9 April 2014

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. Chris Proctor
The phases of Venus.

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.