the end of the tube and one next to your eye. In my experience, it’s the closer lens that is most likely to produce aberrations. (Of course, this advice comes from a guy who once wrote a paper that interpreted Heidegger’s later philosophy by putting it in the context of the Korean war.)

  9. I”m not sure what your conclusion is here. Humans have evolved and you’re describing the evolution of scientific thought. There is no way exploring pseudoscience today is needed and can be harmful.

    For example, the anti-vaccination movement ended up forcing scientists (via political pressure) to stop their useful work and do new studies to prove what they already knew to be true from previous studies. And these were big, expensive studies. Of course the results were the same as the many older ones. The tiny risks of a vaccine are far outweighed by the good they do. Far, far more people would die without them than are harmed by them.

    • Thony C

      You confuse pseudo-science and denialism, a common error.

      • Perhaps homeopathy would have been a better example. But I maintain that studying pseudoscientific claims can be a big waste of time, money and energy. Especially when the answers have already been determined.

        That is one reason why I resent having my tax money spent on the NCCAM. The results were exactly as predicted. They found no confirmation of the effectiveness of alternative medicine being any better than a placebo.

      • magufo

        Effectiveness in homeopaty has been demonstrated, but not reliably. NCCAM site provides incomplete information. Today we know that attempts to discredit homeopathy have been frauds, let´s be a some examples: 1) The report Maddox, Randi, Alvárez, Steward in Nature, 2) The fraud of Ennis “replication” study on the Horizon ABC/BBC program in 2002, 3) The semi fraud of Shang Meta analysis study in Lancet. 4) Studies of low methodological quality of Dr Ernst, many with copy / paste.

      • I don’t understand how anything could be “not reliably” demonstrated to be effective.

        You have to reliably demonstrate it. I don’t even know what unreliably demonstrating something means.

        Homeopathy has never been demonstrated to be more effective than a placebo. Ever. In any real scientific study.

        Why would distilled water help anyone with anything other than a placebo effect?

  10. Jeb

    “They only did it for the money.”

    I would be tempted to go with they did it for the rather tasty extra cookie; in regard to the raising tide of irrationally in scientific circles when it comes to discussions on culture and belief. But I have not given the subject much thought I confess.

    I don’t find it acceptable to dismiss people or the beliefs they construct as irrational (I was joking before), inferring that they unworthy of attention or study. It’s a very lazy generalization to make I think, which says more about the person making the statement and how they go about constructing their own beliefs and identity.

    Some scientists I sometimes suspect have yet to discover that they are in actual fact human and may engage in the normal way people do with regard to personal and group cultural and identity and construction. But I am optimistic that 21st century scientists may eventually make the breakthrough and discover what species they actually belong to rather than running with the belief they are a distinct type of cookie monster with a sound reason for claiming the extra one.

    • You said, “I don’t find it acceptable to dismiss people or the beliefs they construct as irrational (I was joking before), inferring that they unworthy of attention or study.”

      I agree that you shouldn’t dismiss people, but their beliefs can be. For example, if someone claims that the earth is flat, should we spend a bunch of time, energy and money to prove it yet again? Or should we dismiss their irrational belief and move on?

      “That which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence.” — Christopher Hitchens

      • Thony C

        “That which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence.” — Christopher Hitchens

        Which includes most of what Hitchen’s ever uttered.

      • Jeb

        “if someone claims that the earth is flat, should we spend a bunch of time, energy and money to prove it yet again?”

        Of course not. On the same basis I don’t think subjects like history or anthropology should have to return and re-examine popular 19th century claims, that were once standard within these subjects on the basis that they are still popular amongst some skeptics who’s, interest, expertise and experience very clearly lies elsewhere. It would be a complete waste of time and effort. Things have moved on.

        I don’t however think that these views should be dismissed out of hand and I don’t think the people expressing them now or in the 19th century were/are irrational. They are clearly driven by genuine, anxiety, concern and a mix of other cultural factors.

      • Can you give me some examples of skeptics re-examining 19th century beliefs that you object to them doing? I’m not aware of them.

  11. Good article. This is something people should be more aware of.

    I think phlogiston might be the most powerful example of this kind of thing, it being an example of the intimate relationship between (what we would now call) chemistry and alchemy. It has deep alchemical roots and by the time of Priestley, its study looks very much like modern chemistry, and has some unique insights that we still accept today (particularly the commonalities among combustion, rusting, and respiration). It’s a prime example of “pseudoscience” helping “science.” Would you agree?

    • Thony C

      I wouldn’t actually call phlogiston pseudo-science. I regard it as a perfectly valid scientific research programme that produced some very good science.

      On this do you know Hasok Chang’s We Have Never Been Whiggish (About Phlogiston)?

      • Yes, I wouldn’t either really, but I suspect some non-historically-minded people might do so.

        And no, I’m not familiar with that paper, but it looks quite fascinating. I have been interested in checking out Hasok Chang’s Inventing Temperature but haven’t done so yet. Anyway, this paper will be on my winter break reading list. Thanks!

      • Do read Inventing Temperature it’s really excellent.

      • I agree that scientific research can lead to the wrong conclusion. But science is a self-correcting system, it just doesn’t work as fast as we would like it to.

        I believe that science is the best system ever invented by the human mind to eliminate human prejudice and flawed perceptions from an inquiry into knowledge.

      • Try this paper for another perspective:

      • Oh, yes, I quite liked Chang’s Inventing Temperature. I really appreciated how much the book highlighted how hard it was to quite agree on what temperature was, and how to measure it, and how to connect measurements to temperatures.

        I quite liked the metaphor in it — I don’t recall if it was Chang’s directly or something quoted — about the improvements of scientific knowledge being kind of like washing dishes in a sink basin. There’s dirty dishes put in dirtying water and yet, by hard work, the dishes come out clean.

      • @herfules: I think you’re correct on that one.

        But the problem is that people who then promote the scientific findings forget that science never has a permanent answer. They tend to say “this is the truth” without adding “as we know it right now, but it might change with the next discovery, so keep an open mind”.

      • herfules

        I think it is rare for a scientist to proclaim the truth. Science isn’t about Truth, it’s about creating useful and predictive models of the physical universe. Emphasis on “useful”, not “true”.
        In the words of the late, great Stephen Jay Gould:

        “In science ‘fact’ can only mean, ‘confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional consent’.”

    • I think Chang is one of the best “young” historians of science working today.

  12. Jeb

    “Can you give me some examples of skeptics re-examining 19th century beliefs that you object to them doing? I’m not aware of them.”

    Running with the same set of assumptions as a much older school of history and anthropology was what I was suggesting. Sorry if I was unclear.

    Medical anthropology and History is a good way into the subject.

    If memory serves me correct Alric Hall cites Mary Douglas expressly on the issue in ‘ Elves in Anglo-Saxon England: Matters of Belief, Health, Gender and Identity.’

    The early chapters also detail examples of past usage of medical history and anthropology in relationship to Anglo Saxon medicine, culture and belief.

    But he details past usage of Anglo Saxon medicine by older academics and outlines issues with past usage.

    One example off the top of my head but any number of introductions to the issues in the history of anthropology.

    Was a persistent claim made by Western intellectuals with regard to non-western belief systems.

    By happy coincidence it privileged one culture and in particular one social class (education not as social diverse as it is today) and dismissed non-western belief systems as irrational.

  13. Jeb

    p.s. “I’m not aware of them.”
    I don’t think Christopher Hitchens et. al take much interests in the subjects I do. Elves etc are not his strong point.

    I just don’t think the explanations work when you apply them to non-western culture or pre-science western culture. I also don’t think they offer any solutions to the serious issues regarding such subjects as climate change or issues in medicine and may in fact may contribute to the issues by presenting a less than accurate picture of the problems faced.

    For example in medicine peoples uptake of woo woo and false cures may in part point to problems within medicine rather than a sudden rash of irrationality within the general public.

    But generally I think the issues point to serious failings within education systems rather than anything else. That people are not leaving educational establishments with basic critical skills, speaks of a failed and broken education system.

  14. Ian H Spedding FCD

    An illuminating article as ever, Thony.

    Personally, I have doubts about the value of pseudo-science as a concept at all. It seems to me that, in a broad sense, we are natural and inveterate story-tellers. It’s how we try to make sense out of the world.. We take the limited amount of data available to us at any one time and construct plausible narratives to connect the dots and explain them. I understand human memory is thought to work along similar lines.

    I remember watching TV reality shows where volunteers would try to live the life of early American pioneers or a Stone Age settlement. The problem was that, while you could take away the physical trappings of modern civilization, you couldn’t delete all the knowledge and expectations of the people. They were able to learn how to operate the “technology” of those earlier times relatively easily but what they could not do was shake of the knowledge of what they were missing and some of them suffered badly because of it.

    It’s virtually impossible for us to imagine what it must have been like for our distant ancestors, struggling to survive in a mysterious and dangerous world, trying to fathom how it all works from scratch. I’m guessing they would have started, since they had to start somewhere, by making up all sorts of stories which slowly evolved into our mythologies, folklore and religions.

    Over time, a need would have been felt for a way of differentiating between competing narratives, of finding out which, if any, were the better for the purposes in mind. What we now call the scientific method, perhaps as much an attitude as a methodology, emerged in part from that need.

    It seems like astrology and alchemy were perfectly good explanations or narratives in their day but we have better now as accounts of how the universe – or at least the part to which we have access – works. Pseudo-science is, in a sense, still preferring these obsolescent or obsolete narratives, for various reasons, over those which, for most, have superseded them.

    As for the New Atheist and skeptical communities, while they have done – and are doing – useful work in promoting science and, more specifically, rehabilitating the image of atheism in US society, there are disturbing signs of them congealing into a sort of culture wars tribalism which they really need to avoid.

    • herfules

      But we *are* engaged in a war here in the US. Europe is largely free from it.
      The Religious Right in the US wages a war against science in their hope to establish a form of theocracy here. And pseudoscience kills people, so we fight that as well. Yes vaccination denial has pseduoscientific support, it’s not just denialism. If people with serious illnesses try to get help from homeopathy or some other form of alternative medicine, they could be seriously harmed.
      I wish I lived in a country where I can be an apatheist, but I don’t.

      • So in the US people actually use homeopathy when they break their leg *instead of going to a doctor*?

        Don’t you now finally have Obama-care so you can actually afford going to a doctor? (which is how it has been for decades in Germany, by the way)

      • herfules

        Perhaps it’s a language issue, but a broken leg is an injury, not an illness. I didn’t want to say “disease” since that excludes syndromes.

  15. I sent this article to the freethought/atheist group I was part of as an undergrad and one of my friends asked about your comment on “woo” and “the heuristics employed by those who developed the standard model.” The area isn’t my forte so I couldn’t come up with anything for him. Are there any sources you can point to for this?

  16. Robert Flammang


    I am surprised. May I please ask you for a reference?


  17. Robert Flammang


    Far be it from me to speak for our Mathematicus, but the remark of his which you cited brought to mind Shoichi Sakata’s early version of the Eightfold way which was a pre-quark SU(3) flavor symmetry. Sakata’s inspiration is commonly said to have been Marxist dialectics, which he believed would manifest itself in high-energy physics. It’s a kooky idea that ultimately turned out to be true.

    A purist (for whom I also do not speak) would probably object that it isn’t Sakata’s eightfold way that is a part of the standard model, but Gell-Mann and Ne’eman’s later eighfold way, which is named after Buddhism’s Noble Eightfold Path and was not inspired by Marxism.

  18. That’s a really nice article – thanks!

    From what I remember, Heisenberg believed that the uncertainty principle might explain Telepathy – and when I talked to Hans Peter Dürr (one of the pupils of Heisenberg) while I was still at school, I was impressed how spiritual he was – and how much he “felt” physics, as opposed to just discussing it as dry math. He told me that Heisenberg had the principle of imagining together – and then doing the hard math to check the shared imagination.

    So 50 years ago high-profile physicists openly spoke about psi phenomena (and how they needed to be checked). What happened since then to bring all the hostility?

    • In the meantime biology to some extent caught up with the physical sciences, is what. Recall that Watson and Crick’s DNA structure was only in 1953, when physics and chemistry had already contrived atomic fission. And by the time physical sciences put men on the moon in 1969, our understanding of most of biology was still utterly pitiful.

      In addition, the scepticism of scientists (which I would still class as a genuinely important characteristic, though it is unevenly distributed) meant that over the last half century they have subjected claims of paranormal phenomena to much more searching ‘controlled conditions’ analysis. The musings of the physicists 50 or 60 years ago would have been predicated on the idea that the reported claims of telepathy were NOT explicable by things like fooling others (as in cold reading) or fooling yourself (as in confirmation bias).

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  24. Of course, saying that there have been poor attempts to refute homeopathy doesn’t somehow automatically give homeopathy legitimacy.

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  26. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    A very confused (and non-referenced) defense of woo until one comes to the end where it appears to be a criticism of an undefined “scientism”, by skeptics most often taken as the usefulness of science and the uselessness of ‘other ways of knowing’. E.g. a gap argument for woo.

    So, to straighten out the confusion:

    – Astrology and alchemy were arts, which tools but not ideas were later ushering in science.

    That does not bear on the relation between science and its forerunners, except that science stood up to the test of empiricism and the forerunners failed.

    Oh, and IIRC some of those part time astrologers _were_ in it for the money. (Copernicus, Brahe, maybe Galileo.)

    – Heuristics or other ideas for hypotheses can come from exactly anywhere, as long as they are useful. Kekulé’s dream predicting a model of the benzene ring bonding is one example.

    Again, that doesn’t bear on the relation to science and other occupations of humans, except that again science works and pseudosciences, dreams, magic, et cetera fails as a way to arrive at knowledge.

    – Parapsychology (not “paranormal” which is the modern woo term) has not been responsible for improvements in experiments as much as the criticism of it. It is considered a pseudoscience precisely because of its experimental sloppiness.

    The core question is if belief in magic (e.g. religion) is increasing. No, since it correlates with dysfunctional societies (poverty, lack of education, insecurity) and the global society is steadily becoming more functional (see Rosling) religiosity is decreasing (see Paul).

    Science has a part to play in that, maybe a vital part, but it is not the only reason accommodationism and its belief in belief is failing.


  28. There is nothing wrong with devising a hypothesis that, say, you can move objects with you mind. There is also nothing wrong with creating the experiment to test this hypothesis, as much can be learned just by designing the experiment. There is plenty of wrong with continuing to claim that you can move objects with your mind after the experiment is proven wrong.

    Astrology, Alchemy and Geocentrism during the times of Galileo where the former. Modern Geocentrism (and yeah it still exists) and Astrology are the later.

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