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Common Misconceptions and Modern Education

When I was in second or perhaps third grade, my elementary school class took a field trip to local museum that was an authentic colonial era home in New England (where such houses are not all that rare). The house was largely decorated in the manner that it would have been during the colonial era, and had only been retouched as needed to maintain the building. They employed actors to churn butter and spin thread and all manner of other enthralling eighteenth century activities, much to our juvenile dismay. As a part of the field trip, a tour guide led us around the house, explaining what life was like shortly before and after the American revolution for the average homeowner (although considering the fact that the house was visited by George Washington at one point, I am not sure just how average this homeowner was). When we arrived in the dining room, we were told of how men would get their first pick of the night's meal, leaving the rest for the wife and children. Our attention was then drawn to the windows, which were thicker at the bottom than there were at the top. This, we were told, is because even though glass looks and feels solid, it is actually a very slow flowing liquid which is why it has flowed downwards over the last 250 years. Naturally, this was a very nice little fun fact for all of us. Of course, it was wrong.

Glass is not a liquid at room temperature, and it only flows at higher temperatures than would ever occur in the context of the average family dining room. The window was simply thicker at the bottom because glass panes used to be created through a process of spinning a disc of molten glass, which would result in uneven shaping of the glass. The thicker part of the glass had simply been installed at the bottom of the window frame, likely for stability purposes. Glass objects much older than that colonial window had not misshapen over time, and yet here we were being taught that glass was a liquid rather than a solid. Certainly, the tour guide did not mean to mislead us, and none of the students or the teacher knew to correct them. Indeed, I believed that that lesson was accurate for another 12 years or so, when I stumbled upon a very useful wikipedia article (A List of Common Misconceptions, referenced below). As I went through this list, I discovered that this had not been a fluke, and that there were actually several false statements that I had been taught as fact and which I had internalized as such. So what are some of these common errors that are errantly taught as truth in the current educational system, or in other areas that children frequently encounter? And what are the implications of failing to fact check the information you provide to children?

Misconceptions

As was mentioned above, wikipedia has a more extensive list of common misconceptions, some of which I had never heard of and others which I had never really considered in any regard. Below is simply a list of some of the misconceptions I was taught in school, despite their inaccuracy.

Eight Glasses of Water a Day

In middle school we all began to take “health” classes, which at that stage were primarily focused on topics like nutrition and home economics type skills such as cooking or sewing. This was also in a time where the food pyramid was still in vogue, and we were taught to eat 10 servings of grains per day and so on. In addition, we were told that we need to drink eight glasses of water every day to meet our body's need for hydration. And this fact seemed quite reasonable to everyone. So reasonable, in fact, that it seems to be repeated in many contexts and most people have internalized it as a fact.

In reality, though, I doubt that most people actually monitor their daily water intake by the glass and certainly unless one is partaking in strenuous exercise then there is no reason to consume that much water in one day. Where the eight glass figure came from is unclear, but it is not accurate, as each person's daily water requirement will vary based on their size and weight, as well as their rate of water loss (due to changes in kidney function, exercise, etc.). Furthermore, water can and is primarily derived from the food you eat. Fresh fruits and vegetables are generally rich in water, and most foods contain at least a modicum of water that counts towards any daily need for water you might have. If you are thirsty, certainly drink more water, but do not find yourself beholden to imaginary water requirements.

Columbus and The Flat Earth

I cannot remember to what extent this was taught in school, but I know that in many instances during my childhood I encountered the idea that when Columbus set off on his voyage that eventually ended in the Americas, most of the world thought that the Earth was flat. These nasayers thought that Columbus was crazy for trying to reach India by way of the Pacific ocean, because he would clearly fall right off the edge of the world. Whether this is taught in school two very young children, or is simply a common trope in cartoons and Columbus day specials, it is quite clearly false. At that point in time, virtually everyone was well aware of the fact that the Earth was a rough sphere. People simply thought that Columbus was underestimating just how long it would take for him to reach Asia by wat of the Atlantic ocean, and they were correct in that regard, although they were not aware of the existence of the Americas, that Columbus was soon to “discover”. And of course, Columbus did not discover the Americas. There were clearly discovered originally by migratory tribes that eventually settled as Native Americans, and since that time the Americas were discovered at least one other time by Lief Erikson prior to Columbus' arrival, founding a settlement in Newfoundland called L'Anse aux Meadows or Vinland.

Napoleon's Height

This is a misconception that I was taught in high school, when we were learning about enlightened despots and Napoleon's conquests. We were shown images of Napoleon astride his horse, and were taught that despite his grandiose image, he was actually rather short and that perhaps he was trying to compensate for his perceived short stature with his extensive grand imagery. After all, Napoleon was only 5 feet 2 inches tall. That figure was recorded in French feet, however, which do not correspond to the modern Imperial system of measurement by which Napoleon would have been 5 feet 7 inches tall, which was in fact taller than the average person of his time, as average height has increased over time due to changes in diet and lifestyle. Instead, perceptions of Naploeon's height seem to come from the fact that he was affectionately nicknamed the “Little Corporal”, and that he chose very tall men as his imperial guards, which made him appear even shorter by comparison. No, Napoleon did not decide to conquer half of Europe to make up for his height deficits.

The War of the Worlds

In school and growing up at home, I was twice taught about an amusing anecdote that occurred around the era of the rise of the radio. When radio was an up and coming medium in the 1930's, producer and personality Orson Welles produced a radio play version of H G Welles' classic science fiction novel The War of The Worlds. The presentation was so lifelike and well produced, that listeners who tuned in part way through the broadcast were confused and frightened by what they heard, causing them to call the police about the reports of an alien invasion taking place in their backyard. The panic was wide spread, and was clearly a testament to the gullibility of people in the past and the power of Welles' production. Of course, the incident didn't happen quite like that. Yes, Welles produced a version of the War of the Worlds radio play, and yes, there were a very few reported instances of people calling emergency services about the alien invasion, however those reports were very rare and were evidently promoted by newspapers, anxious to discredit radio as a competing media venture. Welles discovered that these reports were also benefitting his own radio efforts, and, ever the showman, he embraced them, propagating the myth.

Gringo Home

Gringo is likely familiar to anyone that is somewhat aware of Mexican American culture and relations between Mexico and the USA. It is most common as a word used to refer to foreigners and in particular Americans present in Mexican areas. The world originated during the Mexican American war, in which US troops that invaded Mexico wore green uniforms, and were chased off to chants of “green go!”, which was eventually shortened to “gringo”. Or so I was taught in my high school history or possibly Spanish class. This is of course, rather silly - why would the Spanish speaking Mexican troops be shouting “green go” in English in the first place? Apparently this myth has also been attributed to any other number of armed encounters between English and Spanish speaking troops in the Mexican arena over time, however all such instances are false. Instead, the word has etymological origins more in line with what it currently means - it stems from a Greek word that meant foreigner.

Ravenous Black Holes

Given the popularity of science fiction as a genera, it is no surprise that black holes occupy a central place in any discussion of the mysteries of space. Any child knows that black holes form a ravenous maw in space that sucks in anything surrounding it, dooming the devoured substances to oblivion as even light cannot escape. And of course, if you were to approach a black hole and fall into its gravity well then yes, you would be subject to its ability to pull in everything including light in the surrounding area. However, this gravity well would be the same size as when the black hole was a star - black holes do not have some power to such in matter that they would not have already been able to suck in. If our sun were to somehow become a black hole without destroying all of the Solar System in a supernova, then the orbit of the Earth would remain the same, as the black hole that had replaced our sun would have the same gravitational properties as the sun at such a distance. Black holes do not pull in all matter any more than they did in their previous star forms.

Manmade Monuments from Space

There is no debating the fact that the Great Wall of China is impressive. The sheer engineering it must have taken to coordinate the construction of a wall that is 5-10 thousand miles long is tremendous, and the fact that the wall has stood for thousands of years serves as a testament to its defensive power. As such, it is no surprise that this prominent monument is the only manmade monument that can be seen from space. Of course, that is not true. With a high resolution satellite photo, any monument can be seen from space, but with the average human eye in low earth orbit the Great Wall of China simply will not be visible. Think about it - the wall is very thin, and it is the same color as the surrounding earth. The mere fact that it is long does not mean that it is visible from space; perhaps if all of the material forming the wall were compiled in a single area then an astronaut would be able to see the wall, but for now it remains invisible to the naked eye from that high in the sky.

Drowning

Drowning is a particularly awful way to die, as ones lungs fill with water, cutting off the air supply and leading to oxygen deprivation and death. As anyone could tell you from watching television, anyone that is in danger of drowning in the water will yell and flail their arms wildly to try to attract attention, and it is only in this way that they can attract the attention they need to be rescued. Naturally, and perhaps surprisingly, this turns out not to be the case. If someone is able to flail about wildly then they are not in immediate danger of drowning (though of course they may still be in danger and need of rescue). As you begin to drown and water enters the lungs, a reflex in the body is triggered, and the drowning individual will flap their arms up and down. Additionally, they will not be able to scream or even talk as their body's essential functions shut down. This means that someone who is drowning in the water may not be able to call for help, and because their actions may not appear frantic most people will not realize that they need help. Fortunately, while the average person may not be aware of what drowning really looks like, lifeguards are trained to look for the warning signs, somewhat reducing the danger of this misconception in a monitored environment.

Left Brain, Right Brain, All Brain, No Brain

The brain, and especially the human brain, is the most complex thing known in existence, capable of producing sentience and a complexity of data storage that humans at present simply cannot match. Given the massive power of the mind and the relatively poor understanding of just how it works (for example, we do not even currently know how memory works at a biological level), it is perhaps unsurprising that misconceptions about the nature of the brain and the mind have proliferated in the world.

In middle school my entire class were told to take personality tests that would help us find out if we were left brained or right brained. Left brained people naturally used the left side of their brain more, and this side of the brain makes them better at things like art and personal interactions, whereas right brained people have brains that are better suited for pursuits such as math and reasoning. By knowing what kind of brain lateralization we had, we would be able to better determine what we are best at and how to interact with others. Of course, that's not how the brain works. Certain brain functions favor certain areas of the brain, but no one uses one half of the brain more than another, and the lateralization of functions does not determine one's personality. This, and for that matter all other personality type tests, have little basis in reality and are more used as marketing tools or means of producing false teamwork. Even so, such tests still seem widely used in both schools and workplaces.

While our brains are already huge relative to the size of our bodies, they are filled with untapped potential that is just there waiting for us to unlock it. Everyone knows that humans use a mere 10% of their cognitive power. In reality, we use 100% of our brains - brains are the largest energy consuming organs in the body, and it would be incredibly wasteful not to take full advantage of the brain's power. Neural imaging scans suggest that we do not use 100% of the brain at any given time, but at different times we do make use of the entirety of the brain. Claims that there is a secretive 90% of the brain remaining to be utilized for ESP or other mental powers are little more than speculative fictions.

The Many Senses

In first grade any child can tell you that the body has five senses that allow us to appreciate the world around us and respond to it accordingly. These senses are taste, touch, sight, smell, and hearing, and it is very important for us to understand them for our daily lives. These senses are those originally mentioned by Aristotle, and they have stuck with us throughout the entirety of human education. In reality, humans have many more senses than these lone five. We can feel acceleration (imagine how you can tell that a car is moving faster or slowing down), and we have the capacity for proprioception (the ability to tell where our limbs are, even if our eyes are closed) among others. The notion that we have only five sense fails to fully appreciate all that the human body is capable of.

In addition, most children are taught that the sense of taste includes the ability to taste four distinct flavors - sweet, sour, bitter, and salty, and that the tongue has different areas that are specialized to taste each of these flavors. In truth, the tongue does not have specialized flavor tasting areas, and instead the ion channels necessary for tasting different flavors are spread evenly over the surface of the tongue. In addition, humans can taste at least one other basic taste - umami, or savoryness, which is a flavor that provides food with a sense of richness and that can be impacted by condiments such as MSG.

Pennies from Heaven

In fifth grade we were discussing responsibility, and somehow the notion came up of what would happen if one were to drop a penny off of the empire state building. As the building is very tall and the coin would continue to accelerate as it fell down the thousands of feet to the ground, by the time it made it to the ground it would be moving so quickly that it would make a hole in the ground and it could even potentially kill someone if it were to land on them. Naturally, this fascinated our morbid curiosity, and no doubt everyone wanted to try the penny drop experiment themselves. Of course, it reality they would have been disappointed with the outcome (not to mention the fact that they would find it quite hard to thrown anything from the observation deck of the Empire State Building or most other tall buildings). The penny would continue to accelerate until the force of air resistance on the coin caused it to stop moving any faster, thus reaching a terminal velocity. The speed of this terminal velocity, coupled with the low mass of the coin, would simply not produce enough force to do any lasting damage to what it hit (although it could certainly still hurt, and it should not be encouraged).

Teaching Falsehoods to Children

As is likely evident from reading through this list, most of these myths are likely relatively benign. Children will not gain any altered opinions of the world from mistakenly thinking that glass is a flowing liquid (provided they do not become material scientists clinging to a third grade education), nor from the thought that people in the 1930's truly believed they were living through a dreaded Martian invasion. No, misconceptions like these stand as little more than fun “facts” that these children will repeat over and over to their friends and families as they age, without any real negative impact. Other myths, such as the myth of eight glasses of water a day, or of Columbus' flat Earth doubters, may create skewed opinions of health, nutrition, and euro centrism that though unintended will be internalized and may be difficult to shake in later life. But regardless of how harmful the individual myths may or may not be, there is something exceedingly wrong with the fact that children can be taught facts that simply are not true.

In elementary school, children are at an age and of a mindset where they view their teachers, and adults in general, as sources of infallible knowledge. As such, anything that they are taught in an academic setting will stick into later life, unless it is corrected. It is thus essential that teachers fact check the information they are giving to their students and question all that they are told. While it may be easier to parrot the factoid about consuming eight glasses of water a day and you may simply be trying to promote adequate hydration in young children, you are still providing them with false information. If you are going to teach something to a child, consider first whether or not you know for a fact that it is true. If it is a scientific question, consider why such a fact may or may not be true. Be sure you appreciate that children will believe you unless they specifically know an example that refutes what you say, so it is your duty as an educator to provide correct education, until children reach such an age that they can critically consider what it is that they are taught.

I have a friend who teaches the advanced students in his local elementary school. As one lesson, he goes through the List of Misconceptions with his students, pointing out many of the above referenced errors that the children may well have been taught at this point in their education. He then goes on to explain why the error exists and what the truth of it is, so that the children realize that there is an explanation for why they were taught incorrect information. While in a sense this may serve to undermine the children's respect for their teachers' infallibility, this is important, as children need to at some point reach a level where they have critical thinking skills. We need to be able to teach children not to accept anything as fact simply because they heard it from someone in a position of power. Instead, children should be taught to demand evidence when possible and reasonable. In that way, not only may we eliminate these common misconceptions from the current educational system, but we will produce children that are better able to think for themselves and interpret the world that they see around them.

References


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