Be very, very careful what you put into that head,
because you will never, ever get it out.
Thomas Cardinal Wolsey (1471-1530)
| Bad Science
Click on the symbol for its explanation.
This page is maintained by Alistair B. Fraser in an attempt to sensitize teachers and students to examples of the bad science often taught in schools, universities, and offered in popular articles and even textbooks.
Here, I explain what I mean by bad science and provide pointers to specialized pages on bad science within various disciplines. In particular this page points to Bad Meteorology , a page also maintained by Alistair B. Fraser.
This site accepts no requests for reciprocal links, even if those requests come in the form of a supposed award. Editorial decisions will not be influenced by requests for such quid pro quo arrangements.
However, it will gladly link to other sites which explore the same pedagogical isues of bad science.
When I created this page, in January, 1995, I naïvely expected that other frustrated teachers would rush to build sites devoted to, say, Bad Archeology and Bad Biology. It has not happened. Apparently, most teachers believe everything they teach. Sigh, one is reminded of Lily Tomlin when she said , No matter how cynical you become, it's never enough to keep up.
The Bad Science and Bad Meteorology pages have been cited by over 3000 other web pages, and in books, magazines, and on TV.
What is Bad Science?
Study finds errors rife
in Science textbooks
This study goes well beyond bad science to include bad editing and the disingenuousness textbook committees who are more interested in using science textbooks as a vehicle for political correctness than scientific correctness.
A copy of the study is available: Review of Middle School
Physical Science Texts
(at least within the context of this page)
Bad Science abounds and comes in many guises. This page sets out to attack only one brand: well understood phenomena which are persistently presented incorrectly by teachers and writers, presumably because they either do not know any better or because they don't really care enough to get it correct. By publicizing examples of bad science, I hope to sensitize students, teachers and writers to the horrors of such glib explanations or representations.What this page is NOT about.
For the purposes of this page, bad science does not mean pseudo-science. I realize that the boundary is permeable, but there is a useful distinction. The practitioners of (what scientists refer to as) pseudo-science generally know and even understand established scientific thought; they just reject it (for reasons which may have little to do with science itself). Treatments of pseudo-science and the paranormal are well treated elsewhere. See, for example, the Skeptical Inquirer , or the Skeptics Society . By way of contrast, purveyors of bad science are generally teachers or writers who just don't know any better.The difficulty with science education is that so much of it is actually reeducation.
Similarly, this page does not address contemporary controversies, about which the experts are still in active debate. Rather, it concerns itself with ideas and facts which are well established and well understood, but which persist in being presented incorrectly.
As such, this page is about teaching rather than research.
I find teaching of science fairly easy. I have no difficulties with science education; my difficulties are with science reeducation. If I can teach something about which the students have never heard, I find that they generally both welcome and understand it. It is when I have to teach them about something that they have already learned incorrectly, that I start to identify with Sisyphus.
Why is science reeducation so difficult? I have identified two possible reasons, you may know of others.
- Jonathan Swift is reputed to have observed (I cannot find the original reference), "You cannot reason a person out of a position he did not reason himself into in the first place." So, if science is taught as just a collection of (assumed-to-be) facts, it is nothing but dogma. Dogma stoutly resists subsequent displacement by reason.
- It seems that anything people have learned prior to puberty takes on the status of an immutable truth (this is something well understood by parents, governments, and religions). Rational explanations of why some previous belief might be incompatible with the behavior of nature, and a careful explanation of the actual behavior of nature are of little avail.
So, if science is taught as dogma to the prepubescent, just imagine the problem created for subsequent teachers. For example, most of the university students I encounter have been taught as children that the reason clouds form when air is cooled is that cold air cannot hold as much water vapor as does warm air. When I subsequently carefully explain what is really happening, and show why the previously learned nostrum is nonsense parading as science, I can usually only convince a small fraction of the students. The rest know in their hearts that their grade-eight teacher, say, or their mummy was actually right and that you are just a contrarian who is attempting to destroy the established order. The damage is done, the mind is frozen and the prepubescent dogma lasts a lifetime.
Branches to the Bad Science Pages
Bad Astronomy is brought to you by Phil Plait .
Bad Chemistry is brought to you by Kevin Lehmann and the Princeton Section of the American Chemical Society. The main page provides an overview and enables you to branch to:
The Hydrophobic EffectBad Meteorology is brought to you by Alistair B. Fraser. The main page provides an overview and enables you to branch to:
Theory of Ice skating is all wet!
Ionic solutions don't look like that!
Bad CloudsThe Pathetic Fallacy is brought to you by Alistair B. Fraser.
Bad Meteorology FAQ
A Class project: Search for examples of bad science (including the pathetic fallacy) in books and on the Web. Quote the bad claims, explaining what is wrong, and cite the source. This exercise has become ever so much easier these days given the power of Web search engines. In particular, it is now easy to search universities for nonsense. They are fair game, for they should know better. Search the university of your choice courtesy of a special division of google .