by Geoff Olson

SOLARIn a recent survey from the National Science Foundation, a full quarter of 2,200 surveyed Americans responded incorrectly to the question, “Does the Earth go around the sun, or does the sun go around the Earth?” That both intrigued and disturbed me. I once taught astronomy at the HR Macmillan Observatory and in the Vancouver school system, and have always assumed that almost every adult’s mental earthquake kit includes the heliocentric model.

Seventy-four per cent of the respondents got the 471-year-old memo from Copernicus — so you could say that’s a solid B-grade. But I wonder if the other 26 per cent were puzzled by the correct answer. If the Earth orbits around the sun — while spinning its axis, for Gawd’s sake — what keeps everyone from flying off the planet like unbuckled riders on Space Mountain? At minimum, wouldn’t there be a whole lotta shakin’ goin’ on at the local Hooters?

In another question on the NSF survey, 52 per cent disagreed that human beings evolved from prior forms of animal life. Such numbers aren’t likely to change anytime soon, given organizations like Responsive Education Solutions, Inc., a state charter school that currently has jurisdiction over 65 campuses in Arkansas, Indiana and Texas.

“The biology workbook used by students in the [RES] program teaches that evolution is ‘dogma’ and ‘unproven,’ that the fossil record is questionable and that basic scientific facts such as the age of the earth are disagreed upon by leading scientists when this is simply not the case,” notes Nicholas Maletskas in Liberty Voice.

I can imagine the brain trust behind RES working the optics of this. “OK, we’ll go with the helio-whatever system. But the Earth is only 6,000 years old, and men once walked with dinosaurs. OK, OK — ran from dinosaurs.”

Education aside, the U.S. culture wars are dominated by two solitudes: religious fundamentalists and zealous atheists, both tone-deaf to anything other than their respective echo chambers.

In the 2001 essay collection Thou Art That, the late American mythologist Joseph Campbell described a visit to a U.S. radio station to promote a book. A young interviewer warned him, “I’m tough, I put it right to you. I’ve studied law.” The red “on air” light went on and off he went.

“The word ‘myth,’ means ‘a lie.’ Myth is a lie,” he told Campbell.

“No, myth is not a lie,” Campbell responded. “A whole mythology is an organization of symbolic images and narratives, metaphorical of the possibilities of human experience and the fulfillment of a given culture at a given time.”

“It’s a lie,” the man insisted. “It’s a metaphor,” Campbell responded. “It’s a lie,” the man repeated.

This went on for about 20 minutes, and Campbell soon realized that the interviewer didn’t have a clue what a metaphor was. So he turned the tables, asking him for example of one. The agitated interviewer ducked and weaved, but with just a minute of airtime left, relented with an example. “My friend John runs very fast. People say he runs like a deer. There’s a metaphor.”

Campbell replied, “That is not the metaphor. The metaphor is: John is a deer.” No, the interviewer, said, “That is a lie.” No, Campbell said, “That is a metaphor.”

“It made me reflect that half the people in the world think that the metaphors of their religious traditions, for example, are facts. And the other half contends that they are not facts at all. As a result we have people who consider themselves believers because they accept metaphors as facts, and we have others who classify themselves as atheists because they think religious metaphors are lies,” Campbell concluded.

In the NSF survey, only 39 per cent of Americans agreed that “the universe began with a huge explosion.” Actually, there was nothing to explode into — the event created space and time itself, according to the reigning theory of cosmological origins. This may be quibbling about being right for the wrong reasons, but the 61 per cent who disagreed with this statement were not wholly mistaken. The popular idea of a Big Bang is closer to a scientific metaphor than a literal truth.

In other words, there’s all kinds of ways of being “right” and “wrong.” But the sun literally going round the Earth? That’s a whole different kettle of fallacy.

The Vancouver Courier, Feb. 28



  1. I guess we’re talking about cultural and social influences here. Maybe I just remember more of what I learned in school? Its kindof confusing, because it appears as if the sun moves across the sky. I coulnd’t have figured it out without being told.

  2. We’d probably be surprised if we realized that maybe almost all of our thinking is in metaphors…

    But yeah, I’m pretty surprised at the rabid atheists – just as bad as the fundamentalists. You can’t say God doesn’t exists, because God is just an idea, a placeholder for something bigger than yourself. A synonym for the Universe, or Gaia.

    Ach, I put it down to people just getting stubborn and rigid, esp as they get older. They don’t want to think anymore, so they just close the door on discussion. And they want to be in the position of dominator, so they say anything just to argue or be oppositional.

    My focus is to just try to find out where the person is coming from, see what kind of person they are, and try to find common ground. Saves a lot of time and energy.

    I think most people aren’t very good at discussions, and just aren’t comfortable with floating a bunch of ideas around in the air between them and the other person. I’m probably kind of odd, in that for me, conversation is like when I worked at Safeway Computers, and we’d brainstorm ideas and throw all of them up on the whiteboard. It was only later that we’d engage in the process of weeding out the less probable ideas.
    Whereas most people weed out your ideas almost even before you’ve got them out of your mouth. BUZZ! Rejected!

    Maybe its all just power struggles. I’m sure even academics engage in it too…


    But its neat you laying all this out in such very interesting article, Geoff. Thanks for writing such really, really cool articles! 🙂

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