Ignorance Is No Joke

More than a quarter of adult Americans do not know that the Earth orbits the Sun. That’s the conclusion of a National Science Foundation survey that produced other howlers on general scientific ignorance. It’s been a shock to many readers, but it really shouldn’t surprise us. Similar tales of disconnection with basic science have been with us for a long time. America’s level of science education is bad, but other nations also rate poorly in similar surveys.

There’s a familiar pattern to this. We test the public. We don’t like what we find. We cry foul. We propose remedies. Nothing much changes. Years later, this cycle repeats.

We can’t expect any profound changes in the near future. Even if America produces a radical transformation of its dysfunctional education system, high levels of scientific ignorance will persist. Some people are simply unable to learn or uninterested in knowing about the universe. The world is saturated with books, television shows and even posters that depict the solar system and planet Earth’s place in a heliocentric orbit. A person who failed at school, or was failed by the school system, can still absorb this concept through so many channels. The shockingly high level of ignorance about this basic fact is not just a lesson in education. It’s an interesting demonstration of how many people think.

You may have learned how the solar system works in primary school, but clearly not everyone did (Credits: NASA/Flickr user ImageEditor).

You may have learned how the solar system works in primary school, but clearly not everyone did (Credits: NASA/Flickr user ImageEditor).

The space community has always faced the challenge of boosting public awareness and support for spaceflight. We need to account to the taxpayers and the community that supports government space activity. We want to share the results of these missions and create excitement. Above all, we want to build a sustainable foundation for spaceflight in our society. We may ask how we can engage the public in issues such as the search for habitable planets in other star systems if they don’t know their own place in the cosmos.

Educators and activists have a logical response. Get the basics right. Get it to people early. Without this, there is no foundation for anything else. Nobody can dispute that a good start at an early age would do much to dispel this ignorance. This is probably more vital than any response we could propose. However, it will never be a universal solution. Most people in the USA are already done with school. It’s too late to reach them there. Can we help the millions who lack the basic astronomical knowledge of a well-taught grade schooler?

It’s difficult, and if they haven’t absorbed the basics by now, many never will. We need to accept this. Ignorance is a well-entrenched facet of our society. Universal education has been a feature of industrial societies for generations. Children must attend school for years. Despite this, roughly one in five people in the USA, and other nations such as the UK and Australia, are functionally illiterate. Educators would suggest that it’s more important for these people to read than know about the solar system, but illiteracy persists.

As much as we would like to elevate the community, we should expect that the next big science survey will produce little change. The silver lining in the cloud is that things are generally no worse than they have been in the past. We have been working in a society with high levels of ignorance for a long time, and this trend will continue into the future. The space community has survived in a world where basic science is far from universally understood and interest in astronautics is even thinner. We have endured this challenge already and worked around it.

So the results of this survey are probably not as catastrophic as some believe. It’s been a shock to those who have not seen previous surveys or simply expected that people at large would be better informed. Some have treated the results as comedy, laughing at those less informed than themselves. Despite the sarcasm, the high level of scientific ignorance in the world is still no joke.

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