Which groups is the law more fair to?

The clue:
    "More fair" suggests that "fairness" can be rank ordered.

Missed:
      The essence of "fairness": freedom from favoritism; a symmetrical relationship between parties; unbiased;…

And...
     Symmetrical relationships between opposite sides creating a completeness and wholeness is often missed.  In, for example:  Newton's third law of motion; "All men are created equal"; Yin - Yang principle;…   If we don't recognize the contribution to a conflict that we contribute, we easily end up with a complete wholeness that can get nasty: this failure to see symmetry is one of the stupidities of war.  RTN


 
 

We don't inhale carbon dioxide.

The clue:
     The statement is absurd on its face. We inhale air. Air contains about one percent carbon dioxide.

Missed:
      A very simple multiple relationship: we both inhale and exhale carbon dioxide.  This was an especially egregious appeal to "OFOT" (One False, One True statement).

And...
      The speaker was trying to justify the U.S. abrogation of the treaty to reduce greenhouse gases. (On PBS's "Talk of the Nation," April 4, 2001)   This error was only one of a steady stream of similarly defective arguments.   All-some confusions, inverted implications, and repeated use of the "Prove Anything Ploy" along with the glittering generalities and name calling of the Seven Tools of Propaganda.   That the speaker was in strong disagreement with one of the strongest conclusions of the scientific community illustrates both the logical basis of science and the "logic blindness" of those who fail to understand the larger scientific community.   This discussion provided a rich exercise in analysis of propaganda and scientific illiteracy.  Furthermore, the speaker was not trying to dissemble.  His argments were offered with a genuine belief that he was making a good case for his viewpoint.   RTN
 
 
 
 
 

Lack of confidence not easily restored.

The clue:
     What was said was not what was meant.

Missed:
      A multiplicative negation, negation of negation.

And...
      This is an interesting variant of a common error.

“I could care less”
“He hasn’t got no food on his plate,”
“The ship will self-destruct in T minus five minutes,”
“The record low temperature is minus 25 degrees below zero.”
“Not over my dead body will they raise your taxes!”*
Errors of negation are very common, ambiguities in statements of negation very commonly not seen.  For example, consider the placement of the word "only."  The work of Lawrence Kolberg suggests that ability to see abstract negation of negation can lead to seeing compassion as a logical imperative.  
 
  *Quoted in "Doonesbury" on Jan 21, 2002:  "A classic wild west cliche gone awry! . . . But that's...that's sad."   RTN


 
 

Six seconds of zero gravity, and then you descend.

The clue:
     Gravity is always present.  "Zero gravity" is being confused with free fall.  You "come down" after some free fall has already occurred.

Missed:
     The correct relationships between position, velocity and acceleration.  The nature of gravity.

And...
     The advance of science during the past several centuries got its start through understanding of these relationships.  They remain largely missed by a large fraction of even those who pass courses in physics.  RTN
 
 


 
 

"Motion implies a force."

The clue:
     The statement contradicts Newton's first law of motion.

Missed:
    Newton's first law.

And...
     Missing Newton's first implies missing most of physics.
[This is a key to useful understanding of elementary physics: I'm working on several alternative approaches.  We'll try to make it like reading a blueprint: using several different projections to reveal the subtlety.   Help would be appreciated.  We will link here to work being done in physics education research: there are several outstanding resources--certainly Lillian McDermott's group at U. of Wash, among others.  "Motion implies a force" was the topic of a paper (in Amer J Phys in the early 70's) by John Clement.] RTN


 
 

Rocket scientists, no.  Musicians, yes.

The clue:
     What topics do "rocket scientists" study?  Many scientists are also musicians.

Missed:
     The term "rocket scientist" seems to want to associate the power and spectacular behavior of a rocket with some kind of spectacular, but imaginary, kind of science.  The true nature of science and the fields of studies of actual science are apparently missed.

And...
     The statement suggests stereotyping. Stereotyping is a broad failure of identifying relevance and irrelevance among multiple, interacting influences and characteristics. RTN
 


 
 

Everyone knows rockets need something to push against.

The clue:
     The notion that rockets need something to push against is an old, common misconception; persistent, pervasive, pernicious, pre-scientific, predictable, preposterous, ...  It was corrected by Newton, but the newspaper writer who made this statement apparently didn't understand Newton.

Missed:
     Newton's three laws of motion—therefore, most of physical science.

And...
     The most common example of Newton's law of action and reaction is probably the rocket engine, perhaps exemplified by releasing a toy balloon.  That's an example fraught with peril, and almost guaranteed to reinforce the misconception that the law is about cause and effect.  The "action" and "reaction" forces are obscure here.

To see where they are, consider the rocket engine to be a simple hollow sphere, very, very strong because we want to start by exploding the fuel before we make a small hole in the sphere.  The gasses are now very, very hot.  The gas pressure inside is very, very high, and each little bit of area on the inside has a very, very great force pushing away from the center of the sphere.

The sphere goes nowhere because all the forces pushing outward add up to zero; the force on each little bit of area is exactly cancelled by the force on the corresponding bit of area on the opposite side.

Now, drill the hole.  The material you removed no longer has a force acting on it, and the force on the bit of area opposite it is unopposed.  The forces no longer add up to zero.  It's the force on the inside of the rocket engine opposite the hole that accelerates the rocket forward.

The expanding gasses rushing out the hole don't "push" on the gasses outside.  In fact, a rocket works best in a vacuum where the forward motion of the rocket isn't impeded by those outside gasses.  The "action" force of interest in a rocket engine is essentially only that opposite the hole where the gasses are pushing on the wall (action force) and the wall pushes back (reaction force), plus the fact that there is no similar pair of forces at the hole.

It would be hard to come up with a more misleading illustration of Newton's third law RTN
 
 
 

Old fashioned stereoscope

The clue:
    Two identical photos give an illusion of depth..

Missed:
    Stereoscopic depth results from the fact that the two photos are not identical. Any "depth" seen when identical photos are placed in a stereoscope is surely illusory; all in the imagination of the viewer.  The depth perceived with an actual stereoscopic pair is no more illusory than the images—and the information conveyed through those images—in any photograph.  Photos, including stereoscopic pairs of photos, reproduce rather faithfully the light patterns you would get if you were actually at the scene.   Furthermore, stereopsis can be a powerful tool if you understand a little about it: see the "stereoscopic model."

And...
     These errors are surprisingly common, although the "illusion" misunderstanding is much more common than the "identical photo" misunderstanding.  Those who believe all they need to do is make a copy of a photo and place the original and copy in a stereoscope seem always to "see depth" when they peer though their stereoscope.  (As I finish writing this—on April 24, 1999—the PBS TV program  I took the example from is still airing.  Posting to the Web can be fast!)  RTN
 
 
 
 

The metal crystallized

The clue:
    Virtually all solidified metals are crystalline.  Being crystalline is not a condition of weakness; it's generally a condition of strength.  The notion of "crystal" being weak and brittle comes from glass being extremely brittle (but it's not particularly weak).  "Glass" and "crystal" are antonyms when considered scientifically.  The shiny, faceted part of the failed surface of metal is not the weak part, its the strong part than held up to the very end.  The bluish, smooth part that looks like strong gun metal, is actually the failure: it a fatigue crack.

Missed:
     A lot of  today's knowledge of  materials science.

And...
     This common syndrome of errors and misunderstandings unarguably identifies the "expert" as "pseudoexpert."  It's surely one of the most convoluted and tangled web of errors.  RTN
 


 
 

The one hundredth centenary. . .

The clue:
     That would be ten thousand years.

Missed:
     Apparently, the meaning of centenary.

And...
     Perhaps it was a typo...? RTN
 


 
 

Spotted owl

The clue:
    The gold eagle might be an endangered specie.  The spotted owl is an endangered species.

Missed:
    The singular of "species" is "species." 

And...
    Latin plurals often are gotten wrong.  How much of this is a matter of learning and how much a matter of conceptual understanding?  I toss this one out because improper use of Latin plurals is so persistent and prevalent it seems to be an edge-of-human-comprehension phenomenon. But it’s different from the others in not appearing to be conceptual.  Any ideas?   RTN
 
 


 
 

Exponential growth

The clue:
     "Exponential" is used to mean "extremely large"; "exponential growth", to mean "extremely fast growth."

Missed:
     The meaning of "exponential."  Exponential growth is growth which is proportional to the current size.  It might be extremely fast, and it might be extremely slow.  When growth is exponential (with time), size doubles in some definite period of time.  That doubling time might be seconds, it might be millions of years.  Growth can be exponential and still be so slow as to be imperceptible.

And...
     Human population growth cannot remain exponential (and increasing at an easily perceived rate), yet when everyone insists on a personal population pressure equal to everyone else's, population growth is exponential.  Current doubling time is, perhaps, several tens of years.  That makes each new century with a population about 10 times the previous.  Each millennium, about 10,000,000,000 times the previous.   This does not mean that sometime in the not terribly far future human bodies will solidly pack the surface of the Earth and be streaming from that surface at the speed of light (the "Harrison Brown date").  It means simply that something will put an end to the exponential growth.  A person who understands exponential growth sees that we have a choice: let that population growth be a matter of human decision, or let it be according to the "laws" of statistics and chaotic instabilities.  The mechanisms of evolution will have their say, too.  (Because "Nature is full of traps...")  RTN
 
 
 
 
 
 

Egregious apologies

The clue:
     That use of "egregious" jars the senses.

Missed:
     Perhaps the correct meaning of "egregious," because here the intended meaning seems to be "excessive."

And...
     Some words lie in a no-man's-land of comprehension of their meaning.  These are between words virtually everyone really understands, and words that are either rare and obscure or, like "parameter,"  "unique," and "exponential," refer to things that are themselves at the edges of easy human comprehension.  This particular use of an only moderately well known word probably will remain a mystery:  Did he really mean "egregious"?  Scientific terms are especially subject to misunderstandings and frequently get used so often in a some misunderstood way that the (mis-)usage becomes standard usage.  RTN


 
 

A Thousand Milligrams

The clue:
     That's one gram!

Missed:
     Ratio and proportionality

And...
     This time it's not the speaker who doesn't understand.  Here, the speaker assumes the listener doesn't understand.  This is the world of advertising, the world of swifts and gulls.  How many on the receiving end of this communication "see" the obvious?   How many get taken by the "subtleties" of the ad writer's pen?  How many let the intended (but not the actual) meaning subtly sink in and do its work?   How many notice that the strength of a medicine is lower, not higher, when a standard dose is larger.  In this battle of the big pharmaceutical companies,  a competitor counter punched by advertising its analgesic by pointing out that their product is so powerful that only a little, tiny pill will do the job of the huge "thousand milligrams" pill of its competitor. RTN
 
 
 
 


 
 

Flow is the number of cubic feet per second.

The clue:
     Or it might be the number of cubic meters that flows past in one week.  Or the acre-feet in one year.  Etc.  The speaker implied that the "cubic feet per second" units is a definition of flow.

Missed:
     Possibly the abstraction, water flow as a rate defined generally as a volume per unit of time.

And...
     If the speaker really meant to define flow in terms of a specific set of units, then this is another example of the errors in "A vegetable is a potato" ("Energy is the capacity to do work").  A definition of "flow" should not be so specific as to be but one particular set of units; flow need to be defined as something somewhat more abstract.  To those who can easily convert units from one to another, this will probably seem a bit nitpicky.  But if a person fails to abstract here, the more specific picture of a concrete thing, like a cubic foot of water going past in one second, might give a necessary feeling of reality, without which "flow" is something "ivory-towered and out of touch with the real world."  Therefore, this example really is something at the edges of easy human comprehension and is a good example for demonstrating differences in the way different people "see" abstract reality.  These points might be further demonstrated by observing a group of people trying to actually convert between different sets of flow units—say cubic feet per second, and cubic meters per minute, and acre-feet per year, etc—and then observe the discussion as those who can do the calculations explain to those who cannot how to do it.   RTN
 
 
 
 
 
 
 


 
 

Car in lightning

The clue:
     The tires prevent grounding.  Furthermore, whether or not the car is grounded makes little difference.

Missed:
     The reason for getting into a "Faraday cage" when lightning is striking in the vicinity:  current flows easily through the conductor (making up the cage which surrounds us), and potential differences don't much develop from point to point in that conductor.  Potentially dangerous voltages are shorted out.  The statement suggests that many features of electric currents were not understood:  grounding, circuits, short circuits, the relationship between voltage and current, etc.  The insulation provided by the rubber tires seems— in some vague way informed by little or no understanding—to be confused with a need for insulating our bodies from the lightning.

And...
    Elementary electricity is widely not understood.  Arnold Arons of Univ. of Washington once presented each of a large group of people, from a wide range of ages, with some pieces of wire, a light bulb, and a dry cell (one of those big ones with screw terminals on the top).  Their task was to connect up the dry cell to the bulb with the pieces of wire so that the bulb lights up.  Very few could do it.  Many shorted out the dry cell.  RTN
 
 
 
 


 
 

2000 square acres.

The clue:
     How big is a "square acre"?

Missed:
     An acre is a measure of area, and area is measured in units of the square of distance.  A "square acre" would be measure in units of the fourth power of a distance.

And...
    Understanding units of measure and the necessity of consistency in the way units are expressed is a little concept that can foster a lot of comprehension of science.  This is comprehension that is missed more than it is "seen."  This quotation comes from a national TV network weather forecast on October 4, 1999.  That such a widely recognized "authority" would make this error constitutes a serious breach of the trust the public should be able to expect in a very important source of knowledge.  RTN
 
 
 
 


 
 

More heat than light.

The clue:
     Heat and light are seen as mutually exclusive.

Missed:
     The science meaning of "heat."  The significance of radiation being one of the three types of heat: radiation, convection, and conduction.  Light, the most common kind of radiation, is (almost always) a form of heat, which is energy being transferred solely because of a temperature difference.

And...
     Although infrared is often recognized to be heat, it's rather anthropocentric to believe that the low-wavelength cutoff of our eye's sensitivity could make a difference in something as fundamental as whether some energy is heat or not heat. RTN
 
 
 
 


 
 

Positive Feedback

The clue:
     "Positive feedback" is used to mean "positive reinforcement" or "favorable response."

Missed:
     The correct meaning of "feedback" (information about deviation from some desired value–used to control a process) and the meaning of "positive feedback" (response in the same direction as the error).   A thermostat  sends information about room temperature to the heating/cooling system.  If the information turns on the heater when the room is too hot, or turns on the cooler when the room is too cold, that is positive feedback.  We want the heater to come on when the room is too cold: that is negative feedback.   Positive feedback creates instabilities, which can be dangerously explosive.  (However, positive feedback is occasionally designed into oscillators where wild swinging back and forth is desired.)

And...
     "Buying elections" is a positive feedback system, a fact seldom recognized and even more seldom discussed.  In South Carolina, gambling casinos have been pouring money into campaigns for candidates who favor laws that tend to boost casino profits.   Candidates who oppose the casinos have learned that they can be easily outspent by their opponents, sufficiently that they lose elections.  Legislative opposition to casinos has dried up because opponents can't get sufficient campaign funding.  (Reported on Saturday Edition, NPR, June 26, 1999.)  Note that an essential element of this feedback loop is effectiveness of campaign advertising.  Ralph Nader has pointed out that most people deny that effectiveness, and that an advertiser can reinforce advertising's effectiveness by telling its target audience, "You are too smart to be swayed by irrationality." [Gull or swift?]  This, too, is positive feedback?.  [Casinos rely on logic-blindness to statistical reasoning at the edge of human comprehension.]    RTN
 
 


 
 

Mine comets for rocket fuel.

The clue:
       This comment appears to lack understanding of the function of fuel.  It was made by an entrepreneur looking for ways to get rich, not so much by brilliant invention, but more by imagining something (that sounds) wonderful.  "If it seems too good to be true, it probably is."

Missed:
     Fuels provide necessary negative entropy to help sweep away entropy buildups that always irreversibly occur.  (And this function is what is commonly–and very misleadingly–seen as providing "an energy source.")  The ice in a comet lacks this necessity until the hydrogen and oxygen are chemically separated, and the separation process requires that necessary essence (negative entropy) colloquially known as "an energy source."  It's possible that our entrepreneur assumes we have a quasi-infinite "source of energy" (negative entropy), such as nuclear fuel, and that the value of the hydrogen and oxygen is in the fact that they are gasses and therefore suitable for rocket fuel.  It's also possible that this is simply a scam based on the widespread misunderstanding of "energy" (and the rest of elementary physics).

And...
     We see variations on this error elsewhere, too.  It's very important to environmental issues because the energy - entropy relationships are too widely unrecognized..
 

A short lesson on one of modern science's simple but powerful concepts.
    Hydrogen is frequently suggested as "a clean fuel for automobiles."  Burning hydrogen in a heat engine produces an exhaust composed only of high temperature water vapor.  However, somewhere that hydrogen was separated from some compound–probably water.  At the separation factory, fuel was consumed, the colloquial "energy" was expended, and pollution got concentrated there.  Furthermore, unless the oxygen (assuming it was water) was also bottled and shipped to the automobile along with the hydrogen, a large fraction of the "energy" got lost, and the overall process was terribly inefficient.  The "pollution" at the separation factory can be of many kinds, many of which are usually unrecognized.

    Burning coal produces not only the particulates and carbon and nitrogen oxides; it often carries a rather high radioactive fallout.  (As mineral collecting students at Colorado School of Mines, we got our uranium minerals from local coal mines; they were a great source of carnotite.)

     Hydroelectric dams create a huge backup of entropy in the form of silt in the reservoir (not to mention the havoc to whatever ecological equilibrium had gotten established over the millennia); hydroelectric power is "buying on credit card" with an assumption that somebody else, somebody in the far future, will have to pay the entire bill. (That makes it seem free, today–how attractive!).  .  . How ultimately disastrous! 

     To the extent that heat is pollution, heat engines always pollute with unavoidable "waste heat."  This is the fundamental discovery of 19th century science that led to thermodynamics.  It's also a part of that conceptual stuff of elementary physics that lies "at the edge of human comprehension" and goes almost totally misunderstood.  All "energy" (colloquial use of the word) processes are a function of all things that are affected by the process: the input "source of energy," any additional reactants (such as oxygen in the air) and all byproducts ("exhaust" or "waste"), plus anything else that got changed by the process. The "energy" is "in" all those things, and not simply "in" the fuel.  Comet-ice hydrogen in rockets and hydrogen fuel for automobiles are both ideas that are usually suffused with the oversimplification of considering only the one aspect that is "most obvious." That renders the ideas useless, even meaningless.

  RTN










 
 

"M" stands for matter.

The clue:
       The letter "m" in E = mc2 stands for mass.

Missed:
     The distinctions between mass, weight and matter.  Seeing the distinction between mass and weight is one of a few indicators that someone is ready to understand elementary physics beyond the first week of a first course in physics.  Surprisingly many students still do not understand that distinction when they graduate from the course.  (Weight is a force, that due to the pull of gravity; mass is resistance to force, resistance to being accelerated by a force.)  Confusing weight and mass indicates a very serious failure of comprehension of some very simple science.  Failing to see the distinction between mass and matter is even more serious.  "Matter" refers to little more than "quantity of substance" and can have many different meanings, meanings that must be distinguished before we try to understand those basic principles.

Also missed is the profound meaning of  E = mc²: "Energy and mass are merely different expressions of the same thing."  When we query nature we may see mass or we may see energy, but we are seeing two sides of the same thing.  Einstein called E = mc², the "energy-mass equivalence," and that's a logical (Boolean) equivalence.

And...
     This error comes from one of PBS's "highly acclaimed" science series.  The scientists that were interviewed always used the word "mass" where appropriate, but the narrator consistently used "matter" for "mass."  We see a reflection of Feynman's comment,

"Perpetual absurdity . . . That's the way all the books were: They said things that were useless, mixed-up, ambiguous, confusing, and partially incorrect. How anybody can learn science from these books, I don't know, because it's not science."
A short lesson on some of modern science's serious "seeing" problems.
     With such a large sample of textbooks (seventeen feet on the shelf) being so uniformly bad, we can expect that a high percentage of the teaching of elementary science at the K-12 schools level, also fits Feynman's description.  There's plenty of evidence that it does.  A national science education organization once published, in a newsletter, "...and for the purists who insist on a distinction between weight and mass..."  In a set of science understanding standards for tenth and twelfth grades these criteria were recently published:
  • explain the principle that energy can be transferred and matter can be changed, but the sum of energy and matter in systems, and  therefore in the universe, remains the same.
  • apply the law of conservation of mass to analyze chemical reactions
  • apply unifying scientific concepts in projects, investigations, and further learning (within the sciences and other disciplines).   DISCUSSION
     These, too, confuse concepts.  The "law of conservation of mass" used in analyzing chemical reactions actually looks at matter, not mass.  What doesn't change is the number of atoms of various kinds as they rearange themselves to form different molecules; mass does, in general, change as energy is transferred during chemical reactions.  (Energy and mass are merely different expressions of the same thing: so when you have added energy, you have added mass.)  "The sum of energy and matter remains the same," isn't even wrong: it's a whole web of tangled misunderstandings. 

     It appears that a "purist" is someone who understands some of the science of the past four centuries, as seen by someone who does not. 

     Feynman found "perepetual absurdity" in all of those seventeen shelf-feet of textbooks because understanding of the simple but subtle science of the past four centuries is something quite different from the very widespread knowledge of that science as being taught by a large fraction of its teachers.  That knowledge is, more often than not, useless and cannot be used in applying "scientific concepts in projects, investigations, and further learning (within the sciences and other disciplines)."

RTN

Silicon implants. . .

The clue:
    Breast implants are made from silicone not silicon.

Missed:
     The distinction between silicone, silicon...and probably silica

And...
     See the distinctions HERE (Different site: Use "Back" to return)... RTN  to Misconceptions page