Archive for the 'physics' Category

Heliocentrism Revisited

Posted by mikedaum on June 18th, 2007


One of the best parts about being back in school is that I have full access to UofT’s extensive digital library. After I posted on the 2006 GSS, and how it showed that only 73.6% of surveyed U.S. adults knew that the Earth goes around the Sun, I figured I might like to have a closer look. So I googled the GSS, and was informed by the website that thanks to an agreement they have with UofT, I would enjoy full access to the data. Wow!

Well, turns out the full dataset is 300Mb, and in a format which is designed to be read by high end statistics packages (which I sadly do not have access to yet). So it took me a little while to write some software to begin to look at this data.

Once that was done, I thought I’d start simply — using the earth/sun question which had originally intrigued me so. In the above graph, you can see the % of correct responses to the question plotted against the highest grade level completed by the respondent (5 for 5th grade, 16 for four years of college, &c). The results are both expected and unexpected. The dominant trend of the graph shows a strong and pleasing (at least to those of us who have left comfortable jobs for difficult slogs as born-again students…and who also think it’s important to know who revolves around who) correlation between answering correctly and being educated longer.

Strangely though, the group with only 2nd grade education scored extremely high…as high in fact as those who completed 3 years of college. This group consisted of only 9 people, so it’s easy to write it off as a low-statistics anomaly. But both the 5th grade and the 7th grade groups were smaller, and fit nicely into the correlated trend. Furthermore, it’s easy to see from the error bars that despite the sample’s small size, the high marks were above the linear fit in a statistically significant sense. Sadly, the sample group did not contain any 3rd or 4th grade dropouts, so we can’t see how the data behaves in that gap.

The chart more or less speaks for itself. The good news is that education seems to correlate with heliocentrism. The bad news is that if you continued in school past the 2nd grade in the U.S., you won’t have better than a 50% chance of knowing that the earth revolves around the sun until your Sophomore year of high school.

Heliocentrism in the U.S.

Posted by mikedaum on June 8th, 2007

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.

Kindergarten Science

Posted by mikedaum on May 4th, 2007

Just thought I’d link to  this very funny post on Cosmic Variance.  She’s talking about discussions about science with kindergarten kids, and how their minds are time-shared between the rational and the not-so-much.  Priceless quotes from the latter slice…could have came straight from the mouth of Jake the Snake!

Spectacular Neutrino Results from Fermilab

Posted by mikedaum on April 13th, 2007

I’m always excited to hear news from my old haunt Fermilab.  The latest is a terrific new result on neutrinos from the MiniBooNE experiment.  There’s a terrific explanation on Cosmic Variance by Heather Ray.  The new results move us closer to ruling out neutrino oscillation as the cause of the very strange results from LSND, a prior neutrino experiment which appeared to poke holes in the standard model.