The Enlightenment Marches On

By Sean Carroll | June 7, 2007 1:23 am

Kieran Healy at Crooked Timber notes with approval that more than 83% of Americans now think that interracial dating is acceptable. Now, some of you might be thinking, “Hey, that means that there’s still 17% of Americans that think interracial dating is not okay.” Well, yes. But everything is relative. Apparently the folks at the General Social Survey, just for kicks, decided to ask Americans to come clean about their feelings toward heliocentrism. As it turns out, about 18% of Americans are in the “Sun moves around the Earth” camp. A full 8% prudently declined to have an opinion, leaving only 74% to go along with Copernicus. (Of which, nearly three-quarters understood that it took a year for this process to unfold.) So, you take what you can get.

I hope our blog didn’t confuse them.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science and Society
  • Chaz

    The NSF has stats on public understanding of simple scientific terms and concepts – includes US and international. See esp. figure 7-7.

  • jb

    So I guess 0%=100%-(74%+18%+8%) of Americans responded that the question about heliocentrism was experimentally meaningless? Perhaps the Enlightenment is marching on in other respects, but in this one, the stats literally could not be worse.

  • bm

    The discussion in the linked blog post argues that coriolis forces, etc argue for the fact that ‘the earth goes around the sun’. Don’t these measurable effects really just show that the appearance of the sun’s daily traversal around the earth is due to the earth rotating about its axis? This would still be true if the earth and sun were fixed (rotating reference frame relative to orbit of earth around sun) and the earth just sat there spinning.

    To go further, wouldn’t a model of the earth as a ‘precessing top’ with a spin frequency of a day (motion of sun in sky) and a precession frequency of a year (change of season) be nearly adequate?

    If you added in a periodic motion along the line connecting the earth and sun between some Rmin and Rmax (ellipsoidal character of earth’s orbit), this model would be very similar to ‘what is actually happening’.

    So, what is it that one would measure to distinguish between this ‘sliding precessing top’ and the orbital model?

  • mollishka

    re #1: Well, at least we’re doing better than China.

  • brad

    Before we get too high and mighty here – I was unable to get past even the first word of the crooked timber link. Toleration? Are you kidding me? Please tell me there was a joke there I didn’t get.

  • Joe Fitzsimons

    bm, the sun moves against a background of essentially fixed stars. I realize these aren’t actually fixed, but the motion is imperceptible to the naked eye.

  • island
    “But when you look at CMB map, you also see that the structure that is observed, is in fact, in a weird way, correlated with the plane of the earth around the sun. Is this Copernicus coming back to haunt us? That’s crazy. We’re looking out at the whole universe. There’s no way there should be a correlation of structure with our motion of the earth around the sun — the plane of the earth around the sun — the ecliptic. That would say we are truly the center of the universe”.
    -Lawrence Krauss

  • KB

    Well, I might have answered false to the big bang question…it wasn’t worded “Did our universe begin at the big bang” but rather “[Did] the universe begin with a huge explosion?”

    Well, the unverse was pretty small at the first instant (so, then, a point-like ‘explosion’) and it was really more of a changing metric…maybe the average American is just really ridiculously good at GR?

  • Belizean

    Any large random sample of the population will include that 17% with the lowest intelligence. Most of us don’t often interact with them. So we tend to forget that they exist, as demonstrated by Sean’s post.

    [Incidently, the existence of these literal morons is why, despite being a fervent atheist, I’m not on board with Dawkins and the like in their nifty let’s-destroy-belief-in-Christianity-and-see-what-happens program.]

  • spaceman


    Our basic understanding of cosmic evolution is a coherent (many lines of evidence point to it), relatively simple (6 parameters as opposed to the dozens in some cosmologies), and elegant description of the Universe that has been arrived at through painstakingly careful analyses AFTER the rejection of numerous other theories. It is probably “correct” in the sense that a thousand years from now scientists will still be using a refined version of it to write a biography of our Universe just as today we use a refined version of Eratosthenes determination of the size and shape of the Earth when we study the planet. Is it really surprising or disappointing (I think it is exhilarating) that after thousands of years of effort we finally seem to be settling on a basic picture of cosmic evolution?

    So, my guess is that since so many different types of astronomical observations using different instruments, relying on different physics, and conducted by different groups of cosmologists tend to support the LCDM model, the CMB anomalies will probably amount, at most, to a refinement rather than broad refutation of our basic picture. We shall see.

  • Pingback: Mike Daum » Blog Archive » Heliocentrism in the U.S.()

  • Ian Paul Freeley

    bm, stellar parallax can’t be explained in your model. Also the redshift and blueshift in the spectra of distant objects (on a 1 year period).

  • island

    the CMB anomalies will probably amount, at most, to a refinement rather than broad refutation of our basic picture. We shall see.

    Yeah, and in the mean time, (maybe give it 20 or 30 more years worth of attempts to “explain it away”), let’s by all means ignore the MOST APPARENT implication of the evidence for a strong anthropic constraint on the forces, which we already have precedence for.

    Wait a minute, that’s not, “a broad refutation”… it’s supporting evidence!

    We’re only talking equal time for investigation into the possibility that the guy that’s standing over the dead body while holding a smoking gun actually did it!… rather than to *automatically* assume that this must mean that he couldn’a done it.

    And don’t everybody quote Krauss at once…

    That’s crazy!

  • Dave

    To amplify on Ian Paul Freeley’s response to bm, the lack of easily measurable stellar parallax was long considered to be a strong argument against the heliocentric theory. And the search for stellar parallaxes became a major scientific question once Copernicus’ solar system model became popular. But, by the time the first parallax was measured in 1838, the success of Newton’s laws had basically settled the question of the arrangement of the solar system. In fact, strong, direct observational evidence had arrived a century before this when the annual aberration of starlight was discovered. This is the apparent change in the positions of stars due to the fact that the Earth orbits the Sun at 0.01% of the speed of light.

  • Neil B.

    You shouldn’t be so hard on the geocentrists! Isn’t it true, that under the Machian-GR perspective, all motion is relative. It isn’t clear who is ‘really moving’ relative to whom, right? (I know, the simplest way to compare frames, etc., but still…

    BTW, so many people also think that the earth’s axis changes its direction to make the seasons, which is not true….(It’s the same direction, but the earth is in a different place…)

    (I tried to post this a bit earlier, but got stopped by the message I now see her more and more often: that the site has exceeded its CPU capacity, or etc. What’s going on, and can you fix it? Ty.)

  • CapitalistImperialistPig

    I was impressed that a full 8% of Americans seemed to know that the correct anwer to the Sun-Earth motion question was: “That’s a gauge choice.”

    I believe 3% gave the same answer to the interacial dating question. The study apparently didn’t look at correlations between the answers to the two questions.

  • bm

    Joe #6 and Ian #12
    Thanks. In my early morning haze, I was for some reason ignoring the rest of the universe :)

  • Joe Fitzsimons

    Neil B.: I’m afraid relativity doesn’t really let you say the earth is stationary, and the sun revolves around it, while keeping the same laws of physics. The trouble is that, since the earth is in a circular orbit and spinning on it’s axis, the reference frame is accelerating. If we take this frame as stationary, we introduce a slew of fictitious forces for which there is no physical explanation other than an accelerating reference frame. This problem is minimized (at least within our solar system) if we take the sun to be stationary.

  • Pingback: The Sun around the Earth? Blindly accepting popular belief « Bob Dudesky()

  • CapitalistImperialistPig

    Joe Fitz – Two words for you – General Covariance.”

  • Neil B.

    Sorry, Joe Fitzsimons , but Einstein and most of those carrying on General Relativity say that you are wrong. For some time now, they have been saying that even accelerated motion is relative, and the so-called “fictitious forces” are created by the relative motion of all that mass with respect to the earth. I have my own doubts: It has been presented by some, that we can imagine that the force pushing you to the floor of a relatively-accelerating rocket is caused by the gravitational analog of the pulse of accelerational EM component, that would be created by lots of charges accelerating at a distance in the other direction instead. (Like a gravity version of the electric field from starting current up in surrounding wires.) But wait a minute, I thought gravity waves can’t push things meaningfully, since they accelerate all the surroundings the same amount….We have to define such waves with torsions etc. – ?

    However, if either charges or masses actually start accelerating at a distance themselves, it takes t = r/c until anything can feel it. Since we feel the force immediately, it can’t be a mere radiation/inductance analog, but some emeshment of surrounding space with matter.

    (BTW, Mach’s principle in the literal whole is untestable, and supposed to be “meaningless” to you positivers. For comparison, claims of events having such and such probability aren’t strictly provable or falsifiable either, since there is no distinct outcome that can prove or disprove (any outcome is itself possible!) You just have to make up judgment calls about say “95% confidence level” etc. Nobody really cares unless its a weakness of an idea they don’t like.)

  • Lab Lemming

    Aren’t we all revolving around a point in space slightly offset from the sun in the direction of Jupiter?

  • Joe Fitzsimons

    CIP and Neil B.: Thank you, I am well aware of the equivalence principle. While I am by know means an expert in general relativity, I like to think that I am at least somewhat competent. I realise this is a cosmology blog of some renown, but let’s not take the show boating too far.

    It should be clear hear that the question is about which frame best approximates an inertial frame. If we take the earth as stationary, we are most definitely not in an inertial frame. I do not see how that is in anyway controversial. Are we simply taking different interpretations of the question? The sun’s rest frame certainly comes closer to approximating an inertial frame, than that of the earth. Sure you can reformulate dynamics from the point of view of an accelerating frame, but the acceleration of the frame is detectable. Inertial and non-inertial frames are not on the same footing. I really do not see how you can claim that a non-inertial frame is in some meaningful sense at rest.

    An yes, I do realise that the sun’s rest frame is not inertial, but it is certainly a much better approximation than that of the earth.

    Lab Lemming: Yes, although not always exactly in the direction of Jupiter.

  • CapitalistImperialistPig

    Joe Fitz,

    I think we can all agree that on a Solar system scale, the Earth going around the Sun leads to simpler physics. The point of my comments, although intended humorously, was that the answers to these questions may depend on your point of view. From the standpoint of pre-Copernican Earth, it was simpler to regard the Sun, Moon, and stars as all circling Earth. From the standpoint of Newton and Kepler, the conventional description is mandatory. From the standpoint of general covariance, either is just one of many possible choices of gauge – though the Keplerian one is still simplest.

  • Dave


    An observer on the earth may see the sun go around him/her but it’s pretty obvious, by observation, that the other plants are orbiting the sun, not earth. I don’t think anyone is questioning that anymore.

    Now, I suppose that observer could twist relativity and maintain that the whole shebang, with all those other planets orbiting the sun, is actually orbiting the earth, if they really wanted to. However, designing an orbital structure that way would be a pretty stupid way to go, in my humble opinion.

    Now, for all those creationists, what would you rather believe: that your God designed a universe around a solar system where all the planets orbit the sun, except earth, which is the centre of everything, or, oral tradition, from a thousand or more years ago, got it a little bit wrong?

    Besides, why do you want to be in the centre anyway? From all accounts, the real centre of the universe is a pretty nasty place, at least for us carbon-based life forms.


  • jb

    All this discussion… It’s like arguing about what point on the surface of the Earth is the central one.

  • Joe Fitzsimons

    CIP, it was mostly Neil B.’s comment that got at me, so it was probably unfair to address the same reply to both of you. I largely agree with you, but it does seem to me that some people are championing the view that the question is incorrectly formulated just to be contrary.

  • Scott

    wow, I’m in the majority on the sun deal and interracial dating—far out!

  • Neil B.

    Joe Fitz, et al:

    Please keep in mind the difference between championing an idea from just expressing “That’s what they say, I’m just telling you…”
    I presented the official orthodoxy about what is “really moving” during accelerated relative motion, along with my own counterarguments. Sure, the sun presents the closer approximation to an inertial frame, but remember that IFs aren’t defined by their motion per se, but by the physics of motion in them: a free-falling elevator is nearly an inertial frame, but the surface of the earth isn’t, because of gravity. (The surface of the sun isn’t either, but the center is pretty close to being one, except for tidal field.) In any case, the question about “moving” is not by definition about inertial frames, however appealing they are as simpler arenas for doing physics.

    As for simplicity: Simplicity may have value in building explanations (overrated IMHO), but it’s not a paste at will answer to every distinction. The problem of defining non-relative “moving” is not simple, as all the mess over gravity, the equivalence principle, Mach’s principle, inertia, etc., will attest.

    PS: I will be happy when the webmaster can bring back the WYSIWYG viewer.


  • Hag

    The closest thing we could get to an inertial frame on Earth would be a non-spinning observer in the center of the planet. As Neil said, if that were the case, it would be as inertial as a non spinning observer in the center of the sun, hence, since they both have null intrinsic acceleration, we really cannot say which is revolving around which. If we wanted to put an observer on the face of the Earth/Sun, a gyroscope (Fermi-Walker parallelism) would not accuse any significant difference either. I do not see what the problem is. The fact that we say the Earth revolves around the sun is a consequence of the more appropriate sun-centered coordinates we use to describe the solar system.

  • Joe Fitzsimons

    Hag, essentially I agree with what you are saying. I may well have confused the issue by considering the spinning of the earth. I was implicitly including it, since it is what determines from our perspective how the sun appears to move. If you do not consider it, then that changes things.

  • Neil B.

    Actually folks, spinning versus revolution of the earth is ultimately beside the point. In Machian GR, even the forces and perspective of the spinning earth are all relative. The earth isn’t “really spinning”, but is subject to the effect of relative angular displacement in a matrix of actual surrounding matter. Pleased re-read over my previous comments.

    I didn’t say I agreed with that. Consider the following argument: If you believe that linear motion is relative, but at least the product of that relationship is “real”, then a rotating body has actual relative velocity vectors of parts of itself relative to a given other part! The magnitudes depend on omega, which is then real per that consideration (which does not invoke any mechanical or inertial effects…)

  • Neil B.

    Update: I started an NG discussion in sci.physics etc, titled “Rotation is not relative, since it creates relatively real linear velocities”
    Here it is:

    Thoroughgoing Machian GR says that *all* motion is relative, even
    accelerated motion. Hence, a “spinning” wheel can be thought of at rest,
    with the centrifugal forces on it being created by motion of the matter
    beyond it. (Actually, not in the same sense as when charges start to
    accelerate at a distance, for then there would be a time delay..) But assume that at least linear motion is relative and real to that extent.
    Then, since relative linear motions are “real” they can be used to make distinctions between situations. Consider that a rotating body has actual relative velocity vectors of parts of itself relative to any given other part! (For example, each other point (if v

  • Hag

    Still, in Machian GR you have the background of “fixed stars” (or all the matter in the universe) that does create an inertial frame. What you cannot have in Machian GR, as opposed to the usual GR is an overall rotation *of the Universe*. This just doesn’t make any sense in Machian GR, but we do have some such models in GR, such as Godel’s Universe.

  • Traums

    As enlightening as this commentary thread turned out to be, i doubt those 18% were competent enough to invoke relativistic principles or even “simple” frame selection arguments to justify their stance. They’re are just following the book. And that’s what the survey originally intended to highlight; not the answer, but the method behind arriving at it.


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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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