Who thinks the sun goes around the earth?

By Razib Khan | March 28, 2011 3:00 pm

My post earlier today prompted a few emails about the bizarre result that a substantial minority of Americans accept that the sun goes around the earth. The General Social Science variable is EARTHSUN, and it asks:

Now, does the Earth go around the Sun, or does the Sun go around the Earth?

The answers are “Earth around the Sun,” “Sun around the Earth,” and “Don’t Know.” A substantial minority of Americans answer #2. What’s going on here? This isn’t something limited to America. The same question has been asked internationally. I’ve underlined the geocentrism/heliocentrism question below:

I apologize for the small font. What you’re seeing though is that substantial minorities, on the order of 1/7th to 2/5th of people in the regions above give the wrong answer on whether the earth goes around the sun, or vice versa. Is geocentrism rampant? No, I don’t think so. My explanation is that many people don’t think scientifically habitually, so scientific facts aren’t background priors which pop up reflexively. On surveys which require a rapid first-blush reaction you may give the “intuitive” result, and only later realize that your answer was of course wrong. If you sat down and talked to most of the Americans who answered that the sun goes around the earth and showed them a solar system model and asked them about it I think they would be able to give the correct answer once properly primed in such a fashion.

Below is a side show generated from the GSS which measures reflexive geocentrism by demographic. I’ve combined the categories in the vocabulary test where N < 100 with their adjacent values. Remember that it is on a 0 to 10 scale, and correlates 0.70 with general intelligence. The educational category is broken down by the highest attained qualification.


CATEGORIZED UNDER: Data Analysis, GSS
MORE ABOUT: Geocentrism
  • http://washparkprophet.blogspot.com ohwilleke

    Europe and South Korea, generally, seem to be more accurate in instinctual worldview than the Americans, although the Chinese are far off indeed from scientific reality.

  • http://johnhawks.net/weblog John Hawks

    I’m sympathetic to the priming idea, but one might expect that a bunch of questions about basic scientific topics would be priming enough for most people.

    There is this: http://www.galileowaswrong.com

    Got that from Ron Numbers; wish I’d remained blissfully ignorant…

  • ihateaphids

    Even if this is the case, I’m worried that there are 8ish% of graduate degree people who can’t answer a survey, but the alternative is even more frightening, so I have to agree with you. I mean I know >8% of scientists think the world revolved around THEMSELVES, but… :)

  • Denis Vluegt

    Don’t Earth and Sun orbit a common center of mass?

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    half the time the center of mass in the solar system is still within the sun

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Solar_system_barycenter.svg

  • gcochran

    This question was paired with another asking how long it took for the Earth to orbit the Sun: a day, a week, a month or a year. About half of the population got both questions right.

  • Anthony

    It all depends on your frame of reference. The frame in which the sun goes around the earth is much less convenient for calculating anything involving anything outside the earth-moon system, though.

  • Rex the Wonder God

    This is slightly off the main thrust, but the sixth question above shakes my confidence in the entire validity of the poll.

    I would have thought the answer is quite defensibly False on one level, given we know the Big Bang had to have been preceded by some rendering of some singularity of forces; and the same on another level, given the lack of clarity as to whether the term universe refers what we on this planet and with the supplement of our satellites can SEE, in which case the answer would be … well, STILL False given the first objection, but at least ARGUABLY True, or whether instead the term refers to all possible entities that might qualify as universes, in which case the answer again is quite defensibly False.

    This is not the ONLY problematically worded question. See for example the imprecision in the use of the term VERY HOT in relation to the center of the planet; that would certainly be hotter than the median surface temperature on the planet, but not even hot at all relation to the Sun or planets in this solar system closer to it, or indeed any one of the beellions of beellions of other stars in this universe, and not even hotter than particular parts of the planet at and above the surface.

    And its not as if these problems are rendered less significant by the number of responders, for no amount of crowd-sourcing can possibly improve an inherently flawed survey question. The curse of science is that almost nothing is a simple and straightforward as we would like or as it might seem, and to me this survey fails for forcing simplicity into areas that science does not allow to be so simplified.

  • http://backreaction.blogspot.com/ Bee

    Leaving aside seven or eight other planets, don’t sun and earth move around a common center-of-mass? Either way, thing is for most people it’s completely irrelevant, so why should they waste brain time on it? It would be much more enlightening to ask them something that actually matters for their life. E.g. heat conduction of metals, plastic and in vacuum.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    It would be much more enlightening to ask them something that actually matters for their life. E.g. heat conduction of metals, plastic and in vacuum.

    for social science it is nice to have variance in responses :-) you’re going to be awful close to ~ 0% accurate.

  • gcochran

    The questions are indeed less than perfect. But that list was composed a long time ago, and has been administered for decades. The thought it that you have to ask the same questions if you want to compare result over time.

    Since the fraction of responders who know anything more than middle-school science is very small, the imprecise questions simply do not matter.

  • chris y

    Either way, thing is for most people it’s completely irrelevant, so why should they waste brain time on it?

    Sherlock Holmes notoriously didn’t know the answer for precisely this reason. The obvious riposte is that wasting(!) brain time on stuff that’s not immediately relevant is part of what makes us human.

    Nevertheless I’m much more concerned about the line in that table which suggests that nearly half of Americans, more than half of Europeans and the vast majority of Chinese think that antibiotics kill viruses. Way to make sure they don’t kill anything!

  • http://www.catholiclab.net Ian

    @2, Yikes – I’m not sure where this site is coming from. As a Catholic I’m quite prepared to say that Galileo could not prove his argument for the earth spinning and heliocentricism, that his run-in with the Church had far more to do with his insult of his sponsor the Pope and demand to change Scripture, and that scientific evidence for his argument only emerged with proofs offered by Foucault’s pendulum and stellar abberation/parallax … but c’mon now we know so much more than we did then.

  • Alfred

    The answer to both questions is yes the sun goes round earth and earth goes round the sun depending on how you calculate the orbits. The former method is actually more accurate.

  • Dragon Horse

    ohwilleke:

    Check the GDP per capita for China and compare with Japan and S.Korea>

    A more accurate idea of how Chinese would think if they were wealthier is do the same survey in Taiwan.

  • http://www.farrellmedia.com John Farrell

    The site John posted is truly scary. This is a loud, whacky subset of Catholic traditionalists, who basically think Rome has been run by the anti-Christ since, oh, Pius XII died.

    Seriously.

  • http://www.kinshipstudies.org German Dziebel

    Back in the late 19-early 20th centuries American and British anthropologists wondered if aboriginal tribes in America and Australia were aware of the role of the father in procreation. Lots of articles came out reporting that in fact modern Stone Age folks don’t recognize physical paternity. Now, tables have turned, and we’re examining mainstream Americans’ “primitive” beliefs.

    Anecdotally, people from Catholic families in the U.S. whom I told a while ago about this and similar stats (e.g., the no. of Americans who believe in evolution) explained them as being “influenced by religion.”

  • http://www.kinshipstudies.org German Dziebel

    “There is this: http://www.galileowaswrong.com

    After this (http://johnhawks.net/node/15383), I think a few seemingly secular archaeologists will start the site “Father Jose de Acosta is still right.”

  • Sandgroper

    My mother has a personal theory that the full moon affects people strangely because it exerts a greater gravitational pull on them than the new moon.

  • http://occludedsun.wordpress.com Caledonian

    There are many things, most branches of science included, which don’t affect my daily life in immediately obvious ways and which I have never studied or investigated to any real degree.

    Yet I still possess lots of knowledge about those things which I’ve gleaned from chance exposures – from magazines, books, and television shows which mentioned them. Watching a single episode of NOVA can give a person passing familiarity with the most basic aspects of that show’s topic.

    So just how incurious, sheltered, and intellectually stunted does a person have to be before they remain unaware that the Earth goes around the Sun, in our society? (Clearly being a peasant in Sudan or something excuses such ignorance.)

    My mother has a personal theory that the full moon affects people strangely because it exerts a greater gravitational pull on them than the new moon.

    Rationality Rule #278: Before coming up with an explanation for some phenomenon, make sure that phenomenon actually happens

  • http://washparkprophet.blogspot.com ohwilleke

    @ Dragon Horse #15

    This poor performance of the Chinese isn’t surprising, or necessarily a reflection of Chinese IQ as opposed to Chinese GDP. But, it does give one pause at the idea of encouraging any kind of reasonably direct Western style democracy there.

    Look at the populist demogauges that get elected in less enlightened parts of the U.S. and then make it worse by an order of magnitude. It is a wonder that the Chinese economy and society is thriving as well as it is given all of that.

  • http://www.zackvision.com/weblog/ Zack

    Asked these questions of my 6 yr old and am disappointed to say that she got 2 wrong. ;) She did get the earth around the sun question right though.

  • dan
  • Sandgroper

    #20 – Yes, it was a two-pronged theory, that the full moon has a dramatic effect on people, and that it is caused by etc.

  • http://un-thought.blogspot.com/ Floccina

    People might just be being cute. If all is relative them the whole universe revolves around me.

    Who was the first USA president? John Hanson anyone?

  • Pingback: Friday Fluff – April 1st, 2011 | Gene Expression | Discover Magazine

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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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