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  • Writer's pictureKate McDaniel

Misconceptions in Science

There are many misconceptions that students might have about scientists and science in general. Below is a list of misconceptions or misunderstandings I have encountered from students over the years and how I try to combat them. 

Scientists' hypotheses are always right.

Scientists can’t see into the future. They don’t always know how their experiments will turn out.  A good hypothesis isn’t always the “right” one. Scientists conduct research, make connections and combine those ideas into their hypotheses. Sometimes a hypothesis turns out to be supported by the data and sometimes it doesn’t. I spent an entire year as a junior lab associate researching a "novel" genetic defect only to find out it had already been well studied and document. That's the way the science cookie crumbles.

It can be a hard concept, especially for young scientists, that there is no such thing as a “wrong” hypothesis. Standardized test culture has created a generation of students who are so afraid to be “wrong” they will go back and change their hypothesis after completing an experiment. Some classroom teachers only fuel this problem by really leading students to the "correct" hypothesis instead of embracing the opportunity for them to flex their critical thinking skills. In reality, scientists can often learn more from their misconceptions than from getting the “right” answer. 

Science doesn’t relate to me.

Many students feel that science isn’t important to them because they can’t relate to it. But we must remember that science is everything, everywhere, all the time. And students test out hypotheses without ever realizing it. Consider problems they may face: Why is the remote not working? What is the fastest route to school? Why did I get sick but my sibling did not? Beyond everyday problem solving, there are so many different types of science beyond just the biology, chemistry, physics we are taught in high school. Psychology, sports medicine, nursing, architecture, engineering, computer science, astronomy, forensics, and anthropology are just a few of the many different kinds of science students might find more relatable. 

I don’t see myself as a scientist.

Scientists are not one type of person. For hundreds of years, Western science was claimed by a small subset of people, typically white men. Scientists have always come in all shapes and sizes. Not all scientists are Sheldon from the Big Bang Theory who have little to no social skills and prioritize their research above all else. Scientists may be atheists, they may not be. Female scientists may be very feminine and wear makeup and dresses, they may wear waders covered in mud. Scientists may have grown up with privileged access to education and technology, they may not. Scientists may prioritize their family and personal relationships over their work, they may not. At the end of the day, a scientist is a person who is seeking to answer questions and discover new information, whatever that means for them. 

All scientists work in a dark lab.

The beautiful thing about science is that science is everywhere! Some science does have to take place in a lab. But not all science. Geologists, environmental scientists, marine biologists, oceanographers, astronauts, anthropologists, hydrologists, paleontologists, and many more types of scientists have to collect their data out in the world. Here is a picture of me collecting sand castle worms from the intertidal for my graduate research. 

Science is not a creative field. 

Science is often seen as a collection of facts to memorize. And while there is a lot of amazing scientific knowledge, the act of science, of being a scientist hinges upon creativity and thinking outside the box. From formulating a question, creating a hypothesis and designing an experiment, a scientist must draw on a tool box of facts and skills to create something new. 

"Oh well, it's just a theory!" 

A fact is information that is known to be true or a thing that has actual existence. Sandra Day O’Connor was the first woman to serve on the Supreme Court of the United States. That is a fact. 

Students will often here the word “theory” and assume it doens’t carry much weight. “Oh, well its just a theory.” But in reality, scientific theories are well established and widely accepted concepts. A scientific theory explains the “how” of a particular natural phenomenon. Theories are supported through numerous testable hypotheses and experiments. The Theory of Evolution is an explanation of how evolution occurs through the process of natural selection. While we cannot observe evolution in our lifetime, we can test and observe natural selection and the genetics of heredity. The theory of evolution combines the facts from these experiments to explain the “how” of evolution. 

A scientific law is a statement about the nature of a set of facts. Similar to theories, scientific laws are also backed up by repeatable experiments. For example Newton's Third Law states that the force applied to an object will be equal to the object's mass times its acceleration. If you hit two balls, say a golf ball and a bowling ball with the same amount of force, the golf ball will have a much higher acceleration than the bowling ball. This will be true every single time. Another way of thinking about it is that a scientific law tells you what WILL happen, with certainty. 

Scientists know everything about everything.

Most scientists are experts in their relatively narrow field. As a marine biologist, I can tell you that I don’t enjoy chemistry and I don’t know much about computer science. I can talk your ear off about intertidal species, marine animals with complex life cycles, plankton, and genetic markers for metamorphosis. I know a little about a lot and a lot about a little. I know enough to know when I can answer a question, when I can give my best guess, and when I don’t have a clue what the answer is. I definitely don’t know everything about everything. No one does. 

Are there other misconceptions you have encountered with your students? How did you combat them? Let us know in the comments!

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