AM I JUST A PEDANTIC
NOTE: many of my Electricity articles contain advice aimed at teachers and
rather than for everyone else. For example, in science classrooms,
certain words must have very clear and narrow meanings. Any misuse
will often give serious misconceptions to students. For the same reason,
science textbooks need to be extremely clear and unambiguous. The same is
true for science research, and for engineering.
But for the
rest of us out in the everyday world, we're free to use words in all kinds
of crazy ways.
Educators and especially their textbooks should be the
targets of extreme nitpicking. It's important. On the other hand, if you
personally find certain parts of science
confusing, then often you can cure this problem ...with nitpicking!
Simply refuse to tolerate any words with vague or incorrect
meanings. Instead we can give some very narrow definitions to the terms we
commonly use (for example, terms like Electricity. Or Power, Current, or
Energy.) Carefully and habitually use only the Proper Scientific
Definitions of those words. And then, declare all "common everyday"
definitions to be wrong. Finally, go out and learn to explain technical
topics while employing this rigidly simple language. Eventually we can
even teach ourselves to think exclusively in that narrow language.
If we banish the fog from our definitions of
words, we banish the fog from our understanding as well.
Then, once we've clearly seen the correct concepts, aced the final exams,
received our certificates (or our degrees,) then we can go out into
the everyday electronics world and use terms in any screwy way we
wish. Colleagues will know what we mean. (But if we someday want to
teach our understanding to non-experts, it certainly helps if we can
strip away much of the misleading and ambiguous fog from our words.)
"Lest you think that I am quibbling over minor points of language, I note that in my experience many of the misconceptions people harbor have their origins in imprecise language... Precise language is needed in science, not to please pedants but to avoid absorbing nonsense that will take years, if ever, to purge from our minds." - CF Bohren, atmospheric physicist
First a bit about myself. I'm not a teacher. I have a great respect for the teaching profession, and I don't know if I'd be a very good classroom teacher if I tried it myself. Also, I'm not a professional author, and I'm aware of the huge amount of skilled work needed to produce a good book (as opposed to throwing together a website like I've done here.) What I am is a professional electronics designer. I'm also still a science student, and hope always to be one.
Where did my Textbook Misconceptions List come from? No, I'm not just some professional nitpicker who can't stand tiny flaws. Instead there's a story behind this. I started out as one of those students who developed a deep love of physical science. Over the years I slowly learned to "dance" with the subject, to find massive interconnections between separate parts, until physics eventually became for me like a vast ballet, or like a gigantic puzzle where most pieces connect together in a deeply satisfying way. It all made sense, and it had the depths of esthetics like gourmet food or profound art.
Then during my science-museum exhibit design work in 1988, I acquired a
stack of elementary school textbooks. We were working on our new
Electricity/Electronics exhibit, and I wanted to find out how to explain
electricity to 6th-graders. But when reading the books I was totally
stunned. The electricity chapters were wrong. Terribly terribly wrong,
and it wasn't just simple factual errors. Also, they weren't wrong like
saying "atoms are little solar systems" this was different. The authors
clearly had no grasp of their subject. The books' electricity chapters
were teaching bizarre things. If "electricity" is like a gas, then the
books were doing the equivalent of teaching us that wind moves at the
speed of light, or that sound waves are the same as air molecules. Or
that nitrogen is a kind of invisible energy.
The authors of those books clearly suffered from electricity
misconceptions usually limited to beginning students. Unfortunately, the
authors were not students anymore, they were 'science experts,' and they
were teaching their own misconceptions to huge numbers of students and
teachers. Could any K-6
students ever avoid acquiring a misconception, if that misconception
has the stamp of approval of the ultimate authority: their science
textbook? And, could any teachers dare to really understand a
subject, if in order to understand the subject, they must distrust and
reject all information in their texts? (Later I found that RP Feynman had
a similar encounter. See an excerpt from Judging Books by their
Covers. Fascinating. A problem which totally defeated RP Feynman.)
After my encounter with those books, I slowly realized that my own
understanding of basic electricity was flawed and incomplete. So I sat down
and started re-teaching myself the subject. I became aware of the source
of my problem: I myself had learned a bunch of electricity misconceptions
as a child. Those early misconceptions gave me a faulty foundation on
which to build further knowledge. As a result, any later accurate
information became distorted in my mind even as I learned it. If the
foundation is distorted, then the "building" cannot be built. It was like
trying to build a brick wall on top of a garbage pile: the incoming bricks
are perfectly good, but they simply did not fit upon earlier concepts, and
any structures that I managed to build would collapse.
My solution as an engineering student had been typical: dive into
mathematics, understand electricity in the form of interconnected
equations, but without having any real, visual, gut-level "feel" for the
concepts. School was turning my brain into a Spice program, a math
simulation. But this didn't help me explain electricity to the
public! I couldn't even explain it to myself. So... should I just tell
everyone "first learn algebra and calculus, and a bit of Quantum
Mechanics, then come back and ask me about Electricity"? No
As an experienced adult who was re-examining his childhood misconceptions,
I found that it was fairly easy to root out the bad stuff and to
construct a sensible view of the "electricity" world. Slowly I came to
look at electrical physics and circuitry in a new light, seeing them
not as abstractions or just some math models, but instead I learned
to see them in a direct, visual, gut-level way. I'd never been able to do
before. I'd been blind for decades. Until finally I learned to "see"
again, I didn't realize how poorly I understood this aspect of physics!
Yet as a degreed electrical engineer, I was supposed to be an
These experiences made me realize that the entire general public is in the
same predicament as I was, but without having the benefit of a physics
education to teach them all of the math. Think about it: Why couldn't I
understand electricity? Because I had misconceptions about it. Why was
this? In part it was because of those few, normal, expected
misconceptions that most students pick up accidentally and then carry
forever after. But the majority of my misconceptions had been
specifically taught to me. The misconceptions appeared in children's
books, in my K-12 science textbooks long ago, and they were still in most
modern textbooks. My books had given me a set of serious, nearly
unbreachable learning barriers. Similar books were still out there at
present, giving everyone else the same barriers!
At first I tried writing letters to textbook and encyclopedia publishers,
but that was an uphill battle. Who was I, that I could tell them that
their books were wrong, especially when all other books also say
the same thing as theirs? I used the
extensive misconception list while
designing electricity exhibits for Museum of Science. Later I did some
consulting work for a more tolerant
publisher, but the company moved to Texas and the whole project was
suddenly cancelled after much unpaid work. I gave up in frustration.
Along comes internet. Finally! A simple way to get this
into the world! I wrote up my "misconceptions" page and I've been adding
to it ever since. Then A. B. Frazer linked my page to his "BAD SCIENCE" and
the hitcount really soared.
So, am I just a pedantic science-nitpicker? No. I'm a professional
engineer paid by a national science museum in a years-long project to
correctly. I'm also a student who has
discovered great personal flaws, who has gone through a recent traumatic
learning experience, has stumbled on some important keys to understanding.
And now I want to benefit the other students by telling them what I
My experience occurred after I had become an adult, so it's still fresh in
my mind, and I can explain how I achieved the breakthrough. Despite my
BSEE degree I didn't understand simple electrical physics at all, but I
knew the math, so I wasn't aware of any problem. Later I finally figured
out what was wrong, fixed my errors, and now I understand it pretty well.
In an attempt to aid other people, I examined myself, I assumed that
others might have problems like mine, and so I put my old "learning barriers" into a
list so that others could eliminate their barriers as well.
Of course my little list isn't 100% perfect, so I hope that it will form a
basis for improvement and conceptual change, rather than becoming just
another textbook; just another source of 'Ultimate Truth.' The list is
mostly of misconceptions which tripped me up personally. Other people
will have different lists (although I believe I've hit upon some common,
widespread misconceptions and not just my own quirky mistakes.)
"We cannot define anything precisely! If we attempt to, we get into that paralysis of thought that comes to philosophers, who sit opposite each other, one saying to the other, 'You don't know what you are talking about!' The second one says 'What do you mean by know? What do you mean by talking? What do you mean by you?', and so on." - R. FeynmanI certainly don't want to set myself up as another ultimate content expert! After all, that's one reason the misconceptions got into textbooks in the first place: from our over-reliance on the expertise of others, and our lack of critical thought aimed at presumably-authoritative printed words. If I can make people take a critical look at their textbooks, I also expect them to take a critical look at *me,* the critic. And finally: "Whoever undertakes to set himself up as a judge of Truth and Knowledge is shipwrecked by the laughter of the gods." -Einstein
Back to the purpose of this message. I receive two main classes of
response about my miscon page. One small group says "These aren't
*really* errors, only a nitpicker would care about them?!" The other much
larger group says "After thirty years of being confused about electricity,
I finally understand it! Thank you!" And many of the second
type of messages come from technical people.
The second type of response gives me grave doubts about accepting the
message of the first. So, be warned. If some educator reads my lists and
thinks "These aren't real errors, they're just nitpicking", that
person might have reasons to trivialize these genuine errors. That person
might be threatened by this information, since it reveals that they've
been misleading their students. Or perhaps they're like I was: their
misconceptions make them blind, and they can't see the errors until they
start re-teaching themselves the correct concepts.
At the very least, perhaps they avoided these misconceptions during
their own student career, and now they're trivializing the importance of
major learning barriers encountered by everyone else.
I confidently state all the above because "trivial nitpicking" of unclear
terminology certainly doesn't attract large numbers of emotional "thank
Who are the nitpickers? Why, any author who wants to "get it right," who wants to avoid spreading misinformation far and wide. And any student who wants to "cut through all the BS" and clearly see how things really work. Also the entire communities of scientists and engineers, of course. Terrible pedantic nitpickers, they should be ashamed! <grin>Obviously all these misconceptions recorded in my lists don't give serious learning barriers to everyone. But they surely did for me. From the email I receive, as well as from talking to fellow engineers and electronics techs, I find that these misconceptions give serious learning barriers to a majority of technical people. Since most of the misconceptions come from science textbooks, it makes sense that different people would end up with the same misconceptions that I did. If I show others how I cured my particular misconceptions, then it could cure theirs as well. Maybe.
Yes, my lists are criticism, constructive criticism I hope. As with all
criticism, there is a danger that other authors and educators will ignore
them because at first glance I seem to be doing a sort of namecalling,
possibly motivated by anger. I admit there is a bit of this aspect to my
writing, but just a bit. I feel ripped off by my K-12 classes, and I see
the same thing happening to students even now. But I can't blame the
teachers for this, any more than I blame myself for becoming 'infected' by
the same misconceptions. The disease affects the teachers too, not just
the students. We shouldn't think in terms of blame. We should think in
terms of recognizing the existence of the "disease", and of breaking the
cycle of 'infection.' We should attack the "disease", not its victims.
And please don't get turned off by the huge problems my lists imply! If
you would, see them as constructive criticism, as suggestions for change,
not as a hostile attack on the science teaching profession.
There is another lesson here: if textbooks contain errors and
misconceptions, and if the problems can never be entirely eliminated, then
there is only one cure: students and teachers must learn and practice
We must attempt to teach students to question authority, to distrust their
own textbooks, to look
suspiciously at parents and educators. :) People and books are always
imperfect. If we have a good, solid, well-written textbook, maybe we can
put 95% of our trust in it, but we should never trust anything 100%. We
should cultivate distrust in published authority: critical thinking
requires that no expert be above criticism.
Thanks for listening to my rants!
- Bill Beaty
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OTHERS WITH SIMILAR OPINIONS:
"Lest you think that I am quibbling over minor points of language, I note that in my experience many of the misconceptions people harbor have their origins in imprecise language... Precise language is needed in science, not to please pedants but to avoid absorbing nonsense that will take years, if ever, to purge from our minds."
"(language) becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts." - George Orwell
"The search for the MOT JUSTE is not a pedantic fad but a vital necessity. Words are our precision tools. Imprecision engenders ambiguity and hours are wasted in removing verbal misunderstandings before the argument of substance can begin." - ANONYMOUS CIVIL SERVANT (from Roget's Thesaurus Webpage)
"Many errors, of a truth, consist merely in the application of the wrong names of things." -SpinozaAnd then there are these...
It is noble to teach oneself, but still nobler to teach others---and less trouble. -Mark Twain
A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds.