Do one in four Americans really not believe Earth revolves around Sun?

“That any civilized human being in this nineteenth century should not be aware that the earth travelled round the sun appeared to be to me such an extraordinary fact that I could hardly realize it.” (A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. 1887)

1 in 4 Americans Don’t Know Earth Orbits the Sun. Yes, Really. (Discovery.com):

[T]he National Science Foundation (NSF) delivered news of a pretty shocking poll result: around one in four Americans (yes, that’s 25 percent) are unaware that the Earth orbits the sun.
[…] But wait! I hear you cry, perhaps the NSF poll was flawed? Perhaps the poll sample was too small? Sadly not. The NSF poll, which is used to gauge U.S. scientific literacy every year, surveyed 2,200 people who were asked 10 questions about physical and biological sciences.

This story strains credulity a bit… and despite Discovery‘s assurances, it still sounds a little dubious. The Discovery article links to a Phys.org story that essentially says the same thing, but does not link directly to the NSF knowledge survey or its results.

Nevertheless, after some searching, the NSF’s National Science Board “Science and Engineering Indicators 2014″ (nsf.gov) can be found online, and is split up into an overview and several chapters. Chapter 7, “Science and Technology: Public Attitudes and Understanding,” describes the knowledge survey and results on page 23 (see Table 7-8).

Regarding the question, “Does the Earth go around the Sun, or does the Sun go around the Earth?” (the correct answer being “Earth around Sun,” for you Holmesians), the following table yields the percent giving the correct answer by country/region in the most recent year surveyed:

United States (2012) 74
EU (2005) 66
India (2004) 70
Malaysia (2008) 72
South Korea (2004) 86

Source: National Science Board “Science and Engineering Indicators 2014″

Overall, the 74 percent result does not appear to be much of a statistical anomaly. Yet I still wonder if it’s not as much a reading comprehension survey as it is a science knowledge survey, or a measure of question fatigue among those surveyed?

See also:

Sunburst over Earth by NASA at Wikimedia Commons

Sunburst over Earth by NASA at Wikimedia Commons

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  19 comments for “Do one in four Americans really not believe Earth revolves around Sun?

  1. February 14, 2014 at 8:45 PM

    The way they worded that question could be confusing for people with sub-par literacy skills.  Even still, the poll results aren’t encouraging.

    • Artor
      February 15, 2014 at 10:52 PM

      Ignorant or illiterate? Which is better? Damn, that really is a bad question. Neither answer is good.

  2. February 14, 2014 at 8:48 PM

    This survey has been done over many years and the results are pretty consistant. I have copies of the survey from like 2006. I read it every year, not much change. I find it encouraging that people RESPECT science and seem to be interested in it but they know little because of the way it is (not) taught in schools or emphasized in society.

  3. February 14, 2014 at 8:51 PM

    idoubtit  I was going to say the exact same thing.  This isn’t really dubious news, it’s somewhat consistently depressing news.

  4. Nathan Miller
    February 14, 2014 at 8:53 PM

    @Stuart Robbins idoubtit  I agree, it really isn’t dubious news after all. I suppose the “sounds dubious” remark better narrates my own journey of discovery with this story.

  5. Lagaya1
    February 14, 2014 at 11:28 PM

    Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had his own issues with science, though.

  6. One Eyed Jack
    February 15, 2014 at 5:40 AM

    Technically the Earth and Sun orbit around their barycenter (common center of mass). However, because the mass of the Sun is roughly 330,000 times the mass of the Earth, the barycenter is within the Sun’s circumference. Practically speaking, yes, the Earth orbits the Sun, but it’s not technically correct.

    This image illustrates the point.

    http://scienceprojectideasforkids.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/08/barycenter-very-unequal-mass.jpg

    • terry the censor
      February 17, 2014 at 12:43 PM

      Jack, this is a skeptical blog! Everyone here knows such celestial minutia. We recite such facts in our non-prayers every night before our abduction-free slumbers.

  7. Chris Howard
    February 15, 2014 at 8:13 AM

    Not surprising at all.

    A similar survey – might be the same one, actually- found that, nearly, 40% of US citizens aren’t clear as to where babies come from, or how they get there in the first place:

    http://m.huffpost.com/us/entry/4768753/

  8. Gary
    February 15, 2014 at 9:19 AM

    Live Science has the poll linked to the article link above and it says this:

    http://www.livescience.com/43403-test-you-science-smarts-quiz.html
    8. Antibiotics kill viruses as well as bacteria. True or False?
    8. True (63 percent)

    According to doctors I’ve spoken to, the CDC and many other medical sites, this is false.

    • February 15, 2014 at 9:44 AM

      Gary, Table 7-8 of the National Science Board’s report agrees with you (“False”), and suggests a more even split per the 2012 survey results (at 51%). http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/seind14/content/chapter-7/c07.pdf#page=23

      • Gary
        February 15, 2014 at 10:47 AM

        There are several comments about it below the article. I tried to email the author but the system won’t let it go through.

  9. Michael Greening
    February 15, 2014 at 11:29 AM

    Also 99.99 plus Americans (and British too) ‘believe’ they have free will, although I have never heard any satisfactory explanation of how this could logically be so.

    However this may not be the time, or Doubtful News the place, for this debate to take place.

    • Chris Howard
      February 15, 2014 at 2:50 PM

      Yet, I really am interested in picking Michaels book up. It has a few favorable reviews.

      He may have a novel argument as to why we do not possess free-will, that I’ve never considered before.

  10. Michael Greening
    February 15, 2014 at 11:38 AM

    Re the Earth going round the Sun, I think the very low EU figure may be something to do with our sense of humour in Europe.

    • Frederic Sanders
      February 20, 2014 at 11:47 AM

      Thanks for that comment Michael. I have never encountered in my life anyone who even doubted heliocentrism, or spoke of anyone they met who did. As according to this survey apparently 34% of Europeans (that’s 1 in 3…) believes the sun orbiting the earth, they must either be living in another time-space continuum, or there is something fishy about this survey.

      • Gary
        February 20, 2014 at 9:24 PM

        But Frederic, how many times has the subject come up? In common speech, we all think the Sun “comes up”, so how would we know? I mentioned this to my mother and told her how many people did not know the answer to the question and she said “Which is it?”

  11. ZombyWoof
    February 19, 2014 at 7:29 PM

    I wonder how many think that the Earth is flat.

  12. February 21, 2014 at 3:16 AM

    I’m sure many people, when answering surveys, give factitious or daft answers when being asked what many of us regard as silly questions. However there are still a large number of others (in North America & Europe) who are not so much ignorant but have no interest whatsoever in the Universe around them or, indeed, thinking about questions like ‘what am I doing here?’

Comments are closed.