Unscientific Americans?

Science World Report: About 25% of Americans don’t know that the Earth rotates the sun. A poll from the National Science Foundation was the bearer of the bad news.

You might be thinking that a minute sample size was taken among a population of the severely uninformed, but evidences suggests otherwise. The National Science Foundation conducts a poll to measure scientific literacy each year. This year, 2,200 people were asked ten questions about physical and biological sciences, and about one in four people did not know that the Earth revolved around the Sun; a proven scientific fact that was discovered in 1543 by Nicolaus Copernicus.

Now before jumping to the conclusion that this provides yet more evidence that Americans are strikingly ignorant, it’s worth noting that among citizens of the European Union polled in 2005, 29% believed the Sun revolves around the Earth.

But hold on — here’s perhaps the most revealing element in popular awareness about basic science on both sides of the Atlantic: both population groups demonstrated a better understanding of plate tectonics.

83% of Americans and 87% of Europeans understand that “the continents on which we live have been moving for millions of years and will continue to move in the future.”

Does this mean that continental drift is an easier concept to grasp than the structure of the solar system?

I don’t think so. Neither do I think that a quarter of Americans believe in Ptolemaic astronomy. It seems more likely that a significant number of people who are not speaking their native language find the question — Does the Earth go around the Sun, or does the Sun go around the Earth? — grammatically challenging.

In other words, this poll may reveal less about what people believe than it reveals about how well they understand what they are being asked.

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3 thoughts on “Unscientific Americans?

  1. bobs

    Not to mention that the sun does go around the earth. This is one of my pet peeves in science. The earth revolves around the sun just as much as the sun revolves around it. Revolving is a symmetric relationship. If you go around me along an ellipse, then I go around you along an ellipse. The proper statement is that the other planets do not revolve around the earth. And that’s the reason it’s silly to put the origin of a frame of reference at the earth because it complicates the equations of motion. But it’s still possible and correct to do it.

  2. Francisco Velasco

    It all depends on one’s point of view… Going around means leaving one point and coming back to the same point. Moon and Earth are speeding forward due to the powerful attraction exerted by the Sun so it’s impossible for the Moon to go “around ” the Earth because going backwards would mean overcoming the pull from the Sun, an impossibility. The same applies to Earth going “around” the Sun… how can Earth go backwards when the Sun is pulling it in its voyage around the centre of our Galaxy…?

  3. Paul Woodward Post author

    Two great comments both of which demonstrate the very limited value of opinion polls when “true,” “false,” and “don’t know,” are such impoverished answers to most questions.

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