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Ozone Hole Leaks and Other Tales

Filed under: — group @ 5 April 2007 - (Türkçe)

Guest commentary by Figen MekikGrand Valley State University

“But Figen, humid air feels oppressive, heavy!” students told me, almost in unison. A very treasured moment indeed. I just got a glimpse of probably a long held misconception: water vapor is heavier than dry air. So, we took out our periodic tables and calculators, and went on to calculate the molecular weight of H2O and how it compares to that of N2 and O2 (most of the atmosphere). Happy that I corrected a major fallacy, I didn’t see the rest coming.

Apparently, there are many other sinister fallacies lurking just underneath the surface of the heavy wet air idea. One student asked “is the formula for water vapor the same as for liquid water?” and was astonished to find out that it is always H2O regardless of phase, even in ice! I said “we like to keep things simple in science” and a couple of ladies giggled “as if!”

Then another admitted that he always thought water split into H2 and O2 upon evaporation which would make wet air heavy. Another student answered him with “No way man. When water vapor condenses to liquid, the molecules get bigger which is why liquid water is heavier than vapor.” So we had a long discussion about molecular dynamics of evaporation and condensation. Also, once I helped the students realize the stark contrast between what they think they know (water vapor is heavy) and something else they know from the Weather Channel (low pressure means rain), the cognitive dissonance (the psychological tension created by conflicting knowledge) drove them to question both “bits of knowledge” and to adjust their ideas. By the end of the hour, they were saying this is SOOO weird, humid air rises. Who knew!

Here are some other common and very tenacious misconceptions:

[1] Seasons are caused by cyclical changes in Earth’s proximity to the Sun. The main causes underlying this one likely are that [a] intuitively it makes sense and [b] textbooks frequently exaggerate the eccentricity of Earth’s orbit to the extreme that such an idea is logical. The problem is this misconception is extremely popular, from kindergarten to high school physics teachers. A very confused young man once told me openly “Well, my third grade teacher told me that the Earth’s axis is tilted and that is why we get different seasons and it’s winter in the northern hemisphere, when it’s summer in the southern hemisphere. My high school earth science teacher told me during the summer we are closer to the Sun and summers are hot everywhere. Now you are saying my grade school teacher was right all along. And there is all this hype about sunspot activity being the real cause behind global warming. Since the Sun causes our seasons for whatever reason, that sounds believable to me. But you say it’s CO2 in the atmosphere causing global warming. How do I know I can trust you?”

He has a point! And it is very difficult to address the inconsistencies in his education convincingly. I could have told him about my PhD and that I am a climate scientist, but that really doesn’t have much currency in such situations. So I acknowledged that he has a valid point and devoted the next month to demonstrations and data and error margin analysis to empower the students to the point that they could understand the science for themselves. We couldn’t cover coastal geology that semester because we ran out of time, but I think it was worth it anyway.

[2] The hole in the ozone layer and atmospheric pollution (including but not limited to aerosols) cause global warming. Like the previous one, this one is also very tenacious and difficult to dispel because it is often presented this way in the media and most primary and secondary school teachers share the same fallacy. Perhaps one of the underlying faulty notions here is that the Earth receives heat from the Sun, instead of radiation. So, the thinking here is that the ozone layer shields our planet from the Sun’s harmful rays and its heat. And because there is a hole in the ozone layer, the extra heat seeps in and gets stuck under the ozone layer causing the greenhouse effect. I know, yikes!! I try to dispel this misconception by explaining that though the sun is indeed quite hot, there is all this empty space between the Sun and our planet and heat travels to Earth as infrared radiation from the sun, but the Sun’s output of infrared is only a fraction of its output as visible light. Energy from the sun mostly reaches us as visible light and ultraviolet radiation. (Minor edit to remove confusion with sensible heat and radiation. Sorry about that!).

However, the notion that global warming and ozone depletion are linked is not entirely wrong. As was discussed earlier on RealClimate (Ozone depletion and global warming), original CFC’s as well as ozone itself are powerful greenhouse gases and stratospheric cooling caused by the increase in atmospheric CO2 actually accelerates ozone loss there. Even the replacement gases to be used in lieu of CFCs may have significant greenhouse warming potential. BUT, ozone depletion (“the hole in the ozone layer”) does not cause global warming.

This discussion eventually lends its way to a discussion of aerosols (see Aerosols: the Last Frontier) and although aerosols tend to scatter or absorb incoming solar radiation (hence a warming effect), their net effect is in the direction of cooling because they have a positive influence on the nucleation of clouds which increases our planet’s albedo (ability to reflect light).

[3] The greenhouse effect and global warming are the same thing. This is another yikes!! Perhaps the root of the problem here is that the discussion of the greenhouse effect in the classroom is often tightly linked with that of global warming. It needs to be explicitly pointed out to students that without the greenhouse effect our planet’s surface would be about 30 degrees C cooler and with wild differences in temperature between night and day. Not exactly habitable. But anthropogenic global warming is caused by the human-induced increase of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution, particularly CO2. Most of the past changes in climate on glacial-interglacial timescales can be explained by invoking changes in solar activity and greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere, sure. But the warming we have been experiencing in the last few decades cannot be explained if we do not include the effect of greenhouse gases released by human activities (see the IPCC 4th Assessment SPM, and Avery and Singer: Unstoppable Hot Air, just to name a couple).

[4] Toilets flush in opposite directions in the northern and southern hemispheres. This one is kind of a pedagogically useful misconception because although it is absolutely wrong, the idea behind it is correct and it is primarily a matter of scale. Having said that, I find the Coriolis effect to be one of the most challenging topics for students to grasp as soon as we move beyond its initial descriptive definition. There is often lots of confusion between “to the right” and “to the east” in the northern hemisphere. Plus when we add another dimension to the mix (vertical) in discussing tropical hurricanes, this becomes a serious barrier to understanding. So, I try to avoid any directional terms, like east or west as well as clockwise or counter-clockwise. Not because students are too young to know a non-digital traditional clock, but because from satellite images hurricanes look like they are rotating counter-clockwise. Really can’t argue with what the students are seeing for themselves. But if we keep the terms simple, “moving objects in the northern hemisphere are deflected to the right within the frame of reference of the moving object,” it becomes a little easier to understand, though still challenging. Another challenge here is that the Coriolis effect comes across as a force and it is difficult for students who have not had physics to distinguish between a force and a deflection (an effect).

Perhaps you are now thinking “this may be true in some university in west Michigan but surely in other, more prestigious universities the students know better!” If only this were true. A Private Universe is a video documenting lingering misconceptions among Harvard graduates about the causes behind seasons and lunar phases. The problem is misconceptions are hard to detect because most students are adept at answering questions with exactly what the teacher wants to hear and with correct terminology but without any real understanding of the science. After nine years of collegiate teaching I now know to encourage a casual “say whatever is on your mind” attitude with students. This way, I am hoping to get them to inadvertently voice their misconceptions so I can address them.

And one may be tempted to think this is solely an American problem because the American system of education has been exposed to some serious criticism of late. Again, not so! It’s a global problem. Here are some examples from a couple of quick Google searches. Greek kindergarten teachers harbor deeply rooted confusion about the “ozone hole” and the “greenhouse effect;” while Greek primary school teachers think the ozone hole causes climate change. Australian university students believe a large portion of the ozone hole is over Australia and that the high rate of skin cancer is largely caused by this hole. Junior high school students in Israel seem to understand various processes within the hydrologic cycle, but believe its beginning point is the ocean and the end point is groundwater. And some Turkish in-service physics teachers believe that the moon does not rise and set while Turkish pre-service science teachers think summer is warmer than winter because the Earth is closer to the sun in the summer time.

How about you? Take this quiz to see where you stand ;) Update: Apparently the quiz has been taken off line…

I think, however, there may be some room for improvement in the wording and explanations in this quiz because some questions are very obscure, ambiguous and Chicago-centric. I would like to know what commenters think about it.

Where do misconceptions come from? Personal experiences and intuitive understanding play a large part in fostering misconceptions, and most false notions are reinforced through school and the media. I would like to share with you this delightful and brief story of how personal experiences color the judgment of a bunch of 4th graders about the nature of heat. They have a wise science teacher who broaches the topic with a question: “can you give me an example of something that is hot?” She is expecting answers like the Sun, or a stove or maybe even Britney Spears. But the students say sweaters, hats, and coats. One says “rugs are wicked hot.” The teacher says “when I touch your sweater it doesn’t feel hot.” The students say “Ooh, it’s a matter of time. With time it can be 200 degrees!” Hmmm.. Can you blame them? They spent at least nine years in cold Massachusetts winters and their parents and teachers always told them to put on their warm clothes.

Like this example, some of the problem underlying misconceptions stems from language. “Warm clothes” implies clothes that emit heat, “greenhouse gas” suggests greenhouses are warm because of their gas content, “the rise and set of the sun” suggests the sun is moving across the sky, not the earth is rotating on its axis, and “the theory of relativity” implies all things are relative when actually the theory is based on the constancy of the speed of light.

Let’s go back to our 4th grade class to see how this very experienced teacher addressed the problem. She could just come right out and say “that’s ridiculous, you’re clothes don’t emit heat, they trap the heat your bodies emit.” That would certainly save time to cover more content; instead she decides to do something else (e.g. concept/inquiry based learning for the educators out there). She says “Tomorrow I want everyone to bring something hot from home.” The next day sweaters, scarves, hats and even a down sleeping bag arrive. The teacher puts a thermometer into each one and they wait until the next day for them to get hot on the inside. The students are convinced the down sleeping bag will be 400 degrees! They rush in the next morning and quickly check their thermometers. 68 degrees! They’re shocked. But convinced? Not a chance! They are not going to dismiss 9 years of personal experience just like that. “Cold air got in there!” says one little girl. “When I sit in the car with the windows up, it gets hot. We need to hide our clothes.” So sweaters and hats get put into drawers and closets with their thermometers snuggly in them. Another night goes by. The next day they rush in and check their thermometers again. Again 68 degrees! Except one student has 69 degrees. They all applaud. Still not convinced, after all there has been indication in the right direction! Several nights go by like this. Finally serious doubt begins to ensue. So the teacher says “I want everyone who believes clothes are hot to walk to this corner” and she points left; “and the ones who think clothes trap the heat our bodies emit to this corner” and she points right. Most of the students go to the right but three stubborn ones go to the left. Guess you will always have the denialists! But no matter what, these students experienced two things more important than heat: the scientific method in action and sometimes the way something feels is only that and not reality.

So, are misconceptions barriers to understanding or helpful pedagogical tools? That will largely depend on the individual teacher’s (professor’s) style and interests. But the important thing is to [1] challenge misconceptions, [2] demonstrate their faultiness through carefully devised experiments (ideally by the students), [3] help develop multiple working hypotheses to understand the meaning of the results of these experiments, [4] devise more experiments to test and retest each hypothesis, and [5] NEVER let a student leave the classroom with a diagnosed misconception uncorrected. And, perhaps the most effective method for eradicating misconceptions at every level is going to be investing large quantities of time, money and effort into educating primary and secondary school educators. NSF has many programs that fund such efforts, but much more effort is clearly needed on a global scale.

Disclaimer: I am not an educational psychologist. I am simply a college professor and ocean/climate scientist enjoying a rich and intense teaching career in the Geology Department at GVSU. Also, my anecdotes and all my quotations are intentionally fictionalized to protect the confidentiality of students. The ideas expressed in the quotes are amalgamations of multiple repeated ideas expressed to me from students, professors and colleagues alike since I started graduate school in 1991 at Middle East Technical University in Ankara, Turkey; and the misconceptions I mention are not unique to any of my students but are listed in over 7000 published misconceptions about science.

260 Responses to “Ozone Hole Leaks and Other Tales”

  1. 1
    J.C.H says:

    Out in the public there is a tremendous need for this sort of thing. Most people I talk to think the weight of a gallon of gasoline vanishes when it is burned (how else could it float in the air as exhaust gas is their reasoning.)

  2. 2
    Paul Dietz says:

    I’m reminded of the story about heavy boots.

  3. 3
    Nick says:

    And there is all this hype about sunspot activity being the real cause behind global warming.

    Except it isn’t what is being claimed.

    Sunspots are a proxy for solar magnetic activity, and probably not a good one. Solar magnetic activity affects cosmic rays, that affect cloud formation, that affects global temperature.

    Sunspots do have an effect on solar radiation, but not enough to explain observered climate change

  4. 4
    Daniel C. Goodwin says:

    Such awesome magic, to know how to teach! Manifestly impossible, and yet people do it every day. Thanks to teachers like yourself, there just might be some hope for us after all.

  5. 5
    Figen Mekik says:

    Just a quick note to say Gavin wouldn’t let me put my acknowledgments in there, so I would like to publically thank him for his editorial support while writing this and the entire group at RealClimate for posting my commentary.

    I love the heavy boots story and I think I will use the gasoline just poofs into thin air when burned idea as a test in my class! And Daniel Goodwin, thanks so much for your kind words..

  6. 6
    P.C.G. says:

    Really enjoyed the quiz, but I do agree the questions are sometimes misleading, and often nearly wrong (by failing to say “liquid water” for instance, they ignored the huge amount of water in minerals).

  7. 7
    tico89 says:

    It’s tough, because if you say scientists (or even teachers) are infallible, you get caught out in the end, because they aren’t infallible (obviously). On the other hand, if you talk about the fallibility of science, or come across a teacher or scientist who gets something wrong, then people always assume that they are wrong.

    About the quiz, I agree that some of the questions were misleading, although I only really spotted 2 that were Chicago-centric. Some of them (like the one about the steel boat) were worded in a confusing way, in that I got my answer wrong, but in reading the ‘right’ answer I realised that was what I actually meant. Curiously, I did better with the biology questions than the physics ones, even though I dropped biology after 10th grade and kept on with physics all the way through. I suppose they were more straightforward.

  8. 8
    Randolph Fritz says:

    We know–and teach–too much theory, and too little practice–too much sitting in class, too little getting hands dirty. But ultimately “science” is organized practical ideas, and theories derived from them.

  9. 9
    Eli Rabett says:

    That was one of the worst K-6 no child left level quizzes I have ever seen. Just about every question had three answers on a true false basis.

  10. 10
    Marcus says:

    Several of the questions have odd corner cases. E.g., I believe that there is animal life living by underwater smokers that does not live on plants. Also, if it turns out that there is a cosmological constant, then the energy in the universe is indeed changing as the universe expands. And technically, if dropped outside a vacuum, the heavier sphere does hit the ground first. Different wavelengths of light also travel at different speeds when not in a vacuum. etc.

    There’s some awkward wording in a couple sentences, too. (I read nutrient to include CO2 and O2, for example)

  11. 11

    What a wonderful post. The students at GVSU are getting their money’s worth in Prof Mekik’s courses.

    P.S. Lack of credentials in education psych is a badge of honor in many circles.



  12. 12
    Janis Mara says:

    I’m with Martin – beautifully written article and the kind of thing that needs to run in local newspapers so people learn about these things. In fact, why not shop it around?

    Janis Mara

  13. 13
    tamino says:

    The quiz was interesting, but some of the questions will foul up a real scientist. For example, they ask whether a metal ball hits the ground before a wooden ball of equal size and similar surface, when dropped from the same height. Of course I said it would, because the air resistance has more impact on the wooden ball (the difference is slight but not zero). But they scored me wrong.

    They didn’t say “in a vacuum”!

  14. 14
    Marcus says:

    ps. I do think that this kind of effort is very important. I did take a secondary school science teaching course in which we watched a segment of the Private Universe video, and which stressed inquiry based learning as a very valuable tool… with the drawback being that the rate of information transfer is much lower. You can’t teach _everything_ in a hands on exploratory fashion because there is just too much that needs to be covered, and for some things it is necessary to accept “the scientific consensus” and move on without thinking through it. But it is good to try and give as much intuitive understanding through a hands on approach as is practically feasible.

  15. 15
    Ross O'Connell says:

    r.e. the quiz, the physics questions are pretty bad. Particularly egregious is the one that asks whether the heavy ball or the light ball falls faster without specifying whether they’re falling in a vacuum. Many of the others have as the correct answer that an effect does not exist, when in fact it’s just very small.

  16. 16
    Hank Roberts says:

    Seed germination — which particular seed?

    “The Calvaria tree, on the Mauritius Islands, was totally dependent upon the dodo bird to ingest its seeds, scarify its hard coating, and excrete the seeds before germination could take place. Since the dodo bird became extinct in 1681, no reproduction of this tree has taken place. In fact, the youngest trees are 300 years old!”

    Seed germination and moonlight:

  17. 17

    great post. However, I have serious problems with the quiz. I found bad wording in almost every question, most of which have already been mentioned, but I also object to their assertion that people living in Hawaii don’t count (it’s in the tropics, so the sun does go overhead). Oh, yeah, and air friction is a force, not an acceleration, so their attempt to say that the different spheres were the same shape but different weights and hence would experience the same deceleration from friction is bogus, the heavy ball will hit first because its inertia can fight the air friction better as its accelerated by gravity at a constant rate– the air friction’s fighting F=ma, not just a.

    However, I have a much worse problem with the quiz. I found it, not by chance, but by following a friend’s journal link that led to this post, which led to the quiz. So whatever results they get, they don’t reflect the “general population,” they represent the types of people who find and follow links to science quizzes and decide to take them. So the science of their study is inherently flawed by bad sampling, and the demographic questions at the beginning really didn’t do much to address that: I am not currently a student or a teacher, so I’m just “other,” but I’m sure I’m disproportionately represented by being the kind of person who people forward science quizzes to.

    I’m also a cynic in a grumpy mood, as is probably obvious. And, I did learn some things, so it was fun, I just enjoy nitpicking.

  18. 18
    Aaron Lewis says:

    I would consider that 11 of the 47 questions have a serious flaw either in concept or language, or both. This is very sad. These are the basic processes that operate in the universe. It should be simple to ask questions that determine whether a person understands a given process or not. This quiz says that among the test makers, the English majors do not understand good science and the scientists do not write good English.

    When I was a student, on an â??open bookâ?? exercise, 36/47 was a flunk. The idea for this quiz is great. However, the execution is seriously flawed.

  19. 19
    Tavita says:

    Schema and mental model theories in cognitive pyschology and artificial intellegence deal extensively with naive physics, astronomy, biology, etc..

    Here’s a classic paper done on observational astronomy.

  20. 20
    Steve Latham says:

    Two anecdotes of my own plus an admission of my own ignorance:
    . 1. Camping outside of Edmonton in my youth, my older brother’s friend reported that the beer was frozen but don’t worry, he’d wrapped them in a blanket to thaw them faster. I probably never felt smarter than when I explained his folly to him.
    . 2. Unbelievably, a friend in university blurted out without thinking that thunder was caused by clouds banging into one another. After noticing everyone’s jaws drop he remembered where the sound came from, but what his parents told him when he was ~5 still had primacy. (I confess that I probably would think that hiccupping indicated growth for the same reason, except my remaining short made me very skeptical.)
    . Admission: I still don’t understand the Coriolis effect. I draw the Pacific Basin, imagine the Earth rotating to the East, and then I can envision two big gyres (clockwise in N hemisphere and counter- in S hemisphere) forming. I think my problem here is I presuppose that rotation of the Earth is causing movement of the water, whereas the unimaginative side of my mind tells me that the Coriolis effect is only about frame of reference.

  21. 21
    Brian says:

    Yes, that quiz was pretty lousy in many ways.

    They say that the total energy in the universe is constant. This is only (perhaps) true if you use the word “energy” as including “mass”. Which is not always done.

    They also say that the total mass after a chemical reaction is exactly the same as it is before. This is just wrong. Chemical reactions can be exothermic or endothermic, and convert some mass to heat or vice versa.

    There are other difficulties, as well, but these two stood out for me.

  22. 22
    NeilS says:

    What is the density of a volume of air that contains fog droplets? How does this compare to the same volume that is entirely gaseous?

  23. 23

    On the perception that blankets warm things–I asked my 8 year old daughter if a bowl of ice would melt faster or slower if we covered it with a dish cloth. She said faster of course, because the “blanket” would warm the ice. So we did the experiment, but she lost interest by the time the result was clear! Mostly I teach 18-22 yr olds, but they’re not a lot different.

  24. 24
    Luke Silburn says:

    Regarding the quiz, like Marcus I took ‘nutrients’ to include atmospheric gases. I took my time typing up my explanations which meant that I was getting tired and a bit sloppy towards the end which led me to misread some of the statements or forget to change the TRUE/FALSE selector.

    Also I’d say that the electrical light bulb question is more a test of lateral thinking than understanding of scientific principles, but then I got it wrong so I would say that, wouldn’t I?


  25. 25
    Bolo says:

    Questions 19 and 20 seemed too much like trick questions. I knew the principles and explained correctly but, due to the ambiguity of the questions, got them wrong.

    (Spoiler: Don’t read the next bit if you want to take the test).

    #19: It is possible to light a flashlight bulb with just one wire and one battery and no other equipment.

    I answered false, saying you need a second wire to connect to the other battery terminal and complete the circuit. While that isn’t absolutely necessary, I figured that was what the question was getting at–having a closed circuit. Instead, the answer says that you could just touch the other end of the battery to the bulb’s contact–which is fine, but at that point you’re getting kind of specific and not testing the principle so much as a neat shortcut to hooking up the lightbulb. Someone could answer “true” thinking that just running a single wire from one terminal of a battery to a light bulb would power it–and they would be told that they’re correct.

    #20: We (humans) need light in order to see.

    I answered false. We see regardless of whether there’s light or not. If there’s no light, we just see nothing. But our brain and eyes are sitll working just fine. How about rewording it to say “Humans need a light source to see something?”

  26. 26
  27. 27
    g.dungworth says:

    Do you want the dry density or the wet density? wry smile.
    Start early and teach things chronologically. I learnt my science many many years ago on my mother’s lap. We didn’t call it meteorology or climate science in those days. On the first day the sun, the brilliant shining one rose. Everything he named came into existence. He whispered Shu and the wind blew. Tefnut and the rain spittered. Geb and the ancestral earth rose above the oceans. Nut and the vault of the sky appeared above the horizon.
    We abhored experiments and vacuums in those early days.
    Does a wooden ball fall faster than a metal or a rock ball? The first experiment was proposed to be carried out at Karnak or Abu Simbel, I forget which; the experiment was forbidden, for reasons too lenghty to be described here. Imagine that either one did fall at a faster rate.
    Conceptually tie a plumb line to connect them. Drop from a great height. Surely if the wooden ball fell more slowly than the metal one the string would become taught and retard the fall of the metal ball. Hence, both balls combined, and more massive than either separately, would fall more slowly than the metal ball. Surely if the wooden ball fell more swifly than the metal ball the string would become taught and the wooden lighter ball would increase the speed of the metal ball but not so quickly as the objects separated.
    Of course we didn’t know in those days that the atoms themselves were joined by tiny “springs” but we did know logic, that all things fell at the same rate whether combined or not.

  28. 28
    stuart says:

    I agree the quiz was fun, and some potential areas for fixing it to become more usable/accurate:

    2. Plants use oxygen. -> use is a bad word hear, especially in such a short question, as I treated it as if it had the meaning ‘consume’ (which I think is a valid reading, given limited context).

    19. About the wire/battery/bulb seems more designed to be a trick question that trying to work out understanding of the science involved.

    22 About the difference in velocity of different energy wave forms – presumably this needs to add ‘in a vacuum’ or similar language as has been mentioned in other comments.

    A number of the others I guessed that some of the minor effects probably werent expected to be known (such as the steel and wooden ball being dropped arriving at the same time, which as we know is an oversimplification), based on that the primary audience seemed to be school age children from the introduction.

    In all I think I got 2 wrong due to not knowing or applying the science, one wrong from not knowing the geography/geology (I thought Chicago was well away from any major plate boundary, guess not), 1 wrong because I didnt select the right option from the TRUE/FALSE bit despite filling in almost the same description as given more or less, 1 wrong from lack of reading comprehension, and 3 wrong because the questions mislead me despite understanding all the elements required.

    Probably overall thats not too bad in terms of misleading questions (have seen much worse quizzes than that by far), but maybe you can use some of the above to improve it.

  29. 29
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Economists have conducted studies on situations where there is asymmetric information–either the buyer or seller knows much more about the item for sale. When this becomes clear to both, a transaction becomes much less likely. I think in some ways the asymmetry of expertise between scientists and at least some laymen has a similar effect–especially if the laymen already question scientists, or even experts in general. Culture also plays a role. Anglo-Saxon culture is full of folk tales in which the yokel gets the better of his betters. The yokel is usually named Jack, and “Jack and the Bean Stalk” is one such tale. Also look at “The Marriage of Figaro” or some of Shakespeare’s comedies. In general, the less people understand about a subject, the more likely they are to fear being misled.
    Ironically, this fear can be even greater if the “layman” is educated in some specialized discipline, but not, say, in climate. In this case, much of the ego of the layman may be tied up in considering himself intelligent–and not to tell him he doesn’t understand something may be considered an affront. I think it was Mark Twain who said, “What gets us into trouble is not what we don’t know. It’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so.”

  30. 30
    Phillip Shaw says:

    It may be piling on but I have to add my voice to the other quiz nitpickers. It was entertaining but some of those nits are pretty big. The ‘correct’ answers to questions 12, 16, and 21 are simply wrong. For 16, think about the results if the spheres are identical balloons, one filled with helium, the other with CO2. Same size, same surface, different masses. Release them in a vacuum (and yes, I know the balloons would pop in a vacuum) and they would land at the same time. Release them on earth and guess which one lands first. :-)

    As for 21, of course it makes a difference, go find a mirror and see for yourself. As you get closer you can’t see all of yourself, as you back away you can see more. But the difference isn’t due to the mirror but rather the eye’s field of view. You get the same effect with a live person as with your reflection.

    Whew, I feel much better now so I’ll quit venting. Other than the quiz it was an excellent column.


  31. 31
    makarov says:

    “I try to dispel this misconception by explaining that though the sun is indeed quite hot, there is all this empty space between the Sun and our planet and heat canâ��t travel through a vacuum, but light can!”

    That is a really bad science explanation,and fundamentally incorrect.

    Solar energy is radiated into space mainly in two forms, as electromagnetic radiation energy over a wide range of wavelengths, and as kinetic and thermal energy of the solar wind plama.The former freely propagates through the interplanetary space,and only undergoes some changes and transformation in the atmospheres of the earth and of other planets. In contrast to this, the soar wind plasma energy is continually transferred from one form to another.

    In extra vehicular activities the greatest problem facing astronauts is overheating.

  32. 32
    Figen Mekik says:

    Thursday is a long teaching day for me, so it is quite a pleasure to come out of class and find so many comments. I will try to respond to what I can.

    First, many thanks to all your compliments about the post. I certainly enjoyed writing it, and I am enjoying the feedback I am getting more.

    About the quizâ?¦ Some people started sort of apologizing for picking on it, but by all means pick away. It is the best quiz of its sort that I could find on line but I didnâ??t do very well on it myself, mostly because of the things that the commenters have already pointed out. The seed germination question killed me. And I didnâ??t really feel the quiz was testing grand misconceptions about science. So why did I put it in my post? I thought it would make a good conversation piece and it is one of the better ones out there that I was able to find (Iâ??m very open to suggestions about better ones). Itâ??s tough coming up with good exam questions. And by the time you perfect your exam, too many students have taken it, so you have to make a new one! :)

    About inquiry-based hands on learning. I agree with Randolph Fritz (#8) that we should do more hands-on work with students, but I also agree with Marcus (14) in that you have to pick your battles wisely. There are only 14 weeks in a semester, and if you are in a school on a quarter system, thatâ??s just 10 weeks per quarter. There is lots of material to cover. I also find that each class has a personality of its own and have their own misconcenptions. So you canâ??t really do the same hands on activity in every class because that may be old news to some who are really confused about something else. Plus I had one class of ~20 who did not say a word to me or to each other the first 10 weeks of class. It was really freaking me out. Finally I made them give oral presentations just so they would investigate something and talk about it.

    Steve Latham: The day that I actually understood the Coriolis effect in all its simplicity, I called my dissertation advisor in the middle of the night, woke him up and told him all about it. It was definitely a momentous occasion for me!

    Ray Ladbury: I wish I could translate Mark Twain into Turkish as eloquently as he is in English! Thatâ??s a great quote. The problem with these misconceptions is that people have no idea they have them.

    Tico89: Youâ??re absolutely right. I worry a lot about perpetuating misconceptions I have or creating new ones in the classroom. One thing I have on my side though is fatigue. I am usually so sleep deprived that students are used to my little mistakes and foibles. And Iâ??ve found that if you show you are willing to admit you were wrong or made a mistake and try to learn with them, they are very receptive and forgiving with that. Plus sometimes it gets them to â??take the leadâ?? and they never forget something they work out for themselves!

  33. 33
    Pat says:

    I have to echo comments 9, 10, 13, 15, … , 25, etc.

    Some of the things I was going to say have already been said, but here are a couple additions:

    6 Aside from the issue of chemoautotrophs, are phytoplankton and macroscopic algae like kelp considered to be plants? I thought they were considered to be in a different grouping. Then again, where do liverworts and mosses (no vascular system) fit in – I would call those plants. Kelp is multicellular, so if that’s not a plant, then maybe moss shouldn’t be a plant either – that doesn’t seem right. Need to look at phylogenies for guidance…

    21. Yes, I got that wrong – because I was thinking of the mirror in my bathroom, which is not a full length mirror. The question should specify that it’s a full length mirror.

  34. 34
    Ike Solem says:

    Great post – the quiz was interesting if ambiguous. Now, if someone could come up with a similar true/false quiz related strictly to climate issues:

    Global ocean heat content has increased over the past three decades.

    The Greenland and West Antarctic Ice Sheets are losing mass.

    Drought in the Amazon, Africa, the American West and Northern China is due to anthropogenic climate change.

    Anthropogenic global warming is changing ocean circulation patterns.

    Burning fossil fuels has resulted in a moister atmosphere.

    Increases in hurricane intensity are closely linked to anthropogenic climate change.

    Sea level will rise faster than expected due to ice sheet dynamics.

    Climate models produce realistic estimations of future climate change over the next century.

    Halting the use of fossil fuels will result in the stabilization of atmospheric CO2 levels.

    True or false? That’s the problem with true/false and multiple choice tests – sure, they’re easy to grade, but the real world is full of nuances, exceptions and conditional factors. Science education involves too much memorization of the ‘right answer’, and not enough about how to find out the answer, or how to sort out conflicting claims. Here are a few more true/false questions of importance:

    Climate change will have devastating effects on human civilization under business-as-usual scenarios.
    Climate change will have ignorable effects on human civilization under business-as-usual scenarios.

    Energy choices made today will have a large effect on future climate change.

  35. 35
    Danny Bee says:

    What gets me is people who say: “Who cares? we won’t be around in 50 years or so, after we die, so who cares?”

    and Diesel with its Global Warming Ready adverts?

    What’s up with that?

  36. 36
    Robin Johnson says:

    Questions #3, #5, #32 are just clearly so wrong.

    #3 – There are many examples of seeds (like the Dodo one given above) that need “special” conditions – like exposure to digestive chemicals, exposure to light, etc.

    #5 – Animals that feed on animals that feed on bacteria don’t need plants. Not many. But certainly counterexamples exist.

    #32 – So obviously wrong its embarrassing.

    #23 That is actually an open question.

    #24 That kind of depends on your definition of orderly. If the universe expands forever, heat “death” is the result (seems boringly cold and orderly to me). If the universe contracts to a singularity, what could be less chaotic than THAT?

    #35 is wrong. When since is air pressure (density) purely a function of humidity? Yeah – they are related. But there’s that temperature thing. Cold, humid day in October can have higher pressure than hot, dry day in July. Wind movements can certainly cause pressure anomalies etc. Then there’s the baseball. Dry and humid baseballs are NOT the same. In humid conditions, a baseball absorbs water and becomes heavier, bigger and mushier. A dry baseball is smaller, harder and lighter. Hence dry baseball can go further. In fact, air conditioned baseballs used in humid stadium, go YARD!

  37. 37
    Thomas Folz-Donahue says:

    i would also like to comment on the quiz. question 32 ignores binding energy which is a component of the mass of a compound.

  38. 38
    Peter P says:

    Great post.Many of the questions were not well-written for anyone with a science background. However, I have problems with questions 10 & 25.

    Question 10: There is still an ongoing debate over whether a virus is a living organism. A virus does not have a cellular structure.

    Question 25: 2 objects of different temperature in a vacuum do not transfer heat energy from the warmer object to the cooler object until they reach equilibrium. Reference the Sun and the planets.

    21 was also a field of view thing for me. Other than that, the other mistakes were in reading.

  39. 39
    Steve Reynolds says:

    Ike – I think the answer to every one of your questions is: unknown.

  40. 40
    Edward Greisch says:

    Book: “Kicking the Carbon Habit” by William Sweet
    There is a factual error on page 185 of this book. He says that there were 2 nuclear explosions in the Chernobyl accident. There was no NUCLEAR explosion in the Chernobyl reactor because that is physically impossible. Chernobyl was a DIRTY bomb. Chernobyl was NOT a NUCLEAR bomb. He confused nuclear with dirty. This is probably a popular confusion. Most people probably made the same error. The big mistakes were saying the scientists and engineers were wrong and not asking the scientists and engineers for explanations. There was a CARBON fire or possibly a carbon powder explosion. A nuclear explosion would have levelled the complex and quite a lot more. The Chernobyl reactor was carbon moderated. Carbon is used to slow down the neutrons so that they are easily absorbed. Western-built reactors have always been water-moderated except for the very first reactor ever built. Coal is carbon. Uranium is pyrophoric, which means that uranium burns [oxidizes] at the slightest excuse. A uranium fire would ignite the carbon. If the carbon was powdered it would explode like dust in a grain elevator, but I don’t know whether the carbon was powdered or in big lumps.
    Why a Nuclear Powerplant CAN NOT Explode like a Nuclear Bomb:
    Bombs are completely different from reactors. There is nothing similar about them except that they both need fissile materials. But they need DIFFERENT fissile materials and they use them very differently.
    A nuclear bomb “compresses” pure or nearly pure fissile material into a small space. The fissile material is either the uranium isotope 235 or plutonium. If it is uranium, it is at least 90% uranium 235 and 10% or less uranium 238. The bomb must compress the uranium or plutonium because a bomb has no moderator to slow the neutrons down. These fissile materials are metals and very difficult to compress. Because they are difficult to compress, a high explosive [high speed explosive] is required to compress them. Pieces of the fissile material have to slam into each other hard for the nuclear reactions to take place. In plutonium bombs, the high speed explosive has to be precisely shaped and has to explode from all sides simultaneously to make the bomb work. There is no way an accident could get the explosive to explode correctly. In gun-type bombs, there must be a gun barrel to direct one piece of uranium into the other piece of uranium at high speed and with precise direction. There is nothing precise about an accident.
    A nuclear reactor, such as the ones used for power generation, does not have any PURE fissile material. The fuel may be 2% uranium 235 mixed with uranium 238. A mixture of 2% uranium 235 mixed with uranium 238 cannot be made to explode in the nuclear way no matter how hard you try. A small amount of plutonium mixed in with the uranium cannot change this. Reactor fuel still cannot be made to explode like a nuclear bomb no matter how hard you try. There has never been a nuclear explosion in a reactor and there never will be. [Uranium and plutonium are flammable, but a fire isn’t an explosion.] The fuel in a reactor is further diluted by the moderator, which is carbon at Chernobyl or water everywhere outside the Soviet Union. We use water as the moderator because water can’t burn. The fuel in a reactor is further diluted by being divided and sealed into many small steel capsules. The fuel in a reactor is further diluted by the need for coolant to flow around the capsules and through the core so that heat can be transported to a place where heat energy can be converted to electrical energy. A reactor does not contain any high speed chemical explosive as a bomb must have. A reactor does not have any intentional explosive materials at all.
    As is obvious from the above descriptions, there is no possible way that a reactor could ever explode like a nuclear bomb. Reactors and bombs are very different. Reactors and bombs are really not even related to each other.
    But just ask the average person about this.

  41. 41
    Edward Greisch says:

    We burn all that coal to make electricity because most people think nuclear power is dangerous. They have never heard of background radiation. They don’t know that ancient mummies are dated by radioactive carbon. They don’t know that coal-fired power plants put enough uranium into the air to fully fuel our nuclear power plants. They don’t know that coal also contains arsenic and thorium and every natural heavy metal poison.
    The question is, how are you going to cram enough knowledge into unwilling heads by the end of 12th grade to make good citizens? I think we should start by requiring ALL college students, even English, drama, sculpture and elementary teaching majors, to take the “Engineering and Science Core Cirriculum”.

  42. 42
    Kaoten says:

    I’m a grown man, self employed and so on. I dropped out of 8th grade, and obviously haven’t done too bad for myself.. But taking that test and having to explain how I think things work, I realized my knowledge of how nature is put together, is not knowledge at all, but rather a gaping black abyss.

    I read RC with some regularity, and even understand bits of it when the weather’s right and the sun’s in my back. And one of the things I’ve noticed, is that a lot of terribly knowledgeable science nerds frequent this place. So what better crowd of random strangers to ask.

    How do I learn? Where do I start? Between job, family and my shocking lack of education, going back to school isn’t really a possibility, I think. But what books did you lot chew through in school? Which do you throw at your students?

    Please take a moment to help me out if you can. The curiosity is killing me. I’ll bookmark this and check back regularly the next week or two. Sincere thanks in advance. I hope you never have to confront your ignorance like I just have. It’s ghastly.

  43. 43
    Greg Simpson says:

    I make it that the quiz has 10 wrong answers. I only ‘missed’ nine because I purposely put down the wrong (but obviously desired) answer once.

    Aside from the others mentioned, sexually produced offspring can be identical to their parents. If the parents have exactly the same DNA then, barring mutations, the offspring will have exactly the same genes as both parents. Note that while mammals of different sexes cannot have identical genes, this is not true of all animals. Of course, even mammals can have exactly the same genes as one of their parents, since there is a chance as long as one parent has a match for one of each of the other’s chromosome pairs.

  44. 44
    John Ryan says:

    heat can’t travel through a vacuum

    Everything above zero Kelvin radiates energy (i.e. heat). It travels pretty well through a vacuum, and depending on the frequency of the radiation, through other materials too. There is no fundamental difference between light from the sun at visible frequencies, big-bang leftover radiation at infra-red, or even x-ray radiation from other processes. If the radiation is absorbed, the temperature of the absorber rises a little – in a steady state scenario it rises until the energy radiated is the same as energy absorbed. NB this does NOT mean the temperatures have to be equal. Besides passing through or being absorbed there is another possibility – the radiation can be reflected

    [Response: Thanks. We updated the text to reflect reality. Another linguistic confusion I think…. – gavin]

  45. 45
    Figen Mekik says:

    Kaoten: Even scientists at the pinnacle of their careers with degrees from prestigious schools are confronted with their ghastly ignorance about something every day. The trick is in recognizing this; and the arrogance is in ignoring it. So, some of my favorite books are Longitude by Dava Sobel, Our Enchanted Affair with El Nino by George Philander, and if you want a solid introductory text book about climate science I would recommend William Ruddiman’s Earth’s Climate Past and Future. Also if you just want to focus on global warming give David Archer’s Global Warming: Understanding the Forecast a read..

    Ike Solem: that’s a mean quiz!! :)

  46. 46
    Taylor says:

    Thank you for this fine post. It brought to mind the late Neil Postman’s writing on language and stupidity. An example: he relates the story of a student who, in an unusually warm classroom, asks what the temperature is. Upon being told, the student exclaims, “No wonder it’s hot in here!”

  47. 47
    Nigel Williams says:

    and if you want some interesting stuff about our sun, dip into
    Kinda makes you think..

  48. 48
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Kaoten, I applaud your interest. A warning: thirst for learning is an incurable disease. Once you start, you’ll never be sated. As near as I can tell, though, it is a disease that only brings benefits.
    The first question I have for you is: What is it you want to learn? You will have much more success getting through the inevitable dry parts of any subject if you know you’ll be rewarded with understanding something that interests you down the road.

    As far a a program of general learning, I don’t think you can go wrong with starting with language and math. WRT the former, the book “Eats shoots and Leaves,” is a delightful book. I’m not sure I know of a really good, fun math book. Maybe Polya’s “How to solve it” comes closest. Anyone else have suggestions?

    Here’s a chance to plug one of my favorite books of all time: “The Flying Circus of Physics,” by Jearl Walker. Short little blurbs about all of the amazing little miracles of our daily world. You will never look at the sky, ocean or a cup of tea the same way again after reading this book. BUY IT NOW! is my strongest suggestion. Good luck and feel free to contact me offline as your program progresses.

  49. 49
    Bruce Scott says:

    Concerning stuff to read: as a teen I got a copy of VW Maintenance for Compleat Idiots. What a godsend. I never got training in car maintenance but even I could do most of the work on my car with such a book to help. Similar things are also the best intro read in many other subjects as well. The cartoon series XXX For Beginners comes to mind. For physics there is The Cartoon Guide to Physics by Larry Gonick. It is about really basic physics. No theory of everything jazz, just the basics like classical mechanics and thermodynamics and the like that affect things most people come in contact with. It conveys the ideas through cartoon stories which are designed to help you understand things. They’re also entertaining but are done without the wow gee whiz factor you get in those theory of everything books whose effect is mainly to mystify, not to teach. I can really recommend this one for people who want the basics, about everyday things but also done in a conceptual manner, not through factoids.


  50. 50
    Nigel Williams says:

    Re: The Quiz. Its interesting that the Quiz is a very nice example of all the things Figen Mekik is trying to address, and RC too. Imprecise language about mirrors, genetics, mass and energy lead us into a mire. If its ‘only’ intended to be ‘popular science’ then at least get the questions right; if is supposed to be real science, then we need to see that the science behind the answers is right too.

    The quiz measures something, but I think that the only useful knowledge we can learn from it is about the quiz master. The quiz is flawed in its sampling methodology, and at least 20 percent of the question-answers are wrong. Any data arising from the quiz about the intelect of the quiz participants its useless.