The National Science Foundation recently released the results of their yearly scientific literacy poll, and while it’s heartening to hear about the 30 percent of Americans who believe science should get more government funding, or the 90 percent who say that the benefits of sciences generally outweigh potential dangers, one of the NSF’s findings shocked and somehow offended me. One in four Americans (26 percent to be exact) do not know that the Earth revolves around the sun.
Now, I’m sure most of you do. I have to assume that my readers are all basically either my friends, or people who ended up here and stayed because they like science. So you’re not the kind of Americans I’m concerned about. But let’s talk about how things came to be this way. How did we get to a place where 26 percent of us don’t know this?! The poll was well-conducted, not biased and did not use too small of a sample size. In fact, given that illegal immigrants, the homeless and others who may not have access to education usually don’t end up taking NSF polls, it was probably biased in favor of well-educated people.
Other writers are commenting on the results of the poll that say only about half of Americans knew that humans evolved from earlier animal species. This doesn’t bother me that much. Granted, it’s true, we evolved, and it’s sad that only half of us ‘know’ that. But I think the evolution issue has become very political, and involves religious and spiritual beliefs, and I can understand how there are groups within our country that refuse to acknowledge evolution. On the other hand, the Earth/Sun subject was a big deal back when Copernicus first pointed out that we might not be the center of the universe (circa 1543). I mean, people were religiously opposed to it then, but it’s been 450 years! We have telescopes!
The part that bothers me the most about this statistic is not that 25 percent of children somehow missed this one science lesson as a kid. It’s that, in order to believe the Sun revolves around the Earth, you have to have your head in the sand through a huge variety of lessons throughout our education. Let’s look at some of these:
1 – History Class: Copernicus is a pretty common lesson taught in history classes because it’s simple, it proves a
fact that we all inherently accept today (that the Earth revolves around the sun), and it’s an example of how radical thinkers and scientists tend to be beaten down by political and religious leaders when their new ideas change social paradigms.
2 – Planets: Everyone was up in arms when it was declared that Pluto would no longer be one of our nine planets. If we don’t revolve around the sun…we’re not part of the solar system…and where do these other eight (now seven) planets figure in? I don’t understand how one can suffer through all of the lessons about the various planets and other parts of our solar system (asteroid belts, comets, etc) without having a fundamental understanding of our place in it.
3 – Seasons: Winter and Summer are different, this far from the equator, because as we go around the sun, the angle our planet is tilted at affects how directly we receive sunlight. This lesson is imperative in discussions of seasons, weather, climate, climate change, plant biology, ecology, solar energy, and more. Climate change is a BIG issue in the news right now. A big one. And if you don’t understand fundamental facts (like where the Earth goes) then your understanding of this issue is flawed. And you shouldn’t be discussing it, or voting on it, or funding either side of the global warming issue.
Ignorance is not bliss. I don’t think it’s important that, for example, every American thoroughly understand the climate change issues and how they might affect our country’s economy. That’s a complex thing. But I think that if, for instance, you wanted to get involved in that issue, and you wanted to learn about it, you’d need a certain amount of background knowledge. And something that you learn in second grade when your teacher talks about the planets, something as simple as “we are part of a solar system, we’re one of eight planets, and all the planets go around the sun” is the kind of thing our education system should be making sure everyone knows.
Without a solid foundation of the fundamentals, the higher levels of science education become obsolete. Even what I’m trying to do, write about science for the average person, is pointless if the average person can’t come armed with some amount of inherent knowledge about how our universe works. There’s two lessons to be learned here, I think. First — don’t take your education for granted. Don’t assume everyone knows that you find obvious, because apparently that’s not true. And secondly, don’t underestimate the power of education. When you graduate, get a job, have a family, try and make sure your children know what the solar system looks like. Take an interest in what they’re learning (or not learning) — not for your sake, but for theirs.
Thanks to John Allspaw and Flickr’s creative commons for the lovely picture of a graph.
Thanks also to NSF for the survey – too bad about the results, huh?
And, as always, a special thank you to the masses of Wikipedia, for most of the background knowledge needed for this post.