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“A Little Bit of Knowledge”


I’ve been going through a list of old episodes of This American Life that my friend recommended to me, which have been getting me through travel and observing runs.  For some reason I decided to save the ones that most intrigued me for last, which means when I got to A Little Bit of Knowledge, I thought “Why did I take so long to get this into my life?” and also “Oh no, I wanna listen to the whole thing and now I can’t go to sleep!”  (Sleep = the most desired thing on observing runs [erm, other than clear skies, of course], but hard to come by when it has to happen during the day.)

The first act is about those little things that we believe until we embarrassingly find out that we are wrong.  Give it a listen to see what I mean; I loved this section.  But in addition to believing things like, oh, unicorns are real, what about all the things that people believe about science that are so wrong?  Why aren’t people as embarrassed when, at a party, it is revealed that they don’t know what causes the seasons?  (We watched the video mentioned in this article for our TA training.)

I can recall a few of these scenarios of my own… only one is “scientific,” and luckily all of them were corrected in my mind before I reached adulthood.  What things have you thought were true that were just so, so wrong?

  • I remember once when I was very little, our flight was really delayed leaving Washington DC after visiting my grandparents.  It was practically the middle of the night before we took off (“middle of the night” to my preschool mind, which very well could have been 9PM) and at some point, I asked my mom for a Fruit Roll-Up.  She unrolled it on my tray table for me, but I said I would wait a few minutes to eat it, during which time I fell asleep.  When I woke up, the Fruit Roll-Up was gone and only the plastic wrapper remained.  When I asked my mom where it went, she told me “it evaporated.”  For years I thought Fruit Roll-Ups could evaporate if left out too long.  Although I never asked, I’m pretty sure my dad just ate it.
  • When I was just learning how to read, the Schwan’s delivery truck drove by and I recognized the words “ice cream.”  I excitedly told my babysitter that it was the ice cream truck (our town had no ice cream truck), but she told me that no, that truck carries diapers.  Even when I could solidly read, I was like, why would that truck say all those words about food if they carried diapers?  Even when I learned what Schwan’s was, I thought, “Isn’t it funny that a company delivers frozen foods and diapers?”
  • Our grocery store had a sign on it that said “WE SHIP VIA UPS.”  Somehow I thought that “via” was some weird way of saying “ya” as in “you.”  And “UPS” was the word “ups,” like somehow the plural of “up.”  So I thought this somehow meant “We ship ya up!” like “We make you happy!” (like a “pick me up”) for such a long time.

The second and fourth acts are adorable, but completely unrelated to science and this blog.  Listen to them.

The third act is about a guy who is sure that E=mc, not mc^2.  This is no new story for scientists, but something that I didn’t really know about until my name and email address were listed in graduate school directory.  People will take their absurd ideas and randomly email them to anyone that they feel will listen to them.  Do some great ideas come from non-academically trained people?  Sure.  But if there is a great idea somewhere stuffed into the rambling, conspiratorial email about extraterrestrials and how the sun is about to fall into a “null space,” then yep, I’m guilty for not seeing it.  I can only imagine the frequency of these emails increases if you are a professor.

There’s an opportunity here to talk about scientific illiteracy, but I’m not gonna take it.  The first set of stories is just too funny to be upset about, and the other one is just so far extreme that I can’t pretend this guy is guilty of the same scientific misunderstandings of the general population.  I just wanted to share this great episode that anyone can appreciate, but scientists especially.

What wacky things have you believed or have you heard other people believe?

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