Recently the National Science Foundation released a long document reporting the results of a survey of American attitudes towards and knowledge of science.
The whole report is called SCIENCE AND ENGINEERING INDICATORS 2014. It includes 600 pages of text and over 900 additional pages of graphs and tables and such. The whole report received some coverage in the scientific press. But one item was widely reported. One fact pulled from the 1500 pages of facts:
One in Four Americans think that the Sun circles the Earth, instead of the other way around.
Time, Discovery, USAToday, and FoxNews all ran stories just on this element. It wasn’t just American self-loathing either. Internationally, the story ran in the UK, Iran, Russia, Australia, and India. Also, probably, everywhere else.
I think this illustrates a few things about web content. First, the report is full of relevant findings that could help us make better choices about science reporting and education. Some might argue that all these headlines bring more attention to the report itself. However, it’s more likely that many will take this as all they need to know about the report.
But looking at Google Trends we see that while there is a surge of interest in 1 in 4 Americans, there is very little in the report itself. The headline will lead many to set the report aside as something they already understand. Other Americans are stupid.
I also question how scannable the question is. Written “does the Earth rotate around the Sun? Or does the Sun rotate around the Earth?” the wording could easily be reversed on a quick read.
But that isn’t the biggest issue. The Earth circling the Sun is the kind of fact we always have to think through. One commentator pointed out that in a recent episode of Sherlock, the brilliant protagonist didn’t know this fact. He explained to Watson that his brain was full of so many facts that irrelevant ones needed to be set aside. You can always look them up.
Our everyday experience and language does tell us the Sun rotates around the Earth. It rises in the East, sets in the West. Sometimes it is overhead, and we track it moving across the sky. That’s the model that works best in our everyday life. To reverse that everyday experience and think out the correct answer, we either have to step outside our experience, or digest a memorized fact.
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