Misconceptions

Update: As much as I love this page of misconceptions about science, featuring quotes from experts like Carl Zimmer, Lawrence Krauss, and Cliff Pickover, Trending Sideways is moving in a new direction, with a focus on practical information for engineers and statisticians. I will leave this page as is, and I may even update it again, but don’t consider it representative of the future of this site.

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I’ve been planning on putting together a list of misconceptions people have about science for quite some time, but I felt it would be most helpful if I could gather together the perspectives of experts from a variety of fields, rather than bombard you with my own opinions.

After reaching out to a few science experts, I got feedback from some big names in science literature, and they had some very interesting things to say. This list is an ongoing project, so don’t be surprised if a few more names join the list.

You can access this list from the main menu at any time, and I’ll let you know about additions in our Weekly Friday Roundup.

Dr. Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer teaches science writing at Yale, and has written 12 highly successful books on science, including Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea, and Soul Made Flesh, a New York Times Top 100 Book of the year.

I guess one of the biggest misconceptions about evolution is that it’s a linear march of progress. In reality, it’s the splitting of branches (and the grafting of some of them through horizontal gene transfer).

Take a look at his books: Soul Made Flesh: The Discovery of the Brain–and How it Changed the World and Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea. Be sure to follow Carl’s Twitter account.

Dr. Cliff Pickover

Dr. Cliff Pickover has written over 45 books, holds more than 100 patents, and has a Ph.D. in molecular biophysics and biochemistry from Yale. I’ve had the honor of speaking with him twice: once about physics and once about medicine.

Many of my books touch upon misconceptions in science.  Here are a few favorite anecdotes.

Some readers had thought that black holes in outer space would ravenously suck in all material in their vicinity, like an out-of-control vacuum cleaner.  In reality, for example, if our Sun were replaced by a black hole of equal mass, the orbits of the planets would be essentially unchanged.

See The Physics Book for more cool information on black holes.

Here’s another misconception. For most Americans, the caduceus—an ancient symbol featuring two snakes winding about a winged staff—symbolizes medicine, medical care, and medical personnel.

However, it is likely that its current symbolic use is based on confusion with the similar-looking Rod of Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine and healing, and his rod shows a single serpent winding about a staff that contains no wings.

The caduceus as a symbol for medicine became popular after the U.S. Army Medical Corps adopted the symbol in 1902 and added it to uniforms, perhaps mistaking it for the Rod of Asclepius.

I discuss this further in The Medical Book: From Witch Doctors to Robot Surgeons.

Also, despite a misconception of a significant number of people, blood in human veins is not blue. Blood in the veins is actually red due to the presence of hemoglobin, although it is a darker red than the oxygenated blood in arteries. This misconception probably arises because medical diagrams (like the figures in my own books!) often depict veins in blue and because veins appear blue beneath our skin, which is largely independent of the color of the blood itself.

Finally, despite popular opinion, sugar does not appear to cause hyperactivity in children, and this has been confirmed by various double-blind studies.

Cliff Pickover is author of The Medical Book: From Witch Doctors to Robot Surgeons.  Visit Pickover.com for more information on his books, and follow him on twitter.

Dr. Lawrence Krauss

Professor Lawrence M. Krauss is an internationally recognized theoretical physicist with a Ph.D. from MIT, a membership with the Harvard Society of Fellows, and a history of teaching at Yale, among other things. I spoke with him recently about A Universe from Nothing, a New York Times bestseller. Dr. Krauss has written 9 books including several other bestsellers such as The Physics of Star Trek.

The biggest misconception is that scientific revolutions do away with everything that went before them. They don’t. What satisfies the test of experiment now will survive any such revolution.

Take a look at his book, A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather than Nothing, and check out Lawrence’s Twitter profile.

Sam McNerney

Sam McNerney has written articles about cognitive science for Scientific AmericanBBC FocusHuffington Post, and writes a regular column for Creativity Post as well as a blog for Big Think.

Great question. A few come to mind but I would have to say the belief that neuroscience cannot, in principle, answer questions about human nature. I know that sounds strange, but a lot of people I know maintain that neuroscience is an arcane science that does not have anything to say about human behavior. There is a lot of great research going on and yes, despite limitations, neuroscience does answer questions concerning us homo sapiens!

Follow Sam on Twitter, and visit his blog.

David DiSalvo

David DiSalvo regularly contributes to Psychology Today and Forbes on the subject of neuroscience. He is the author of What Makes Your Brain Happy and Why You Should Do the Opposite, a book that I got a chance to speak with him about.

I think my favorite misconception about science is that the goal of science is to arrive at airtight answers that can’t be challenged.  The goal, in fact, is to arrive at testable theories that Can and Should be challenged.

In other words, science isn’t meant to give us answers that allow us to rest comfortably at night. It’s real aim is to create new questions.

Take a look at What Makes Your Brain Happy and Why You Should Do the Opposite and follow David on Twitter. DiSalvo also has a new book coming out called The Brain in Your Kitchen: A Collection of Essays.

Dr. Christian Jarrett

Dr. Christian Jarrett is a cognitive psychologist who turned to science writing as a profession. He’s the inaugural editor of The British Psychological Society’s Research Digest, and has blogged for Psychology Today and 99U. He is the author of The Rough Guide to Psychology.

I think the left-brain right-brain myth probably bothers me more than most. This is the idea that the left brain is for rational, analytical thinking while the right brain is for creative, lateral thinking.

Not only is this a gross oversimplification (the left-side of the brain is also capable of creativity, and both hemispheres are highly interactive and interconnected), it’s become a kind of lazy metaphor. So now, when people are talking about a supposedly creative task, they will often call it a right-brain task.

Similarly, they’ll label people in creative professions as right-brainers. Recently, the Chief Rabbi here in Britain even started labeling entire religions and languages as right and left-brained. More here.

Check out The Rough Guide to Psychology and follow him on Twitter.

Sam Kean

Sam Kean gives speeches and writes books about offbeat science using entertaining anecdotes as examples. I spoke with him about the fascinating history of DNA.

I’d say the biggest one is that people usually think about science as a body of facts to memorize. I think it’s better to think about science as a way of approaching the world, about reasoning, and preventing yourself from falling into error. And that’s why I think there’s an awful neglect of the history of science even (or especially) among scientists themselves.

Thinking in terms of just the latest facts tends to discount how people arrived at those facts, which I think is the really important and interesting part. It’s only by delving into the old stories that we can really extract what it means to be a scientist.

Read his book: The Violinist’s Thumb: And Other Lost Tales of Love, War, and Genius, as Written by Our Genetic Code, and check out his twitter profile.

Dr. Daniel Bor

Daniel has a Ph.D. in cognitive neuroscience from the Medical Research Council, where he researched how the human brain supports our most complex thoughts. He is now a Research Fellow at the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science.

His latest book, The Ravenous Brain, explores consciousness and the human search for meaning in life.

1. “We only use 10% of our brains” (this makes me scream inside whenever I hear it). If you put someone in a brain scanner, and get them to shift gear from relaxing to concentrating on some difficult task that the experimenter is subjecting them to, then pretty much the whole brain increases in activity.

This little pseudo experiment has been run many thousands of times within the context of normal brain-scanning studies. Of course we make use of all our brains. Can we be smarter or more alert with cognitive training – maybe, a little, especially if we start from a lower baseline.

But can we jump to 1000% improvement in IQ or another general cognitive measure by some magic route? Of course not!

2. “You can’t study consciousness scientifically.” Undoubtedly consciousness is a difficult topic to study, but by no means impossible, and a surprising degree of progress and consensus is arising from painstaking experiments from various angles of attack. See my book, The Ravenous Brain, for more details!

Take a look at The Ravenous Brain: How the New Science of Consciousness Explains Our Insatiable Search for Meaning, and follow Daniel’s Twitter account, or visit his site.

David Zaslavsky

David is a graduate student of physics at Penn State, a science blogger, and a computer programmer. I thought what he had to say was dead on, so I couldn’t resist passing it along.

  • That discovering a new particle is a sudden event that happens when it gets produced for the first time. In reality you can never be sure that any one event definitely involves the particle you were looking for, so you need statistical evidence.
  • That the only expected benefit of a major experiment is the thing it’s meant to discover. In reality a lot of useful technological advances come from scientists trying to figure out how to build the experiment in the first place.
  • That anything peer-reviewed is automatically correct. In reality peer review is just a basic sanity check to keep complete nonsense from being published, but reviewers do not generally attempt to reproduce or verify results.
  • That scientists wear lab coats.

Check out David’s blog.