William Beaty 1998

NOTE: many of my Electricity articles contain advice aimed at teachers and authors, 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 way!

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 this 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 expert...

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!

Clearly Something Must be Done! [grin!]

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 information out 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 explain electricity 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 learned.

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. Feynman
I 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 you" letters!

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, 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 Critical Thinking.

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.

"Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts." -RP Feynman
Finally, we should always remember that when something seems complicated and very hard to understand, much of the time it really is a tough subject. But sometimes the problem is caused by misleading explanations or wrong explanations.

Thanks for listening to my rants!

- Bill Beaty


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"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."
- Dr. Craig F. Bohren, from his "Clouds in a Glass of Beer:
Simple experiments in atmospheric physics"

"(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." -Spinoza
And 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.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson

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