Sunday, April 30, 2017

Trivia In The Time of Armageddon

I am sent a little piece of information that the National Science Foundation commissioned a survey in which they claim to have found that a quarter of American adults don't know that the Earth revolves around the Sun.  Which, on looking, I find out is a rather old story as the survey was published three years ago.

 I don't know why it was sent to me an hour ago.   Maybe they think I'm going to deny the Copernican system.  But it made me think of two things, the first is a quote from A Study in Scarlet, which I was thinking of using to preface the piece about Charles Darwin's inability to understand why there could be a purpose for the basic laws of physics working on the moon because he couldn't see it.

“What the deuce is it to me?” he interrupted impatiently; “you say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work.”

Which is even more interesting in the context of the line in the novel.

His [Holmes'] ignorance was as remarkable as his knowledge. Of contemporary literature, philosophy and politics he appeared to know next to nothing. Upon my quoting Thomas Carlyle, he inquired in the naivest way who he might be and what he had done. My surprise reached a climax, however, when I found incidentally that he was ignorant of the Copernican Theory and of the composition of the Solar System. 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.

“You appear to be astonished,” he said, smiling at my expression of surprise. “Now that I do know it I shall do my best to forget it.”

“To forget it!”

“ You see,” he explained, “I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skilful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones.”

“But the Solar System!” I protested.

“What the deuce is it to me?” he interrupted impatiently; “you say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work.”

I was on the point of asking him what that work might be, but something in his manner showed me that the question would be an unwelcome one. I pondered over our short conversation, however, and endeavoured to draw my deductions from it. He said that he would acquire no knowledge which did not bear upon his object. Therefore all the knowledge which he possessed was such as would be useful to him. I enumerated in my own mind all the various points upon which he had shown me that he was exceptionally well-informed. I even took a pencil and jotted them down. I could not help smiling at the document when I had completed it. It ran in this way—

You see, Sherlock Holmes had a materialistic model of the mind, or rather, brain, that gave him an excuse to have just that kind of an excuse for maintaining ignorance.  Which is a basic problem of the materialist model of the mind, at least Holmes still believed that there was a mind in there.   It's tempting to think that American adults who maintain his same ignorance have the same reason but I think the real one is American TV is about selling stuff and keeping Americans stupid enough to manipulate.

But it also made me remember a passage from the Swarthmore lecture given by one of the last century's greatest astro-physicists, Arthur Stanley Eddington who maintained that modern physics makes the question all a matter of point of view.

If the kind of controversy which so often springs up between modernism and traditionalism in religion were applied to more commonplace affairs of life we might see some strange results.  Would it be altogether unfair to imagine something liked the following series of letters in our correspondence columns?  It arises, let us say, from a passage in an obituary notice which mentions that the deceased had loved to watch the sunsets from his peaceful country home.  

A. writes deploring that in this progressive age few of the younger generation ever notice a sunset; perhaps this is due to the pernicious influence of the teaching of Copernicus who maintains that the sun is really stationary. This rouses 

B to reply that nowadays every reasonable person accepts Copernicus’s doctrine. 

C is positive that he has many times seen the sun set, and Copernicus must be wrong.

D calls for a restatement of belief, so that we may know just how much modern science has left of the sunset, and appreciated the remnant without disloyalty to truth. 

E (perhaps significantly my own initial) in a misguided effort for peace points out that on the most modern scientific theory there is no absolute distinction between the heavens revolving around the earth and the earth revolving under the heavens; both parties are (relatively) right. 

F regards this as a most dangerous sophistry, which insinuates that there is no essential difference between truth and untruth. 

G thinks that we ought now to admit frankly that the revolution of the heavens is a myth; nevertheless such myths have still a practical teaching for us in the present day. 

H produces an obscure passage in the Almagest, which he interprets as showing that the philosophy of the ancients was not really opposed to the Copernican view. 

And so it goes on.   And the simple reader feels himself in an age of disquiet, insecurity and dissension, all because it is forgotten that what the deceased man looked out for each evening was an experience and not a creed.

Now, I certainly wouldn't be arrogant enough to think I was in a better position than Eddington, "E" to come to a scientific conclusion on that,  Perhaps you could say that 1/4 of American adults take a different position due to the current classical model of physics than 3/4 of them but that both are correct.  Dr. Watson would not have known that, the story being published in the 1880s.  Should we know that today?  Is someone who doesn't know that ignorant?   I don't know.  If the man who Einstein said had written the best explanation of his theory of relativity in any language is not to be believed about current physics, in which relativity has not been overturned, why is the National Science Foundation behind the times?

Though, again,  I think American TV is the most likely explanation.  I would exempt the schools from blame because they are not what we've given the most influence in informing children about the world.

It is kind of ironic that they'd hold up the Copernican system as the one, real, right way to think of these things as it held the sun was the center of the universe, or at least that' what they seem to have believed for a good part of the time it was official science.


The Copernican Planisphere, illustrated in 1661 by Andreas Cellarius.  I believe that's supposed to be Fr. Copernicus on the lower right.  Notice the zodiac circles the sun, too.  

But, like the great Holmes, I'm not as worked up as those who are worked up over this are.  What the hell difference does it make?  I'm a lot more worried about Americans being sold lies denying climate change and the role that fossil fuel plays in that than in them being fuzzy about what the Earth goes around.   That's TV induced ignorance sold through oil and other extraction industries, sold by American TV for profit, even influencing the stinking New York Times who recently hired an op-ed scribbler who is selling that really dangerous lie that even more Americans believe as the friggin' world boils and burns around them.  There's no way human ignorance is going to move the sun or the Earth though it could well end life on Earth.   I'll bet a lot of them could tell you who was on Seinfeld or some other idiotic TV show.

Update:  That detail of the four of Jupiter's moons Galileo found is kind of cute. 

1 comment:

  1. Knowledge is presumed to be unitary, so that what I know you must know, else you are ignorant and benighted. Of course knowledge is not monolithic, so knowing the earth circles the sun makes no difference to people who deny human-created climate change. Doesn't automatically make them Trump voters, either, or religious figures.

    Just people who happen not to know something otherwise irrelevant to their well-being. How many people today know how to read nature for indications of the seasons, v. waiting for the guy in bow tie on TV to stop talking about who is 100 years old today to find out if it's cold outside? I knew a farmer's daughter from where I've lived for 20 years now, who said the chance of frost didn't end until the pecans budded out. Her father taught her that.

    He was right. And it's a very useful piece of information. Far more valuable than the weather forecast last night that kept promising rain over my house, when I didn't get a drop (and could use it!). We are all more like Holmes than not: we keep hold of information we find useful, and discard information we find irrelevant.

    Next time I encounter someone who thinks the sun moves 'round the earth, I'll correct them. I'm sure they'll find it useful to know, even though they probably won't be plotting the trajectory of a spacecraft anytime soon.

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