(c)1997 William Beaty

Like the disease infections which travel between hosts, information travels between textbooks. It does so when students are taught from one book, then later they grow up, become authors, and write new textbooks.

This sort of information-spreading can happen faster when an author uses earlier textbooks as references when writing a new textbook. In this way, one text or reference book can directly "infect" many others with its own information.

As in any disease epidemic, a particular piece of information can spread exponentially: the more textbooks it occupies, the more likely it is that other textbooks will acquire it. The spread of a particular fact can often be more than exponential: the more textbooks it occupies, the higher we'll perceive its credibility to be. If many textbooks assert the same thing, authors will include that fact in their newly-written texts. They might not check the fact for accuracy. After all, a concensus among a large number of textbook authors cannot possibly be wrong. Or so we might believe.

Textbooks and humans act as independent populations which can infect each other with information. Textbooks are "disease vectors" which spread information (Or if you want to get Dawkins-esque, information has a life of its own, and a human author is simply an efficient "disease vector" which the Information uses to spread itself to other books!)


There is even a "Typhoid Mary" phenomena. If a piece of information manages to worm its way into an authoritative reference book, it spreads like wildfire.

Unfortunately, all of the above information-spreading methods can operate regardless of whether a piece of information is true or false.

Unless the authors are experts in their fields, the bad information can be spread almost as easily as the good. If most reference books contain a particular error, then all new books will probably aquire that error too. Useful knowledge can spread among texts and references, but this makes them vulnerable to a "disease" of misleading facts, incorrect facts, and common misconceptions.

Some authors are obviously more prone to the "infection" process than others. Suppose a certain non-expert author relies more on reference books than on direct personal knowledge of their subject. OR suppose that author simply COPIES material from earlier editions of a textbook which he or she did not write. That author will be far more likely to pass along misinformation. And if some authors adopt the philosophy that "this many other textbooks can't be wrong", then those authors will defeat their own mental immune systems. They will easily spread common misconceptions. If they are swayed more, as more books become infected, they may spread the misconceptions faster than exponentially.

Disease immunity is an issue. Incorrect information competes with correct information for the same "environmental niche" within the population of books. The disease analogy still fits: it's much the same way that cowpox gives immunity against smallpox. If you're a genuine expert, and you *know* the correct information via direct real-world experience, then the misconception cannot infect you. Yet this works both ways: if an expert has been taught the misconception early during student days, then any later encounters with the correct information will fall on deaf ears.

Evolutionary forces may be significant in textbook "diseases." As an error travels from book to book, it can start out as an inadvertent mistake, and over time and replications it can be honed and polished into a ravening plague which invariably forces all the correct information out of new textbooks.

In other words, incorrect yet simple "facts" can push out the more complicated truths.

There is an uninfected population of books and humans as well as an infected population. There is also a population which became immune via "innoculation." Authors, students, and educators who are intentionally made aware of the error can no longer become infected.

Perhaps even an active "immune system" exists: those who are made aware of the germ theory of Information-transfer can begin constructing a strong intellectual immune system which deals with all sorts of "killer diseases." People who become hyper-sensitive to misconceptions and errors in textbooks will tend to defeat the newly arizing infections which they've never before encountered.

Here's the best route to personally conquering the disease: search out information about misconceptions. Don't just try to "learn," to aquire textbook knowledge. Also build up your defenses by learning about your "enemy": learn the tricks and techniques typically employed by the the bad information which wants to infect your brain.

That's what you're doing right at this moment by reading this essay. Everybody please form a line and roll up your sleeves! (grin!)

See also:
  • Electricity essay collection
  • Electricity misconceptions list
  • K-6 Grade physics misconceptions list
  • References: electricity misconceptions
  • References: physics misconceptions
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