Skip to main content

No, the sun does not revolve around the Earth

By Sheril Kirshenbaum
February 18, 2014 -- Updated 2209 GMT (0609 HKT)
Astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope have pieced together this picture that shows a small section of space in the southern-hemisphere constellation Fornax. Within this deep-space image are 10,000 galaxies, going back in time as far as a few hundred million years after the Big Bang. Click through to see other wonders of the universe. Astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope have pieced together this picture that shows a small section of space in the southern-hemisphere constellation Fornax. Within this deep-space image are 10,000 galaxies, going back in time as far as a few hundred million years after the Big Bang. Click through to see other wonders of the universe.
HIDE CAPTION
Wonders of the universe
Wonders of the universe
Wonders of the universe
Wonders of the universe
Wonders of the universe
Wonders of the universe
Wonders of the universe
Wonders of the universe
Wonders of the universe
Wonders of the universe
Wonders of the universe
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Sheril Kirshenbaum: Survey shows many in U.S. lack basic science knowledge
  • She says smart people can get science questions wrong and other polls show better results
  • But she says science illiteracy is a problem, and funding cuts, junk science have played role
  • Writer: Science graduates must bring science back into society in interdisciplinary ways

Editor's note: Sheril Kirshenbaum is director of the University of Texas at Austin's Energy Poll and co-author, with Chris Mooney, of "Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future."

(CNN) -- Every few years, the National Science Foundation releases its new Science and Engineering Indicators, which feature a barrage of seemingly embarrassing statistics that detail just how much Americans don't know about science. The latest such report, out Friday, has caused a stir by revealing that just 74% of Americans know the Earth revolves around the sun.

On the surface this figure may seem troubling, but we can take (some) heart: Aside from serving as instant fodder for the news media, quizzing the public tells us little about the state of science literacy in the United States. Science literacy isn't remembering a bunch of facts. It's an appreciation and understanding of the scientific process and the ability to think critically.

Sheril Kirshenbaum
Sheril Kirshenbaum

A lot of smart people get scientific facts wrong, and it doesn't mean they are uneducated. In the 1987 documentary "A Private Universe," Harvard students, faculty and alumni were asked what causes the four seasons. Nearly everyone interviewed incorrectly explained that seasons change when the Earth gets closer or farther from the sun in orbit rather than because of the tilt of its axis.

It's also important to remember that in polling, the way a question is phrased can influence the outcome. For example, the National Science Foundation's Indicators report found that fewer than half of Americans agree with the statement, "Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals." However, a 2009 Pew poll reported that six in 10 Americans agree that "humans and other living things have evolved over time due to natural processes." The same year, a Harris Poll reported that while just 29% of Americans agree that "human beings evolved from earlier species," 53% of the same pool of respondents "believe Charles Darwin's theory which states that plants, animals and human beings have evolved over time." In other words, language matters.

Still, one can't simply dismiss the Indicators data, in light of the very real problem the country faces: The state of science literacy has been in steep decline for a half-century. After World War II, the United States celebrated scientists for developing crucial wartime technologies from radar to the hydrogen bomb. By 1957, the Soviet launch of Sputnik sparked tremendous growth in scientific funding for research and development. Back then, scientists were heroes and worked closely with Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy.

Then things changed. The space race faded to memory, and nonmilitary science funding dipped. Science lost its prominence in policy, and today it's treated as a special-interest group rather than central to the policymaking process.

Nye vs. Ham in creationism debate
The science behind our extreme weather

The emergence of the religious right beginning in the late 1970s created unnecessary battles pitting religion again "reason," as if we must choose a side. More recently, budgetary constraints and the transforming media environment led to major cuts in science reporting. These days, most "science stories" that make the news are focused on diet and fitness instead of the latest research that will affect our lives and communities.

Meanwhile, the Internet allows us to shop for whatever scientific opinion we want as easily as we shop for holiday gifts. The result is a tsunami of dangerous misinformation and pseudoscience online fueling the rise of such things as the anti-vaccination movement and climate change denial. We need to shift course.

It doesn't matter whether every American can correctly answer a pop quiz about science topics he or she had to memorize in grade school. Isn't that what turns a lot of us off to science to begin with? What's important is that we work to foster a more engaged American public that will not only support but also prioritize the research and development necessary to meet the 21st century's greatest challenges, from drought to disease pandemics.

One way? Enlist today's young scientists entering the workforce as science emissaries -- training them with interdisciplinary skills that can be applied beyond academia. The number of traditional tenure-track jobs for science Ph.D.s is shrinking, even as we have a critical need for scientific expertise beyond the ivory towers.

"Renaissance scientists" who pursue policymaking jobs, work as writers or even just speak another language will be best equipped to bridge the gap between science and society, serving as translators and communicators.

We need this new generation of scientific heroes to restore science to its rightful place in America. Only then will we cultivate a culture of science literacy.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Sheril Kirshenbaum.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1231 GMT (2031 HKT)
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1450 GMT (2250 HKT)
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1200 GMT (2000 HKT)
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2152 GMT (0552 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2121 GMT (0521 HKT)
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
ADVERTISEMENT