Copernicus' UniverseSo my head is still ringing from the blow it was truth it was dealt during the first Republican debate when three of the candidates went on record as not believing in evolution.  Now Inherit the Wind was written 52 years ago.  The play chronicles the famous Scopes monkey trial, one of the landmark cases in the U.S. evolution debate.  Here’s the rub: the trial itself took place in 1925 when creationism was still a going concern.  The idea of a live, kicking controversy about evolution in the schools was inconceivable to the play’s authors.  For them, it was used merely as a foil for their criticism of McCarthyism, which was indeed the burning issue of the day.  For this literary trick to be effective, the whoever was playing the part of the McCarthyites had to be made to look extremely foolish, and the authors chose the (in hindsight) outlandish Creationists to fill the role.

All of this I find kind of depressing, but definitely worth trying to understand.  And my basic understanding of the resurgence of creationism tied the trend to the rise of the religious right, and the so called “culture war” which we all hear so much about.   Unfortunately, there’s really quite a lot of evidence that there’s no such thing.

There is, however, quite a lot of evidence of another potential cause.  As simple and obvious as it may seem, I’m starting to think that I’ve been overlooking the role of ignorance in all of this (It’s true what they say about the ivory tower).  I read a post recently on Cosmic Variance which compared U.S. attitudes on interracial dating to scientific knowledge there.  The source for the science data talked about a giant opinion study in the U.S. called the GSS which is run periodically to guage the status of social norms.  Last year for the first time the GSS included a science module.  Among other things, respondents were asked:

 Now, does the Earth go around the Sun, or does the Sun go around the Earth?

Shockingly only 73.6% of respondents got the question correct!  These lucky winners were asked a followup question:

How long does it take for the Earth to go around the Sun: one day, one month, or one year?

This question was answered correctly only 71.2% of the time.  As high as this number sounds, it’s important to remember that this follow-up was only posed to correct answerers of the first question.  So the number of folks who knew that the earth revolves around the sun once per year was actually 52.4% — just over half.

When I first read these data, I laughed out loud.  Jacob came running over demanding to find out what was so funny.  I explained the matter to him, and after answering both questions correctly, he laughed in sympathy for the kids in the U.S.  So I explained it to him that it wasn’t the kids they were asking, but the grownups, and he more or less fell on the floor.

One Response to “Heliocentrism in the U.S.”

Would the Canadians have done better?

Something to say?