Engage

In Pseudoscience by Brian Koberlein6 Comments

As I write this, it’s 10pm at the end of a long day.  I have an 8am class to teach tomorrow, and I would much rather be reading a book or watching Game of Thrones than writing yet another post on astrophysics.  So why do it?  Because it matters. Because if scientists don’t tell the story of science, someone else will.  With the rise of online media, it is increasingly easy for anyone to present scientific ideas in ways that are entertaining and engaging. This can lead to TV shows like Cosmos, and it can also lead to documentaries such as  The Principle.  If you haven’t heard of it, The Principle claims that we live in a geocentric universe.

By geocentric universe I really mean the idea that the Earth is the center of the universe and doesn’t move.  The idea that Galileo demonstrated was false 400 years ago.  This is not just a YouTube video someone edited in their bedroom.  The film was funded by Robert Sungenis, author of the book Galileo Was Wrong The Church Was Right, where he argues in favor of geocentrism. It features Michio Kaku and Lawrence Krauss, and has a slick trailer narrated by Kate Mulgrew.  Krauss and Mulgrew have issued statements that they disagree with the geocentric claims, but already the trailer has gone viral.

You might argue that such an incredulously ridiculous film should just be ignored.  Don’t feed the trolls, as it were.  Unfortunately it isn’t alone.  There’s the electric universe, young Earth creationism, anti-evolution, anti-vaccines, global warming skepticism, ancient aliens, mermaids are real, and the list goes on.  Presented to you by talented and beautiful people, often enhanced with slick computer graphics.

Central to all of these is the claim is that what you have been told about the universe is wrong.  That scientists don’t really know.  They don’t really understand the universe.  All they have is just a theory.

The phases of Venus. Credit: Chris Proctor.

The phases of Venus. Credit: Chris Proctor.

There are lots of things scientists don’t know, but there is a great deal we do know.  We know, for example.  That the planets do not move around the Earth.  We know from the phases of Mercury and Venus that they orbit the Sun.  We know from a simple experiment you can do at home that the Earth rotates on its axis, and can even measure the rate of rotation with a simple pendulum.  We know that there is a universal law of gravity that holds the Earth and other planets in orbit with the Sun.  We know that the Earth moves around the Sun because we observe the parallax shift of nearby stars.  We know very, very clearly that geocentrism is wrong, and we’ve known this for centuries.

A recent study by the National Science Foundation found that 25% of Americans think the Sun moves around the Earth.  That’s 1 in 4 Americans. It is easy to write off more than 50 million people as just being stupid, but as the documentary A Private Universe demonstrated, even Harvard graduates held the misconception that the seasons are caused by Earth moving closer to and farther from the Sun, rather than being due to the tilt of Earth’s axis. Scientific ignorance can’t be blamed on a lack of intelligence. It is due to misconceptions that haven’t been broken.  Misconceptions that are fed by The Principle and other pseudoscience media.

Every time I see a slick pseudoscience video I’m reminded that scientists need to up their game.  We need to be more active in communicating science. We need to engage with the public and make it clear that we really can understand the universe.  We need to convey the wonder and awe of scientific understanding, and demonstrate how science can bring out the best in humanity.

So at the end of a long evening I’m writing a post about geocentrism and how it is provably wrong.  And about why communicating science clearly and honestly matters.  Because if scientists don’t tell the story of science, someone else will.

Comments

  1. Wow, Brian – I commend you on your diligence and effort to write this in light of your crazy busy schedule!

    I couldn’t agree more; we live not only in the information age, but also the misinformation age. And science and it’s long proven truths must present/educate on a higher level than it has in the past. I feel as though more effort must go into communicating the discoveries – it does little good for the collective to have discoveries and breakthroughs reside only in the realm of the academics.

    My question is, what is the source of funding for something like this? I can tell you as a filmmaker it’s hard enough to obtain funding for legitimate issues/narratives. I can’t imagine walking into a room of potential investors, or campaigning for a “documentary” on Earth being the center of the universe. Or, perhaps the fallacy of gravity? Hmm – maybe I’ve got my idea for my next film…

    1. Author

      I believe it is funded by the book author, but I’m not sure of the details. I look at videos like this and ask the same thing. How do people get funding for these things? If we had funding like that there are some pretty cool (and accurate) things we could do with it.

  2. I would recommend to those survey takers to ask that Earth/Sun question in True or False format, multiple choice format, and illustration. It’s easy to speed through a survey and mix up a concept, but it’s a lot harder to do it twice or three times in a row with three different methods of answering. I may be cynical, and I may call people stupid on a daily basis, but I refuse to believe that many Americans are that dim.

    1. Author

      It’s actually a well studied phenomenon, and has nothing to do with the intelligence of the person. Misconceptions are vastly more difficult to undo. If you did the diagram thing, for example, they would often choose the correct image of the Earth going around the Sun. After that you can still ask them if the Sun goes around the Earth and many will say yes. Even though the two contradict each other. Our brains often work on “good enough” data, since that works most of the time, and that means misconceptions are very hard to remove.

      1. But do they really think the Sun moves around Earth if they circle the correct image? I tried searching for this well studied phenomenon, but couldn’t find the actual study. Guess I can’t get the keywords right. I found a website about all sorts of misconceptions, but not this specific example. I vaguely recall this poll being used in headlines to imply that people really are stupid. It is arguable that they know both intuitively that the Earth as a pivot point has the Sun encircling it, and also that the real mechanic is of course the Earth revolving and spinning around the Sun, as opposed to, say, just circling the illustration they’ve been taught is correct via memorization.

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