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What’s next? Flat earth?

Regarding this whole skeptic thing, if there’s one thing I’ve learned about pseudoscience and bizarre, unscientific beliefs, it’s that, just when I think I’ve seen it all, the world slaps me in the face (facepalm, to be precise) to show me that I haven’t seen it all after all. Such was what happened when a truly bizarre conference started popping up around the skeptical blogosphere at blogs like Pharyngula, Unreasonable Faith, and Starts With A Bang. If you think that one thing that kooks can’t deny is that the earth revolves around the sun, you’d be wrong. Witness the Galileo Was Wrong conference, to be held “near” Notre Dame in Indiana:

Galileo Was Wrong is a detailed and comprehensive treatment of the scientific evidence supporting Geocentrism, the academic belief that the Earth is immobile in the center of the universe. Garnering scientific information from physics, astrophysics, astronomy and other sciences, Galileo Was Wrong shows that the debate between Galileo and the Catholic Church was much more than a difference of opinion about the interpretation of Scripture.

Scientific evidence available to us within the last 100 years that was not available during Galileo’s confrontation shows that the Church’s position on the immobility of the Earth is not only scientifically supportable, but it is the most stable model of the universe and the one which best answers all the evidence we see in the cosmos.

As Ethan explains, there was a real scientific controversy about geocentrism versus heliocentrism–500 years ago. I do like, however, the creationist-sounding pronouncements, like this:

Has modern science led us down the primrose path and convinced us of something that they cannot prove and that is in actuality false? Were the Fathers, the Medievals, our popes and cardinals of the 17th century correct in believing that the Earth, based on a face value reading of Scripture, was standing still in the center of the universe? Come with an open mind and allow these two authors to show you facts and figures that have been hidden from the public for a very long time. This is a page turner that you will find hard to put down, once you get riveted by the astounding material these authors have assembled for you. Prepare yourself, however. Your world will be rocked, literally and figuratively. Not only will you see from Volume I how modern science has documented for us in bold fashion that the Earth is motionless in space and occupies the center of the universe (yet have done an equally remarkable job in keeping these important facts out of our educational system), you will now see in Volume II how deeply the popes of the 17th century were involved in condemning heliocentrism, guiding the process step-by-step and finally castigating it as “formally heretical.” You will also see how effusive is the data in Scripture that teaches a geocentric universe in the most detailed exegesis of Holy Writ ever presented to the public on this topic.

Yes, that’s right. They’re invoking scripture. This is, of course, rather odd, given that Catholics tend not to emphasize scripture that much. I know. I was raised Catholic. In fact, at the Catholic high school I attended, I learned accepted science about the universe. Heck, our biology teacher (who was a priest) made no bones about teaching evolution without the slightest hint of creationism.

Personally, though, I really, really love the gushing reviews of this book. They sound eerily similar to reviews of Michael Behe’s books by creationists, particularly the persecution complex:

Unfortunately Galileo Was Wrong is likely to be scorned not only by the mainstream scientific community but also by the mainstream creationist movement. But all who believe that man’s creation was not by “accident” would do well to consider the following questions, posed by the authors. Is the earth an insignificant rock, a mere chance artifact of the Big Bang, one out of many planets in one out of many solar systems, of no special position but hurtling with great speed through the cosmos towards no final destination in particular? Or has the earth been specifically designed by a benevolent Creator as the habitation place for man, the highest creation in the physical universe, and therefore placed in the central position in the universe?

Pure crank awesomeness!

You know what scares me the most about this book, conference, and website, though? No, it’s not that, here in 2010, there apparently really are people who will deny all the evidence of science to place the earth at the center of the universe, with everything else rotating around it. No, it’s not that they can apparently even organize “scientific conferences” to promote their medieval ideas. No. You know what scares the hell out of me?

This tidbit that Ethan’s post led to:

While polls show that 79% of Americans know that the Earth revolves around the Sun, 18% thought it was the other way around and 3% didn’t know.

Only 79% know that the Earth revolves around the sun? If that isn’t a blanket condemnation of science education in this country, I don’t know what is.

I will give Ethan a lot of credit. He explained why heliocentrism came to supplant geocentrism in incredible detail. He reminds me of me slapping down anti-vaccinationists. Even though Ethan does it a lot more politely than I do, the same overkill is there. I respect that.

By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

That this particular surgeon has chosen his nom de blog based on a rather cranky and arrogant computer shaped like a clear box of blinking lights that he originally encountered when he became a fan of a 35 year old British SF television show whose special effects were renowned for their BBC/Doctor Who-style low budget look, but whose stories nonetheless resulted in some of the best, most innovative science fiction ever televised, should tell you nearly all that you need to know about Orac. (That, and the length of the preceding sentence.)

DISCLAIMER:: The various written meanderings here are the opinions of Orac and Orac alone, written on his own time. They should never be construed as representing the opinions of any other person or entity, especially Orac's cancer center, department of surgery, medical school, or university. Also note that Orac is nonpartisan; he is more than willing to criticize the statements of anyone, regardless of of political leanings, if that anyone advocates pseudoscience or quackery. Finally, medical commentary is not to be construed in any way as medical advice.

To contact Orac: [email protected]

112 replies on “What’s next? Flat earth?”

Good lord. Well, at least they’re not actually endangering lives like our beloathed pro-infectionists.

If they were in charge of NASA, though, lives would definitely be lost. I mean literally lost, too, as in misplaced somewhere in the universe.

[Only 79% know that the Earth revolves around the sun? If that isn’t a blanket condemnation of science education in this country, I don’t know what is.]

The other 20 % were scientists and policy makers who thought the earth revolved around them.

[He reminds me of me slapping down anti-vaccinationists.]

And yet still a 1% refers to themselves in the third person in a delusional state of grandeur.

Even though these people are adopting strange ideas for the wrong reasons, some amount of radical ideas is a good thing I think.
An 18% disagreement rate seems healthy to me.

so how do they explain the rather complex set of orbital calculations that allowed the voyager series of probes to go on their merry way, touring the solar system ?

Lily, you seem to be a bit confused about the difference between strange and wrong.

Having your dessert before the main course is strange, believing the sun orbits the earth is just wrong.

What is healthy about such stupidity?

Giving myself “shaken brain” syndrome trying to get this past my eyeballs. Kitto covered it with Wow.

Remember that 18% who thought “it was the other way around” includes all those who did not understand the question/s or just ticked the wrong box – verbally since this was a telephone poll (of course the 79% also contains its’ own share of confused responders). As the Gallop site says:

“In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls”

and we don’t know in this case how big those errors and/or biases are.

CB

These clowns have been around since before the Internet. Indeed, they go back centuries. A search on the available literature will find works on geocentrism going back more than a century. All Bible literalists insisting that the Old Testament has to be the final word on the matter.

Alan Kellogg:

All Bible literalists insisting that the Old Testament has to be the final word on the matter.

Now I’m really confused. I’ve read the Bible, and I can’t find “the sun goes round the earth” or equivalent words anywhere in there.

They talk about “modern science” in third person perspective, very appropriate. Maybe in calculations of the universe modern physics has so far simply neglected the gravity of these people’s egos.

@Julian Frost:

I’ve read the Bible, and I can’t find “the sun goes round the earth” or equivalent words anywhere in there.

There was that one bit where God made the daylight of a particular day last longer than normal, right? I’m pretty sure that, in that part of the Bible, it says something like “God stopped the sun”, not “God stopped the rotation of the Earth”, so if you’re mind-numbingly literal in interpreting the Bible then it does say that the sun goes round the Earth. Of course, if you are being that mind-numbingly literal, you’re going to run into some problems in the Genesis.

I’m particularly taken with the fact that, despite the fact that “the Earth is motionless in space”, the authors are going to invalidate their own claim – [My] “world will be rocked, literally”

I so want to go there just to see how they explain the recession of Mars and other planets. It’s what I love about ancient astronomy and modern quacks who use a geocentric model, the “Will E. Coyote” schemes they come up with to explain Mars recession! In fact some of them are quite creative as they are faced with more and more contradiction as they go along that path.

@Denis Solaro:

I so want to go there just to see how they explain the recession of Mars and other planets.

Oh, that’s easy: the sun orbits the Earth, and all the planets but the Earth orbit the sun.

Oh, that’s easy: the sun orbits the Earth, and all the planets but the Earth orbit the sun.

Ah yes, Tycho Brahe’s tychonic system, which holds up pretty well provided that the stars are fixed. Which happens to be what many geocentralists apparently believe, along with some form of æther.

um……kay.

When I saw this yesterday I thought it was a joke.

Sad thing is; the Bible does not say the earth is the center of the universe, or that it is stationary. It was the catholic church that decided the Bible said that. If one looks at the “supporting” scripture it is plain to see it was written in a way a simple people could understand. Not to be taken literally, but as symbolism.*

The fact that anyone can fall for this malarky is beyond me. They make bold pronouncements like these, and don’t even crack open the Bible often enough to see it doesn’t support their statements.

I don’t believe all reasoning ability need be abandoned to have a belief in God. Use your
brains people!

*I am not looking for a religious debate.

Correction/clarification of me@18: Ethan points out some additional problems with Tycho Brahe’s model. It’s perhaps better to say it worked well given what Tycho knew.

If you survey me, you’re going to get “You are an imbecile” as the answer to a question about whether the Earth orbits the Sun or vice versa. Because both are true.

Say it with me, Einstein, “No privileged frame of reference”.

The Geocentrist and Heliocentrist POVs both assumed something we now see is obviously false, and so we should not waste time pretending that Heliocentrist views are “more right” just because their picture more resembles the modern Our Solar System picture in a children’s encyclopedia. It’s like saying evolution by inheritance of acquired characteristics is “more right” than creationism. No, this isn’t a lie-to-children, it is not a helpful stepping stone, it’s just wrong.

As soon as I got wind of this I contacted the South Bend skeptics to give them a heads up. Their first reaction was disbelief calling a poe but they are going to check into it. There is also a thread over this at JREF forums and some skeptics are also planning to ether attend or disrupt. My problem is that I am one who would refuse to put one penny into their pockets but find the idea of a hostile audience amusing.
Personally in this case I have to agree with PZ that sometimes ridicule is a good way to handle situations such as this. My personal hope is that the geocentrists loose money and they are so mocked and marginalized that they crawl back into their caves to lick their wounds.

I don’t get it. Isn’t it easy to see that in addition to the sun going around the Earth once a day, so do all the stars and the entire universe? I mean, if I turn my head, I could say that my head remains still while all the rest of the universe spins around it, but isn’t the opposite a lot more intuitive and useful?

Julian, where do you get your claim from that the bible does not mention a fixed Earth? Both Chronicles and Psalms state that the world doesn’t move.

1 Chronicles 16-30, for example, says (in the King James Version),

“Fear before him, all the earth: the world also shall be stable, that it be not moved.”

How much plainer than that do you want it.

Now, maybe I’m missing something, and you were taught by your particular sect that Chronicles is non-canonical, but that’s certainly not a mainstream view.

Ecclesiastes 1:5 (KJV)
“The sun also rises, and the sun goes down, And hastens to the place where it arose.”

And perhaps the most famous, from Joshua 10:12-14 (KJV)

“Then spake Joshua to the LORD in the day when the LORD delivered up the Amorites before the children of Israel, and he said in the sight of Israel, Sun, stand thou still upon Gibeon; and thou, Moon, in the valley of Ajalon.
And the sun stood still, and the moon stayed, until the people had avenged themselves upon their enemies. Is not this written in the book of Jasher? So the sun stood still in the midst of heaven, and hasted not to go down about a whole day.
And there was no day like that before it or after it, that the LORD hearkened unto the voice of a man: for the LORD fought for Israel.”

If you survey me, you’re going to get “You are an imbecile” as the answer to a question about whether the Earth orbits the Sun or vice versa. Because both are true.

Say it with me, Einstein, “No privileged frame of reference”.

The Geocentrist and Heliocentrist POVs both assumed something we now see is obviously false, and so we should not waste time pretending that Heliocentrist views are “more right” just because their picture more resembles the modern Our Solar System picture in a children’s encyclopedia. It’s like saying evolution by inheritance of acquired characteristics is “more right” than creationism. No, this isn’t a lie-to-children, it is not a helpful stepping stone, it’s just wrong.

Uh, no, Mr. Anonymous Relativist. ’tis no wrong. The center of mass of Sun-Earth system is within the Sun, hence Earth arguably does orbit the Sun (the Earth-Sun system is rotating around common center of mass located very close to the center of Sun).

Only 79% know that the Earth revolves around the sun? If that isn’t a blanket condemnation of science education in this country, I don’t know what is.

Is there any nation above 90%? I would be very surprised.

I think this is more a blanket condemnation of the ability of slightly-more-clever-than-average hairless apes to understand abstract concepts and recall counterintuitive facts. Homo sapiens are a bunch of morons, when you get right down to it.

Not that science education in the US isn’t in dire straits, obviously. But regardless of how good your education system, a 21% rate of moron-icity sounds about right…

Wow… just wow.

Easily a condemnation on that state of scientific education.

Posted by: Kitto | September 14, 2010 12:15 AM

You know I shared this with my Conservative mother over the weekend. She blamed public education.

I got a bit pissed as nobody honest can, in any way, shape or form blame “science education” for this willful ignorance. Children are taught the heliocentric solar system in THIRD GRADE. And this knowledge is reinforced through a child’s last science class in High School.

This cause of this willful ignorance is solely in the Magesteria of Religion. Because science answered this question, correctly, a long time ago.

On one level I can understand creationism and anti-vaccination, because evolution and the immune system are incredibly complex, often work counter-intuitively, and involve richly structured and very subtle systems that are often difficult or impossible to see directly. But this…all you need is a decent telescope or even a pair of binoculars to falsify geocentrism.

But then, on another level, all three types of cranks show a stubborn refusal to accept any and all facts that don’t agree with their worldview. Why should this be any different?

DLC @ 7:

so how do they explain the rather complex set of orbital calculations that allowed the voyager series of probes to go on their merry way, touring the solar system ?

By and large, they don’t. They fall into two categories:

1) People who believe the entire space program is a hoax. The people pushing this conference are probably in that category, as it shows they’ve at least considered it.

2) People who simply don’t care or aren’t very curious about space, which as far as they’re aware, has no bearing on their daily lives anyway; they’re just happy knowing the Sun will rise in the morning. I suspect a large percentage of the people who answered that the Sun goes around the Earth are actually in this category (or were confused about the question; some people confuse rather easily).

I’ve always been confused about this- does general relativity make it possible to say that the sun revolves around the earth or doesn’t it? I’ve heard conflicting answers.

“Only 79% know that the Earth revolves around the sun? If that isn’t a blanket condemnation of science education in this country, I don’t know what is.”

“Is there any nation above 90%? I would be very surprised.”

From gallup.com:

“In the new poll, about four out of five Americans (79%) correctly respond that the earth revolves around the sun, while 18% say it is the other way around. These results are comparable to those found in Germany when a similar question was asked there in 1996; in response to that poll, 74% of Germans gave the correct answer, while 16% thought the sun revolved around the earth, and 10% said they didn’t know. When the question was asked in Great Britain that same year, 67% answered correctly, 19% answered incorrectly, and 14% didn’t know.”

See, other nations lead us in ignorance. We must catch up!*

*no tomato jokes, please.

@ Michael:

It says that the answer depends on how you define your reference frame. If you want to, you can declare the center of the Earth as your reference frame and in that sense the Earth becomes “stationary.” Or you can declare your origin to be the center of the Sun and the Sun becomes “stationary”. Or you can say it’s the center of mass of the Earth-Sun system and neither is “stationary”. Any of these are legitimate frames of reference.

One thing you CAN’T do, however, is define the entire Earth as stationary. Even if you call the center of the Earth your origin, you have to incorporate its rotation into your model in order to account for things like the Coriolis effect. Otherwise you’re in a non-inertial reference frame.

@Augustine:

[He reminds me of me slapping down anti-vaccinationists.]
And yet still a 1% refers to themselves in the third person in a delusional state of grandeur.

“He” clearly refers to Ethan, and “me” is first person. Sorry.

BTW, to Quietmarc, it actually takes more than just a telescope to disprove geocentrism. After all, Tycho Brahe had what was truly a world-class observatory and he didn’t figure it out.

In fact, telescopes are actually a red herring. Galileo could not use his telescope to disprove geocentrism; all the telescope bought him was a demonstration of things that were clearly not orbiting the Earth (specifically, the four largest moons of Jupiter), and disproof of a few assumptions about the perfection of the heavens (which frankly relate more to the ancient Greeks than the Bible), and while it proves things don’t have to orbit the Earth, it doesn’t prove the Earth goes around the Sun. What you really need to prove heliocentrism is mostly math and a lot of meticulously collected observations.

The breakthrough that made heliocentrism predictive wasn’t telescopes. It was Johannes Kepler’s “aha!” moment, when he realized that the reason circular orbits didn’t work was because the orbits aren’t circular — they’re elliptical, and the object moves faster at periapsis than apoapsis. People had been proposing heliocentric models for thousands of years. Seriously. They were always rejected because they are counter-intuitive and, more importantly, they always failed to accurately predict the motion of the planets. Kepler worked out a model which actually did predict the motion of the planets, and far better (and more elegantly) than the epicycle idea. Galileo was probably close; what he’d deduced about the behavior of pendulums was a hint, as was the whole field of ballistics. (Then, as now, a lot of scientific advance was driven by military needs.) But it can’t have been obvious to think of ellipses, as Kepler did, because they only work if the planet moves at different speeds during its orbit, which doesn’t make sense unless you notice that there’s a pattern in there.

What Galileo contributed was evidence that:

* the Sun is imperfect (it has spots)
* the Moon is imperfect (it has mountains)
* most stars are not visible to the eye of Man
* some objects orbit things other than the Sun
* objects fall at the same speed regardless of mass
* a few other interesting things for physics which aren’t as directly relevant here

He wasn’t able to prove heliocentrism; most of his findings consist of reasons to doubt geocentrism rather than actual refutations of it. One of the “holy grails” of his work was to prove that the stars were not fixed to the firmament; he agreed with a minority view of the time that stars could be distant suns, perhaps with planets of their own. Finding that they moved or had satellites would prove that it wasn’t just the classical 7 planets (note: “planet” at the time included the Sun and Moon) that moved, and that Creation was not as constrained as all that, and probably a good deal bigger. Telescopes were crucial to that effort. He tried to measure the distance to the stars using parallax, a method which had successfully (albeit inaccurately) been used to estimate the distance to the Moon and planets. Alas, he grossly underestimated the distance, and thus found no effect. He also spent a lot of time searching for what we would today call extrasolar planets; he found some candidates which he later ruled out due to no observed motion. (These objects were optical doubles — two stars along the same line of sight which are actually not very close together in 3D space.) He also tried to measure stars and see if any were moving, but the scale was beyond the instrumentation of the time. (Indeed, even nowadays it’s challenging for all but the closest stars, such as Barnard’s Star, or very fast stars, such as those orbiting the supermassive black hole at the heart of our galaxy, which move at a significant fraction of lightspeed, and most of the time the motion is inferred from other measures rather than being directly observed as Galileo was attempting.)

@Quietmark #32:
all you need is a decent telescope or even a pair of binoculars to falsify geocentrism.

How so?

I’m not speaking of the daily rotation of the earth. That we can treat with things like the Foucault Pendulum, Coriolis Effect (as in weather patterns) and long-range artillery.

The first direct observation of the motion of the earth was the detection of stellar aberration by Bradley in (pause to check Wikipedia) 1725, which I think is a bit beyond someone with binoculars.

@Scott #36:

What about the General Theory of Relativity? Doesn’t that allow non-inertial reference frames?

Instead of doing actual work, I calculated how fast the sun would have to travel to orbit the earth in 24 hours. Assuming the geocentrists don’t dispute that the sun is about 150 million km from the earth, by my calculations the sun would have to be moving at a speed of about 12,500km/sec. To put this in perspective, stars moving at more than 1000km/sec escape the galaxy’s gravitational pull and are ejected into intergalactic space.

What a long, strange trip it’s going to be…

@Amenhotepstein #40:

More interesting – consider Neptune. According to Wikipedia, its orbital speed is 5.43 km/sec around the sun, and it takes 60,190 days to make that orbit (and that’s essentially the same time it takes to go around the earth). If, instead, it made that orbit in one day, that would make its orbital speed (around the stationary earth) 5.43×0.6019×10^5 km/sec ~ 3.27×10^5 km/sec, as compared to the speed of light of about 3.0×10^5 km/sec.

I don’t know enough about the General Theory of Relativity to understand what that means.

Thanks, Dangerous Bacon #35. That is consistent with my expectations.

Interestingly, 20% is about the same percentage of people who think Obama is a Muslim. Note also that only two nations manage to top 80% belief in evolution.

I firmly believe that either 20-25% of people are complete fucking idiots, or else we are all complete fucking idiots about 20-25% of all topics. Or some mixture of the two.

That stat does not reflect poorly on science education in the US, it reflects poorly on human beings.

However, it’s important to note that evolution denialism in the US has hovered consistently around 40% for pretty much as long as people have been tracking it. And that is statistical evidence that Heliocentrism is fringe crackpottery, whereas Creationism is entrenched. If only 20% of Americans were Creationist, we could more or less shrug at that point and say, “Bah! Morons…” It’s the extra 20% who are presumably not morons that is so worrisome…

TomS wrote:

What about the General Theory of Relativity? Doesn’t that allow non-inertial reference frames?

It does.

But it’s all a red herring. Reference frames are conceptual tools, not reality. The physical reality conventionally expressed as “the Earth orbits the Sun” is true in all reference frames, even “geocentric” ones.

@ TomS

But Pluto doesn’t orbit the earth in one day, even the geocentrists would agree to that. But the sun must in order to give us out customary day/night cycle.

So I guess we’re on our way outta the galaxy! Bye now.

Semi-random digression . . . viewing orbits from different reference frames can be very interesting, especially for strange orbits. Asteroid 3753 Cruithne is one such asteroid. If you plot its motion in a geocentric frame, it really does appear to orbit the Earth in a weird kidney-bean shaped orbit, even though gravitationally speaking, it is bound not to Earth but to the Sun. This is because of an orbital resonance between Cruithne and the Earth.

This animation shows it beautifully, starting with a standard, non-rotating frame of reference centered on the Sun and showing the positions of Earth and Cruithne. Then it begins showing lines of sight between Earth and Cruithne, and lastly, starts preserving these lines of sight from Earth’s vantage as Earth goes around the Sun, showing how it appears that Cruithne orbits the Earth, even though in a gravitational sense it really doesn’t.

The interesting question is, given that ~18% of a sample say the Sun orbits the Earth and ~79% say the opposite and 3% don’t know, what is a realistic estimate of the percentage that, whatever their answer, were just guessing?

Geocentricism actually can explain things like retrograde motion of the outer planets quite well and accurately. Good scientific predictions were made and tested using the theory that the sun and planets orbited the Earth. If you image that the outer planets themselves rotate about their own center of an epicycle you can develop an amazingly accurate model of the solar system.

Some of these models were even put into physical mechanical form. At the Adler Planetarium in Chicago you can see some of these machines. They are fascinating. In other words, it wasn’t always such a silly idea even from the scientific perspective of having a hypothesis, making predictions, then observing the predicted positions of planets.

What the geocentrists need to explain is why Venus appears to change size at different points in it’s orbit. Heliocentrism explains the change in apparent size well, corresponding with the different phases of the planet. I have yet to see any geocentric explanation for that observation.

I guess that if a person walked North far enough, that it’d be fun to see the sun going around all day long, in the Summer… but how will they explain the pole star, etc? Is this part of a “contained-in-a-dome” earth they’ll be discussing? ^..^

If I was anywhere near Indiana, I’d go just for the lulz.

Apparently the skeptical blogosphere’s mention of this has brought GWW’s ISP to its knees. I got a “bandwidth exceeded” error trying to get to the original.

The interesting question is, given that ~18% of a sample say the Sun orbits the Earth and ~79% say the opposite and 3% don’t know, what is a realistic estimate of the percentage that, whatever their answer, were just guessing?

I often think some people just lie on a survey like this – because I probably would.

If somebody ask me to point to, say, Italy on a world map, I’d find a spot south of the equator, just to mess with the numbers.

If a survey was tracking something… serious, I guess… I’d tell the truth, but if you ask a stupid question, you’ll get a stupid answer.

Alan Kellog (#11) notes:

“All Bible literalists insisting that the Old Testament has to be the final word on the matter.”

I always enjoy debating with Bible literalists because anyone who claims that everything in the Bible is literally true clearly hasn’t read the book – not even the first chapter. [Hint: read the two narratives about how Eve came to be.]

Although I don’t always agree with Penn Gillette (of Penn and Teller), he once said something that struck me as both very funny and very true:

“It’s fair to say that the Bible contains equal amounts of fact, history, and pizza.”

Prometheus

Johnny,
I would like to think it was just people screwing around but far too often I have run into people who, without any questions being posed to them, display amazing amounts of ignorant and stupidity on topics that seem just silly such as your example.

If I was anywhere near Indiana, I’d go just for the lulz.

I agree. All I can think is, what a great chance to play Poe!

This would be like the best hobby ever. Get yourself involved and taken seriously by nutcases like this.

Personally, I’d view it like the Baker Street Society (Sherlock Holmes), except without the “wink wink” nature of it. You put yourself into an alternate universe, and you play by its rules.

This is the best, because the other people don’t have to act like they are in on the joke. Ultimately, they are the joke, and you are just playing them. But it’s fun play…

I would like to think it was just people screwing around but far too often I have run into people who, without any questions being posed to them, display amazing amounts of ignorant and stupidity on topics that seem just silly such as your example.

Screwing with it? I don’t know about that, but there are some aspects inherent in the question that could cause problems. For example, if the question asks whether the earth revolves around the sun, it means that you have know what revolve means.

Now, you can bemoan the lack of vocabulary if you want, but recognize that the question tests knowledge of scientific terminology as much as it does science.

Pablo, I certainly agree that is an issue as well. And yes, I would bemoan the lack of vocabulary to an extent. My point was that I know that some people simply are ignorant of what I would consider very, very basic knowledge rather than the weird answers all being due to people giving stupid answers to stupid questions or even misunderstandings. The Italy example made me think of the day my roommate came home after visiting a high school with a number of foreign students to talk about their cultures and countries. He was rather exasperated by the experience, especially the one student who was unable to understand that Africa was not a country.

Good point, Pablo, about scientific terminology. It made me think of a nitpick about the survey too. AFAIK (that’s a caveat and I could very well be wrong here), “revolve” refers to the rotation of the earth on its own axis, and “orbit” refers to its path around the sun. So saying the earth revolves around the sun is incorrect. Of course, it is obvious from the context what they meant and I doubt anyone would answer “no” because they used the word “revolve” instead of “orbit”…unless they had a spot on the survey to explain their decision. –dan

@ 28 – Todd W has a great idea.

Maybe arrange a competing geocentric conference at the same time for less money near the same locale and then hit ’em with real science.

These people are…wonderful. I’ve seen both Laurie Anderson and Blue Man Group live, and these guys have to be in the same league. How can anyone not want to go to their conference? The entertainment value should be excellent!

Thanks to all that corrected my oversimplification. After I posted that I went and read the Starts With a Bang post (which provides Venus as an example of evidence for heleocentrism that can be seen with a telescope), but it’s true (and I swear I knew this) that it isn’t -quite- as self-evident as I implied. I stand corrected, and definitely didn’t mean to detract from the brilliant and insightful work done by the scholars of the day.

And thanks for the background information. My Copernicus knowledge is paltry, the best of which comes from a book I read a couple of years ago (“The Book Nobody read” I think? It traced the different copies and editions of De Revolutionibus through its owners, through to present day), but not only do I not work in science, if I did it would be biology, not astronomy. Great stuff!

If Star Trek was still on “The TeeVee” we wouldn’t have this 18% problem. Don’t think we can do much for the 3% though.

I think Thomas Jefferson said it best:

“Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions. Ideas must be distinct before reason can act upon them…” — Thomas Jefferson

Quietmarc — there are some cool old maps that depict the Sun orbiting Earth, but the inferior planets (Mercury & Venus) orbiting the Sun.

Pablo:

Screwing with it? I don’t know about that, but there are some aspects inherent in the question that could cause problems. For example, if the question asks whether the earth revolves around the sun, it means that you have know what revolve means.

That’s a very good point that I hadn’t even thought of. I think a lot of people don’t understand the distinction between “rotate” and “revolve”. If asked whether the Sun revolves around the Earth or the Earth revolves around the Sun, they might say the former because they remember reading that the Sun is spinning.

I work among engineers; precision of language is a big deal, and we’re all comfortable with fancy words. But when I’m in more diverse company, that’s often not the case. School reunions. Church. Picnics with some of the non-technical staff. Family reunions. I sometimes find myself struggling to explain myself because the technical words aren’t being understood — and some people actually do lock up a bit when they encounter an unfamiliar word, and it throws off their understanding of the whole sentence.

That’s one of the problems of surveys; they test ability to take the survey as well as testing whatever it was the survey was intended to study.

I generally think of medical terms, although I can’t come up with any good examples off the top of my head. But something like, “Have you ever fractured one of your metacarpals?” might get a very different response than, “Have you ever broken your hand?”

The first question not only invokes medical history, but whether you are sufficiently familiar with medical terminology to be able to answer the question.

The second doesn’t have that baggage.

If we want to know if people know science, we need to ask questions that test their knowledge of science, not whether they know the terminology.

I second Calli’s opinion of technical language and jargon and its effects. I am often accused of making words up to confuse people. The resulting conversation then shifts from the (mildly) technical discussion to the making up of words. Frustrating, especially when some of the conversants are supposedly college educated.

I partially blame this kind of forum for providing all the interesting vocabulary 🙂

What about the General Theory of Relativity? Doesn’t that allow non-inertial reference frames?

Allow? Sure. Any reference frame can be defined. But there are all sorts of things that happen in non-inertial frames (like the Coriolis effect) which indicate that that’s not really the frame the physics works in relation to.

The dumb thing is, EVERYONE has their own jargon they use. Pretty much every job or situation is going to have vocabulary unique to it.

For example, listen to a discussion between hog farmers talking about pigs. They will use lots of terms that people don’t recognize or in ways that people don’t know. However, it’s when we resort to scientific/engineering terms that people complain about geekyness using confusing words.

I always enjoy debating with Bible literalists because anyone who claims that everything in the Bible is literally true clearly hasn’t read the book – not even the first chapter. [Hint: read the two narratives about how Eve came to be.]

“God can make two contradictory stories simultaneously literally true if he wants to. Obviously, he did so.”

That’s pretty much a direct quote of the response the last time I pointed that out…

Yes, everyone has their own jargon. But if a couple of hog farmers complained that their neighbor was ignorant because he didn’t even know that hogs give birth–because he looked blank at a word like “farrow”–we would probably be sympathetic to the neighbor, not the farmers.

This is the same sort of thing. I would like to know whether the question was something like “A: The earth goes around the sun. B: The sun goes around the earth. C: I don’t know.” or whether it said “revolve” or “orbit.” (Any survey that used “geocentric” and “heliocentric” would be asking for trouble, especially since a bunch of us smart-asses know that the sun isn’t the center of the universe, either, only of the solar system.)

In General Relativity the laws of motion and of gravity take the same form in all frames of reference. This is because these laws are purely geometric in form – objects move along geodesics (straight lines) through space-time, and the geometry of space-time is determined by the distribution of energy and momentum. So these laws are no simpler in a heliocentric frame than in a geocentric frame.

However, actually working with these laws is far simpler in a heliocentric frame. For example, in a heliocentric frame the geometry of space-time doesn’t change with time and it is (roughly) radially symmetric. Neither statement is true in a geocentric frame.

But in a way this isn’t the point. An operational way to decide whether the Earth goes around the Sun or the Sun goes around the Earth is to consider the path of each object through space-time and how the path would change if the other object were removed. Both the Earth and the Sun move along geodesics. However, the Earth’s path is heavily affected by the presence of the Sun, whilst the Sun’s path is hardly affected at all by the presence of the Earth. In other words the motion of the Earth is determined by the Sun, and not vice versa. This is as true in General Relativity as it is in Newtonian Mechanics.

I really don’t think that General Relativity provides any sort of get-out for these strange people.

Okay, if you want to get technical about it…

The Earth and the Moon orbit a common center of gravity located below the Earth’s surface. the exact location varies depending on where the two globes are at any time. the center of gravity of the Earth-Moon system and the Sun in turn orbits a common center of gravity located deep within the Sun, though again the exact location depends on the exact location of the objects in question.

So, in short, not only does the Sun not orbit the Earth, neither does the Earth, strictly speaking, orbit the Sun. But saying that the Earth orbits the Sun is close enough for a field expedient.

NJD, #69

Actually, the Sun’s motion through space-time is slightly affected by the Earth’s affect on space-time, but very slightly. Even so the two — as I noted above, and including the Moon in this scheme of things — orbit a common center of gravity. Let me put it this way, when you get right down to it, everything in the universe is down hill from everything else.

Are people actually saying that the word “revolve” is so obscure as to be considered jargon? What of the word “jargon”, then?

Um, the date on this Gallup poll is July 6, 1999. If we’re going to bemoan the current state of education, shouldn’t we use current data?

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