On Being Old, Conservative, and Formally Educated

hs-2006-10-a-full_jpgDoes the Earth revolve around the Sun and who thinks it does?  Who believes that astrology is a scientific discipline?

Professor of Law and Director of the Demography of Diversity Project at Northwestern University, James Lindgren, JD, PhD., explored these questions in his analysis of a National Science Foundation (NSF) study Science and Technology: Public Attitudes and Understanding (2014).  

It turns out that quite a few people do not understand the orbital dynamics of our planet. Furthermore, many people apparently argue that astrology is a science.  As a former college science professor, I’m not surprised.  I also know that many science professors do not know that Millard Fillmore once served as President of the United States, or that Ljubljana is the capital of Slovenia.  I can’t even pronounce it.

Professor Lindgren was not concerned about orbital mechanics or astrology.  He faithfully accepted the suppositions that the Earth orbits the Sun once a year and that astrology is not a science.  He focused instead on who believes these ideas.  It turns out that the more politically conservative and the older you are, as well as the more formal education you have, the more likely you are to believe that the Earth indeed revolves around the Sun and that Astrology is not a science.  As a crusty old conservative with several advanced degrees, I was delirious with joy at these results.

Ironically, the “correct” answer to the question about the Earth revolving around the Sun was wrong or at best imprecise, but there was no better answer in the NSF survey.  It turns out that both the Earth and Sun move around a constantly changing center of mass of a much larger collection of masses that includes the solar system and it’s galactic and intergalactic neighbors.  The apparent motion of the Earth depends entirely upon where you are observing that motion.  If you are standing in a swamp in Florida, you would be absolutely convinced that the Sun rises in the east and sets in the west while revolving around the Earth.  If you were on the Sun, you would think otherwise, but you would not have long to think about it.  If you were watching the Sun and the Earth from the planet Mercury, you might observe the Earth rising and setting once every couple of months while it revolved around you.  Depending upon whether you are on the sunny side or dark side of Mercury, you might think the Sun is always in the same place or that it doesn’t exist at all.  Now stretch your imagination and consider yourself an inhabitant of some far away planet orbiting around a star in the Andromeda Galaxy.  If you had an incredibly powerful telescope and a lot of time on your hands, you would observe that both the Sun and the Earth were in fact revolving around the center of the Milky Way Galaxy.  So what is the right answer?  Is the Earth revolving around the Sun once each year?  Not exactly!  “None of the above” would be the better answer, but the survey didn’t allow that response.

Astrologers study the apparent motions of the planets and stars as seen from the Earth.  They assign psychological and social value to the patterns they observe.  No matter how accurately they measure these planetary motions and their relative positions within the constellations of the Zodiac, they cannot identify a causative influence that determines whether you are having a good day or a bad day.  It is hypothesizing without verification.  Astrology certainly considers information gathered through careful observation, but the conclusions do not follow from continuous testing of hypotheses.  Astrology is not a science, but that is not a criticism.  It is a matter of definition.

Nothing is ever as simple or straightforward as it seems, just ask Isaac Newton.  Oh, he’s dead.

About DocStephens

Retired college professor of science and mathematics, academic administrator, and president (emeritus).
This entry was posted in Astronomy, Musings, Politics and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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