K-6 Textbooks and
in Popular Culture
©1996 William J. Beaty
The complex and abstract nature of Science makes the subject hard to
understand. But complexity is not the only reason that Science is
confusing. The subject is made much more difficult by the presence of
numerous misleading "Science Myths" which circulate in the popular
culture, which are handed down from parents to children, and which have
become so common and widespread that they even appear in science textbooks
and are taught as facts in elementary school.
These "science myths" or "urban legends of science" present major barriers
to students because the kids must un-learn the misleading materia before
they can make further progress in their understanding. Unfortunately,
this process of unlearning happens rarely. After all, the myths
are supported by so many teachers, and they appear in so many textbooks.
Most people never suspect their presence. If a particular concept in
science seems impossible to understand, students won't blame their books.
Instead they'll blame themselves, or perhaps will blame the new concept
for being too complex/abstract. Teachers won't suspect that
errors are present in the books, reasoning that if several books teach the
same concept in exactly the same way, how could all those books be wrong?
Why do textbooks spread misconceptions? Because there are very strong
forces preserving the mistakes. Any attempt to fix the problems will
trigger a vigorous backlash. Tolstoy says it well:
"I know that most men, including those at ease with problems of the
greatest complexity, can seldom accept even the simplest and most
obvious truth if it be such as would oblige them to admit the falsity
of conclusions which they have delighted in explaining to collegues,
which they have proudly taught to others, and which they have woven,
thread by thread, into the fabric of their lives."
Or less kindly: "A lie repeated often enough becomes the truth."
Below is a collection of misconceptions I collected from science textbooks
at the Kindergarten to 6th grade levels. Since physics is my specialty,
errors involving this topic stand out for me, and the major part of the
list involves physics misconceptions. (There may be misconceptions in
other subjects, but I never "unlearned" them, and therefor cannot see