Friday, July 22, 2011

Private Ideas: A Few Thoughts on Misconceptions in Science

At Launch Pad 2011, Professor Jim Verley talked about common misconceptions and how they persist. An example of a widespread and persistent error is the apparent larger size of Moon when seen on the horizon (this is actually an optical illusion, not due to any lensing effect of the atmosphere). The authority of print perpetuates and gives power to written misconceptions.

Where do these notions come from? As children, we quite naturally try to make sense out of the world around use. We form "private ideas" very early. They often present novel and inaccurate explanations for the seasons, phases of moon, the weight of air, or the idea that oxygen is the only component of air. These concepts are very resistant to alteration, even by subsequent education.

When confronted with conflicting information, we all too often react with embarrassment and defensiveness. Repeating a misconception cements it, so bad information becomes self-reinforcing: popular culture abounds in misinformation about the age of universe, mastodons and dinosaurs coinciding with humans, the confusion of astrology and astronomy, and denials of the greenhouse effect and global warming. In a quest for absolute certainty, people don't distinguish between things we know, things we're wrong about, and things we don't yet know.

Why don't students truly grasp basic science concepts? In this video, interviews are held with high school students and Harvard graduates asking them to explain what causes the seasons and the phases of the moon. Even the brightest students in the class have false ideas based on enduring misconceptions that traditional instructional methods cannot overcome.

We often encounter general misunderstandings about science, portrayed either as a belief system ("I don't believe in evolution") or as dogma handed down by some autocratic authority; the public isn't educated to understand scientific thinking. Media encourage a legal-argument model of, "let me convince you about my position." Science is not like a jury verdict based on how persuasively the two sides of a case are presented. Nor is majority opinion necessarily the right answer. To make matters worse, on the internet, anyone can claim to be authority.


  1. Ahh Deborah ... yet another of my illusions have you cast down... **le sigh**

  2. That the Moon doesn't really take a very deep breath just before she pops up above the horizon and slowly lets it out as she sails through the night sky. I kinda figured that was why the stars only shone at night, she blew 'em out just before the sun came up.