How can someone possibly believe that the world is flat? Evidence our world is a sphere can be found everywhere you look, yet many insist that photos of a globe are lies. How can anyone believe the world is only a few thousand years old? There are literally mountains of evidence for an ancient planet 4.5 billion years old.
There are so many such beliefs floating about, and a surprising number of die-hard adherents to such fallacies. Yet they persist, and in this internet connected world some of these ideas flourish.
There are many reasons for such beliefs. Some occur as they seem right and are accepted without critical examination. Other beliefs are strongly held as a result of indoctrination from a young age. Once embedded deeply into a worldview such beliefs are very difficult to dislodge.
There is one factor that can be seen in most, if not all adherents to alternate worldviews… A lack of fundamental knowledge about how the world works, a lack of breadth to that knowledge. They have never reached a critical threshold of understanding, they never develop a good personal method of evaluating ideas, of testing against the evidence.
Once you reach a certain point in understanding our world, when you have learned enough to start making sense of that body of knowledge, you start seeing the connections, you gain an understanding of the whole. Proper understanding allows new ideas to be tested, to see how any new idea fits into the whole, to see the supporting connections.
Standing in front of the crowd under a starry sky, I spend an evening answering questions. There are many versions of “The Question”… God, UFO’s, anything where astronomy crosses with the unknown, or imagined.
There are things we just do not know. When faced with an unknown many people prefer to simply make something up, or adopt a common belief that may have no basis in fact. This is where belief and science clash… A critical skill for a true scientist it the ability to be comfortable with the unknown.
Having answered the usual questions so many times I do get better at it. I also enjoy watching other folks answer these same thorny questions, I learn and borrow some of the good lines. The trick is to somehow convey the proper skepticism of a scientific view without directly confronting the closely held beliefs of your audience. Not an easy task.
No one is better at explaining science than Neil deGrasse Tyson, Director of Chicago’s Hayden Planetarium. Watching him field questions from an audience is pure gold to anyone who does public outreach. He is personable, he connects well with the audience, and he nails the science with perfection.
Note: This article originally posted July 7, 2011 on the old Darker View blog.
Don’t take my word for it, watch the video as Neil answers “The Question”. At the end of the video Neil gives the answer I use most often for the UFO version of the question… Amateur astronomers, like myself, do not generally report UFO’s, because we have seen, and understand many of the interesting things nature can display in the sky. Education is the key.