by Geoff Olson
In 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