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public misconceptions

Posted: Tue Jan 26, 2010 8:29 pm UTC
by jubjubbird
What are some public misconceptions regarding the topic of science that bother you, and cause problems?

obviously the multiple definitions of the word "theory", as well as misunderstandings of many scientific topics that contradict religious beliefs are some serious issues. What are everyone's thoughts on this?

Re: public misconceptions

Posted: Tue Jan 26, 2010 9:45 pm UTC
by mmmcannibalism
Evolution being misunderstood or not believed in its many forms

The entirety of Einstein's life being e=mc^2 is something I think is widely believed.

Re: public misconceptions

Posted: Tue Jan 26, 2010 9:55 pm UTC
by Jeff_UK
People who think that because they managed to install iPlayer they fully understand every facet of computer science much better than someone with a degree and 5 years experience in the field.

Re: public misconceptions

Posted: Tue Jan 26, 2010 10:43 pm UTC
by polymer
That physics only talks about big things...

Re: public misconceptions

Posted: Tue Jan 26, 2010 11:16 pm UTC
by Aodhan
In Australia at least, 'Pharmacy' is known by the masses as 'Chemistry' e.g. One goes down to the 'chemist' to buy some painkillers.
So whenever I tell someone that I am studying Chemistry, I need to spend a couple of minutes explaining to them that I do not plan on selling medicines for a living, but plan on conducting research that is most likely beyond their comprehension.

Re: public misconceptions

Posted: Tue Jan 26, 2010 11:44 pm UTC
by gmalivuk
Aodhan wrote:I do not plan on selling medicines for a living, but plan on conducting research that is most likely beyond their comprehension.

Ooh well done! You manage to insult both pharmacists and whoever you're talking to in one go!

Re: public misconceptions

Posted: Wed Jan 27, 2010 12:02 am UTC
by doogly
People often think scientists are smug inhuman assholes. I have no idea where this could come from, but I do try my best. We're really just smug.

Re: public misconceptions

Posted: Wed Jan 27, 2010 12:29 am UTC
by Josephine
doogly wrote:People often think scientists are smug inhuman assholes. I have no idea where this could come from, but I do try my best. We're really just smug.

Reductionism, which has deep scientific parallels, can seem cold to a lot of people. that's probably partially where the inhuman thing comes from.

Re: public misconceptions

Posted: Wed Jan 27, 2010 12:47 am UTC
by kernelpanic
That the people in TV ads are actually scientists, because all scientists work in a blue/green, almost empty lab, have cool translucent touchscreens, wear a labcoat, work in teams of two: A man and a woman, and are all invariably white.

Re: public misconceptions

Posted: Wed Jan 27, 2010 12:53 am UTC
by TaintedDeity
Don't forget the conical flasks with colourful liquids in them!

Re: public misconceptions

Posted: Wed Jan 27, 2010 12:59 am UTC
by kernelpanic
TaintedDeity wrote:Don't forget the conical flasks with colourful liquids in them!

Right, because sulfuric acid is a green, bubbling liquid that glows.
And scientists wear safety goggles even if they are, say, observing a rat. Through a camera.

Re: public misconceptions

Posted: Wed Jan 27, 2010 1:00 am UTC
by SimpleSimon
That people that enjoy science are all unattractive, its not true, we're just mostly unattractive.

I myself am a hottie

Re: public misconceptions

Posted: Wed Jan 27, 2010 1:26 am UTC
by Cobramaster
My research team is a testament to hot women working in research. Currently there is me and my professor, then we have 5 hot to very hot 20-25 year olds working with us. Now if all research teams were like this the public would not think wrongly.

Now the misconception I have a problem with is thinking gen-mod foods can cause problems in them by creating mutations, even though that is impossible except for one method we have not actually used yet.

Re: public misconceptions

Posted: Wed Jan 27, 2010 2:15 am UTC
by Omegaton
How about that science is only about facts, and that if there's any controversy at all, then we don't know anything. Or how we have to know everything to "believe" in science.

Cobramaster wrote:My research team is a testament to hot women working in research. Currently there is me and my professor, then we have 5 hot to very hot 20-25 year olds working with us. Now if all research teams were like this the public would not think wrongly.

Now you've got me curious what your field is.

Re: public misconceptions

Posted: Wed Jan 27, 2010 3:14 am UTC
by Cobramaster
Would you believe me if I said bee pheromones.

Re: public misconceptions

Posted: Wed Jan 27, 2010 3:40 am UTC
by Username4242
As a field that encourages lots and lots of time in the sun, I can attest to paleontology being a hotbed for attractive women.

That said, the difference between real fieldwork and that shown in Jurassic Park is substantial. Most of the time it consists of walking around in the 100º+ heat and finding little. When you do something, it's almost invariably fragmented and incapable of being traced. When you do trace something, there's usually not much there. When there is something there, it's usually buried under a tremendous amount of hard rock, which requires a month's work to remove.

Sometimes you can get really lucky and find something mostly complete and easy to remove--but most of the time, don't bet on it. :D

There are also differences in their perception of how the science works, though this's largely due to documentaries that espouse the 'everything you see here is absolutely unquestioned fact' attitude.

Re: public misconceptions

Posted: Wed Jan 27, 2010 5:01 am UTC
by Shadowfish
Newton's third law describes international relations, the second law of thermodynamics describes the degradation morality in society, and wave function collapse is magic that makes everything you think true.

Re: public misconceptions

Posted: Wed Jan 27, 2010 5:26 am UTC
by Cobramaster
Username4242 wrote:As a field that encourages lots and lots of time in the sun, I can attest to paleontology being a hotbed for attractive women.

That said, the difference between real fieldwork and that shown in Jurassic Park is substantial. Most of the time it consists of walking around in the 100º+ heat and finding little. When you do something, it's almost invariably fragmented and incapable of being traced. When you do trace something, there's usually not much there. When there is something there, it's usually buried under a tremendous amount of hard rock, which requires a month's work to remove.

Sometimes you can get really lucky and find something mostly complete and easy to remove--but most of the time, don't bet on it. :D

There are also differences in their perception of how the science works, though this's largely due to documentaries that espouse the 'everything you see here is absolutely unquestioned fact' attitude.


Yeah when I lived in Texas I dabbled in Paleontology and found a good fossil bed after some looking in every dry creek/river bed I could find, then I hit the gold mine of aquatic finds for an amateur with easy to remove bivalves, various fish and even further along amphibians. Then someone decided to build a subdivision on top of it. Which makes you think how many rich fossil beds we live on.

Also the public needs to learn what expert really means. which is not unflappable being who has the final say of what is right in a field.

Re: public misconceptions

Posted: Wed Jan 27, 2010 8:08 am UTC
by Ingolifs
TaintedDeity wrote:Don't forget the conical flasks with colourful liquids in them!


I work with coloured compounds. This means I can dissolve some in a solvent, pour it into a flask, add some dry ice and BOOM! Instant science.

Re: public misconceptions

Posted: Wed Jan 27, 2010 11:26 am UTC
by Aodhan
gmalivuk wrote:
Aodhan wrote:I do not plan on selling medicines for a living, but plan on conducting research that is most likely beyond their comprehension.

Ooh well done! You manage to insult both pharmacists and whoever you're talking to in one go!


I didn't mean to offend anyone. Most of the people that I talk to don't have a clue about anything science-related.
Also, I didn't insult pharmacists - I pointed out that I don't want to work in a pharmacy - which is what many people that I talk to believe that a 'chemist' does.

EDIT: I normally try to explain what I'm studying in lay terms and give examples of real-world applications, but it doesn't always work.

Re: public misconceptions

Posted: Wed Jan 27, 2010 11:37 am UTC
by Styx
"We only use 10% of our brains."

I hate it when people say that. It has led to so many wrong ideas about the true capabilities of our brains… telepathy, telekinesis, hypnosis etc…

Re: public misconceptions

Posted: Wed Jan 27, 2010 4:06 pm UTC
by Username4242
Uh, hypnosis is a very well documented phenomenon.

Re: public misconceptions

Posted: Wed Jan 27, 2010 4:11 pm UTC
by TaintedDeity
Aodhan wrote:
gmalivuk wrote:
Aodhan wrote:I do not plan on selling medicines for a living, but plan on conducting research that is most likely beyond their comprehension.

Ooh well done! You manage to insult both pharmacists and whoever you're talking to in one go!


I didn't mean to offend anyone. Most of the people that I talk to don't have a clue about anything science-related.
Also, I didn't insult pharmacists - I pointed out that I don't want to work in a pharmacy - which is what many people that I talk to believe that a 'chemist' does.

EDIT: I normally try to explain what I'm studying in lay terms and give examples of real-world applications, but it doesn't always work.
To say a pharmacist only sells medicines for a living is to vastly underestimate the effort and knowledge that is meant to go into the job.

Re: public misconceptions

Posted: Wed Jan 27, 2010 4:22 pm UTC
by tgjensen
Which would then be the fault of whoever Aodhan's talking to, not himself. He's correcting the assumption of "chemist = selling pills in a pharmacy", NOT "chemist = pharmacist".

Re: public misconceptions

Posted: Wed Jan 27, 2010 4:32 pm UTC
by gmalivuk
Username4242 wrote:Uh, hypnosis is a very well documented phenomenon.

But it's not documented as doing most of the things people attribute to it. For example, stage hypnosis really isn't.

Re: public misconceptions

Posted: Wed Jan 27, 2010 5:31 pm UTC
by Technical Ben
Username4242 wrote:As a field that encourages lots and lots of time in the sun, I can attest to paleontology being a hotbed for attractive women.

Not just a rock bed of hot people? ;)

That they actually have holographic interactive semi intelligent displays down in the labs at the local cop shop in Miami. (Darn you CSI! Yeeehaaaa!)

Re: public misconceptions

Posted: Wed Jan 27, 2010 6:00 pm UTC
by Velifer
  • Applied math is only done by accountants or chaoticians.
  • Scientists aren't human (when they are as gossipy and sniping as anyone else.)
  • Knowledge and human endeavors are n-chotomous. Sculpture/Anatomy, Philosophy/Science, Biology/Chemistry etc...
  • Scientists are smart.

Re: public misconceptions

Posted: Wed Jan 27, 2010 8:57 pm UTC
by DNATM
People think that "cloning" means creating a full-grown identical copy of a human being in some kind of tanning bed/oven looking thing. When I say cloning, I'm not even talking about multicellular organisms...

Re: public misconceptions

Posted: Wed Jan 27, 2010 9:23 pm UTC
by Krikkit_Robot
Velifer wrote:
  • Scientists are smart.


Yes this is one that particularly annoys me.

When I tell people I am in going for a PhD in physics there are two general questions

1) What is physics?
2) So you are really smart, aren't you?

For the first question I don't really have an answer. I give them the standard answer of "the study of matter and energy," but that never seems to clarify things

And for the second question... how do you even answer that? If you say yes, you are pretentious, if you say no, you seem condescending.

I don't believe that I am smarter than anyone else, well maybe I am smarter than a few people who appear on MTV reality shows, but other than that... Just because I don't act like a moron, when being willfully stupid is a societal norm, doesn't mean that I am capable of thinking on Einsteinian levels. Also given my severe dyslexia I would think that most people, if they would just bother trying, would achieve even more academic success than I have.

Re: public misconceptions

Posted: Wed Jan 27, 2010 9:37 pm UTC
by SWGlassPit
Also working on a PHD....when people say #2 to me, I say "no, just a glutton for punishment."

Re: public misconceptions

Posted: Wed Jan 27, 2010 9:45 pm UTC
by Ingolifs
When it comes down to it, a PhD is much more hard work than intelligence. In chemistry at least, the limiting rate of progress is the time it takes to perform reactions, purify them, etc.

I suppose someone doing a PhD in mathematics would probably have to be a fair bit smarter than the average though.

Re: public misconceptions

Posted: Thu Jan 28, 2010 12:10 am UTC
by Aodhan
TaintedDeity wrote:
Aodhan wrote:
gmalivuk wrote:
Aodhan wrote:I do not plan on selling medicines for a living, but plan on conducting research that is most likely beyond their comprehension.

Ooh well done! You manage to insult both pharmacists and whoever you're talking to in one go!


I didn't mean to offend anyone. Most of the people that I talk to don't have a clue about anything science-related.
Also, I didn't insult pharmacists - I pointed out that I don't want to work in a pharmacy - which is what many people that I talk to believe that a 'chemist' does.

EDIT: I normally try to explain what I'm studying in lay terms and give examples of real-world applications, but it doesn't always work.
To say a pharmacist only sells medicines for a living is to vastly underestimate the effort and knowledge that is meant to go into the job.


That is definitely true, but the people I talk to believe that all pharmacists do is sell drugs. I tell them I'm doing chemistry and they say "Oh, that's nice, we need more people selling drugs. What exactly does studying chemistry involve, working out doses or something?" I had three separate people say that to me yesterday.

Re: public misconceptions

Posted: Thu Jan 28, 2010 12:22 am UTC
by massivefoot
Ok, I'm actually quite appalled that this thread is 31 posts long this one hasn't been mentioned yet:

"Science is boring."

Seriously, does no one else have a problem with this? Many of the people I've encountered this view from are not stupid - but they have this stereotype of science as this dull process where we just plug numbers into formulae laid down long ago, and that we never have a creative thought.

Or another commonly encountered one: "science doesn't answer any of the big questions." A moment's thought shows that this claim is beyond the absurd. In the last couple of centuries we've discovered evolution, why the Sun shines, what light actually is, what makes up the inside of the Earth and much more. We've discovered that our star isn't the only one to harbour planets, and started to think seriously about how we might look for life on other worlds. We've discovered more about the history of the universe during the last half-century than during the rest of our civilisation's existence put together.

And there are still huge questions that are waiting to be answered. My pet favourite is "What actually happens that's so special when we make a measurement on a quantum system?" Because our current model of measurement agrees fantastically with experiment, but is just plain unsettling. I struggle to believe that anyone can present me with a question that I would regard as "bigger" than that.

And yet people say "Yeh, but science is still boring, it's all just numbers and it's not relevant to the real world."

Re: public misconceptions

Posted: Thu Jan 28, 2010 12:37 am UTC
by Ventanator
massivefoot wrote:Ok, I'm actually quite appalled that this thread is 31 posts long this one hasn't been mentioned yet:

"Science is boring."

Seriously, does no one else have a problem with this? Many of the people I've encountered this view from are not stupid - but they have this stereotype of science as this dull process where we just plug numbers into formulae laid down long ago, and that we never have a creative thought.

Or another commonly encountered one: "science doesn't answer any of the big questions." A moment's thought shows that this claim is beyond the absurd. In the last couple of centuries we've discovered evolution, why the Sun shines, what light actually is, what makes up the inside of the Earth and much more. We've discovered that our star isn't the only one to harbour planets, and started to think seriously about how we might look for life on other worlds. We've discovered more about the history of the universe during the last half-century than during the rest of our civilisation's existence put together.

And there are still huge questions that are waiting to be answered. My pet favourite is "What actually happens that's so special when we make a measurement on a quantum system?" Because our current model of measurement agrees fantastically with experiment, but is just plain unsettling. I struggle to believe that anyone can present me with a question that I would regard as "bigger" than that.

And yet people say "Yeh, but science is still boring, it's all just numbers and it's not relevant to the real world."


AMEN.

Re: public misconceptions

Posted: Thu Jan 28, 2010 1:17 am UTC
by Shadowfish
massivefoot wrote:Ok, I'm actually quite appalled that this thread is 31 posts long this one hasn't been mentioned yet:

"Science is boring."

Seriously, does no one else have a problem with this? Many of the people I've encountered this view from are not stupid - but they have this stereotype of science as this dull process where we just plug numbers into formulae laid down long ago, and that we never have a creative thought.

Or another commonly encountered one: "science doesn't answer any of the big questions." A moment's thought shows that this claim is beyond the absurd. In the last couple of centuries we've discovered evolution, why the Sun shines, what light actually is, what makes up the inside of the Earth and much more. We've discovered that our star isn't the only one to harbour planets, and started to think seriously about how we might look for life on other worlds. We've discovered more about the history of the universe during the last half-century than during the rest of our civilisation's existence put together.

And there are still huge questions that are waiting to be answered. My pet favourite is "What actually happens that's so special when we make a measurement on a quantum system?" Because our current model of measurement agrees fantastically with experiment, but is just plain unsettling. I struggle to believe that anyone can present me with a question that I would regard as "bigger" than that.

And yet people say "Yeh, but science is still boring, it's all just numbers and it's not relevant to the real world."


QFT!

Relatedly, almost every time I mention something about physics, I am asked "Does that have any practical applications?", with the implication that physics has nothing to do with the "real world". Often the answer is yes, there are applications, but it still seems like some things are worth figuring out even if they won't lead to a better iPod next year.

Re: public misconceptions

Posted: Thu Jan 28, 2010 1:29 am UTC
by Aodhan
massivefoot wrote:
"Science is boring."


I think that this may come from being forced to study science in school, where all that students do is learn the basic principles. This could convince those that aren't interested in science that science is just the endless drudgery of formula after formula. At the school level, they haven't gotten into the discovery aspect of science, which is the really interesting bit.

Re: public misconceptions

Posted: Thu Jan 28, 2010 1:31 am UTC
by Cobramaster
On the boring part when people ask me how I can handle doing a Chemistry and Biology degree simultaneously I tell them, I do chemistry because when I get bored i can walk into almost any lab grab a few things and make an explosion and biology because my hunting trips can be considered field work.

Re: public misconceptions

Posted: Thu Jan 28, 2010 3:56 am UTC
by qetzal
Omegaton wrote:How about that science is only about facts, and that if there's any controversy at all, then we don't know anything. Or how we have to know everything to "believe" in science.


THIS. I can't stand when people argue against science because "we used to think X, but now we say Y." As if changing your mind in the face of better evidence is somehow a flaw.

Also, movies where radiation/mutagens/toxic waste causes small inocuous animals to mutate into huge man-eating monsters in a matter of minutes. Especially when they grow to 100 times their original mass without taking in any external mass!

Although I do enjoy laughing at said movies.

Re: public misconceptions

Posted: Thu Jan 28, 2010 5:53 am UTC
by ikrase
People who cannot stop freaking about bioethics

Re: public misconceptions

Posted: Thu Jan 28, 2010 8:57 am UTC
by massivefoot
Shadowfish wrote:"Does that have any practical applications?"
Yeh, that one is particularly annoying. You could point out that the cutting-edge of physics has rarely had any obvious applications on the horizon (I doubt the pioneers of quantum mechanics foresaw the transistor, for example) but I usually find it's best to just cut to the heart of the matter and be pretty clear that you're interested in far grander things than the next iPod. "It could help us better understand phenomenon XYZ" is usually a good answer.

qetzal wrote:I can't stand when people argue against science because "we used to think X, but now we say Y." As if changing your mind in the face of better evidence is somehow a flaw.
There's a really good essay by Isaac Asimov about this, The Relativity of Wrong. It's still the best response to this view I've ever seen: "Look, people used to think that the Earth was flat, and they were wrong. Then people thought that the Earth was spherical, and they were wrong too. If you think they were as wrong as each other, then you're more wrong than both of them put together."