Walking on the Moon? Don’t Be Stupid….

October 19th, 2010

I got an email from a professor I know. I know a lot of professors, and I won’t say who or where, but this should be more broadly known:

This past week I helped grade midterm exams for Calculus I…One of the problems involved an astronaut on the lunar surface throwing a rock vertically into the air.   The height of the rock, in meters, was explicitly given: s(t) = (*)t – 0.8t^2 where t is the time in seconds, and an explicit initial velocity (*) was given.   The last part of the problem asked for the acceleration due to gravity on the moon.   I was hoping that students could differentiate twice and answer -1.6 m/sec^2 (or more reasonably 1.6 m/sec^2).   However about 12 students (at least one in each class, writing the exam in different rooms) answered that “the acceleration is 0 because the moon has no gravity”.

This is reminiscent of the “Heavy Boots” story I first saw on usenet 20 years ago.   I don’t know if it’s true, but it is unfortunately plausible.

There are misconceptions out there that can make smart people sound stupid.   The truly smart person ferrets these things out and fixes them in their own head.   I have misconceptions, and because I write this blog sometimes they come out (e.g., thinking that Catholics actually believe what their church tells them about contraception, because I naively expect people to be self-consistent).   I’d rather get it right than keep believing something that isn’t true, but it’s hard work.

It’s easy to simply lament that our education is bad, that people are stupid…it’s harder to do something about it.

I do.   I don’t just whine about it on the internet.   I teach introductory astronomy to non-science majors, created Launch Pad, edited Diamonds in the Sky, give public talks, etc.   I’m giving an exam next week that covers surface gravity and the moon, among other things.   I’ll ask a question about this “no gravity on the moon” and see how well I did.   Unfortunately I don’t have a pre-test, but maybe I’ll do one next semester.   When talking about Galileo, Newton, and laws of motion, I did show this video, which is way cool:

My students, at least the ones who came to class that day, ought to remember. Seeing a video can shake a misconception loose in a way that just talking about it cannot, likewise seeing a video portraying something incorrectly can build or lock-in a misconception like cement (e.g., what an “asteroid field” looks like, as in Empire Strikes Back). That’s one reason I care about getting science in books and movies right.

Some of this stuff is small and funny, like a secretary who sent out an email advising us where to find newly installed recycling “bends.” Some of this stuff, however, leads to public opposition to science, bad policy, and more. Misconceptions about sex can lead to unwanted pregnancy, STDs, and death. Misconceptions about… There’s a long list of things like this. Sometimes it’s funny, but sometimes it’s very serious, and it’s hard to know where to draw the line.

Next time you hear someone say something you think is wrong, correct them, politely and casually. Smart people can handle it. But try to be absolutely sure that the misconception is theirs, and not yours. That’s having integrity.


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