Galileo v Darwin

a new day
The Mathematician handed me an article from the Scientific American, and then stood back and watched me guffaw. The article in question was a discussion of the relative impact that Galileo and Darwin had on society. Which one was bigger?

First, it’s a dopey question, but on top of that, this little bit of silliness: one of the panelists claimed that Galileo was the most influential, because (and I’m paraphrasing) only fifty percent of Americans believe in evolution, whereas eighty percent believe the earth orbits around the sun.

Think about that for a minute.

Now, the Darwin thing I’m willing to let go, though I don’t believe it. A much smaller proportion of the population identifes as creationists, but let’s leave that aside for the moment.

The claim is that 20% of the American population does not believe that the earth orbits the sun.

I don’t believe this. I just don’t. I’m taken by this urge to stop people on the street and ask them a T/F question: does the earth orbit around the sun? I can predict that some small percentage will just look puzzled and have to think about it. These are the same people who can’t put France on a map (much less Iraq), and who don’t realize that the fact that there was a World War II, there must have been a Word War I. Or this person, quoted on Overheard:

Like, New York’s Technically a State Of Mind, Right?

College student with Boston accent: Yeah, I was reading this article in like Newsweek or something, that ranked the states from smartest to dumbest. Massachusetts was in the top ten.
College student with Miami accent: What about Florida?
College student with Boston accent: Florida was like, 47.
College student with Miami accent: Out of how many?


Overheard by: Still Laughing

Some people just aren’t interested in the wider world. Maybe the student with the Miami accent knows everything there is to know about sailboat rigging, but slept through every geography and social studies class. The temptation is to laugh (okay, I did laugh), but I think it’s a mistake to assume this person is intellectually a zero. Narrow, yes. But more than that, who knows?

The earth orbiting around the sun is to me so absolutely undebatable that I put it on a par with things like, the sun rises in the east or the earth is round. Further, some people may deny they believe in evolution for religious reasons, but no such baggage has been attached to Galileo. I hope.

Does that 80% sound weird to you?


Creative Commons License photo credit: cdemo

7 Replies to “Galileo v Darwin”

  1. Yes. It does. I love hearing percentages though, because they raise so many questions in my mind. Maybe the 80% is a fraction of a group of people who had already been asked another question. You won’t necessarily know for sure unless you get to see the raw data, including the raw question asked. Mind you, I’m no expert. Besides having to review poll results from time to time, I read a book once called Smoke & Mirrors, by Nicholas Strange. Great intro to how graphs and charts and percentage quotes can be so very misused.

  2. Ok. I have to say this: there’s a difference between believing and knowing. Some people might not be too smart when it comes to geography and the universe and what not, but once it is explained to them (the earth orbiting) then we should ask them if they believe it or not. See, with Darwin, many people don’t believe it for, as you said, religious reasons. With Galileo, people just might not remember what they learned in school. But it doesn’t mean they are narrow-minded or that they’ll believe that the earth is flat. Am I making any sense? It’s kind of like asking someone if they believe in, let’s say, Buddha, when they’ve never heard of him. (Ok maybe bad example…)

  3. I gave up my subscription to Scientific American when it published an article smearing Robert Oppenheimer (atomic bomb), neglecting to put his actions into historical perspective, besides being an article NOT based on science at all.

    The Darwin vs Galileo choice seems to me to be both too narrow and too single dimensioned. Either/or? How about instead, ranking a lot of those people and include their discoveries/inventions/postulates. Or why rank them at all? Both are important in their own ways.

    I think I’d better pick up my soap box and steal away quietly into the night.

    Oh! Loved Joanna Bourne’s novels that you recommended. Also invested in a Kindle 2. Sure makes toting books on a trip a lot easier. I figure at an average of 6 bucks a book that I can spend $10K before running out of space on it. Now there’s a thought!

  4. 80% seems high to me though. BUT… my husband had a client (let’s just say he works with some pretty low functioning people) who though the moon was just the sun seen at night time. Som don’t take it for granted that because someone lives in a first world country and has access to an education, that they actually receive and retain that education. How could you think the sun and the moon are the same, especially when you can see them sometimes at the same time? Boggles the mind. I also had a peer in grad school (PhD program) who did not know what continent Brazil was on. And I’m guessing she was at least on the right hand side of the IQ curve, just a little lax in her geography. So you never know.

    I’d also want to see how this 80% was derived… to quote Homer Simpson, “Oh, people can come up with statistics to prove anything. 14% of people know that.”

  5. Frankly I’m surprised only 20% don’t believe. Look at shadows and see how they change throughout the day, anybody can see this, doesn’t it look like the sun revolves around us? Who can really see celestial bodies spinning about in outer space? People believe in what they can see with their own eyes before trusting math and science. Maybe the 20% were just a little more honest than the rest of the respondents…

  6. This statistic kind of dumbfounds me too, but I am inclined to wonder at how the statistics were collected. I agree with the poster up above who pointed out that many survey questions can be loaded; worded in such a way that steers the person asked into answering in a different way than they might have, given different wording. Also, it can depend on where the survey is taken. Here in my area for instance, I could expect a widely different answer spectrum if I took my survey in the wealthier suburbs, (where we at least expect a certain level of education has been acheived.) – say at a shopping mall,- to what I would expect if I got my answers standing outside one of the seedier pubs in a very downtrodden area where many unemployed and indigenous people live. That comparison might be a bit extreme, but I think it serves my point. Many areas differ widely in the way the people living there are likely to have been educated. No matter how fair and equitable our governments try to make the education system that is available to the people, there are many other factors at play that determine how much of that education system filters through and is retained by various individuals. Sad, but true.

    Having said all that, and fully taking it into account – I am still amazed that these stats are claimed to be true. I can’t imagine that 20% of any “first world” demographic can really not know this, and if it really is true, it is a sad indictment on our society.

    Just for interest…I’m not sure if this is something others have come across, but I was educated in Scotland, which is country largely split between Protestands and Catholics, and all through my schooling I was taught the Darwin theory as fact, not theory. I was also taught (in school as well as church) that Adam and Eve were the first people. No one ever tried to explain to me how to blend these two theories, ever. I used to wonder, but being a child I managed pretty well to marry the two ideas, and was happy with my own explanation, and it was only in my later teens that I discovered that the Darwin theory is a still not-quite proven theory, with all the controversy and argument surrounding it. I see this lack of information as a huge gap in my education. How can they teach children that something is historical fact, when they do not yet fully know?
    I am not saying I was taught a lie; rather, they left a large part of the story out, seemingly in such a way as to manipulate my ideas, and that leaves a less than wonderful taste in my mouth.
    As an adult, I have happily arrived at what I think I believe, but many of my ideas and beliefs are subject to editing and evolving as I have been blessed (or cursed) with a great curiosity about my world and all that lies therein. So I remain open minded about many things, and this anomalie has done me no harm. Still, if they are going to teach something, they should teach the all of it, not the edited parts they prefer.

  7. I’d suspect that the percentage of evolution doubters is considerably higher in the US than in most other developed countries (though we do have a few of those, too), because for some reason churches in the US consider evolution a much more contentious subject than churches in the rest of the developed world. The local parish priest himself (Lutheran protestant) explained the differences between the biblical creation accounts and the theory of evolution or the big bang theory with “Well, people in biblical times asked questions about how the world came to be and those are the answers they came up with. Later, people learned more and came up with other answers.”

    As for 20 percent of people polled supposedly not believing that the Earth revolves around the sun, at first glance it does seem like a high percentage. But on the other hand, people manage to go through the education system without acquiring basic reading and writing skills, so people failing to acquire this particular bit of basic knowledge is certainly feasible. Besides, a lot of people, including those who are otherwise intelligent and educated, have problems figuring out how daylight saving time works or how to handle different timezones. So it is certainly within the realm of belief that some people might not believe at all that the Earth revolves around the sun. Besides, we all know otherwise okay people who manage to display a stunning lack of knowledge in one particular area. My personal favourite in that regard is always the girl from my history class at school who drove the teacher up the wall by answering the question “When did the Crusades take place?” with “Before Christ”.

    Finally, there is also the question how that poll was conducted. There is something of a TV tradition in Germany of reporters going around shopping malls and the like, shoving a microphone into the face of a random passerby and asking supposedly basic questions such as “Who was the first chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany?”, “When was the Berlin Wall built?”, “In what year did the German unification take place?”, “What is the so-called ‘miracle of Berne’ and when did it happen?” etc… Then clips of the people who gave wrong answers are shown, usually to indicate the appalling state of the school system. Of course, one hardly ever sees the people who gave the correct answers and has no way of knowing how many people were polled and how many did know the right answer. Besides, if someone is going about his or her business and suddenly has a microphone shoved into his or her face and is asked a random question, it is understandable why someone might give a wrong answer, even though that person probably knows the right answer. So if the 20% who supposedly do not believe that the Earth revolves around the sun were the result of such a poll, you can pretty much forget it.

    An added complication is that the above questions are only simple, if you happen to have spent a significant amount of time in Germany. Very few Americans would probably be able to answer them without googling. Of course, scientific knowledge is much less bound by time and location than social/political/historical knowledge.

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