K-6 Textbooks and
"Science Myths" 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 them!)



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