Perpetuating science myths and urban legends

My frequent readers probably recognize a recurring theme that rests in the very premise of this blog. I am frustrated with perpetual science myths, and want to illustrate that basic scientific understanding and curiosity is not beyond the realm of the common person.

I define a scientific myth as reasoning used to explain a phenomenon without regard to scientific laws, quantifiable observations and data, logical progression, or testable hypotheses. For example, a flat Earth is a myth, because it disagrees with known laws of science, observations, and logical reasoning. While a flat Earth is still the belief of a few, other myths seem to perpetuate for decades or centuries despite ample scientific evidence to the contrary, and a lack of rational evidence to support the myth. Some myths are so commonplace that they are believed by a significant percentage of the population, including the supposedly educated population. Why do so many illogical explanations persist long after a rational explanation is discovered? I have a few theories:

1) Original-source scientific information is inaccessible to the general public. The other day, I was reading a newspaper article, and saw reference to a study in which I am interested. This study is not available on the internet, and despite that I live in a large city, my local library also does not carry this source. In order to read this source, I would need to drive to a university library, and spend time finding and printing the article. If one is not near a library that can get said article, he or she must pay a membership fee in order to get an online subscription to a journal index. These membership fees are usually expensive, discouraging the general public from ever reading primary-source journals.

No wonder myths are easily perpetuated if primary-source information is so hard to get. People like things free, and they like things fast. So, instead of turning to actual research with data, they turn to Google, where they find unverified blog postings (such as this one 😉 ) commentary, sensationalized news stories with a clear agenda, and second or third hand information. On the internet, people can always find and read the information that agrees only with their preexisting belief, and the myth is perpetuated. The primary-source information cannot compete with the unverified commentary if it is not readily available.

2) Scientists act like elitists. This one truly irks me. I’ve been to presentations where after ten minutes someone must interrupt and ask the speaker to please explain their acronyms, abbreviations, and inside lingo. Scientists are horribleat speaking to their audiences. Even though their audience may be other scientists, they assume that everyone in the room is up-to-date with the latest lingo of that specific area of study. If a researcher writes an article without referencing the major players in the field, he or she stands the risk of being shunned. Likewise, a graduate student or young PhD may feel the need to “talk the talk and walk the walk” in order to be accepted and taken seriously.

I am not sure why this is happens. When I was involved in academia, I swore grad students and researchers would intentionally pad their reference sections and use big words when not required in order to kiss ass. In fact, my advisor once reprimanded me after a presentation for not being scientific enough. My audience was mostly undergraduate students and non-majors who really couldn’t give a shit about my subject, so I did the best I could to make sure they left with something besides daydreams. I considered proper communication equally important as the research itself. Ignoring the audience would certainly have failed the communication goal, making my research meaningless.

While this behavior is encouraged in the scientific community, the general public is extremely put off. If you want the public to understand and accept a new concept such as global warming, you need to speak their language and not yours – and scientists fail miserably at this task. When a scientist talks from a higher level, the public is reminded of the nerds that performed better than them in high school, and will find another source for information. The public instead turns to trusted non-scientist commentators, a newspaper story, the Cliff Claven at the local bar, or someone else that speaks their language without that elitist perception. Myths are perpetuated because correct information is not presented in a way that makes the public feel welcome.

3) Apathy. Face it, some people are simply more interested in celebrities, money, or other interests. As far as science goes, they repeat what they hear, without even thinking or caring about it. They expect the car to crank when they turn the key, and if it doesn’t they call a mechanic. If someone told them their car ran because of hamsters inside the engine, they would would accept it, and pass it along.

4) People put little effort into learning new things after their education is completed, and resist learning things in which they hold little interest or practical use. Many people have negative memories of science classes from high school and college. The attitude is that these classes were forced curriculum, and were happy to earn their passing grade. You can’t expect this type of person to seek new information beyond what they were forced to learn in school. The “myths” in this case are actually antiquated scientific information, perpetuated by people relying on information from decades prior.

5) Politics, religion, and preexisting beliefs. Sometimes, a person will refuse to believe a new discovery because it disagrees with their accepted religious belief or political position. To this person, accepting a new discovery means disagreeing with a lifelong political or religious belief. Before you think I am only talking about the devout and political conservatives, consider that this happens both ways. Sometimes scientists are stubborn to accept new ideas that repudiate years of research. Nobody likes to admit they are wrong, and most refuse to even consider viewpoints and evidence that could possibly suggest one’s beliefs are in error.

6) Hollywood. Anyone remember Pierce Brosnan driving across the river of lava or outrunning a pyroclastic cloud in “Dante’s Peak”? What about the titanium encrusted geode in “The Core”? Pure fantasy.

Does anyone else have thoughts on this subject?

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4 Responses to Perpetuating science myths and urban legends

  1. Agree with all!
    Probably the most famous one is religion and science. Galileo is the best example. Inquisition (+Popes) prohibited new ideas that were so prevalent during Renaissance.

  2. Number 1 is my biggest pet peeve. I was recently trying to track down digital copies of two published articles that I maps I created were in. Unfortunately, I’m no longer a student at my university and cannot download them from the library site…nor can I access them from the publishers’ sites without spending some of my own money. Alas, I may never actually have a PDF version of work I’ve done.

    • And even when I was a student, it would seem like I would spend months tracking down research. Far too many obscure journals and publications, library budget cuts that made some sources unavailable, and simply knowing which database and which keywords to search… headaches. Sometimes it felt like I had to be a member of a secret club in order to get the information I needed.

  3. I agree with your post–Galileo mainly got in trouble with the church not for teaching the heliocentric theory, but for teaching it as an established fact. He didn’t help himself when he named the geocentric scientist in his book *A Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems* “Simplicio.” At the time of Galileo, the evidence for both theories was about equal.

    I have found quite a few full text primary source articles at scholar.google.com, which is available to everyone. I probably use it as much as I use Academic Research Premier at the school when doing my own research.

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