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AM I JUST A PEDANTIC
SCIENCE-NITPICKER?
William Beaty 1998

NOTE: many of my articles contain advice aimed at teachers and authors rather than for everyone else. For example, in science classrooms, particular 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. But for the rest of us out in the everyday world, we're free to use words in all kinds of crazy ways.

Textbooks and educators 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 stop tolerating any words whcih have vague or incorrect meanings. Just give some very narrow definitions to the terms you commonly use (For example, terms like Electricity. Or Power, Current, or Energy.) Habitually use only the Scientific definitions of those words. And declare all of the many other "common everyday" definitions to be wrong. Then teach yourself to explain things while using that rigidly simple language. Eventually even teach yourself to think exclusively in that narrow language. If you banish the fog from your definitions of words, you can often banish the fog from your understanding as well.

Then, once you've clearly seen the correct concepts, you can go out into the everyday electronics world and use any terms, in any screwy way you wish. Colleagues will know what you mean. (But if you someday want to teach your understanding to non-experts, it certainly helps if you can strip away much of the misleading and ambiguous fog from your words.)


 

Let me first tell a little about myself. I'm not a teacher. I have a great respect for the teaching profession, and I don't know if I would be a very good fulltime 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.) 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 a professional nitpicker who can't stand tiny flaws. Instead there is a story behind this. I was 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. I wanted to find out how to explain electricity to 6th-graders. 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 in the way that "atoms are little solar systems" is wrong; this was different. The authors 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 air is a form of invisible energy.

The authors of those books clearly suffered from many electricity misconceptions usually limited to beginning students. Unfortunately, the authors were not students anymore, they were science experts, and they were teaching their 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 the information in their science textbooks? (Later I found that RP Feynman had a similar encounter. See an excerpt from Judging Books by their Covers. Fascinating)

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 accurate information learned later 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 kept collapsing.

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. I 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 world of "electricity." 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 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 normal, expected misconceptions that most students pick up accidentally and then carry forever. 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 " BAD SCIENCE" and the hitcount really soared.

Am I just a pedantic science-nitpicker? No. I'm 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. I originally didn't understand simple electrical physics at all, but I didn't know it (this after getting a BS in Electrical Engineering!) Later I finally figured out what was wrong, fixed my problems, 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" in a list so that others could eliminate theirs as well.

Of course my 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.' This is a list 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: our over-reliance on the expertise of others, and our lack of critical thought given to 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 a major learning barrier which many others encounter.

I can say all the above because "trivial nitpicking" of unclear terminology certainly doesn't attract large numbers of emotional "thank you" letters!

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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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."
- 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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