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Debunking Science Misconceptions

Andrew Jennings
Product Manager, Botany, Zoology, and Microbiology


March 2017

True or false? Humans only use about 10% of their brains.

If you answered “true,” then you, like many, have fallen prey to a common misconception. Misconceptions are falsehoods that persist and are passed along from person to person (and even generation to generation) in a society or culture. It is easy for unsubstantiated claims, assumed to be facts, to gain credence. For example, the idea that we use only 10% of our brains is a basic premise of the recent film “Lucy” as well as the film and TV show “Limitless.” Another common misconception is that vaccines are the cause of autism. Both of these claims have been routinely debunked and are regarded with great skepticism in scientific circles. However, they are commonly taken as truths and propagated by sources that are either unreliable or undiscriminating—including social media, websites, and even television shows and movies. Sometimes the intent of spreading misconceptions is entertainment rather than misinformation. However, it is important to be able to recognize the difference, and it is up to scientists to disprove and address scientific misconceptions.

Students can benefit greatly from the ability to research and evaluate claims that are made by social media and news organizations, their peers, even their teachers and other adults. Before they can begin the process of assessing claims made by others, it is necessary that they learn the proper vocabulary and that they understand the true purpose of science, which is itself subject to misconceptions!

Devising a hypothesis and a null hypothesis

The purpose of science is not to prove anything. The goal of science is in fact to test and disprove hypotheses. When students are performing tests and experiments in the classroom, they should be asked to devise a hypothesis and a null hypothesis. When reporting results, students must either reject or accept the null hypothesis. If the null is rejected, then the hypothesis is confirmed. If the null is accepted, then the hypothesis has been refuted. The very act of scientific testing is to disprove the hypothesis. If the hypothesis cannot be disproven, then it must be accepted and can be considered true, unless and until further testing disproves the accepted hypothesis.

From theory to fact

Another important concept is the claim of theory. A theory is a hypothesis that has withstood numerous tests and is still accepted, i.e., the null has not been confirmed after many different tests by many different researchers. This is what many outside of scientific circles commonly refer to as fact. The theory of gravity and the theory of evolution are well-known scientific theories. One is socially controversial, while both possess the same amount of scientific veracity.

Once your students understand the purpose of science (to disprove, not prove), assign them a refuting/debunking project to perform. In this activity, your students will identify a commonly stated claim, taken for fact, and perform a secondary research project to determine whether or not the claim is a scientific fact, not merely a misconception, unsupported belief, or—at best—a hypothesis that requires further testing.


Objective

Teach students how to refute or disprove purported facts or beliefs they hear in the media or from other sources. This project illuminates (1) how difficult it is to disprove claims and (2) the importance of disproving false claims.


Materials

  • Internet Access
  • Library Access
  • Notebook
  • Student Guide


Procedure

  1. Assign—or allow students to identify—a common fact to investigate.
  2. Explain the difference between scientific and popular culture sources of information, and why some are better than others.
  3. Allow students time to research their topic, either in class or as homework.
  4. Have students submit an analytical paper describing their methodology and explaining their findings.
  5. If time allows, have students present their findings to the class.


Debunking Science Misconceptions
Student Worksheet

The purpose of this exercise is to research a commonly held belief or claim and attempt to refute or debunk it. Use reliable information sources to determine whether there is sufficient evidence to refute the selected claim. (These may include books from the library, research journals and similar publications, and online articles.) Use the following form to guide your research.

 

Claim:______________________________________________________________________

Source found in (source that you found the claim in):­­__________________________________

Original source (cited by the source you found):­­______________________________________

Additional sources that confirm claim:_______________________________________________
____________________________________________________________________________
____________________________________________________________________________
____________________________________________________________________________

Additional sources that refute claim:________________________________________________
____________________________________________________________________________
____________________________________________________________________________
____________________________________________________________________________

Number of non-peer-reviewed sources that confirm claim:_____________________________

Number of peer-reviewed sources that confirm claim:_________________________________

Number of non-peer-reviewed sources that refute claim:_______________________________

Number of peer-reviewed sources that refute claim:___________________________________

Which types of sources are more reputable? Why?____________________________________
___________________________________________________________________________
___________________________________________________________________________
___________________________________________________________________________

Can you refute or confirm the claim you investigated? Support your conclusion using specific examples from your research.
___________________________________________________________________________
___________________________________________________________________________
___________________________________________________________________________
___________________________________________________________________________
___________________________________________________________________________

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