Statistics are tricky things, in particular statistics based on survey interpretations, and without meaning to jump too hard onto this bandwagon, I have to admit I was floored and embarrassed by the recent finding that suggests 25% of Americans think the Sun revolves around the Earth.
This is pathetic, not just because it suggests that a quarter of the country is scientifically stuck in the time of Galileo (or before it), but also because of the sheer, willful ignorance that is required to support this view. You would literally have to be blind to avoid the various depictions of our solar system with the sun at its center these days. You would have to studiously avoid all manner of educational websites, textbooks, science texts, or even cartoon illustrations to believe otherwise.
On the one hand, I want to believe this was confusion, a rigged survey, a wording issue, but even that is hard to defend, because this isn’t a tricky question (not something like ‘How many moons does Saturn have?’ or ‘Why is Pluto not considered a planet?’). This is a basic, fundamental concept, a logical extension of gravity, and a building block for vital, larger ideas such as galaxies, space exploration, and the potential for life on other planets. It is perhaps the fundamental relationship that dictates how we view the universe and our place in it. And 25% of Americans, a country that likes to consider itself at the forefront of research and development (although we have, for essentially our entire existence, imported science and tech advancement instead of growing it at home), have this basic, critical concept embarrassingly wrong. In other words, as far as space is concerned, they don’t even make it past page 1.
Even worse, despite the checkered history of scientific concepts in media (from Journey to the Center of the Earth to Armageddon to The Core to 2012, with dozens of issues in between), this is not a question it has gotten wrong. Anyone who has watched Danny Boyle’s 2/3 brilliant movie Sunshine will not be in any doubt as to where the sun belongs in our system. Nor do any of the planets in Halo, or Star Wars, or Star Trek (as far as I know) have suns revolving around them. Even Doctor Who, a show often noted for its fantastical elements or departures from scientific accuracy, does not violate this principle.
I suspect this phenomenon is a growing one, in America in particular, and is a function of a whole generation of students who have managed to pick up only a modicum of science, perhaps even actively avoiding it in their university studies, and have then coasted on into the warm embrace of sitcoms and Sportscenter (not that there is anything particularly wrong with either, but you’re not going to hear about gravity or space in a meaningful way on them).
And yet, this is exactly why science fiction matters: because it allows people who would never otherwise consider scientific principles to encounter, absorb, and digest them. And willingly, at that! Granted, scifi is not always accurate (Sunshine has a whole host of problems, as do all of the above-mentioned films), but in general, the more extravagant the departure from reality, the more likely the audience leaves the theater googling ‘Can the sun really go out?’ (or if phasers are technologically possible, or lightsabers, or sonic screwdrivers). And that, in itself, is no bad thing.
In short: science matters, basic scientific facts matter, and scientific advancement matters – for us, for how we see ourselves, for how we approach our world, and yes, for our long-term survival potential. However, the rise (or persistence) of willful, apathetic ignorance creates a real barrier to social advancement. Science fiction offers a very powerful tool for smashing through that barrier, and we should embrace it as such.