Back in 2011, to the shock of many, it became big news that the astrological signs they imagined controlled their destinies were all wrong: in fact, they were about a month off. Those who had always thought they were a Libra suddenly discovered they were in fact a Virgo. On top of that, there are actually 13 constellations in the Zodiac, not twelve, so some people suddenly found out they were actually an Ophiuchus.
Odd that such a thing should make the news, given that astronomers have known all this for centuries. How is it that it became a news item? An astronomer was asked by the Minneapolis Star Tribune newspaper about astrology. As he dismissed it, he happened to also mention how the signs have shifted over the years thanks to the way the Earth wobbles on its axis. Once that issue of the Star Tribune hit the stands, the words of that astronomer went viral, spreading across the rest of the news media and the internet as if he had disclosed something brand new. In point of fact, the Babylonians, from which we get the concept of the zodiac, originally had Ophiuchus as one of the thirteen signs of the zodiac. They eventually decided to drop it in order to get the number twelve, since they had twelve months in their calendar.
It is not really so surprising that people would think that old information is startling and new. Most people are not astronomers, whether amateur or professional. Most people, even reporters, do not keep up on science or history. Most, in fact, were lucky to even stay awake through the classes they endured in high school or college. Most people are unable to name even one Supreme Court justice, the name of their representative in congress, or the name of their state legislator or senator. But ask them to complete a phrase from a commercial jingle from television, or to discuss the latest trials and tribulations of a television or movie star, and they will have little trouble relating all the details.
We should not be surprised about this. The average American reads but one book a year, but watches more than 1500 hours of television. Given the ratings, most of that watching is not of the Science Channel or the National Geographic Channel. The circulation of Scientific American is but 450, 000 issues each month, in a country of over 300 million. Far less than even one percent of the population reads the magazine: 0.15 percent. Even National Geographic has only 5.2 million copies in circulation each month, thereby reaching less than two percent of the American public.
We know only what we expose ourselves to. A television show that averages only one million viewers each week is a flop, likely to be cancelled and replaced by something else, while a book that sells a million copies is a runaway smash best seller. Perhaps twenty-five million copies of Harry Potter, the Sorcerer’s Stone, the first book in the Harry Potter series, have been sold thus far in the United States since its publication in 1998. It’s one of the all-time bestselling books in history. But 26.9 million people watched this season’s two hour premier of American Idol, while some football games and other sports events will regularly see 30 million viewers or more.
People are not stupid. They are not ignorant of science, history and current affairs because it is beyond their understanding. They are ignorant of those things simply because they don’t have any interest in knowing about it. And why? Because it really doesn’t affect their lives in any particular way: it is not interesting to them and it won’t affect how they live. Most people will not have any trouble taking care of their children, driving to and from work, doing their weekly grocery shopping, or fulfilling their tasks at work because they don’t know who fought whom during the first World War—or because they believe their destiny is dependent upon being born under Pisces rather than Aquarius.
Most of the misinformation people believe, most of the things they don’t know or don’t understand, really doesn’t impact them in any meaningful way. If it did, they would feel compelled to fix the gap in their knowledge. Certainly as an academic, I would like to see people well-educated. I would prefer that people understand the truth as opposed to believing lies. But I have to accept the reality that most human beings will remain more ignorant than I think they should be, and that most will believe things that aren’t so—things that, in fact, are demonstrably untrue, not just have opinion with which I happen to disagree. Of course, if I’m honest, I must admit that I am also ignorant of many, many things and doubtless believe demonstrable nonsense.
What are some other examples of things that people believe that simply aren’t so? In Columbus’ time, sailors and navigators knew that the earth was round. His critics didn’t doubt that it was possible to sail around the globe. Their disagreement with Columbus was on his estimation of how far India was from Europe. He estimated it was a much shorter distance than it actually was. In fact, had the Americas not been in the way, he and his crew would have run out of supplies long before reaching India.
In fact, educated people had known the Earth was round from at least the time of Plato and Aristotle. Eratosthenes had made a very good estimate of the Earth’s diameter as early as the third century BC.
And yet, whether people continue to believe that Columbus fought against a belief in a flat earth, or even if they don’t know the name of their congressman or woman, it will not really change their lives or the effectiveness of the job they do. Really, it does not matter to me what my plumber believes about astrology or Columbus. All I care about is that my toilet stops leaking.