Eppure si muove…or does it?


Just got an email reminder from the ICPSR data archive yesterday that the 2006 GSS data are out and ready to play with. Always curious to know what’s happening with my favorite survey of the attitudes and behaviors of the American population I looked around the codebook to see what was new for 2006. Among the highlights, there is (1) a module designed to estimate global characteristics of the social networks of the American population using a cutting edge method based on asking people questions of the type: “How many people do you know…(named Jeff, in Prison, who can do a somersault, who eat hamburgers, etc. [see Zheng et al 2006] and see also a copy of the proposal of the GSS module designed to measure “network polarization” in the American population in order to see if it is related to “cultural polarization”) and (2) a “science” module designed to measure the scientific knowledge of the American population. My guess is that (1) will produce the most fascinating and scientifically interesting results, and (2) will of course provide fodder for the constant complaints (and jokes) about the utter mental dullness of the population.

A case in point is the following. The GSS folk actually made the mistake of asking the following question as part of their science module:

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

Here we go. Now what follows is real social science data folks. No joking around:

Earth around sun 73.6%
Sun around earth 18.3%
Don’t Know 8.0%
Refused 0.1%

Yes. More than a fifth of the American population does not think (or are not quite sure) that they live in Copernicus’ heliocentric solar system. Is this a glass half-full or glass half empty thing? Well, those glass half-full people might say, almost three-quarters of the population got the right answer. But the GSS questionnaire designers conspire against your carefree optimism half-glass full guy or gal. Among those who were up to date with seventeenth-century Galilean basic science, they actually dared to ask the follow-up question:

How long does it take for the Earth to go around the Sun: one day, one month, or one year?

One day 19.0%
One month 1.1%
One year 71.2%
Other time period 0.1%
Don’t Know 8.5%
Refused 0.1%

Barring that guy who categorically refused to answer the question, we are again faced with the result that a full one-fifth of those in the American population who are aware that the earth revolves around the sun are in their turn unable to distinguish the earth’s rotation around its axis from a full revolution around the sun. Poor Galileo; talk about reason to turn in your grave.

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Written by Omar

June 6, 2007 at 6:33 pm

41 Responses

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  1. You and the GSS folks just made me more cynical than I already was. Thanks.


    June 6, 2007 at 6:49 pm

  2. [...] Sun has had rather longer to catch on, but my colleague Omar Lizardo over at OrgTheory brings us new data from this year’s General Social Survey on the popularity of that idea. It turns out that almost three quarters of Americans now subscribe [...]

  3. IQ is useless, yada yada, but still I’d be interested to see the correlation between IQ or some reasonable proxy, and anti-Galilean belief.


    June 6, 2007 at 8:06 pm

  4. [...] αναρωτιέμαι τι νούμερα θα βλέπαμε σε άλλες χώρες, αλλά μόνο 74% των Αμερικάνων ξέρουν πως η γη περιφέρεται γύρω από τον ήλιο, και όχι [...]

  5. Who said that IQ is useless? Logit regression says that an error-ridden facsimile is still a reasonable predictor.


    June 6, 2007 at 8:53 pm

  6. [...] This is the strangest thing I have seen in a long time (via Crooked Timber and Yglesias): A case in point is the following. The GSS folk actually made the mistake of asking the following question as part of their science module: Now, does the Earth go around the Sun, or does the Sun go around the Earth? [...]

  7. [...] Eppure si muove…or does it? Omar Just got an email reminder from the ICPSR data archive yesterday that the 2006 GSS data are out and ready to play […] [...]

  8. This is hard to believe. I might download this data also and play with it more. We’ll see if your faith in the networks data being the larger contribution is borne out.


    June 7, 2007 at 2:50 am

  9. Jeremy, unfortunately true apparently. BTW, the predicted probabilities used to construct the graph above made possible by Long and Freese’s spostado utility for Stata via the postgr3 wrapper. Thanks!


    June 7, 2007 at 3:19 am

  10. [...] 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 [...]

  11. O my God

    Some things you are saying here are quite … amazingly unbelievable

    alef beit

    June 7, 2007 at 7:36 am

  12. Not sure I get Omar’s drift. Silly? Agreed, but the 74% figure is higher than I would have expected. I would have guessed that around 60% would answer correctly. Academics tend to live surrounded by folks with IQ>100 and I think it is easy for them to misunderestimate the just how rough the territory gets in the lower half of the bell curve. Wordsum says it all…

    alef null

    June 7, 2007 at 12:24 pm

  13. Depends on your view. Obviously the earth goes around the sun, from the larger perspective, in outer space or from the perspective of the sun. From the perspective of someone on earth (because the earth is spinning on an axis), however, it is also true that the sun goes around the earth. If you don’t believe that, check what happens each morning, afternoon, evening, and next morning. What’s that matter with everyone? Just because 18% said sun goes around the sun doesn’t mean the all (or even most) were not aware that it’s also true the other way around. Some or most (conceivably, almost all) may have figured the question was so simple (didn’t see the whole set of questions so I don’t know) that there was a trick, or wanted to toss in a monkey wrench. Both are true.


    June 7, 2007 at 12:50 pm

  14. @Eugene
    Actually, the Sun revolving around the Earth is not the same as the Earth rotating about it’s axis with a “static” Sun. A simple analysis of centripetal forces reveals the difference.
    Just as in the Relativistic “Twin Paradox”, the younger one can be clearly identified as the one who accelerated and deccelerated to those velocities (According to your logic, from the point of view of the twin in the rocket, the other guy went for a trip, which is untrue). i suppose the safest way to choose an inertial frame of reference is to claim that both the Sun and the Earth revlove around their centre of mass. But then again, it’s not a two body problem is it?!


    June 7, 2007 at 1:33 pm

  15. Omar: I didn’t mean to suggest you had done something wrong with the analysis. I’m sure that’s correct, and fascinating of you to find. I meant looking in the data for whether there are signs of something odd with the fielding of this question, although GSS doesn’t exactly make this easy to do. I have some mixed feelings about GSS/NORC.


    June 7, 2007 at 2:52 pm

  16. You know, starting with this wave the GSS is supposed to be administered as a three-wave panel. I wonder if these questions are going to be part of the panel. (My guess is the modules won’t be in the panel, but it would be great if these questions were.)


    June 7, 2007 at 2:55 pm

  17. Jeremy has more on the Ptolemy versus Copernicus saga…


    June 7, 2007 at 7:40 pm

  18. I guess this darn earth around the sun thing is more interesting than I initially thought…Jeremy’s numbers show a huge gender difference (ASRs and AJSs have been written about much smaller gender disparities) in the proportion Ptolemaic/DK. If you cross tab gender and education, you get an even more bizarre picture. The gender difference appears in high school, and is gigantic at the graduate level (Women: 13%; Men: 1.2%). The two cultures?


    June 7, 2007 at 9:14 pm

  19. Do I see a Jeremy/Omar team up in the making? The first ever AJS/ASR written through inter-blog collaboration?

    Fabio Rojas

    June 7, 2007 at 11:55 pm

  20. [...] tempting to think [...] well, they’e only Americans, right? [... ] This scares me. [...]
    Direct link:

    Mark Whybird

    June 8, 2007 at 1:12 am

  21. [...] Variance which compared U.S. attitudes on interracial dating to scientific knowledge there.  The source for the science data talked about a giant opinion study in the U.S. called the GSS which is run [...]

  22. Talk about a poorly phrased question
    “Now, does the Earth go around the Sun, or does the Sun go around the Earth?”

    Thats social science for you ;P

    Physics says both answers are actually correct, depending of the frame of reference. The sun and the earth appear to revolve around each other from each others point of view. However the other planets give sufficient data to say that the sun is (approximately) a common rotational point for all planets, when considered from a sun fixed reference frame.

    Whee. I’m sure an astronomer can correct me on this one, but its all reference frame based. At least from a classical Newtonian perspective.


    June 8, 2007 at 8:55 am

  23. [...] a survey of Americans: Now, does the Earth go around the Sun, or does the Sun go around the Earth?Earth around sun 73.6% [...]

  24. Ok, so I was right about one thing. This whole earth around the sun thing it’s become another snobby excuse to talk about how dumb Americans are, how this explains how we elected Bush, etc. But before you get all high and mighty with your Europhilia, you should look here and see that Americans are actually smarter than Europeans (broadly defined as EU 25; yes, blame Eastern Europe) on this particular question. South Koreans are of course the smarter ones (subtext: turns out that the GSS science module it’s been replicated in several countries, and that a similar module was run in the 2004 Survey of Consumer Attitudes out of the University of Michigan; they came up with the same low 70s number as the GSS, which makes me think that the finding is robust for the U.S.).


    June 8, 2007 at 2:57 pm

  25. Another reason to homeschool. Our public school system is not even really teaching facts anymore, but is teaching “politically correct thinking” at the expense of real education.
    They also teach that there is no such thing as absolute truth- so according to that belief, ” to you, it may be true that the Earth revolves around the sun, but for me that isn’t true at all”
    How ridiculous!


    June 8, 2007 at 3:22 pm

  26. See here for another look at these and related questions (e.g., on evolution) by religion.


    June 9, 2007 at 1:51 am

  27. [...] to Omar at Orgtheory, only 73.6% of Americans believe in Heliocentrism. While this may be upsetting, we should rejoice [...]

  28. Physics says both answers are actually correct, depending of the frame of reference. The sun and the earth appear to revolve around each other from each others point of view.

    Yes, you can construct a reference frame where the entire universe revolves around the Earth… but the point of the Copernican revolution is that doing so doesn’t make much sense! The center of mass of our solar system is clearly inside the sun, and understanding that is the key to understanding the motion of the planets.

    Aaron F.

    June 9, 2007 at 2:13 am

  29. [...] With some guy ridiculing those who believe Sun around the Earth: Eppure si muove…or does it? [...]

  30. [...] Orgtheory highlights the result of a poll done by a scientific group, including the questions “Now, does the Earth go around the Sun, or does the Sun go around the Earth?,” and “How long does it take for the Earth to go around the Sun: one day, one month, or one year?” [...]

  31. I have some sympathy with the one tenth of one percent who selected “some other period”. When the Earth revolves about it’s primary, It completes the orbit in 365 days, 5 hours 48 minutes, and 46 seconds. Hence the need for leap years. Except in millennial years. Unless those millennial years are divisible by 400.


    June 11, 2007 at 12:16 am

  32. [...] 18.3% of Americans doggedly believe the sun moves around the earth.  We have yet to figure out if they are actually dogged or just stupid, but that’s a lot of Americans folks.  Eight percent said outright they don’t know so at least they know they’re stupid.  Does this make them smarter?  With GW in office, stupid is the new red, white and blue. [...]

  33. @ Eggrott

    True. And since the actual system consists of the Sun, all the nine planets, their moons, the astroid belt, and several comets (at least), the orbit isn’t exactly periodic, unlike in a two-body central forces problem. Hence the need for the ocassional leep seconds.

    The option should have read: “some other period drastically different than 365 days”.


    June 11, 2007 at 5:34 am

  34. Why is this surprising? My experience has been that to ask a protein chemist a quantum chemistry question, you might as well have asked a grad student. Ask them an astronomy question, and a freshman astronomy undergrad or good high school student would do you better. Ask a basic question about a subfield, but one which comes from an unusual perspective, one not part of the field’s research thrust (so mistaken beliefs aren’t pruned), and you get a mixed bag of answers from subfield profs, and trash from out-of-subfield profs.

    With half the US apparently having a terminal high school degree or less, why is a grade-school view of astronomy surprising?


    June 12, 2007 at 4:53 am

  35. [...] know” being the next most popular answers in that order. (Excellent commentary can be found here, as well as accompanying [...]

  36. [...] Eppure si muove…or does it?  HT  Clipmarks [...]

  37. [...] Omar Lizardo, a sociologist whose work I like very much, posts here, on some orgs site, an entry quippily called eppure si muove.  Apparently, on the new General [...]

    May 2007 « whatisthewhat

    August 16, 2007 at 9:05 pm

  38. Okay, but I’m a grad student who likes to think I’m pretty smart, and I got the second one wrong… of course when I stop to THINK about it I understand, but that doesn’t mean I answered it right.


    August 29, 2007 at 4:40 am

  39. How many people were included in the survey? I don’t think it would account for the whole of America, I’m too optimistic to believe that. Or maybe I’m just naive… :(


    November 15, 2007 at 2:01 pm

  40. [...] First, Omar would probably agree that voters aren’t terribly well informed. After all, he did show us that a disturbing number of people believe that the sun goes around the earth. [...]

  41. [...] up to be one of the more interesting in a while.  In addition to asking people questions about planetary motions, the good folk at GSS asked a representative sample of Americans what they thought the [...]

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