10 Science Myths That Won’t Go Away

These are cannoli, they are not astronauts
These are cannoli, they are not astronauts Getty Images

They're everywhere, they're maddening—and they just ain't so. Here, in no particular order, is the incomplete, and by no means definitive, often painful list of the most common scientific misconceptions out there

I was walking around midtown Manhattan this week when I noticed a news organization with its zipper open. The zipper in question was the headline ticker around a media building on Sixth Avenue, and the news it was announcing was that a group of amateur astronomers in Sicily had just launched a cannoli into space, sending it into the stratosphere attached to a balloon. According to the zipper, the cannoli achieved “low orbit.”

OK, leave aside for the moment that the Sicilian Major Tom made it no higher than 18 miles (30 km), which looks a little like space, but isn’t. Going into orbit, even a “low” one, requires not only much more altitude—on the order of 100 miles (160 km)—but much more speed, at least 17,500 miles per hour in the flat (28,100 km/h). The balloon, you might expect, didn’t quite achieve that.

In fairness, science errors are everywhere and if-it’s-high-up-it-must-be-in-orbit is a comparatively mild one. In no particular order, here is the incomplete, by no means definitive, often painful list of the ten most common scientific misconceptions.

You can kill a virus: No you can’t. You can deactivate it, destroy it, but you can’t kill it. The reason: it wasn’t alive to begin with. One of the requirements for life is the ability to reproduce and the virus is out of luck on that score. It survives only by carjacking a cell first.

Jonas Salk discovered the cure for polio: Discovered? You mean like the last guy who used his desk left the recipe in a drawer? It took eight years of work in a basement lab at the University of Pittsburgh to do what he did. And it wasn’t a cure—there’s never been a cure. Salk created a vaccine, which means, even now, that if you don’t get it and you contract the disease, there’s no help for you. Listen up, anti-vaxxers.

The dark side of the moon: Pink Floyd, I blame you. For the last time: the moon has no dark side. It does have a far side—which has just the same waxing and waning light the near side does. Album titles ain’t science.

Asteroid, meteor, meteorite, what’s the diff? Location, location, location. An asteroid is a big rock that’s out there. A meteor is a big rock that hits our atmosphere. A meteorite is any chunk that hits the ground—or your house or your head.

It’s hot outside: Depends. The temperature at the center of the sun is 27 million °F (15 million °C). The hottest temperature ever achieved in a particle accelerator was 7.2 trillion °F (4 trillion °C). By contrast, the coldest temperature possible, known as absolute zero, is -460 °F (270 °C). In other words, we live only about 500 degrees from the rock bottom of the temperature scale and trillions of degrees from the top. Bundle up.

If it’s called a theory, it’s the same as a hunch: That’s true sometimes, when you’re just beginning to look into a phenomenon. But after a while, the word merely means that you didn’t actually see the event play out—even if all the evidence tells you what happened. The theory of evolution? A fact. The Big Bang theory? A fact. But unless you’re 13.8 billion years old, you weren’t here to witness it all.

Lightning doesn’t strike twice in the same place: Lightning actually doesn’t care. Tall buildings get zapped a lot. Park ranger Roy Sullivan was lit up seven times in his career—before committing suicide in 1983. Can you blame him?

The seasons are caused by distance from the sun: Seems to make sense. When the northern hemisphere leans toward the sun it’s closer and so it’s warmer; when it leans away, its further so it’s colder. But that’s not it. The Earth is 93 million miles away from the solar fires, so a little tilt this way or that doesn’t really matter. It’s the angle at which the sunlight hits—low and oblique versus straight on and hot—that makes the difference.

Primitive humans and dinosaurs crossed paths: Yes, there are people who continue to believe that. No, it’s not true. We were separated by a good 65 million years. Indeed, it’s the extinction of the dinosaurs that made room for little rodent-like mammals (read: your ancestors) to venture out of the shadows and take over the world in the first place. Wilma, we’re home!

One false move and a particle accelerator will kill us all: There was a lot of hand-wringing about this back in 2008 when the Large Hadron Collider was about to be switched on and doomsayers predicted it would create an artificial black hole that would eat Europe. It’s true that some of the most powerful and violent events in the universe are recreated in colliders, but in miniature—a few harmless particles at a time. Relax and enjoy the bosons.

TIME Research

The Annals of Duh: When ‘Obvious’ Science Isn’t

Scientists could be understood better if only they'd explain themselves

So here’s something that won’t come as a surprise if you have season tickets for the Seattle Seahawks (the best football team in the known universe) or the Jacksonville Jaguars (the worst football team in the known universe): Good teams draw big crowds and bad teams draw small ones. That less-than forehead-smacking insight is what makes a new study in the business journal Applied Economics something shy of breaking news. According to the authors—economists from Nottingham University Business School and the University of Sheffield in Britain—the same rule holds for international cricket matches. And the headline of the press release announcing the study made no effort to conceal its sublimely obvious conclusion: “Strong teams attract crowds for international cricket,” it read.

But science is often a far more nuanced thing than it seems—provided it’s properly explained. There is a rich and regrettable tradition among journals to promote studies that fall into the category science journalists alternately refer to as “blinding flashes of the obvious” or “The Annals of Duh.” Take “Causes of Death in Very Old People,” for instance. Um…I’m going to guess old age.

Then there is this: “Blood Pressure Drugs Don’t Protect Against Colorectal Cancer”—though they may protect against, you know, high blood pressure. Or these: “Moderate Doses of Alcohol Increase Social Bonding in Groups” and “Dogs Learn to Associate Words With Objects Differently Than Humans Do.” If you already kind of guessed that people loosen up and feel friendlier when they’ve downed a shot or two, or that your dog can’t talk, you’d have been forgiven for giving these studies a pass.

But under the no-news veneer of all of the studies, there was true news to be found. Blood pressure drugs reduce the output of norepinephrine and some animal studies have shown that that neurotransmitter encourages the growth of colorectal cancer cells, but that finding wasn’t holding up in people. While human babies tend to group objects by shape—so once they know a ball is round they will assume all round things are balls until they have reason to believe otherwise—dogs seem to use texture or size as their way of defining categories. Being dogs, they may never move beyond that point. And as for the cricket findings: previous economic studies had always concluded that it was the closeness of the contest—in which two evenly matched though not necessarily terrific teams were playing—rather than the excellence of the home team that determined crowd size. Nifty findings all—and none of which you’d know anything about if you didn’t read past the headline of the study.

In a counterfactual age in which science is too often denied or ignored or carelessly shrugged off, it pays for the scientists themselves to consider all this. They no longer have the luxury of simply writing for other scientists—assuming, generally rightly, that that audience is sensitive to the nuance. They must, instead, write for all of us—the people who can best benefit from the science, if only we can understand it.

TIME Viewpoint

Don’t Confuse Me With Facts: When Misinformation Kills

baby arm vaccines
Summer Yukata—Getty Images/Flickr RF

More bad news from the loopy world of the anti-vaccine folks. As TIME reported yesterday, a new study published in Pediatrics found that when parents decide not to vaccinate their children because of worries about the safety of the shots, there may very, very little that can be done to change their minds. The researchers tried four strategies to get through to the naysayers—including showing them pictures of kids with vaccine-preventable diseases and providing them the scientific proof that vaccines are safe and effective. The needle barely budged.

This says much less about vaccines or even parents than it does about the human tendency to cling to—and even fight for—ideas and beliefs that just ain’t so. The anti-vaccine camp has a lot in common with other groups that traffic in tales of conspiracies and coverups and terrible things being done by powerful forces. Like the birthers and the truthers and the grassy knollers, like the folks who claim that both global warming and the moon landings are faked, they all see the hand of moneyed institutions (big pharma, ivory tower academia); of government agencies (the FBI, the CIA, the EPA, NASA); of shadowy plotters (Indonesian operatives planting fake birth certificates in Hawaiian newspapers, a complicit or bought-off media) at work.

There is a cunning jujitsu to the way this crowd can use the weight of even the most compelling arguments to prove their conspiratorial point. As Brendan Nyhan, author of the new vaccine study, told TIME, the harder doctors or public health officials fight to persuade parents to vaccinate their children, the more stubbornly unconvinced some of them remain, asking, “Why are they trying so hard to reassure me that everything is safe?” The fact that it is safe never enters into the equation.

All the data, all the research from all the years of studies showing that vaccines work, that global warming is real, gets used instead as conclusive evidence of the opposite. The clean white light of reason goes in one side of the prism and a crazy rainbow of nonsense comes out the other. But here’s the thing: when you argue that climate scientists are on the take or that President Obama was born in Kenya, you distract and distort and make it harder for serious people to do serious work, but your individual influence is minimal. When you go on about Area 51 or moon landing fakery, you may disqualify yourself from serious conversation entirely, but you hurt nobody else in the process.

But vaccine denial takes a more retail toll, a more personal toll. The hard fact is, your beliefs may result in your child being exposed to disease that can cause paralysis or even death. And if any of those things come to pass, it will—not to put too fine a point on it—be your choices that made it happen. Most of the time, conspiracy talk and other blather does no harm. Now and again, however, it kills.

TIME review

Famous Scientist Will Make You Smart. Click Here

Bestselling author and Ivy League physicist Brian Greene is launching an online university like none before it

Brian Greene is the best college professor you never had—unless you’ve studied physics at Columbia University, that is. If that does describe you, and you have sat in a Greene-taught class, you’re not likely to have forgotten the experience.

For the far, far larger number of people who are not part of that rarefied group, it will soon be possible to study with Greene anyway. On March 6, his online classroom series—ambitiously titled the World Science U (WSU)—goes live. And if the name seems like something of a reach, early samples of the course material suggest that he may indeed have the stuff to deliver what he promises.

The traditional model for the college course—instructor in the front, students in the seats, while lecture is presented and notes are taken—is a little like the famous description of democracy as a form of government: it’s the worst system imaginable, except for all of the others that have ever been tried. Independent study will never have the accountability a supervised class does. Correspondence courses never had the exchange of ideas that a classroom offers. The answer, in recent years, was supposed to be MOOCs—massive open online courses.

(MORE: Nine Ways Quantum Computing Will Change Everything)

As the name suggests, the web-based MOOC is open to anyone—though fees, if they are charged at all, may be waived for students of the university sponsoring the courses. The “massive” part is not an exaggeration; the number of people who can log onto a course is limited only by the bandwidth of the server, and with any tests that are given scored by computer, the whole world can be the lecture hall.

But MOOCs have problems, not the least being student followthrough. A recent study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania and sponsored by the Gates Foundation looked at 1 million MOOC students across dozens of courses and found enormous attrition rates, with, for example, 140,000 quizzes taken and submitted after the first lecture in one surveyed course, and only 20,000 after the last lecture. A survey of 16 different courses found online attendance rates as low as 2% by the end of the curriculum.

Those numbers, however, aren’t quite as bleak as they seem, as an analysis published in The Atlantic in January showed. A significant share of people who enroll in MOOCs have no intention of sticking with them to the end. Often they’re people who know much of the material already and are simply dipping in for a refresher; alternatively, they might be new to the topic and are sampling, say, what a geology course is like before deciding if they want to make it their field of study.

(MORE: The Physics of Curly Hair—Because You Deserve to Know)

But that wasn’t the case made for MOOCs by those who believe they can change the nature of education, and no one pretends that there’s any way to spin single-digit completion numbers as an unalloyed good thing. Enter Greene and his WSU.

Known widely for his best-selling books, including The Elegant Universe and Icarus at the Edge of Time, as well as the related PBS specials, Greene is also the founder of the World Science Festival, held each year in New York City. He propelled himself from the classroom to the bookstores to PBS gold mostly through the energy he projects as he teaches and the imagery he sprinkles through his course material. His specialty is string theory and theoretical physics, topics that can turn to lead in the wrong hands but come to life in the right ones—and Greene manages them artfully.

He has divided his free-of-charge WSU curriculum into three levels: quick, 30- to 90-second videos that explain a single narrow concept in physics (he has recorded a remarkable 500 of these); two- to three-week courses that involve no homework and—to the delight of more people than would admit it—no math; and longer, in-depth, college-level courses, stuffed with all of the equations it takes to master the material in a truly academic way. He also includes what he calls “Office Hours,” giving real students the opportunity to ask the virtual Greene any questions that come up in the course of a lecture. After 18 years of teaching, he knows what the most frequently asked of those questions are likely to be.

(MORE: Hawking: Is He All He’s Cracked Up to Be?)

The lectures, which were recorded over weeks and months in a brick-walled studio that has the appealingly casual look of the early MSNBC or the current CNN morning program, go heavy on the graphics, animation and touch-screen technology. Watching the videos (and, full disclosure, TIME has sampled only a handful of them, and none of them involved equations, thank you very much) has the odd effect of making physics seem like a guilty pleasure—something that, surely, one of the most head-crackingly difficult of the sciences has rarely been called. But if you like this stuff—and a lot of people do, or books like Greene’s and Stephen Hawking’s wouldn’t sell the way they do—there is a compulsive watchability to what Greene has done.

It’s impossible to know if the WSU is a viable model for future MOOCs to follow. Until the site actually launches and has a year or two to run, there will be no data available on how long students actually stick with the courses, and it will be harder still to determine how much they actually learn and retain. Greene reports that his Columbia students who use the WSU videos as a sort of textbook for his classroom course score higher on tests than other students do, but that’s a small sample group in a decidedly non-double blind study. What’s more, not every university—to say nothing of every department in every university—has a communicator like Greene teaching its material, anymore than they all have a Neil DeGrasse Tyson, or the Carl Sagan who came before them both.

But that’s nothing new. The gifted science communicator has always been harder to come by than the science. Greene, undeniably, is one of that rare breed. In his new venture, he makes that fact lyrically evident.

(FROM THE MAGAZINE: The Infinity Machine)

TIME Biology

How to Know If Someone’s Really Dead

Walter Williams in the hospital.
Walter Williams in the hospital in early March. Courtesy of Eddie Hester

A close call at a funeral home has anyone who plans to die one day worrying

Correction added Feb. 28, 2014

Dead is dead—except when it isn’t. That’s the lesson 78-year old Walter Williams of Holmes County, Miss., learned late Wednesday night when he woke up in a body bag on an embalmer’s table, a wee bit more alive than the coroner had declared him to be. Williams, by all accounts, was the victim of bad luck, a sputtering pacemaker and a coronor who maybe hadn’t read the How To Know Someone’s Really Dead chapter when the rest of the class was studying it.

So how often does this happen and what are the odds that you will ever find yourself Zip-Locked for freshness when you’ve still got a bit of life in you?

Pronouncing someone dead has always been an inexact art. The tradition of the wake—or at least a day or two’s mourning period before the funeral—began as a way to give a body a fighting chance to show if it was alive. “The point was to make sure the dead guy is indeed a dead guy,” says Thomas Lynch, a funeral director and best-selling author of The Undertaking: Life Studies From the Dismal Trade, upon which the TV series Six Feet Under was based. “The living have been getting mistaken for the dead for a long time.”

But that was then (OK, if you’re Walter Williams, that was Wednesday) and methods have improved. When someone dies in a hospital, attending physicians do what’s known as “running a tape,” hooking the suspected deceased up to equipment that reads brain waves, heartbeat and respiration. When things go flat line—and stay that way—you’ve probably got yourself a body. Paramedics and other first responders have portable equipment that does the same thing, with the results getting beamed back to a hospital for confirmation.

Further tests make things more certain still. Bedside ultrasound can confirm lack of heart activity, says Dr. Robert Glatter of the department of emergency medicine at New York’s Lenox Hill Hospital. Brain death can be confirmed by the absence of brainstem reflexes, among other things, as well as the “doll’s eye test,” in which the head is moved from side to side with the eyes open. When the brain is dead, the eyes will not fix on the person in front of them, and will instead simply move with the head.

So what went wrong in Williams’ case? Everything. After he appeared to have suffered heart failure, the local coroner was duly called, and, according to Sheriff Willie March, did a less exacting job than he might have. “The coroner checked for wounds, didn’t get a pulse, and declared he had crossed over,” says March.

In some respects the rules were obeyed, since laws in all 50 states forbid a funeral home to take possession of a body until an authorized medical officer certifies the death. The problem is, not every state has the same definition of what such a person is.

“A coroner is not a medical officer,” says Lynch. “Often it’s just the local undertaker or the local favorite of whoever is in charge.” That may well not have been the case in the current mix-up, but the betting is that the standards will be tightened in the future. Until then, if you must die—and, says Lynch, “the numbers are right around 100% on that”—at least do it outside of Holmes County.

The reassuring news for most of us: The chances of a mix-up happening are exceedingly slim.

-with reporting from Charlotte Alter

An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of the Lenox Hill Hospital emergency care physician. He is Dr. Robert Glatter, not Glattner.

TIME space

Waterworld Found! (No, Not the One With Kevin Costner)

An artist's conception of a hot-Jupiter extrasolar planet orbiting a star similar to tau Boötes.
An artist's conception of a hot-Jupiter extrasolar planet orbiting a star similar to tau Boötes. Image used with permission of David Aguilar, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

It's not easy to tell if a distant planet orbiting a distant star is habitable, but researchers have developed a new way

You could be forgiven for getting all of the exoplanets confused; that’s what happens when there are up to 3,800 of them. Before 1992, we had detected precisely zero planets orbiting other stars. But that was then, this is now, and the known population of alien worlds has exploded.

One of the biggest goals of all this cosmic surveying is to find a mirror Earth, a planet similar enough to ours that it could support life. That requires water—and water in the liquid state, which means that the planet needs to orbit the right distance from the right sun. But the problem is bigger than merely finding such a world. We also need to spot the water on it—a monstrously difficult job when you’re conducting your studies across multiple light years. Now, a team of astronomers from Caltech, Penn State and elsewhere have announced that they’ve developed a new way to conduct the search, bringing us a step closer to learning, once and for all, if we’re alone in the galaxy.

The team’s report, which was just published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters, involved observations of a planet that goes by the irresistible nickname tau Boo b, because it orbits the star tau Boötis, 51 light years from Earth. Tau Boo b is classified as a hot Jupiter, which means that it has the same gas giant profile Jupiter has and, well, it’s hot—somewhere between 2,400º F and 3,100º F (1,315º C to 1,700º C). There’s a good reason the world is that toasty: it’s so close to the fires of tau Boötis that it orbits the star once every 3.312 days.

(MORE: Caught on Camera: Supernova Spits Out Pulsar)

That would be bad news for anything living, but it’s also bad news for astronomers, because the small size and great distance of exoplanets already makes them nearly impossible to see directly. If one of those planets also has a snug orbit, the blinding light of the star washes it out completely. Tau Boo b, like many other exoplanets, was instead discovered by the so-called radial velocity method, in which astronomers measure the wobble it causes in its parent star and detect its presence—and its mass—by inference.

There is a more direct way to find an exoplanet, and that is to look for the slight dimming of light it causes as it passes in front of its star. That can be a more revealing method too, because the starlight streaming through the planet’s atmosphere (assuming it has one) breaks up into spectra, which can reveal something about its chemistry—including whether it has water. But the inclination of tau Boo b’s orbit never carries it directly in front of its star, at least from our viewing angle.

That’s where the new team came in. Just because you can’t see a planet in the visible spectrum doesn’t mean you can’t pick it out in the infrared, and that wavelength can reveal a lot about chemistry on its own. The investigators observed the tau Boötis system in the infrared over five nights of stargazing at the Keck Observatory on Mauna Kea in Hawaii. They then crunched all of their data to remove what astronomers call any “degeneracy,” or discrepancies, among the multiple observations.

(MORE: Jupiter’s Moon Ganymede Like You’ve Never Seen it Before)

That very simple idea conducted in a very complex, algorithmic way, worked—yielding a sharp profile of the atmosphere of the planet. And, as the astronomers hoped, that atmosphere turned out to be rich in water vapor. “[This] helps us understand how these exotic hot Jupiter planets form and evolve,” said co-author and Penn State astronomer Chad Bender, in a statement. “It also demonstrates the effectiveness of our new technique.”

That last part is the real value of the study. Any life that even tried to get started on tau Boo b would have been blowtorched away long ago. But the same researchers are now refining their methods, hoping to be able to detect signals from planets in more distant orbits around other stars, where the infrared readout would be dimmer, but the temperatures much cooler. Get cool enough and all that water vapor could precipitate out as liquid, settling—perhaps pooling—on the surface of the world. In pools like that, interesting things happen.

(MORE: Curiosity Rover Takes First Picture of Earth from Mars)

TIME Science

Are You Better at Science Than the Average American?

See if you can answer these basic questions

We make it a point to know the basics about some things. American history, say: thirteen colonies; manifest destiny, blah, blah, blah. Ditto sports: Babe Ruth, baseball; Magic Johnson, basketball. Check. But science? Not so much. It’s not just the recent National Science Foundation study showing that 1 in 4 Americans does not know the Earth orbits the sun (spoiler alert: it does), or those who haven’t yet gotten the memo that Pluto is not a planet (really, it’s not, move on Pluto partisans).

It’s a whole final exam worth of basic stuff that we truly ought to know to be good science citizens—of the universe, not just of the world. See how you score on this list of Ten Things You Really Should Have Learned By Now and If You Haven’t It’s Definitely Time You Start.

TIME Opinion

Unfrozen Caveman Pundit Debates Climate Change

Chris Conway—Getty Images

If you want to argue about science, it's helps to know how the scientific method itself works

Climate change has a strange way of making people say ridiculous things. There’s the crowd that hoots “Where’s your global warming now?” every time there’s a cold snap or a blizzard in their home town—as if local weather were the same as global climate. There’s the faction that continues to insist that climate change is an elaborate hoax, one that’s enabled by a “bought-off media,” without ever specifying a) who’s doing the buying off and, b) exactly where I should have been going all these years to pick up my check.

And then there are the people who have way too much intellectual octane to be ridiculous, but they don’t mind getting the facts tactically wrong. Which brings us to Charles Krauthammer—specifically to the column he wrote in the Feb. 20 Washington Post. The headline—“The Myth of ‘Settled Science’”—portended bad things. But the opening sentences gave me hope.

“I repeat: I’m not a global warming believer. I’m not a global warming denier. I’ve long believed that it can’t be good for humanity to be spewing tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.”

Regrettably these sentences were followed by this sentence: “I also believe that those scientists who pretend to know exactly what this will cause in 20, 30 or 50 years are white-coated propagandists.” And everything fell apart from there.

(MORE: Quit Your Whining; For the U.S. January Wasn’t That Cold)

The biggest problem with this point is that those white-coated propagandists are white-coated strawmen—people who, for all practical purposes, don’t exist. Krauthammer either has not been following the science in the 30 years the climate change debate has been raging, or he has been following it and is pretending not to understand it. (The third possibility—that he has been following it and actually doesn’t understand it—I reject out of hand. That thing about the intellectual octane again.)

The fact that has become inescapable for those who have indeed followed the research, who may have even read at least a few of the scientific papers (and not just the abstracts of those papers—that’s cheating—the whole thing, beginning to end, intro to data-crunching to conclusion) is that virtually no legitimate climate scientists ever claim to know exactly what will happen in 20 or 30 or 50 years. For a long time, in fact, climate science has been built on two core truths: that the climate is changing, driven in meaningful ways by human greenhouse emissions; and that the climate system as a whole is far, far too complex to be modeled or understood with anything like absolute certainty.

Indeed, the researchers typically take pains to point out what their models don’t prove, what they can’t establish with certainty. And subsequent models—often by the same investigators—offer revisions and refinements accordingly. (Again, reading the scientific papers—particularly the final sections in which researchers own up to the limitations of their conclusions and the work that needs to be done in the future—makes that plain.)

(MORE: White House to Toughen Fuel Standards for Heavy-Duty Vehicles)

I don’t believe Krauthammer needs any schooling in how the scientific method works; I believe he knows. But when it comes to climate change, he affects a disingenuous, Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer naiveté. I’m just a caveman. These computer models confuse and frighten me. Except that, like the caveman of the legendary Saturday Night Live sketch, he’s not a bit confused. It’s simply ideologically convenient to act that way. He surely knows how the arc of scientific progress plays out—typically beginning with a big brainstorm followed by a billion different squalls and cross-currents over the years that challenge and elevate and improve the original insight but don’t overturn it.

In the 1980s, science determined that HIV causes AIDS. In the three decades since, studies conducted in vitro, in vivo, in the cold brains of computer models, have sought to unravel the impossibly complicated puzzle of how that happens and how medical researchers can best fight back. There have been reverses and revisions and even occasional retractions, but the fundamental truth hasn’t changed. The same is true of plate tectonics and their role in earthquakes. Does Krauthammer pretend that any geologist in the world claims to know what the San Andreas fault is going to do 20 or 30 or 50 years from now? Do we take botched predictions as a sign that there is something fundamentally wrong with the basic principles, that the scientists are somehow venal or dishonest?

Krauthammer’s column was pegged to nine words in last month’s State of the Union Address. “The debate is settled,” President Obama declared. “Climate change is a fact.” To which Krauthammer responded, “‘Climate change is a fact?’ Really? There is nothing more anti-scientific than the very idea that science is settled, static, impervious to challenge.”

(MORE: While Britain Floods, Politicians Debate Climate Change)

Only Krauthammer knows what he meant when he wrote that. Does he genuinely believe that Obama—who, whatever else you might say about him, is no ninny—was really claiming that climate science, for all its complexity, is fixed and complete and a closed book? Or might the President more plausibly have meant that in a political atmosphere in which members of the opposing party continue to call climate change “phony science,” “the biggest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people,” it might be time to say out loud that no it isn’t, that global warming is confoundingly, worrisomely, dangerously real, even if there are uncountable unanswered questions about it.

The rest of Krauthammer’s piece was the usual dreary exercise in scientific hole-poking: What about the much-discussed 15-year ‘pause’ in warming? What about the backing and forthing on whether climate change is contributing to the frequency and severity of hurricanes? Answer that!

To which, yet again, I say, read the studies. The answers are there, the complexity is there and the frustrating ambiguities are there too—all spelled out, all acknowledged. But none of that changes this simple truth: the debate is settled, human-influenced climate change is a fact, and so—for those willing to entertain complexity, to crack a sweat to understand something worth understanding—is the scientific method.

(MORE: The Making of an Ice Storm)

TIME Religion

The Science of Stupid: Galileo is Rolling Over in His Grave

Galileo Galilei, 1852. Artist: Sartain, Samuel (1830-1906)
Galileo Galilei Heritage Images—Getty Images

1 in every 4 Americans -- 78 million people -- don't understand the Earth orbits the Sun, though new research finds that nearly half of Evangelicals believe that science and religion can work together

So here’s a fine howdy-do for Galileo Galilei: Exactly one day—one flipping day—after the great man’s 450th birthday, on Feb. 15, 2014, a study by the National Science Foundation (NSF) revealed that one in four Americans does not know that the Earth orbits the Sun. That’s roughly 78 million people, or six times greater than the entire population of Galileo’s native Italy in 1632—the year he was sentenced to life under house arrest for advancing that heretical belief. Yet somehow, four centuries later later, 25% of us still haven’t gotten the word. If there’s any comfort at all to be taken from the study—and there is, but only in that I’m-not-the-dumbest-one-in-the-class sort of way—it’s that the European Union fared even worse, with 36% flunking the heliocentrism part of the science test.

It’s a reassuring truth of human history that wisdom is eternal. Our greatest accomplishments and insights in art, science, technology, philosophy, theology, medicine and government are timeless—things that once known can never truly be unknown. But it’s an equally hard truth that stupid is forever too. The flat-earthers have always been with us, as have the believers in phrenology and alchemy and eugenics and sorcery, and, more recently and perniciously, the climate change deniers and the vaccines-cause-autism ninnies.

Sometimes it’s greed and political calculation at work: If we call climate change a hoax, we keep the riches flowing to the fossil fuel industry. Sometimes it’s a search for answers (if a child develop autism someone must be to blame) coupled with a know-nothing carnival barker like Jenny McCarthy. And sometimes it’s religion.

Galileo’s persecutors were the fathers of the Catholic Church, holding fast to a Bible that described the Earth as fixed and unmovable and the sun as rising and setting and returning to its place each day. The people who deny evolution today aren’t in the field, collecting the bones and offering reasoned alternatives to what Darwin discovered. They too know what they know because the Bible says—or seems to say—it’s true.

But to blame the believers is, in its own way, a blinkered view of things. The hard fact is, there are plenty of people—the majority of people, in fact—who can comfortably live in a world in which faith and science live side by side. It was Carl Sagan himself who once wondered why a God who presides over a universe in which evolution unfolds, in which physical sciences play out and in which great truths are slowly discovered by people with dawning wisdom, isn’t somehow a subtler, more nuanced and more appealing God.

The very same day the dispiriting NSF study was announced, Rice University released a far more encouraging survey of 10,000 scientists, evangelical Protestants and average Americans. According to the Rice results, almost 50% of Evangelicals believe that science and religion can work together, a figure that actually exceeds the 38% of all Americans who believe the same thing. As for all those non-spiritual scientists? Eighteen percent of them attend weekly religious services, only slightly less than the 20% of average Americans who are also regular worshippers. And 15% think of themselves as “very religious,” compared to 19% of everyone else. Scientists who also happen to be Evangelicals actually practice their religion more than Evangelical non-scientists.

Yes, there are some findings in the survey likely to give science types heartburn: 60% of Evangelicals believe that scientists should be willing to consider miracles as possible explanations for the phenomena they study, as do 38% of all Americans. But on the whole, the warring camps we hear so much about may be smaller and friendlier than we’ve come to believe. And to the extent that a battle does exist, it’s mostly being fought out at the extremes: the finger-in-the-eye atheists like Bill Maher, who regard believers with a kind of pitying disdain and don’t care who knows it; the religious fundamentalists who defy inquisitiveness, defy reason, demanding a literal interpretation of Scripture that includes a great flood and a 6,000 year old world and a planet full of fossils and billions-year-old rocks that are put there merely to test our faith.

In fairness, there is not a complete equivalency here. The likes of Maher may be tiresome, but they make a point: The world is 4.5 billion years old. Full stop. The Earth does revolve around the Sun—period. On these matters, the modern day fundamentalists are—how best to put this?—wrong. When the Catholic Church as long ago as 1758 lifted its ban on teaching the sun-centered solar system and in 1992 formally acknowledged error in its treatment of Galileo, the very guardians of Scripture themselves were acknowledging that simply because a verse is written in a book does not make it so. To insist otherwise is to fight a rearguard action, one that holds entire societies back.

Science has been with us since the beginning of time. Faith has been with us since we opened our eyes and began wondering what all that science and everything else around us means. By now, many eons on, we ought to have figured out a way to marry the two. Perhaps in another 450 years we will.

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