Copernicus needs to join the Boy Scouts

By Phil Plait | March 8, 2007 11:13 am

Hot on the heels of some Bad Astronomy on a 7th grade test sample comes this.

BABlogee Joe Borello bought a tin of popcorn from some Boy Scouts as part of a fund raising effort, and was amused to see this diagram of the solar system on it:

Why would you put astronomical educational material on the tin, and then include a geocentric diagram of the solar system? Maybe the Boy Scouts who made it want to be legislators in Texas or Georgia.

I suspect they put it on there as a historical diagram, but without labeling it, you get this impression that’s just… weird.

Amusingly, another part of the tin says that "All the planets travel around the Sun in a counterclockwise direction." Oops. The planets all go around the Sun counterclockwise if you are looking "down" on the solar system from above the Earth’s north pole. If you look down from above the south pole, they’ll look like they’re going clockwise.

Remember, I said it was amusing, not Earth-shattering. But I wonder if the people who designed that tin have their Astronomy badge from the Scouts. If so, maybe the Scouts should make it harder to get.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Debunking, Humor, Science, Skepticism

Comments (30)

  1. Ted

    Hmm…. It also apparently shows Mercury and Venus revolving around the Sun, not the Earth, so it’s not completely Geo-centric. Also, what’s with the other orbit farther than Saturn? Wasn’t Heliocentrism accepted by the time Uranus was discovered?

    Anyone know what language that is? Some sort of Olde English, or something else?

  2. Walt

    The can is depicting our ever evolving knowledge of the stars, and that particular usage reflects a historical perspective, even though we know that’s not the way it really is.

    There’s nothing to suggest an endorsement of geocentrism, and it seems this is just taken out of context and a bit nitpicky.

  3. shoeshine boy

    I agree with Walt on this one. The can says, “Life is a constant journey of learning…” The diagram is intended to show one of the steps on that journey.

    I believe the intention is to have the reader see the diagram and think to himself, “People used to think the solar system worked like this but it is not quite correct. Maybe other things I ‘know’ fall into the same category.”

  4. Matija

    Late Geocentric systems often had Mercury and Venus orbiting the Sun (phases of Venus and Jupiter’s moons ruled out the possibility of having only Earth-centered orbits). The language looks like ordinary German to me and the outer sphere is probably that of fixed stars. My guess is this picture appeared to the designers to be more quant and “historical” than any Copernical drawing (although this “hybrid” system was of little historic importance compared to the Ptolomaic one).

  5. Irishman

    I’m thinking German. Erde and Sonne are the telling points.

  6. PK

    Yes, that seems modern German to me.

  7. Ted

    Thanks. I’m not that familiar with German. I thought the last orbit might be the stars, but something about that does not seem right.

    I seem to recall that Tycho Brahe was working on a model that had all the planets revolving around the Sun, with the sun revolving around the Earth.

    I don’t think I’m taking it out of context, or being nitpicky. Just like BA says, it’s amusing. I’m sure it’s not endorsing geocentrism.

  8. Yep, it’s German — Erde, Sonne, Merkur, Mond. I haven’t seen one of these cans in person, but it looks as though a Heliocentric view of the solar system is peeking into the lower right corner of the picture. It appears to have Pluto’s orbit displayed, though — unleash the hounds of the IAU!


  9. It’s labeled.

    If you look above the diagram, you’ll see Tarus, clearly depicting the diagram as “Bull!” 😉

  10. hale_bopp

    Even Jeopardy made the counterclockwise thing many years ago. It was a final Jeopardy question: “When the solar system is viewed from above, its the direction the planets appear to travel around the Sun” is the closest to the wording I am likely to get. As BA points out, what’s above?

    One of those grade school trick questions show a picture of the world with the South Pole at the top of the page and the question is, “What’s wrong with this picture?” Most people say upside down, but the correct answer is nothing (or it’s from someone south of the equator).


  11. Michelle

    My eyes went wide when I saw that image. (Well, I must say, at first I thought there was something wrong with Saturn. I mean, you do seem to circle it. :P)


  12. BJN

    Considering how anti-progressive the Boy Scouts organizatio is, an Earth-centered solar system may be part of their faith-ful-loyalty-based “agenda”. I remember billboards here in Salt Lake City where I grew up proclaiming, “It’s Great to be a MORMON Boy Scout!”.

  13. I’m betting some designer just found the nicest looking drawing of the solar system that would fit his requirements and stuck it into the graphic without even considering what it was really depicting.

  14. Trent Hanson

    hale_bopp said:
    > Even Jeopardy made the counterclockwise thing many years ago.

    I witnessed something similar on Jeopardy recently. The answer was something along the lines of “This is the force responsible for the direction water swirls when going down a drain.” Of course they were looking for “What is the Coriolis Force?” Ugh.

    Dr. Plait has dealt with this particular misconception, as I’m sure most here know:


  15. This is too funny. As a Scoutmaster and an Astronomy merit badge counselor I’ll see what tree I need to bark up to get this fixed. No promises.
    Thanks for buying the popcorn.

  16. Chris

    I want to say that, as an Eagle scout, the BSA has no “anti-progressive” stance. Yeah, they have the religious thing, which pisses me off, but it’s hardly some neo-conservative organisation.

  17. labtechpete

    Hey, I think the tin is really good. It has the geocentric and heleocentric orbits to show our progressive knowledge. A constellation is there and I belive some phases of the moon.

    At the very least it may make a kid look up and ask a question!

    Now…onto the nutritonal value of popcorn?!?!

  18. Giordano Bruno should have joined the Cub Scouts.

  19. Troy

    The counter clockwise remark reminds me of a show called beyond 2000 that was on the discovery channel. It was an aussie show and as part of the introduction they had a spinning globe with antarctica at the top. I have to say I always admired that because it gives you another perspective.

  20. Millimeter Wave

    Another boy scout astronomy merit badge counselor checking in 😉

    The requirements do include sketching the postion of one of the naked eye planets relative to the stars over the course of a month and “explaining how the planets move” based on the sketches.

    I guess, technically, one could meet the requirement without reference to heliocentrism/geocentrism if you worked at it…

  21. shoeshine boy

    Hey BJN:
    According to the “Scout Law”,
    “A scout is:
    & Reverent.”

    Clearly these are all horrible “anti-progressive” traits that we must prevent in our youth.

    And that “be prepared” thing is pure evil.

  22. Ken

    It should be noted that this product probably wasn’t produced by the Boy Scouts – it should also be noted that most Scout Troops raise their own money locally and do not rely on national programs (versus the Girl Scouts and cookies). My guess would be that any number of schools, youth sport teams and other organizations sell the same thing.

    Speaking as an Eagle Scout (earned more then 25 years ago) – the BSA has shown, if your willing to actually look at their record, to be a fairly middle of the road organization. While it certainly has a strong religous component (mostly due to the fact that many/most troops are sponsered by churches) it was also a leader in environmental education (the Environment merit badge was required for Eagle and one of the harder/time consuming badges). And even if it does have a religous component (something that I think they could modify); that part of the Scout Law requires respect to others also – since joining in the 60’s I heard a pretty constant message of tolerance.

  23. Irishman

    Great, now this is a forum on the Boy Scouts. My perspective as an Eagle Scout and now atheist – overall the program has merits. It strives to foster a sense of community involvement and good citizenship, character development, and training in leadership skills. It does try to instill moral character. But that is the problem that people see as “anti-progressive”. The definition chosen for “moral character” is a select one that is based upon a Christian agenda. Yes, the Boy Scouts has a religious element, and that’s not because the groups are sponsored by churches, rather the groups are sponsored by churches because the organization has a religious element. Baden Powell expressly intended the organization to have that element. That’s why the scout law includes “Reverent” as one of the features, and that’s why the Scout Oath reads:

    “On my honor, I will do my duty to God and my country,
    to obey the Scout Law,
    to help other people at all times,
    to keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight.”

    Duty to God is listed before country, and there’s that “morally straight” comment at the end that depends upon one’s definitions. Then there’s a special award one can earn for “God and Country”.

    Yes, there are groups sponsoring Boy Scout troops that aren’t just Christians. I think I recall hearing about Jewish and Muslim and maybe even Hindu groups. But the interpretations for morality are strongly influenced by the Christian tradition.

    One reason I am not engaged in the Boy Scout organization leadership is because of their stance toward atheists and gays. As an atheist, they exclude me on principle. Their judgment of gays is also known – they would rather have mothers running Boy Scout troops than allow gay men leaders. This attitude is coming from the Scout leadership and tradition. I don’t know how feasible a cultural shift would be for the organization if leaders in the organization began identifying themselves as sympathetic to the issues. I think the organization tradition itself makes that unlikely they would remain in leadership positions.

    Tolerance is a component of the Scout message, but not inclusivism. They don’t teach hatred for gays and atheists, but they view those as immoral conditions and judge them on that basis. So being an atheist is not living up to the Scout Oath and Scout Law, by definition. Being gay is not being “morally straight”. While they would certainly allow an atheist boy to join a troop, there would be a certain amount of pressure to change – not necessarily heavy-handed and direct, but definitely present. I think in that respect, a gay boy would have it harder – finding sexual identity in a culture of people rejecting it as immoral.

    I can understand one of their issues with gay men is the fear of abuse, or the appearance of not preventing abuse. But there are other ways to address those concerns besides exclusionism, and the exclusionism is driven more by their rejection of the “choice” of being gay than fears over child safety. They don’t see gay men as role models they want the Scouts to follow.

    None of which has anything to do with popcorn sales, popcorn can decorations, or astronomy.

  24. Several years ago I was sitting at a campfire discussing the Atheist issue as it pertains to scouting. The civil rights leader, Rep. John Lewis happened to be at the campfire and he chimed in with this response that I wrote down in my personal journal:
    “If Dr. King taught us anything it is that we should judge someone by what is inside. Not by the label that is put on him. At this age any boy who has said that he is an atheist has looked deeper into his soul than any of us. I would be proud to have a boy with this level of conscienceness in my troop.”

  25. Bart

    Me = Eagle Scout with palms and honors.

    Me = son of a dedicated amature astronomer

    Me = Disapointed how simple the requirements to achive the astronomy badge (back in 1985 not sure how much the requirements have changed)

    Me = First scout in my district to have to stand up for the ‘belief system’ of athiesm, as a requirement in the Scout Law for ‘A Scout Is: Trustworthy, ……. Thrifty, Clean and Reverent.
    Lots of cross examinations later, first declared Athiest Eagle Scout (at least in my district)

  26. Irishman

    I’m pleased to see the positive side. I was not an atheist at the time, and did not confront the issue directly. However, I recall having a boy who was an atheist show up for a few meetings. While the adult leadership was polite and did tell us not to make a big deal out of it, I did overhear remarks between themselves to the effect that the boy should just do the religious elements to blend in. And yes, there were some overt religious elements, mainly consisting of prayers at certain times (such as prior to group dinners).

    I have also attended adult leadership training, and the undercurrent made me uncomfortable.

  27. Gee, I probably was close to atheist through much of my Scout career. There were atheists I knew of as Scouts, and as Scouters. For the religious award, they were steered toward the awards offered for Buddhists, or for Unitarians (religious awards are made by an independent group outside of Scouting, by the way). At boards of review we had extensive discussions about “Duty to God,” and I always won them over by saying that while an atheist might argue that there is no god to have a duty to, the clear intention of the line in the oath was to refer to a Scout’s duty to be reverent towards the beliefs of others and to all of creation, and the duty a Scout has in all other areas to be a force for moral good, from the simple daily doing of a good turn to the major contribution to the community expected of an Eagle candidate’s project.

    I wish Scouting were so open minded today.

    And that is why I am a leader now. Somebody has to stay inside the organization and raise the issues. Boy Scouting has suffered greatly from the unnecessary and silly fight over religious and sexual orientation requirements, neither of which has much of anything to do with Scouting.

    The popcorn tin (I missed that one) is produced by a private company with tentative connections to Scouting, though many councils use the popcorn sales as major fundraisers. Sometimes the tins show Scouts, but these should never be construed as official Scout policy, any more than the pictures on the Girl Scout Cookie box should be construed as anything other than photos of kids having a good time.

    The one single, greatest common denominator among astronauts is Scouting. 11 of the 12 men who walked on the Moon were former Scouts, at least two of them Eagles (Armstrong, the first, and Schmidt, the last), as is Jim Lovell (Apollo 13). Many of them had their interest in astronomy fired by merit badge work, and they seem to have gotten it mostly right.

    If you’re concerned, why not volunteer to be a merit badge counselor for a local district? Scouting can use people who know what they’re doing. If you know astronomy, it’s easy, and it probably doesn’t take much time. I’d be pleased to put you in touch with your local council.

  28. Francis Graham

    I have the Boy Scout Popcorn tin illustrated.
    The geocentric Earth does seem to violate the Boy Scout Motto, “Do a Good Turn Daily.” :) Indeed it is German, and it is very likely a diagram lifted from an old book which upheld geocentricity.
    I suppose the diagram made it on there as part of some graphic artist’s whimsy, and certainly did not intend to teach Boy Scouts that geocentricity is true. Other old diagrams from old books are there on the tin too showing obsolete apparatus. Looks like somebody had a bunch of copyright-expired graphics.
    I wondered where it was from, and if the correspondent who said he would “look into this” can tell me I would be most appreciative. Since it shows Saturn with five moons, it was made between 1698 and 1846, when Neptune was discovered. If the outer orbit is Uranus then it was made between 1781 and 1846, when Neptune was discovered; if the outer circle is the celestial sphere (as one comment suggested) then it was made between 1698 and 1781, when Uranus was discovered.
    I thought it might be Carl Schopfer’s geocentricity textbook, “The Earth Stands Fast” (1854) but I do not have the German copy, only the 1900 English translation. 1854 is after 1846 but not too far, so it could have been before Neptune was widely recognized.
    I would be very interested in where this diagram originally appeared.
    This also shows that geocentricity as a theory was alive and well after 1700. Indeed, the Cassinis , although Copernicans, felt compelled by their Catholicism to include geocentricity in their introductory astronomy textbooks throughout the 18th century. By the 19th century, though, it was gone. Bad astronomy dies hard.

    Francis Graham

  29. Nice interesting….


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