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Too Many Americans Think the Earth is the Center of Our Solar System

Mar 09, 2015 06:35 PM EDT
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I still can't decide if this makes me want to laugh, cry, or just move out of the country. Probably all three, but that will just get me picked up by airport security. A recent survey has revealed that a stunning 26 percent of Americans think the Sun revolves around the Earth, and that's just the beginning.

It should first really be pointed out that the concept that the Earth orbits the Sun - called heliocentrism - was introduced as early as the 3rd century BC by Aristarchus of Samos, but truly became a widely-held belief in the 16th century's Renaissance of math, science, and literacy.

And yet, 400 years later, in an age where information is quite literally always at our fingertips and can be plucked from the air, a quarter of American adults remain unaware.

This was revealed after the completion of a biennial survey of more than 2,200 people from various backgrounds designed to represent the United States' population as a whole. Conducted by the National Science Foundation, the data from this work is presented as part of a greater Science and Engineering Indicators report that the National Science Board provides to the president and Congress.

But unlike the blockbuster movie Interstellar, there is no post-apocalyptic trend of denial-driven ignorance stopping these people from opening a book or clicking a web-page. Thinking the Sun revolves around the Earth implies that they don't even know basic physics, or perhaps that they think the Sun is smaller and less-dense than our great blue planet.

Whatever the cause of this unsettling statistic really is, it doesn't stop there.

Out of a total of nine questions that covered the physical and biological sciences, the average score was 6.5 correct answers. That means that when it comes to basic scientific knowledge, American citizens scored a barely passing grade of 72. (Scroll to read on...)

Still, that data can be disputed, especially because some 'incorrect' answers may have more to do with faith than ignorance. One question, for instance, asked if the Big Bang occurred, while another asked if "human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals."

Creationists would argue that neither occurred, while some hardcore scientific buffs may refute the existence of the Big Bang, dark matter, and black holes - all of which remain strictly (albeit well-supported) scientific theory.

And even if Americans aren't the ideal science students, that doesn't mean they don't at least appreciate the subject.

Ninety percent of those surveyed said they think scientists are "helping to solve challenging problems" and are "dedicated people who work for the good of humanity." A similar percentage of Americans also said they are "very interested" or "moderately interested" in learning about new scientific work, especially discoveries that could impact the medical field.

Well over 50 percent of all Americans also enjoy and learn from "informal science education," like what is found at zoos, aquariums, and museums.

And that's all good news, argues John Besley, a public relations expert at Michigan State University, who reviewed the survey for the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

"It's important for Americans to maintain a high regard for science and scientists," Besley said in a statement. "It can help ensure funding and help attract future scientists." (Scroll to read on...)

Unfortunately, not all current scientists are gung-ho about keeping the public enthusiastic or even aware of their work. Another survey presented at the same meeting also revealed that only 28 percent of scientists over 50 years old would consider explaining their work to the public "critically important."

That was a little different for younger generations, with well over a third of scientists under the age of 35 identifying that same responsibility as a top priority. Engineers, it seems, are least likely among both age groups to think they have any strong responsibility to the public - a potential consequence of the complexity and isolation of most electrical and machining work.

"Because of the changing nature of the relationship between science and society, there are increasing calls for scientists to become more engaged and to realize responsibilities beyond what they do in the lab," noted Mark Frankel, director of the AAAS Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and Law program. "But, we have virtually no education courses, no teaching materials, no consensus in the United States, let alone globally, about what this really means."

More than 2,100 scientists, engineers, and health professionals from around the world were surveyed for this data, and it reveals that overall, they simply just don't know what to do when it comes to public opinion.

It could be argued that that's where media relation professionals and websites like Nature World News can shine, but the best approach may also vary from region to region.

For instance, respondents from Europe, North America, and the Pacific revealed that they are very concerned about the adverse consequences of their work, while many African, Asian, and Arab researchers seem to be zeroed in on how their work can influence society for the better.

At the end of the day, what the AAAS learned is what you likely already suspected. Both scientists and everyday citizens can be ignorant in their own way. It's finding ways to banish this ignorance and get some true lines of dialogue going that even the greatest minds on our planet - the one that revolves AROUND a bright yellow star - can find challenging.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

- follow Brian on Twitter @BS_ButNoBS

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