I recently rediscovered a National Public Radio (NPR) article that addressed a 2014 study by the National Science Foundation (NSF) on ‘Public Attitudes and Understanding’ of ‘Science and Technology’ in which only 74% of those surveyed thought that the Earth orbits the Sun. To rephrase and reframe that statement, that’s approximately 26% of the population of the United States who presumably believed the opposite: that the Sun orbits the Earth. An equivalent 2016 NSF study shows an improvement of 2%, still leaving roughly one quarter of the U.S. population believing something that astronomers have known about since Nicolas Copernicus published his De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (or On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres) in 1543.
Copernicus is generally credited with developing the first heliocentric model (‘helios’ meaning ‘Sun’ in Greek) of the Solar System in which planets orbit around the Sun, which vastly differed from the geocentric model (typically credited to Claudius Ptolemy) in which the Earth was believed to be located at the center of the entire universe. Most people, including many intellectuals of the time, were (as is typically the case with most paradigm shifts) extremely hesitant to adopt the new model, even with vocal proponents like Galileo Galilei, who attempted to compare the two models in his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems. You may, however, remember that Galileo was ultimately charged with heresy for his beliefs and was subsequently placed under house arrest until his death in 1642 (almost a century after Copernicus’ death in 1543, the same year Copernicus published his seminal work).
How is it that, almost 400 years after Galileo’s death, such a large portion of the U.S. population still disputes the fact that the Earth orbits the Sun? How have people been able to remain so painfully ignorant in this glorified Information Age? I think that answers to these questions lie in two, fundamental issues: education and sources of information.
How is any of this related to radio?
On January 31st U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn of Colorado introduced two bills, H.R. 726 and H.R. 727, to defund both the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) and NPR. This is not the first time public broadcasting has been under attack since the CPB’s creation under the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, which encountered early resistance during the Nixon Administration and notably inspired Fred Rogers (known to many as ‘Mister Rogers’) to testify about the importance of public television in front of the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee in 1969.
The first point of the Public Broadcasting Act states that “it is in the public interest to encourage the growth and development of public radio and television broadcasting, including the use of such media for instructional, educational, and cultural purposes,” a statement that, as shown by a recent Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) study, is supported by roughly 73% of American voters. The same study also revealed that more than 80% of those surveyed “have a great deal or fair amount of concern that ending federal funding for public television could eliminate local stations’ public safety communications services like AMBER alerts and severe weather warnings.” In addition to supporting local communities and cultural diversity, the CPB and PBS have a history of partnering with institutions like the U.S. Department of Education to improve educational programming nationwide, including a recent effort “to give young children from low-income families a strong foundation in early science and literacy by identifying and working with community partners.”
The CPB appropriation history shows a budget of $445 million for the fiscal year, which, once distributed across a nationwide population of roughly 325 million, amounts to less than $1.40 per person per year. How many lives have been touched by NPR and PBS programs like Sesame Street, Barney and Friends, All Things Considered, and Car Talk (a personal favorite)? Would you pay more than $1.40 a year to preserve them?
What happens if the CPB loses all of its federal funding?
In March 2008 the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a media ownership study titled ‘Economic Factors Influence the Number of Media Outlets in Local Markets, While Ownership by Minorities and Women Appears Limited and Is Difficult to Assess,’ which highlighted the importance of diversity on the air, particularly in local environments. The same GAO study mentions Free Press research showing that “women and minorities own about 5 percent and 3 percent of full-power television stations, respectively, and about 6 percent and 8 percent of full-power radio stations, respectively.” A helpful infographic shows little change in these numbers by 2012, and more recent studies conducted for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) still show cause for concern as does a chilling six-month study of the 2012 election coverage conducted by 4th Estate and further reports from the Free Press.
Cutting federal funding to the CPB promotes further media consolidation, even less minority and local representation, and could ultimately result in the privatization of public broadcasting, which could cause shows like PBS’s Bill Nye the Science Guy to be replaced by the likes of Ancient Aliens on the History Channel. It’s this decline in proper educational programming and lack of diversity on the air that has largely contributed to a quarter of the U.S. population that, even with the existence of modern telescopes and the internet, still believes in astronomical views commonly held more than a thousand years ago.
What can you do to help?
In one of my favorite quotes Isaac Asimov argues,
There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”
In the seven years I spent formally studying physics, astronomy, and history I eventually lost track of the number of folks who tried to mansplain basic concepts from my fields because of something they heard/read/watched ‘somewhere.’ Were most of their sources credible? Upon further probing, including several lengthy discussions I had with the parent of one of my astronomy students (a 9yo girl) who regularly quoted from Ancient Aliens in an attempt to refute established astronomical literature (and widely accepted facts) and every person I’ve seen interrupt a planetarium show to dispute the Moon landing, I suspect that the answer is a resounding “NO.”
Do your homework.
Did you hear an interesting ‘fact’ or ‘statistic’ somewhere? Is it actually supported by a study or citable research? If so, can you find the study, and do you agree with the research methodology used? What’s the citation count like? In other words, are scientists from that field actually looking at this research, or is it being largely ignored by actual experts? I should mention that this is essentially the process I go through every time someone sends me something about a new space drive, something traveling faster than the speed of light (I still occasionally hear about OPERA), the discovery of an alien civilization… You get the idea.
Use credible sources.
Did the cool story you just read provide actual sources, or did it just spout numbers that it pulled from somewhere else? Can you find those numbers and facts elsewhere, or does it seem like they’ve just been circulated around a bubble with zero support from actual experts in that particular field? Do most of the websites you’re viewing end with ‘.com,’ and, if so, are you looking at government (.gov) and educational (.edu) websites too? If discussing an event, like a press conference, have you watched actual video coverage, or have you relied on what others have had to say before forming your own opinion?
Want to learn more about the world but find yourself limited by things like budget? Check out this No Excuse List, which offers loads of free and credible learning resources that you can explore on your own schedule.
Preserve public broadcasting.
Preserving our democracy depends on it, and even Senator John McCain agrees that a free press, as much as he ‘hates’ it, is necessary. Groups like Protect My Public Media have started to form in response to recent attacks on the press, and both NPR and PBS will gladly accept your tax-deductible donations. History shows that the road to many a dictatorship has started with the suppression of media and the (often literal) death of intellectualism. It’s not too late to fight for your First Amendment rights and for those of the press!
I fear that, if appropriate action is not taken soon, T.S. Eliot’s words from The Hollow Men will ring true…
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.