Neil F. Comins: Heavenly Errors

In the course of living, we acquire or create explanations about things we see or hear in astronomy (and every other aspect of life, of course). […] The first step in correcting our knowledge is facing the tough reality that some of the information in which we firmly believe is wrong.

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Why I read it

The Australian Academy of Sciences recently released some startling survey results. According to their report, 41% of the population of Australia doesn’t realise the earth takes a year to go around the sun.

The media, the public and indeed the Academy itself immediately went into overdrive, pointing fingers at politicians, Google, Jurassic Park and the education curriculum, to name just a few. While the results of the survey are actually highly suspect and most of the conclusions are invalid (as I’ve written about elsewhere), it does seem one thing is inescapable: that as a population we have more fundamental scientific misconceptions than we’d like to think.

Neil F. Comins’ book actually begins with a lecturer having just this realisation – that the students in front of him aren’t blank slates, but social beings who’ve picked up dozens or even hundreds of misconceptions from the movies, folktales and media around them. The lecturer is Comins himself, and the students are his University of Maine astronomy class, and he’s about to have an epiphany: how can he expect them to absorb true facts, like the fact there are actually thirteen zodiacal constellations, before he can get the students to properly accept that their previously-held knowledge (that there are 12) is in fact wrong? Or even worse, how can he expect them to accept the solar system is only four billion years old, when they understand ‘solar system’ as referring to our whole galaxy?

Thus begins the trajectory of the book: Comins’ attempt to discover, with the help of his students, just how widespread misconceptions are, what the common ones tell us, where they come from, how a teacher can help overcome them, and what tools we can use to future-proof ourself against new ones. Comins’ specialty is astronomy, so space-related facts and fallacies are used throughout the book as examples. But really it’s all in support of a much more generally applicable point: to teach and learn effectively, we have to be open to discovering our own misconceptions. And that’s often an uncomfortable process.

Who is the book for?

This book as a whole is obviously a great resource for one very specific audience: university-level first-year astronomy lecturers. But it can be divided into parts that will be interesting to different, broad audiences, too.

The first part of the book is a list and discussion of astronomy misconceptions. It’s going to be interesting reading for anyone who loves the TV show QI, a show entirely based around the joy of discovering how much of what we think we know is wrong. In fact, Comins (with the help of his students) has identified and collected over 1700 separate astronomy misconceptions, which he has made available as a list at his website. In the book, he addresses a few of the main ones. He dives in headfirst and attacks that old chestnut about the seasons being caused by the earth moving closer to and further from the sun, and then moves on to things like the sun’s surface being red-hot magma, that comets’ tails always trail behind them, that Mercury’s surface is the hottest of any planet in the solar system, that the moon doesn’t rotate, that the moon has a dark side, that the tides are only caused by the moon, and that the sun primarily emits yellow light. (All of these are false.)

The middle part of the book is my favourite, and in my opinion it’s the best and most unique contribution of Comins’ here. I think it’s a valuable read for any teacher of anything at any level. It’s where he starts describing how he modified his teaching technique to try and bust his students’ misconceptions before then leading them to the truth. He starts introducing mini-quizzes at the end of each lecture (e.g. ‘How did the moon form?’) on material that he won’t cover until the next lecture. He makes it clear that the students have to submit an answer (it forms the ‘roll-call’ of attendance at lectures, which counts for course credit) but also makes clear that they won’t get penalised for being wrong. It has a big effect: it forces the students to think about what they know, it ends up stimulating discussion (students hang around arguing about it at the end of the class), and it prepares the ground for the next lecture, where they’ll learn whether they were correct. It also gives Comins the chance to get more data about what misconceptions people harbour – and helps the students think more critically (and scientifically) about the things they argue and are subsequently taught:

To grossly understate the point, the attendance questions caused more students to spend more time talking together about the course than they would normally. In many ways, the process transformed what had been a normal large lecture experience into a more dynamic and instructive experience. Small groups crystallised. Students realised they were not alone in their incorrect beliefs. Indeed, this large group experience showed them that since virtually everyone had numerous incorrect ideas about the cosmos, it was ‘okay’ to acknowledge that they harbored incorrect ideas. Some students were comfortable arguing for their beliefs with each other, with my answers at the beginning of the next lecture serving to arbitrate between them.

The contrast between this and the Academy of Science’s survey outcome – to point a shameful finger at those of us with misconceptions – couldn’t be greater.

The last part of the book is a checklist of critical thinking methods. It’s a condensed version of something you’ll find in many other sources, including (as Comins hat-tips in the text) Carl Sagan’s classic, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark.

Why the Australian Academy of Science should read this book

Overall, the book makes this point: that we all have misconceptions about science, even experts within their own fields. And we’ll never be able to learn, or teach, at our most effective, until we understand the extent of our misconceptions, acknowledge we all have them, and choose to start the uncomfortable process of correcting them.

This is the opposite of how we (and the Academy themselves) reacted to their survey results, and especially toward the 41% who failed on the question about the yearly rotation of the earth around the sun. Instead of acknowledging we all have misconceptions, we laugh at ‘theirs’; instead of thinking about the true sources of misinformation (which include one of the Academy’s own images), we finger-point at teachers or Google; instead of learning something interesting about how we learn, we fall back on easy responses and fail to address any real issues. And in doing so, we reinforce to everyone that misconceptions are a cause for shame – the attitude most destructive to actual improvement.

Comins’ book shows us why we should embrace our misconceptions, laugh at them, and then leave them behind. Because as Comins and QI have both taught us, we all have them in surplus – and if we’re going to be able to engage in important social debates about things like energy supply, resource management or genetic modification, it’s vitally important that we do get our facts straight.

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This book was partly read in Port Macquarie.

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