Factoid-based Learning

There’s a post over on cosmic variance that asks the question What is Scientific Literacy? Some of the comments reminded me of a book review I did for Nature a while ago, so I thought I’d put it on here.

My point is that teaching science isn’t about teaching facts, it’s about trying to develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills.
At least that’s what it should be, if only the dumbers-down would stop meddling.

BOOK REVIEWED Heavenly Errors: Misconceptions about the Real Nature of the Universe

by Neil F. Comins

Columbia University Press: 2001. 288 pp. $27.95, £18.95

Astronomy is a curious subject to teach. Even the most unpromising fledgling scientist has probably, at some stage, looked at the night sky and wondered about the meaning of it all. Students usually therefore enter the classroom with some preconceived notions about astronomical matters. These notions are often naïve, sometimes inaccurate, and occasionally downright bogus. The teaching of astronomy does not, therefore, begin with a blank piece of paper, as it does with other topics in physical science, but with the correction of misconceptions that may be deeply held.

In Heavenly Errors, Neil F. Comins illustrates the ambivalent consequences of astronomy’s peculiar allure with a series of commonly held misconceptions, misunderstandings and errors of logic. It is a promising idea for a book, particularly when the author has enlisted the willing help of thousands of undergraduate students to compile a list of frequently held wrong ideas about the Solar System and beyond. It is interesting to read of the origins of these misconceptions: Hollywood movies, astrology, the Internet and bad reporting of science all share some of the blame. But it’s even more interesting to look at the different kinds of misconception and what they tell us about the chasm that often lies between scientific thinking and the ‘common-sense’ reasoning they represent.

Ask why the weather is colder in the winter and you may well get the reply that, because its orbit is elliptical, the Earth is further from the Sun during winter than it is during summer and therefore receives less of the Sun’s power at that time of year. This explanation fails to explain why the Southern Hemisphere experiences summer at the same time as the Northern Hemisphere experiences winter, that is, at the same stage of the Earth’s orbit around the Sun. Talking through the logic of this example with students not only corrects the misconception, but also illustrates the scientific method by examining other necessary consequences of a given explanation before settling on the correct one. In this case, it is to do with the varying length of day and angle of the Sun in the sky.

Many of the examples presented by Comins are simple errors of fact. For example, “Polaris is the brightest star in the night sky”, comes in at number 8 in the top 50 Cosmic Clangers (it is Sirius). Many others do not justify being called misconceptions at all. Time travel, which Comins takes to be self-evidently impossible, is not, as he claims, excluded by the general theory of relativity. On the other hand, he states that black holes are definitely not black because they give off Hawking radiation — this despite the fact that Hawking radiation has not yet been observed in an astronomical object.

And what is a misconception anyway? Contrary to popular belief, planetary orbits are not circular, and yet circles provide a useful approximate description for many purposes. We are told that they are actually elliptical, but this is itself an approximation that ignores perturbations from other bodies and relativistic effects. Most scientific explanations are misconceptions if you view them like this.

Much of the early part of Heavenly Errors is excellent, particularly its explanations of the basic astronomical properties of the Sun, planets and comets. But further on, the book goes badly off the rails. Through its conflation of fact and theory, and its blurring of the distinction between truth and approximation, it turns into a misguided crusade that encourages the rote learning of factoids as a means to “acquire a sound scientific foundation for understanding nature”. I think this does more harm than good. T. H. Huxley, who knew a thing or two about science, put it best: “irrationally held truths may be more harmful than reasoned errors.”

2 Responses to “Factoid-based Learning”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    Unlearning is indeed a lot harder than learning.

  2. […] how poorly conceived the current GCSE science examinations are that I forgot that I’d already blogged about the lamentable tendency of the modern education system to concentrate on making kids swallow […]

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