Monday, February 17, 2014

The Copernican Theory

There has been a flurry of commentary on the odd discovery that 25% of Americans believe the sun goes around the earth.  It is a Rorschach for prejudices, I think with some (I think HuffPo should be singled out here) leaping to the conclusion that it is Young Earth Creationists who constitute this group.  Others are speculating that it must be minorities, or attributing the whole matter to the poor quality of the public schools, or people goofing on telephone interviewers.  My own initial impulse would have been the giggling young women that used to get asked questions by Leno when he did his Jay Walking segments. I think there is an overlap with pink hats.

But I didn't think of them.  I have been rereading the Sherlock Holmes stories and thought of Watson's amazement at the detective's nescience in the matter.
My surprise reached a climax, however, when I found incidentally that he was ignorant of the Copernican Theory and the composition of the Solar System. That any civilized being in the nineteenth century should not be aware that the earth traveled around the sun appeared to me to be such an extraordinary fact that I could hardly realize it.

"You appear to be astonished," he said, smiling at my expression of surprise. "Now that I do know it I shall do my best to forget it."

"To forget it!"

"You see," he explained, "I consider that a man's brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty laying his hands on it. Now the skillful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of those he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones."

"But the Solar System!" I protested.

"What the deuce is it to me?" he interrupted impatiently; "you say that we go around the sun. If we went around the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or my work."(A Study In Scarlet)
In that bit of dialogue Arthur Conan Doyle touches on the continuing points of the discussion. First, educated people are just supposed to know this. Notice he doesn't mention how they are supposed to know this, nor does anyone getting worked up over the 25% of Americans when it comes up these days. The truth is, there are very few people who can demonstrate it by observation. The math and the record-keeping alone eliminates most people. (In a cloudy area like Seattle, people might never find it.) The sun continues to look as if it goes around the earth, and we continue to say that the sun rises and sets. A lot of us could illustrate it - heck, my second son did something similar for his 2nd-grade science fair when he put up a refrigerator box and invited people inside to show how the phases of the moon worked. Flashlight and tennis ball, I think. (It was cool.) A few could put forth a convincing argument that the retrograde movement of some planets, which has been known for many centuries,  suggests that while they do orbit, they are not orbiting the earth, suggesting that they at least orbit the sun, and so too us. But that's not a proof, and the idea of retrograde movement of Mars is also something that 99% of us know only because we read it somewhere.

So educated people have this told to them, usually pretty early on and repeated in a variety of contexts, so it really should be embedded by the time you get out of highschool even if you aren't studying much science. Thus it is true that we should be as surprised as Watson when someone doesn't know it. But it is largely a measure of believing your teachers and the people one reads, not any personal scientific merit on our own part.  Because of the partly-correct story about Galileo, there is also some association that if people don't believe it, it must be because some nefarious religious people have suppressed the idea. In the absence of any known Christian school or home-school curriculum that actually teaches a Ptolemaic universe, it's not very, uh, scientific for people to come to that conclusion.  But it fits the prejudices, as above, so the data matters* little.

A more likely conclusion is that 25% of the population wasn't paying very close attention in school and doesn't read much, and are thus unreliable sources for many types of information, not just astronomy.

Secondly, Doyle recognises through Holmes that the information doesn't directly change life for most of us.  I don't use the information in either work or hobby.  Farmers, foragers, and fishermen knew enough about the seasons to keep the rest of us alive without having a heliocentric theory of the universe.  We are affected indirectly by the technology developed by people who did need to know it, but even that is not so thoroughgoing as one would think. Even most of the sciences don't rely much on knowledge of the solar system.

The long hard struggle of learning to reason uses math and science as one of its key classrooms.  Thus we rather automatically assume that people who don't know much science must not be able to reason very well.  You will find that to be true in your everyday experience, of course, because we try to educate children with some general knowledge of many things.  If they don't know basic science, then basic history and geography may also have passed them by.  But science and math aren't the only classrooms, and reasoning can be taught without very much of those.  Nearly all of the science of Aristotle or Plato has been overturned, but their reputations for reasoning remains solid.

*Yes, I know that many of you think that should be "data matter" instead, and until a very few years ago I would have agreed with you and gone back and changed it after typing it.  I am on the other side of that divide now.  I have a reasonably good command of my native language.  What sounds correct to me is by definition, correct. Were I writing or speaking in some formal setting I might change it so as not to be a distraction to the audience.  But the change might be even more of a distraction.


Sam L. said...

Off topic, but Althouse did this on ABBA:

James Burke covered this in one of his TV series, either Connections or The Day The Universe Changed (which is the one I think it was in): what we see is the same, regardless.

And some of the respondents could have been lying to the questioner.

james said...

The rotation of the Earth, on the other hand, is pretty easy to demonstrate. Relatively speaking. The hard part is the pivot that the pendulum hangs from. And finding somebody willing to let you hang a 4 story pendulum indoors away from the air ducts.

a psychiatrist who learned from veterans said...

I learned this as history; the evolution of man's view of the solar system was the best covered bit of the evolution of knowledge. Roughly it fits into the most risible story of the relationship of the intersection of science and popular misperception. When Pope Gregory decreed that the Julian calendar had to be amended by switching forward 11 days, some riots broke out with people yelling, 'Give us back our 11 days!'

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I had heard that as well, and said it several times to people. However, I learned a few years ago it is likely a myth, spread by Whigs against Tories. Who were arguing about every little thing, as usual, so it might possibly have some basis in a protest somewhere. But no record of such remains.