1 in 4 Americans Don't Know Earth Orbits the Sun. Yes, Really.
A selection of pages from "Harmonia Macrocsmica" by Andreas Cellarius, printed in 1708 depicting the Copernican sun-centered (heliocentric) system of the universe. Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus discovered that the Earth orbits the sun way back in the 16th century.
July 11, 2011 --
Eighty-six years ago, high school coach and occasional substitute teacher John Scopes went on trial for violating the Butler Act, a law passed in Tennessee in 1925 prohibiting public school educators from teaching their students about the theory of evolution. The case, The State of Tennessee v. Scopes, drew intense national scrutiny. Prior to the trial, the American Civil Liberties Union offered to defend any schoolteacher that violated the act. After reading instructing his class in Darwin's theory of evolution, Scopes proved a willing defendant. (Scopes even encouraged his own students to testify against him.) Dubbed the "Monkey Trial" by H.L. Mencken, who covered part of the proceedings for the Baltimore Sun, the case attracted a media frenzy, and led both the prosecution and the defense to recruit high-profile representatives for their side. In this photo, Scopes awaits the verdict on the final day of the trial, July 21, 1925.
The trial was not about a simple violation of a law, or even a debate about free speech and First Amendment rights. Rather, the proceedings were about the clash between two seemingly diametrically opposed worldviews: creationism and evolution. On the one side, there were the fundamentalists, who espoused the Biblical view of creation and were firmly anti-evolution. This group found a champion in William Jennings Bryan (right), a skilled orator and former presidential candidate. Bryan had long been involved in the anti-evolution movement and had given several speeches and lectures against Darwinism. Modernists, as they were called, advocated Darwin's theory of evolution. Clarence Darrow (left), a fierce litigator with a reputation of fighting for the underdog, represented this side.
In this photograph, Darrow questions Bryan directly, wherein Darrow repeatedly pressed Bryan to apply scientific standards to Biblical scripture. Prior to this exchange, Judge John T. Raulston, who appeared to favor the prosecution throughout the trial, had deemed all of the defense's scientific witnesses inadmissible. After several heated exchanges, Bryan's testimony was also expunged from the record by Raulston the following day. On July 21, Scopes was pronounced guilty, and fined $100. Although the prosecutors had upheld the Butler Act, the decision would be reversed in appeal, and the case turned the tide against government efforts to restrict the teaching of evolution in public schools. In 1967, Tennessee repealed the Butler Act.
Long before the Scopes trial caused a stir in the United States and brought the public attention to the theory of evolution, a debate at the British Association of Oxford in 1860, which featured Huxley and Bishop Samuel Wilberforce, an long-time opponent of Darwinism, caused an uproar among educated elites in the United Kingdom. During the debate, Wilberforce famously asked Huxley whether it was through his grandmother or grandfather that he claimed to be descended from a monkey. Huxley famously retorted that he is more ashamed to be connected with a man who used his talents to hide the truth than he would with a monkey. The debate served to popularize Darwin's theory of evolution within academic and scientific circles.
Although the Scopes trial was one of the most famous challenges to evolution, it was by no means the first or the last word in the debate between theologians advocating creationism and scientists who support the theory of evolution. In fact, even before Darwin published the "Origin of Species" in 1859 (and his follow-up, "The Descent of Man," wherein he tracks the evolution of humans specifically), critics, primarily driven by religious interpretations of the origin of the universe and specifically humankind, have challenged any views outside of the Biblical interpretation of creation. The notion that humans had descended from "a hairy, tailed quadruped, probably arboreal in its habits, and an inhabitant of the Old World," as Darwin wrote, was deemed radical in its time and met with strong resistance. Anti-evolution critics and prominent theologians frequently accused evolution supporters of denying the existence of God or the human soul, despite the fact that Darwin had described himself as an agnostic -- a term coined by one of Darwin's earliest supporters, Thomas Huxley -- and not an atheist. There were, however, early attempts to reconcile the religious view with the scientific one. Published in 1860, "Essays and Reviews" is a collection of seven essays that collectively opposes a literal interpretation of Scripture in response to Darwinism while holding God as the highest authority in the universe. Even with this seemingly conciliatory argument, a couple of the authors were accused of being heretics in 1960.
Prior to the Scopes trial, creationism was widely taught in schools and accepted as fact. Even in the aftermath of the Scopes trial, it remained illegal to teach evolution in Tennessee. In the 1968 case of Epperson v. Arkansas, the Supreme Court ruled that banning the teaching of evolution was unconstitutional since it meant public education would be tailored to religious preferences. Since evolution had to be taught in public school following this decision, a new effort was underway in states across the country: affording equal time to the teaching of evolution and creationism in classes, which almost suggests an equal sense of scientific viability with the two sides. In several subsequent cases, such as McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education and Edwards v. Aguillard, courts ruled against efforts to force public school teachers to offer "balanced treatment" to evolution and creationism.
The debate between evolutionary theory and creationism is not only about a rivalry between two competing theories; there's also a dispute among creationists about the proper interpretation of the book of Genesis. Liberal creationists argue that Darwin's theory of evolution, and subsequent scientific followups relating to the age of the universe, are true and accurate. They believe that the universe and all of creation formed and evolved over time, but that God was the mechanism through which the process began. These are called old Earth creationists. There are also progressive creationists, who believe that evolution did play a role in the formation of life today, but that God intervened periodically to create new life, rather than all at once some 13 billion years ago. Finally, there are the young Earth creationists, who date the origins of the universe from anywhere between 6,000 years ago and 10,000 years ago. Young Earth creationists are those typically identified with the creationist movement in general. Their beliefs essentially have nothing in common with Darwin's theory. In this photo, a visitor surveys the exhibition at the Museum of Creation and Earth History in Santee, Calif. It is one of several creationist museums around the country that openly educates the public about young Earth creationism.
With courts continually striking down the teaching of creationism as espousing a religious perspective in public education, creationists have worked to develop their belief as a legitimate alternative to evolutionary theory. Some creationists have even documented what they describe as scientific proof of young Earth creationism. On this site in Glen Rose, Texas, creationists claim that human footprints can be seen right beside dinosaur tracks, proof that both dinosaurs and humans coexisted. Further scientific study, however, has shown that the purported human footprints are in fact the result of a combination of elongated dinosaur tracks, erosion, and some doctored specimens of loose rock.
A petroglyph in a Utah cave that resembles a dinosaur has also been used by creationists as evidence of coexisted between humans and dinosaurs. An examination by researchers has shown that the drawing is in fact a composite of two non-dinosaur drawings as well as a mud stain, although at least one creationist has taken issue with the method the scientists used to examine the petroglyph.
With the courts repeatedly finding that creationism is a religious view rather than a scientific theory, creationists re-branded their belief as "intelligent design" in an effort to divorce the Christian overtones of creationism from the belief in a universe designed by a creator. The 2005 case, Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, struck down the teaching of intelligent design in classrooms in York County, Pa., with Judge John E. Jones III issuing 139-page decision finding that intelligent design was just creationism by another name and violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Despite the history of court rulings and the increasing acceptance among Americans of the theory of evolution, state legislatures across the country are continuing to push through bills advocating the teaching of creationism, or some derivative, in public schools. As of April 2011, nine bills concerning the teaching of evolution in seven states have been proposed. These bills often seek for classrooms to discuss "non-scientific alternatives" to evolution rather than out-rightly advocating the teaching of creationism.
Dear Science Communication Professionals: We have a problem.
Earlier this month, the Bill Nye vs. Ken Ham creationism “debate” received a disproportionate amount of press coverage. Considering that there really is no debate to be had when it comes to the science of evolution, for bad or for worse, Nye faced a hostile audience at the Creationist Museum in Kentucky. He hoped to score some scientific points against Ham’s literal translation of the Bible and his absurd assertion that the world was created in 6 days and that the universe is 6,000 years old.
In my opinion, (an opinion shared by other science communicators), the Nye vs. Ham debate did little for science outreach. It was all about who sounded more convincing and only gave creationists some free advertising.
And then, today, the National Science Foundation (NSF) delivered news of a pretty shocking poll result: around one in four Americans (yes, that's 25 percent) are unaware that the Earth orbits the sun. Let’s repeat that: One in four Americans — that represents one quarter of the population — when asked probably the most basic question in science (except, perhaps, “Is the Earth flat?” Hint: No.), got the answer incorrect. Suddenly I realized why the Nye vs. Ham debate was so popular.
But wait! I hear you cry, perhaps the NSF poll was flawed? Perhaps the poll sample was too small? Sadly not. The NSF poll, which is used to gauge U.S. scientific literacy every year, surveyed 2,200 people who were asked 10 questions about physical and biological sciences. On average, the score was 6.5 out of 10 -- barely a passing grade. But for me personally, the fact that 26 percent of the respondents were unaware the Earth revolves around the sun shocked me to the core.
Perhaps I’m expecting too much of the U.S. education system? Perhaps this is just an anomaly; a statistical blip? But then, like the endless deluge of snow that is currently choking the East Coast, another outcome of the same poll appeared on the foggy horizon of scientific illiteracy: The majority of young Americans think astrology is a science.
What the what? Have I been transported back to the Dark Ages? Astrology, of course, is not a science; it is a spiritual belief system at best and at worst a pseudoscience driven by charlatans and the tabloid press. The positions of the stars and planets in the sky do not affect my mood and my horoscope has little bearing on the kind of person I am. Even in China, one of the birthplaces of astrology, 92 percent of the people know that astrology is bunk. Really America, get your act together.
Unfortunately, if we are to use the “Is astrology a science?” as a litmus test for scientific literacy, things are looking grim. In 2004, 66 percent of the American public said astrology was bunk. Every year since then, that majority has slipped. By 2012, only 55 percent of Americans considered astrology “not at all scientific.” Probably of most concern is the fact that only 42 percent of young respondents aged between 18-24 said astrology is “not at all scientific.”
But there is a small glimmer of hope. According to the same NSF poll, the vast majority of Americans seem to love science. Although they returned woeful test results, it seems America is hungry to learn about science and think that science funding is essential for the well-being of the nation. But I’m now concerned about what America thinks science really is, especially in light of that astrology result. Also, just because the U.S. public wants to learn, can they find the institutions that will actually teach real science?
Schools across the nation are currently facing the unthinkable notion of teaching creationism alongside evolution in science classrooms. The fact that religion is given the same standing as science is not only absurd, it's a fundamental institutional failing where children (who may be excited to learn about science) will grow up with a second-rate education, neglecting decades of scientific knowledge in favor of pseudo-scientific religious agendas.
For a nation that prides itself on science and discovery, it will be a tragedy on a national scale if fundamental science is undercut by superstition and the bad policies it inspires.