The priceless galaxy of misinformation called ‘The Mind’

“The most dangerous untruths are truths moderately distorted” ~ Georg Christoph Lichtenberg

From when we are very young, we are told not to lie. That we should beware the consequences, for ourselves and others. If we realise we have mistaken or misrepresented the facts, we take steps to remedy it – the media publish retractions, judges tell jurors to set aside evidence proven false.

Scientists in UWA’s School of Psychology have discovered, however, that all the remedies in the world cannot erase that misleading information from our minds. That we continue to be affected by retracted information that we once believed to be true. They  found that a specific warning – giving detailed information about this effect – succeeded in reducing the continued reliance on outdated information but did not eliminate it completely. A more general warning – reminding people that facts are not always properly checked before information is disseminated – was even less effective.

It is interesting how often we go back to premises we know are no longer accurate. We know that “I before E, except after C” – except thatit has more exceptions than cases that obey. Despite this, I still misspell words like “oneiromancies” because I remember the old rule.

Figure A

Ooooh - pretty electron orbitals

Figure B












Another example is atoms. Most people, even if they know better will draw Figure A, as opposed to Figure B, even though the latter is more technically correct. This is because, in schools, we get taught the incorrect one first (as was pointed out in this post).

 “To know the history of science is to recognise the mortality of any claim to universal truth” – Evelyn Fox Keller, Reflections on Gender and Science, 1995

What does this mean for science communicators? To me, it means we have to be really careful that what we write isn’t misinterpretted or factually incorrect. It also means we have to be aware that we are in a constantly changing industry, full of updates and contradictory information.

What do you think? Does the onus lie with the communicators? Or with the public?


8 comments on “The priceless galaxy of misinformation called ‘The Mind’

  1. If everything was black or white communication would be very simple. In the case of the atom, lower school students are taught the easier concept. If the science teacher has a background in chemistry and/or physics they would also mention it is not the whole picture. Then, at a later stage when their understanding has been developed introduce the fuller picture.

    In the case of giving evidence in court, can anyone remember exact details of what may have happened a month, a year or a decade ago. The human element of emotion can have some influence on the outcome. In some cultures people give answers which they think may please the person questioning them.

    Misconception are harder to correct and tend to be engrained in the mind. In science communication we should do our utmost best to have a good understanding of the content, so when we present it hopefully it will close to the truth.

  2. I really appreciate that when I was in year eight, and we began learning real science (my primary school’s version of science was doing design and technology and making things with hot glue-guns and balsa wood) my year eight science teacher stood before us and said “Most of the things I will tell you will be lies. You will just have to trust me that they are lies that will help you understand things in the long run”.

    When we questioned why it is that he couldn’t just teach us the whole truth, he told us that if he tried to teach us all of it, we would be over-loaded with information and forget how to walk home or tie our shoes.

    My first year chemistry lecturer constantly reminded us of a similar concept:
    He wrote “H2O” on the board and asked us what it was, when we replied with “water” he scowled and told us “Don’t be ridiculous, it’s chalk! It’s letters, it’s a representation that means water, but it is not water.”

    The point that they were both trying to get across is that science is, basically, a whole lot of words trying to describe phenomena. The words might be accurate to a certain degree, but just the same as a photo of someone is not that person, theories, concepts and descriptions from science are not what is actually happening in the world around us it is a way of explaining it, conceptualising it.

    I think it is this fundamental idea that science communicators should be focusing on. If more of the general public are reminded that science is–as you say, Kate–contradictory and dynamic, but in such a way as not to detract for the trust the public has in science, then we would really be getting somewhere.

  3. I used to learn that I should not tell a lie for yourself but Ican lie if only I have to protect someone you love.

    Interesting topic Osullivankate.
    When I was elementry school, I learned music as “Do Re Mi Fa So Ra Ti Do” while I learned “C D E F G A B C” at piano school. Both of them are right but for the elementry school kid, it was so confusing and unable to understand why there were two different types of explanations for music.
    It is hard to explain to variety of audiences especially if you don’t know how much knowledge they have. I think this is why to decide audience at the first point is important.

  4. Interesting topic Kate!

    I think there will always need to be that gradual build up of information from a young age to make science bearable. I would have thrown it in if someone showed me a picture of that atom on the right in year 8!

    However I do agree that the ‘lies’ that are told need to be chosen carefully as they do tend to stay with you. I think it sticks with people because they are able to understand the initial ‘lie’ better than the true science. Within schools I’d say the education council are careful and calculated in what they decide to include in the curriculum, but for newer areas of research and science it my be more fuzzy.

    • I agree with you that the ‘lie’ tends to stick with you because of an ease of understanding. I’m not saying that it isn’t a necessary thing – more that perhaps we need to be more aware of the potential ‘dangers’ of what we say/write/present to the public, and the danger of them misunderstanding.

  5. I really like how you mentioned that science is always being updated. As a nanotechnologist (a discipline on the ‘cutting edge’ of science) I suspect you found this a lot. I know that I found it incredible doing my genetics degree, how much information is learned by the scientist community and how much a pathway or model can be change between the time you enroll in university and the time you graduate. It’s not always new textbooks worth of knowledge (although publishers would convince you otherwise), but occasionally it can be a drastic change.

    So how in the world to you get the newest accepted information to everyone in the general public so no one is left behind? How do you decided which model is most correct? I have absolutely no idea, but its something to start thinking about. Great post Kate.

    • I certainly have found it – during my project last year, I found that the methodology I was about to modify and use had been modified so many times that it was difficult to know where to begin. I mean, how much more do we know about the atom (to go back to my pretty pictures) now, than they did even 50 years ago. Science is perennially “moving forward”, and we may need to be careful about how we present this to the general public for fear of their disillusionment in the field as a whole..

  6. Hey Kate, great post on a fundamental topic in science communication and education.

    I reckon that everything we teach and learn kind of depends on faith. I don’t mean religion. I mean faith that what you are teaching, and what you are learning, is true. Moreover, as a researcher, you need to have faith that what you are interpreting from your results and observations is also true and therefore gives you the confidence to disseminate the information to others. Sure, this faith may be based on heaps and heaps of repeated trials and everything that is a good experimental design, but at the end of the day, as clayte01 has already mentioned – everything we “know” is just our way of interpreting and representing the phenomena of the universe. In that case, a rather negative way to put it would be: could it possible that we are all “lying”?

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