1 in 4 Americans think the Sun goes around the Earth. Does it matter?

“A Study in Scarlet,” Arthur Conan Doyle

I do not agree with Doyle’s assessment of the limitations of human knowledge and memory and recall, I’ve spent my whole life learning things for the sake of learning them and I’m sure I’m not the only one on this board, ya nerdz, but the above does make me think:

Apparently, 1 in 4 Americans are unaware the Earth orbits the Sun. (Well, we know a lot of things about 1 in 4 Americans.) Since no major religion or denomination (some few very minor ones, perhaps) actually teaches the Ptolemaic theory or denies the Copernican any more, and no one is really emotionally invested on the Ptolemaic side culturally that I know of, what accounts for their ignorance of something so often mentioned or implied in the media? Perhaps they’re simply indifferent? Of course this is something you have to get right if you’re ever to have the most basic grasp of astronomy or cosmology or large areas of physics, but a great many people probably have no interest in acquiring such grasp, or see any use for it in their daily lives, and probably they never will have.

Or, there could simply be a segment of the population – but 25% seems quite a lot! – that is just that profoundly unteachable. If the latter, is it possible that nothing can be done about it, ever, in any society?

I wonder what would have been the results if they had asked whether the world is flat or round (oblate-spheroid, whatever).

What’s more:

Eh, it means that 1 in 4 US Americans (and 1 in 3 EU Europeans) don’t know a basic fact which impacts their life not in the least.

Bet they can still drive, work, and write a check (or run a debit card.)

I took that test from a link in another website and almost got the one about the Big Bang wrong because I was overthinking it. The question was (paraphrased) “The Universe began as a large explosion”, to which I was thinking “well, that’s not really it as it implies an explosion into space, whereas it was more of an expansion of space…” Then I realized it’s not called the “Big Bang” for nothing, selected “Yes”, and got the answer right.

It’s sad, in the abstract. It shows a remoteness, a disinterest, a lack of curiosity.

“The unexamined life is fine with us.”

That’s, uh, quite an assumption about 1/4 of the population from a single point of data, Trinopus. :smiley:

Yep, this is terrible and we’re doomed. As opposed to 75 years ago when the answer would have been pretty much the same, and we were poised to be the greatest power the world had ever seen.

Well, yeah, but it’s a pretty damn significant data point!

It’s as if you told me that a quarter of the population didn’t know that 2 + 2 = 4, or that they didn’t know that Obama was the President of the U.S., or that ocean water isn’t drinkable.

By itself, it doesn’t really matter. As Holmes said, it wouldn’t make any difference at all to the life of the average person. However, it matters a great deal because it is positive proof of a much broader ignorance. And that will affect people.

To believe that the Sun orbits the Earth reveals that a person has no knowledge whatsoever of either the sizes of the Earth and the Sun or of basic physics: inertia, momentum, gravity etc. We’re not talking here about an inability to pass a high school physics exam. The belief requires utter and total ignorance. These people have to believe that the Earth is much larger than the sun, or else believe that the Sun-Earth system is held in place by some magical force unrelated to gravity. And that in turn means that these people must live in complete ignorance of what the sun actually is and what it does. It’s just not possible to have even a basic understanding of these facts and believe that the Sun orbits the Earth. And with no knowledge of the Earth-Sun system, these people don’t understand at all what seasons are. They don’t understand why seasons are reversed in the southern hemisphere, for example.

And this level of ignorance extends ever deeper, and eventually it does start to affect daily life. With no knowledge of the basic structure of the solar system, it becomes impossible to evaluate claims made about climate change, for example. There is simply no starting point by which any evaluation can be made. With no knowledge of seasons, it’s impossible to understand why you don’t want to travel to Rio for your Christmas vacation. And so on and so forth.

And this is the problem with poor science education. It’s not that people don’t know irrelevant facts about the solar system, or whether humans lived alongside dinosaurs. Those things aren’t important to anybody. The problem is that those beliefs are positive proof a deep-seated ignorance. The beliefs simply aren’t compatible with even a basic understanding elementary science. It’s not ignorance of the trivia that’s the issue. It’s that evidence of the trivia is proof of ignorance of the subject as a whole.

It’s that lack of a basic foundation in science that becomes dangerous. It leaves people with no ability evaluate the claims that are presented to them everyday. It’s the reason why people buy into quack remedies, pseudoscientific conspiracies and nutty cults. A basic knowledge of science is necessary to be able to judge whether a perpetual motion machine will work or whether Black people are closer to chimpanzees. And these people lack that knowledge because they lack any sort of scientific knowledge. Knowing whether the Earth orbits the sun won’t stop someone believing in perpetual motion machines or that Black people are closer to chimpanzees. But without that knowledge, you can be pretty damn sure that these people lack the knowledge that is required to assess a claim of a perpetual motion machines or a claim that Black people are closer to chimpanzees.

In short, it doesn’t matter in itself. But it’s incredibly important insofar as it is a very reliable symptom of a much more serious problem.

Or, it tells us that 25% of Americans 1) don’t know or care about how to answer a poll or 2) are fucking with them.

If someone called me and asked that question, I wold be very tempted to answer “sun revolves around the earth”.

At any rate, unless you can show that this is a some alarming trend, I’m inclined to brush it off as a meaningless data point. Same with evolution. I certainly wish more Americans understood it, but I can’t believe it was any different 50 years ago when we were, supposedly, at the top of our game.

As sad as it is, it’s not information of the same kind. Many people have lives that are just fine without knowing, or even thinking about, that the moon isn’t made of cheese.

But can they make a meaningful assessment on the issue of global warming, or evaluate the likelihood of vaccines giving their child autism, or critique a claim that the President is a lizard?

An ability to run a life at a basic level ought to be the absolute minimum that society aims for in 2012. But when 25% of the voting public provably lacks the knowledge to evaluate even the most basic evidence concerning global warming, that is a concern.

Not knowing whether the Sun orbits the Earth by itself may not prevent someone from driving car. But it obviously does prevent them from evaluating what effect driving a car has on their chances of surviving the next two decades. And that is hardly a trivial point.

If your correlation is correct, then the anti-AGW side must be stronger in Europe than America, as more Europeans got this question wrong than Americans.

Is this so? Or is the AGW argument mostly accepted in Europe?

If AGW is more accepted by Europeans than Americans, and fewer Europeans know about the rotation of the Earth, then the solution to driving AGW solutions in America is to, what… teach Americans that the Sun revolves around the Earth?

Point being: You can’t make such sweeping statements from such a minor point of data. Nice try, though.

I’m wondering how “clumped” our knowledge is. There may be x number of people who have at least a broad knowledge of astronomy, economics, geography, spelling, evolution. And there may be y number of people who know how to fix a flat tire, bake a loaf of bread, use a credit or debit card, sew on a button, flag a taxi. And each group is appalled that the “others” don’t possess their own skills and interests. Obviously there are those of us who cover both categories of knowledge, and are appalled at people who don’t possess the interest of skills and knowledge of either group.

Having said all of that, I don’t believe it works that way for most people. I think it’s more realistic to encounter people who know the basics of astronomy and baking bread, but are ignorant of geography and fixing a flat… So it amounts to some from column A and some from column B. So belief that the earth revolves around the sun does not necessarily imply ignorance across many categories.

The answer depends on your reference frame. From a non-rotating reference frame with respect to the center of mass of the solar system, sure, it looks a lot more like the Earth goes around the sun than vice versa. But from a reference frame where the Earth’s surface is stationary (a rotating reference frame at the Earth’s center of mass), it looks very much like the sun revolves around the Earth.

Which reference frame is “better”? If you want to send a spacecraft to Mars, almost certainly the first. But what about the day-night cycle, the most relevant aspects of the system to the most people? The second reference frame makes a lot more sense.

In our daily lives, we talk about the sun rising and setting, we talk about it being high in the sky in summer, and low in winter. We talk about the sun moving across the sky, from East to West. All of our colloquial language is couched in terms of the sun moving, not the Earth. Why in the world should we be surprised that many people think of it that way? And if it’s so much “better” to think of the Earth moving, why doesn’t our everyday language reflect that. I suggest that for most people, it is indeed better to treat the sun as moving around the Earth.

Since Doyle’s day people have been regularly bombarded by images of the solar system in science fiction, television and an actual space program. It has become quite a bit harder to miss this bit of information.

If that’s true I wonder what else they’ve missed that should have been covered in a basic education: Decimals? That things are made of atoms? Germs make you sick?

Point being, you are confusing outcome with method.

Someone can be on the “correct” side of a debate by throwing a dart at the wall. That is not evidence that they evaluated the arguments correctly.

You see to be arguing that the European acceptance of a position is based upon a study of the issue, as opposed to, say, just accepting what they hear from certain sources. Can you provide evidence for this position?

If not, all you are doing arguing a hasty conclusion.

The latter is also interesting, have you a cite?

It was in the OP.


It’s a statement.

Living in the US… while I can’t necessarily speak for other states, if I go and ask just about anyone where I live (california) which way it works, they will all say that the earth circles the sun

Citing a 2005 survey of EU citizens.

Here’s a better link, showing how different global regions answered the same questions.