Endnotes: Scientific Misconceptions

What common scientific misconception would you most want to correct? 

Most people think that an astronaut, circling the earth at, say, 200 miles out, is weightless. WRONG. He/she weighs almost as much as when he/she is on earth. That weight provides the centripetal force which gives him/her the centripetal acceleration of moving in a circle.

J. David Teal (BS ’59), Clinton, MS 

That there is such a thing as a "scientific fact." That there is any idea we hold to be scientifically true now that will always be held to be true into the future. If we could replace the concept of "scientific fact" with "our best understanding to date," I think it would help everyone to understand things better.

Bob Hearn (BS ’62, MS ’64), Las Cruces, NM 

That a Parsec is a speed, not a distance. Star Wars gets it wrong. 

Alice Tang BS (BS ’79), Moraga, CA 

That the number of dimensions of reality is a small, finite number.

Paul Sobel (MS ’67), Austin, TX 

People vastly overestimate how accurately natural processes can be forecast. The media often say things like "the odds of a huge Pacific Northwest earthquake in the next 50 years are roughly one in three." In reality, these numbers depend greatly on the models used and the assumptions made about things that we don't understand. 

Seth Stein (PhD ’78), Glencoe, IL


That "A implies B" means the same as "B implies A" (which includes the misconception that correlation is equivalent to causation).

Michael Wilson (BS ’77), Hinesburg, VT  


The fact that we change our minds when we learn more does not mean that no scientific conclusion is to be trusted.

Virginia Trimble (MS ’65, PhD ’68), Irvine, CA


The distinction between "theory" (as one has in the observable sciences) and "law" (as one has in mathematics). For example, dismissing climate change as "just a theory" would imply that one should also dismiss gravity, as it, too, is "just a theory."

Richard Beatty (BS ’77), Pasadena, CA


The first reaction, as I start to think, is that "scientific misconception" is an oxymoron. If it is indeed a "misconception," it cannot be "scientific." Perhaps the misappropriation of the term "scientific," often stemming from a "misconception," is what I would like to see corrected/rectified. In China, back 35 years ago when I first started management consulting work in economic and industrial restructuring, I was expected to perform my tasks "scientifically." I was terrified. 

Bob Ching (BS ’64), Shanghai, China



The misconception that cold weather locally means that the climate is not warming globally.

Ivar Tombach (BS ’65, PhD ’69), Camarillo, CA


I think there are misconceptions about the methods and goals of science. Science isn't a bag of facts, it's a way of thinking and observing that helps sift evidence for and against theories.

Richard Yeh (BS ’98), Brooklyn, NY 


The notion that doing exact arithmetic is a more important math skill than noticing when an approximate calculation can be informative.

John Whitehead (BS ’81), Davis, CA


The misconception that there is a dark side of the moon. In truth, there is only a far side. Causes much confusion.

David Drake (BS ’74), Escondido, CA 




Our Sun is classified by astronomers as a "yellow-type" star, it’s actually white. People depicting the sun as yellow isn’t a serious misconception, but it irks me. 

Jessica Davis (BS ’12), Dunedin, New Zealand 

That science is a collection of facts, a Q&A list. Science is a process, a methodology for learning how everything works. That process is ongoing, with investigations by scientists all over the world, and all results are subject to refinement as new investigations add to our shared pool of knowledge.

Shal Farley BS (BS ’80), Monrovia, CA

The common belief that you can save energy by turning off the air conditioner and turning on a fan while you're not at home. Energy is conserved, so the energy it takes to spin the fan has nowhere to go other than making the room warmer. Joule heating can also be demonstrated if you have a high-end blender: leave it running for 5 minutes and it turns anything into hot soup.

Shanti Rao (PhD ’03), Altadena, CA 


I would like to see the media stereotype of a typical scientist become more accurate. If scientists were not so commonly portrayed as evil geniuses that genetically engineer attack sharks with laser beams on their heads, then perhaps the public would have increased trust when it comes to climate change, vaccinations, fluorinated water, etc.

Tina Iverson (PhD ’00), Nashville, TN


That chemicals are dangerous. That natural and "organic" products do not contain chemicals.

Ronald Hodges (PhD ’78), Palo Alto, CA 

The misconception that there is a link between vaccinations and autism or autism spectrum disorders. This false belief has resulted in the recurrence of debilitating and potentially fatal diseases, and could lead to epidemics.

Fran Finney (BS ’76), Santa Barbara, CA

The heat from re-entry into the atmosphere and high speed flight is not caused by air friction. It is caused by compression. I learned this in ME19, where the heating was calculated for a frictionless gas simply by the heat from compression. The heating is the most at the "stagnation point" on the leading edge where the air velocity is zero (but the compression is highest). The air is moving fastest further back along the wing, where friction caused the heat that would be the hottest area, but it's the coolest.

Walter Bright, (BS ’79), Kirkland, WA


They say that Ptolemy was wrong and Copernicus was right. They’re both right. You can use any point as the reference point. Some are more convenient than others for math and for picturing and understanding things. We use the sun as the reference point for the planets. We use the planets as the reference point for their moons. If we used the sun, the moons would go in epicycles.

Ted Grinthal (PhD ’69), Berkeley Heights, NJ

I'd like to correct the misconception that mathematics isn't a type of science.

Mason Porter (BS ’98), Los Angeles, CA

My candidate for a scientific misconception is "dark energy," used in cosmology to explain the flatness and accelerating expansion of the universe. In fact, dark energy is needed for neither purpose and is absent from a properly derived equation for the scale factor of the universe.

Steven Crow (BS ’62, MS ‘, PhD ’66), Boulder, CO


That science is political. Science can inform political decisions, but our scientific understanding of reality is neither liberal nor conservative.

John Wathey (BS ’78), San Diego, CA

Relativity is based not upon the fact that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light, but instead upon the assumptions that physics works the same everywhere in the universe and the speed of light is governed by Maxwell's equations.

Brian Catanzaro (BS ’88), San Diego, CA