The Earth Goes Around the Sun or the Sun Goes Around the Earth: Your Reaction Reflects Your Investment

There is a rather good new BBC version of Sherlock Holmes, called Sherlock because nobody likes confusion, where Holmes is played by Benedict Cumberbatch. One of the key points about Holmes’ focus is that it comes at a very definite cost. At one point, Cumberbatch’s Holmes is being lightly mocked because he was unaware that the Earth goes around the Sun. He is completely unfazed by this (he may have known it but he deleted it) because it’s not important to him. This extract is from the episode “The Great Game”:

Sherlock Holmes: Listen: [gets up and points to his head] This is my hard-drive, and it only makes sense to put things in there that are useful. Really useful. Ordinary people fill their heads with all kinds of rubbish, and that makes it hard to get at the stuff that matters! Do you see?

John Watson[brief silence; looks at Sherlock incredulously] But it’s the solar system!

Sherlock Holmes[extremely irritated by now] Oh, hell! What does that matter?! So we go around the sun! If we went around the moon or round and round the garden like a teddy bear, it wouldn’t make any difference! All that matters to me is the work!

Sherlock’s (self-described) sociopathy and his focus on his work make heliocentricity an irrelevant detail. But this clearly indicates his level of investment in his work. All the versions of Sherlock have extensive catalogues of tobacco types, a detailed knowledge of chemistry and an unerring eye for detail. If someone had walked up to him and said “Captain Ross smokes Greenseas tobacco” and they were wrong then Sherlock’s agitation (and derision) would be directed at them: worse if he had depended upon this fact to draw a conclusion.

We are all well aware that such indifference to whether Sun or Earth occupies the centre of the Solar System has not always been received so sanguinely. As it turns out, while there is widespread acceptance of the fact of heliocentricity, there is still considerable opposition in some quarters and, in the absence of scientific education, it is easy to see why people would naturally assume by simple (unaided) observation that the Sun is circling us, rather than the reverse. You have to accept a number of things before heliocentricity moves from being a sound mathematical model for calculation (as Cardinal Bellarmine did when discussing it with Galileo, because it so well explains things hypothetically) to the acceptance of it as the model of what actually occurs (as it makes the associated passages of scripture much harder to deal with). And the challenge of accepting this often lies in the degree to which that acceptance will change your world.

Your reaction reflects your investment.

Sherlock didn’t care either way. His world was not shaken by which orbited what because it was not a key plank of his being, nor did it force him to revise anything that he cared about. Cardinal Bellarmine, in discussions with Galileo, had a much greater investment, acting as he was on behalf of the Church and, one can only assume, firm in his belief in scripture while retaining his sensibilities to be able work in science (Bellarmine was a Jesuit and worked predominantly in theology). As he is quoted:

If there were a real proof that the Sun is in the center of the universe, that the Earth is in the third sphere, and that the Sun does not go round the Earth but the Earth round the Sun, then we should have to proceed with great circumspection in explaining passages of Scripture which appear to teach the contrary, and we should rather have to say that we did not understand them than declare an opinion false which has been proved to be true. But I do not think there is any such proof since none has been shown to me.

It’s easy to think that these battles are over but, of course, as we deal with one challenging issue, another arises. This battle is not actually over. The 2006 General Social Survey showed that 18.3% of those people surveyed thought that the Sun went around the Earth, and 8% didn’t know. (0.1% refused. I think I’ve read his webpage.) (If you’re interested, all of the GSS data and its questions are available here. I hope to run the more recent figures to see how this has trended but I’ve run out of time this week.) That’s a survey run in 2006 in the US.

Why do nearly a quarter of the US population (or why did, given that this is 2006) not know about the Earth going around the Sun? As an educator, I have to look at this because if it’s because nobody told them, then, boy, do we have some ‘splaining to do. If it’s because they deleted it like Sherlock, then we have some seriously focused people or a lot of self-deleting sociopaths. (This is also not that likely a conjecture.) If it’s because someone told them that believing this meant that they had to spit in the face of one god or another, then we are seeing the same old combat between reaction and investment. There are a number of other correlations on this that, fortunately, indicate that this might be down to poor education, as knowledge of heliocentricity appears to correlate with the number of words that people got correct in the vocabulary test. Also, the number of people who didn’t accept heliocentricity decreased with increasing education. (Yes, that can also be skewed culturally as well but the large-representation major religions embrace education.)

So, and it’s a weird straw to clutch at and I need to dig more, it doesn’t appear that heliocentricity is, in the majority of cases, being rejected because of a strong investment in an antithetical stance, it’s just a lack of education or retention of that information. So, maybe we can put this one down, give more money to science teachers and move on.

But let me get to the meat of my real argument here, which is that a suitably alien or counter-intuitive proposition will be met with hostility, derision and rejection. When things matter, for whatever reason, we take them more seriously. When we take things so seriously that they shape how we live, consciously or not, then there is a problem when those underpinnings are challenged. We can make empty statements like “well, I suppose that works in theory” when the theory forces us to accept that we have been wrong, or at least walking on the less righteous path. When someone says to me “well, that’s fine in theory” I know what they are really saying. I’ve heard it before from Cardinal Bellarmine and it has gained no more weight since then. So it’s hard? Our job is hard. Constantly questioning is hard, tiring and often unrewarding. Yet, without it, we would have achieved very, very little.

People of all colours and races are equal? Unthinkable! Against our established texts! Supported by pseudo-science and biased surveys! They appear to be more similar than we thought! But they can’t marry! Wait, they can! They are equal! How can you think that they’re not?!

How many times do we have to go through this? We are playing out the same argument over and over again: when it matters enough (or too much), we resist to the point where we are being stubborn and (often) foolish.

And, that, I believe is where we stand in the middle of all of these revelations of unconscious and systematic bias against women that I referred to in my last post. People who have considered themselves fair and balanced, objective and ethical, now have to question whether they have been operating in error over all these years – if they accept the research published in PNAS and all of the associated areas. Suddenly, positive discrimination hiring policies become obvious as they now allow the hiring of people who appear to be the same, that the evidence now says have most likely been undervalued. This isn’t disadvantaging a man, this is being fair to the best candidate.

When presented with something challenging I find it helpful to switch the focus or the person involved. Would I be so challenged if it were to someone else? If the new revelation concerned these people or those people? How would I feel about if I read it in the paper? Would it matter if someone I trusted said it to me? Where are my human frailties and how I can account for them?

But, of course, as an educator, I have to think about how to frame my challenging and heretical information so that I don’t cause a spontaneous rejection that will prevent further discussion. I have to provide an atmosphere that exemplifies good practice, a world where people eventually wonder why this part of the world seems to be better, fairer and more reasonable than that part of the world. Then, with any luck, they take their questioning and new thinking to another place and we seed better things.