Science Misconceptions

Earth Science Misconceptions

  1. The Earth is sitting on something.
  2. The Earth is larger than the Sun.
  3. The Earth is round like a pancake
  4. We live on the flat middle of a sphere.
  5. Astrology is able to predict the future.
  6. Gravity increases with height.
  7. Gravity cannot exist without air.
  8. There is a definite up and down in space.
  9. Any crystal that scratches glass is a diamond.
  10. Coral reefs exist throughout the Gulf of Mexico and the North Atlantic.
  11. Dinosaurs and caveman lived at the same time.
  12. Rain comes from holes in clouds.
  13. Rains comes from clouds’ sweating.
  14. Rain falls from funnels in the clouds
  15. Rain occurs when clouds are shaken.
  16. God and angels cause thunder and lightning.
  17. Clouds move because we move.
  18. Clouds come from somewhere above the sky.
  19. Empty clouds are refilled by the sea.
  20. Clouds are formed by vapors from kettles
  21. The sun boils the sea to create water vapor.
  22. Clouds are made of cotton, wool, or smoke.
  23. Clouds are bags of water.

Geosphere

  1. Dirt is not the same as soil. Soil comes from rivers, result of volcanic action, or was there since Earth formed.
  2. Fossils are actual preserved animals or plant parts.
  3. All substances expand when heated.
  4. Students are unaware of micro-organisms role as decomposers and recyclers of carbon, nitrogen, water and minerals.

Hydrosphere

  1. Water disappears when it evaporates.
  2. Clouds are sponges that hold water or bags of water than rain when they are shaken by wind or perhaps when they become cold or hot.
  3. Ice is smaller than liquid water. There is a loss of mass when water freezes.
  4. Groundwater refers to actual lakes and rivers under the surface of the earth.

Physical Science

  1. When things dissolve they disappear.
  2. Materials can only exhibit properties of one state of matter.
  3. Melting and dissolving are confused.
  4. Dew formed on the outside of glass comes from the inside of the glass.
  5. Expansion of matter is due to the expansion of particles rather than the increased particle spacing.
  6. Molecules of a gas just float rather than being kept in the gaseous state by their motion.
  7. There is no empty space between molecules, rather students believe there is dust, germs or air between the particles of air.
  8. Particles of solids have no motion.
  9. Relative particle spacing among solids, liquids, and gases is incorrectly perceived and not generally related to the densities of the states.
  10. Frequent disregard for particle conservation and orderliness when describing physical changes.
  11. Gases are not matter because most are invisible.
  12. Absence of conservation of particles during a chemical change.
  13. Failure to perceived that individual substances and properties correspond to a certain type of particle. Formation of a new substance with new properties is seen as simply happening rather than as a result of particle rearrangement.
  14. The temperature of an object drops when it freezes.
  15. Mass and volume, which both describe an amount of matter, are the same property.
  16. Steam is the visible cloud of water vapor over boiling water.
  17. Energy is a thing. and object or something that is tangible.
  18. The chemistry of biological systems does not follow all the same rules of thermodynamics as other systems.
  19. Cold can be transferred.
  20. Energy is truly lost in many energy transformations.

Sound

  1. Sounds can be produced without using any material objects.
  2. Hitting an object harder changes the pitch of the sound produced.
  3. Human voice sounds are produced by a large number of vocal cords that all produce different sounds.
  4. Loudness and pitch of sounds are the same things.
  5. You can see and hear a distinct event at the same moment.
  6. Sounds can travel through empty space (a vacuum).
  7. Sounds cannot travel through liquids and solids.
  8. Sounds made by vehicles (like the whistle of a train) change as the vehicles move past the listener because something (like the train engineer) purposely changes the pitch of the sound.
  9. In wind instruments, the instrument itself vibrates (not the internal air column).
  10. Music is strictly an art form; it has nothing to do with science.
  11. Sound waves are transverse waves (like water and light waves).
  12. Matter moves along with water waves as the waves move through a body of water.
  13. When waves interact with a solid surface, the waves are destroyed.
  14. In actual telephones, sounds (rather than electrical impulses) are carried through the wires.
  15. Ultrasounds are extremely loud sounds.
  16. Megaphones create sounds.
  17. Noise pollution is annoying, but it is essentially harmless.

Light

  1. Light is associated only with a source and/or its instantaneous effects. Light is not considered to exist independently in space. Light is not conceived as moving from one point to another with a finite speed.
  2. An object is seen whenever light shines on it, with no recognition that light must move between the object and the observer’s eye.
  3. A shadow is something that exists on its own. Light pushes the shadow away from the object to a wall, the ground, or other surface where the shadow lies. Shadows are “dark reflections” of objects.
  4. Light is not necessarily conserved. It may disappear or be intensified.
  5. Lines drawn outward from a light bulb in a sketch represent the “glow” surrounding the bulb. Light from a bulb only extends outward a certain distance and then stops. How far it extends depends on the brightness of the bulb.
  6. An observe can see more of his or her mirror image by moving further back from the mirror.
  7. The mirror image of an object is located on the surface of the mirror. The image is often thought of as a picture on a flat or curved surface. To be seen in a mirror, the object must be directly in front of the mirror or in the line-of-sight from the observer to the mirror.
  8. Light is reflected away from shiny surfaces, but light is not reflected from other surfaces.
  9. Light always passes straight through transparent material (without changing direction).
  10. When an object is viewed through a transparent material, the object is seen exactly where it is located.
  11. An object gives off a “potential image,” which travels through space. When the “potential image” reaches a mirror, the image is reversed. Also, the image is distorted by a curved mirror. When the “potential image” reaches a lens, the image may be turned upside down by the lens.
  12. Blocking part of the lens surface would block the corresponding part of the image.
  13. The purpose of the screen is to capture the image so that it can be seen. Without a screen, there is not image.
  14. An image can be seen on the screen regardless of where the screen is placed relative to a lens. To see a larger image on the screen, the screen should be moved further back.
  15. An image is always formed at the focal point of a lens.
  16. The size of an image depends on the size (diameter) of the lens used to formed the image.
  17. Gamma rays, X-rays, ultraviolet light, visible light, infrared light, microwaves, and radio waves are all very different entities.
  18. Colors appearing on soap films and oil slicks are reflections of rainbows.
  19. Polaroid sunglasses are just dark glass or dark plastic.
  20. When waves or pulses interfere (as in a spring, rope, water wave, or light wave) they bounce off each other and go back in the opposite direction from which they came.
  21. When a wave moves, particles move along with the wave from the point of transmission to the point of reception.
  22. Color is a property of an object, and color is not affected by the eye-brain system or other receiving system.
  23. Light fills the room as water fills a bathtub. No mechanisms between the light, the object and the eye produces vision.
  24. The primary colors for mixing colored lights are red, blue, and yellow.

Also see misconceptions for Vision and Hearing, and Color and Vision.

Color and Vision

  1. The pupil of the eye is a black spot on the surface of the eye.
  2. The eye perceives upright images.
  3. The lens is the only part of the eye responsible for focusing light.
  4. The lens forms a picture on the retina. The brain then locks at this picture.
  5. They eye is the only organ necessary for sight.
  6. A white incandescent or fluorescent bulb produces light of only one color.
  7. Sunlight is different from other sources of light because it is colorless and clear.
  8. When light passes through a prism, color is added to the light.
  9. When light passes through a filter, color is added to the light.
  10. The rules for mixing color paints and crayons are the same as the rules for mixing colored lights.
  11. The primary colors for mixing colored lights are red, blue, and yellow.
  12. A Colored light striking an object produces a shadow behind it that is the same color as the light.
  13. The shades of gray in a printed picture are produced with a gray ink for each shade.
  14. The colors in a printed picture are produced with an ink for each color.
  15. Colored light is darker than white light.
  16. Color is a property of an object, and color is not affected by the illuminating light. The true color of an abject is seen in white light. When colored light illuminates a colored object, the color of the light mixes with the color of the object.

Also see misconceptions for Vision and hearing

Astronomy

  1. Stars and constellations appear in the same place in the sky every night.
  2. The sun rises exactly in the east and sets exactly in the west every day.
  3. The sun is always directly overhead or directly south at twelve o’clock noon.
  4. The tip of a shadow always moves along an east-west line.
  5. Changing distance between the earth and the sun causes seasonal changes (with the two closer in summer and father apart in winter).
  6. The earth is the center of the solar system and is the largest object in the solar system. All stars are the same distance from the earth.
  7. The moon can only be seen during the night, and its shape always appears the same.
  8. The moon does not rotate on its axis as it revolves around the earth.
  9. The phases of the moon are caused by shadows cast on its surface by other objects in the solar system, particularly the earth or the sun.
  10. The solar system and galaxies are very “crowded.” (Objects are relatively close together.)
  11. The surface of the sun does not have any visible features.
  12. Because all stars are the same size, the brightness of a star depends only on its distance from earth.
  13. Stars are evenly distributed through a galaxy or throughout the universe.
  14. All the stars in a particular constellation are near each other.
  15. The constellations form patterns obviously resembling people, animals, or other objects.
  16. Moon and sun are about the same size. Stars are smaller than sun or moon.
  17. The earth is the center of the solar system and is the largest object in the solar system.
  18. Night occurs when sun covered by clouds, moon, or atmosphere.
  19. Astronomical movements explain day and night: Sun goes around earth. Earth goes around sun. Sun moves up and down.
  20. The sun is always directly overhead or directly south at noon.
  21. The sun rises exactly in the east and sets exactly in the west everyday.
  22. The moon can only be seen during the night, and its shape always appears the same.
  23. The phases of the moon are caused by shadows cast on its surface by other objects in the solar system, particularly the earth and the sun.
  24. All stars are the same size, the brightness of a star depends on its distance from earth.
  25. One side of the moon is always dark
  26. Stars and constellations appear in the same place in the sky every night.
  27. Seasons are caused by changing distance between the earth and sun (the two are closer in the summer and further apart in the winter).
  28. Days are shortest in the winter.

Matter and Its Changes

  1. Gases are not matter because most are invisible.
  2. Gases do not have mass.
  3. A “thick” liquid has a higher density than water.
  4. Mass and volume, which both describes an “amount of matter,” are the same property.
  5. Air and oxygen are the same gas.
  6. Helium and hot air are the same gas.
  7. Expansion of matter is due to the expansion of particles, rather than the increased particle spacing.
  8. Particles of solids have not motions.
  9. Relative particle spacing among solids, liquids, and gasses is incorrectly perceived and not generally related to the densities of the states. (Microscopic model does not represent macroscopic properties.)
  10. Materials can only exhibit properties of one state of matter.
  11. Particles possess the same properties as the materials they compose. For example, atoms of copper are “orange and shiny,” gas molecules are “transparent,” and solid molecules are “Hard.”
  12. Melting/freezing and boiling/condensation are often understood only in terms of water.
  13. Particles viewed as mini-versions of the substances they comprise: oxygen molecules are invisible, water molecules are tiny droplets, and diamond molecules are hard.
  14. Particles misrepresented in sketches: no differentiation is made between atoms and molecules.
  15. Particles misrepresented and undifferentiated in concepts involving elements, compounds, mixtures, solutions, and substances.
  16. Frequent disregard for particle conservation and orderliness when describing changes.
  17. Absence of conservation of particles during a chemical change.
  18. Chemical, rather than interactive. After chemical change, the original substances are perceived as remaining even though they are altered.
  19. Failure to perceived that individual substances and properties correspond to a certain type of particle … formation of a new substance with new properties is seen as simply happening, rather than as a result of particle rearrangement.
  20. The “smoke” seen with dry ice is carbon dioxide vapors.
  21. The temperature of an object drops when it freezes.
  22. The chemistry in biological systems does not follow all the same rules of thermodynamics as other systems.
  23. Steam is visible water gas molecules.

Energy

  1. Energy is truly lost in many energy transformations.
  2. There is no relationship between matter and energy.
  3. If energy is conserved, why are we running out of it?
  4. Energy can be changed completely from one form to another (no energy losses).
  5. Things use up energy.
  6. Energy is confined to some particular origin, such as what we get from food or what the electric company sells.
  7. An object at rest has no energy.
  8. The only type of potential energy is gravitational.
  9. Gravitational potential energy depends only on the height of an object.
  10. Doubling the speed of a moving object doubles the kinetic energy.
  11. Energy is a thing. This is a fuzzy notion, probably because of the way we talk about newton-meters or joules. It is difficult to imagine an amount of an abstraction.
  12. The terms energy and force are interchangeable.
  13. From the non-scientific point of view, work is synonymous with labor. It is hard to convince someone that more work is probably being done playing football for one hour than studying an hour for a quiz.

Force and Motion and Simple Machines

  1. Time can be measured without establishing the beginning of the interval.
  2. The location of an object can be described by stating its distance from a given point, ignoring direction.
  3. The distance an object travels and its displacement are always the same.
  4. An object’s speed is the same as its velocity.
  5. If an object is accelerating, then the object is speeding up.
  6. An object’s acceleration cannot change direction.
  7. Acceleration always occurs in the same direction as an object is moving.
  8. If an object has a speed of zero (even instantaneously), it has no acceleration.
  9. The only natural motion is for an object to be at rest.
  10. If an object is at rest, no forces are acting on the object.
  11. A rigid solid cannot be compressed or stretched.
  12. Only animate objects can exert a force. Thus, if an object is at rest on a table, no forces are acting on it.
  13. Force is a property of an object. An object has force, and when it runs out of force it stops moving.
  14. The motion of an object is always in the direction of the net force applied to the object.
  15. Large objects exert a greater force than small objects.
  16. A force is needed to keep an object moving with a constant speed.
  17. Friction always hinders motion. Thus, you always want to eliminate friction.
  18. Frictional forces are only due to irregularities in surfaces moving past one another.
  19. Rocket propulsion is due to exhaust gases pushing on something behind the rocket.
  20. When dropped in a vacuum, objects of different masses fall at different speeds.
  21. When dropped in a vacuum, objects fall at constant speeds.
  22. A simple machine with a mechanical advantage greater than one is easier to use than a simple machine with a mechanical advantage less than one.
  23. Any force times any distance is work.
  24. Machines put out more work than people put in.
  25. Power is the same as force or work.
  26. Work is any activity one gets tired doing, gets paid for doing, or doesn’t like doing.
  27. Forces acting on bodies/objects are associated with living things.
  28. Constant motion requires a constant force.
  29. If a body is not moving, there is no force acting upon it.
  30. Objects in a vacuum fall at a constant speed.
  31. If a body is in motion, there is a force acting upon it in the direction of motion.
  32. There is no gravity in space.

Measurement

  1. Measurement is only linear.
  2. Any quantity can be measured as accurately as you want.
  3. Children who have used measuring devices at home already know how to measure.
  4. The metric system is more accurate than other measurement systems (such as the English system).
  5. The Imperial system is easier to use than the metric system.
  6. You can only measure to the smallest unit shown on the measuring device.
  7. Some objects cannot be measured because of their size or inaccessibility.
  8. The five senses are infallible.
  9. An object must be touched to be measured.
  10. A measuring device must be a physical object.
  11. Mass and weight are the same and they are equal at all times.
  12. Mass and volume are the same.
  13. The only way to measure time is with a clock or a watch.
  14. Time has an absolute beginning.
  15. Heat and temperature are the same.
  16. Heat is a substance.
  17. Cold is the opposite of heat and is another substance.
  18. There is only one way to measure perimeter.
  19. Only the area of rectangular shapes can be measured in square units.
  20. Surface area can be found only for two-dimensional objects.
  21. Surface area is a concept used only for mathematics classes.
  22. You cannot measure the volume of some objects because they do not have regular lengths, widths, or heights.
  23. An object’s volume is greater in water than in air.
  24. The density of an object depends only on its volume.
  25. Density for a give volume is always the same.
  26. The density of two samples of the same substance with different volumes or shapes cannot be the same.
  27. The location of an object can be described by stating its distance from a given point, ignoring direction.

Electricity

  1. Objects become positively charged because they have gained protons.
  2. Objects become positively charged because their electrons have been destroyed.
  3. All atoms are charged.
  4. Larger magnets are stronger than smaller magnets.
  5. Current flows from a battery (or other source of electricity) to a light bulb (or other item that consumes electricity), but not from the light bulb to the battery.
  6. current flows out of both terminals of a dry cell or both connections in an electrical outlet.
  7. Current flows around a complete circuit, but it is used u by objects like light bulbs so less current returns than leaves the source of the electricity.
  8. All the electrons that make up an electrical current are initially contained in the battery or generator that is the source of the electricity.
  9. Electricity is produced in the wall socket.
  10. Electrons change into light when a lamp is turned on.
  11. Wires are hollow like a water hose, and electrons move inside the hollow space.
  12. A larger battery will make a motor run faster or a bulb burn brighter.
  13. Pure water is a good conductor of electricity.
  14. Electricity from a dry cell will shock or hurt if it is touched.
  15. Insulation is used to keep electricity in the wire.
  16. All wires are insulated.
  17. Birds can perch on bare wires without being hurt because birds have insulated feet.
  18. A charge object can only affect other charged objects.
  19. The electrostatic force between two charged objects in not affected by the distance between them.
  20. Gravitational forces are stronger than electrostatic forces.

Magnetism

  1. All metals are attracted to a magnet
  2. All silver colored items are attracted to a magnet.
  3. All magnets are made of iron.
  4. Larger magnets are stronger than smaller magnets.
  5. The magnetic and geographic poles of the earth are located at the same place.
  6. The magnetic pole of the earth in the northern hemisphere is a north pole, and the pole in the southern hemisphere is a south pole.
  7. Only magnets produce magnetic fields.
  8. A magnetic field is a pattern of lines (not a field of force) that surrounds a magnet.
  9. In a magnet, the magnetic field lines exist only outside the magnet.

Heat and Temperature

  1. Ice cannot change temperature
  2. When the temperature of a boiling substance remains constant, something is wrong.
  3. The bubbles in boiling water contain air, oxygen, or nothing, rather than water vapor.
  4. All liquids boil at 100 °C (212 °F) and freeze at 0 °C (32 °F).
  5. Heat is a substance.
  6. Heat is not energy.
  7. Temperature is a property of a particular material or object (metal is naturally colder than plastic).
  8. The temperature of an object depends on its size.
  9. Heat and cold are different, rather than being opposite ends of continuum.
  10. Boiling is the maximum temperature a substance can reach.
  11. Objects of different temperatures which are in constant contact with each other, or in contact with air at a different temperature, do not necessarily move toward the same temperature.
  12. Heat only travels upward.
  13. Heat rises.
  14. The kinetic theory does really explain heat transfer. (It is recited, but not believed.)
  15. Objects which readily become ware (conductors of heat) do not readily become cold.
  16. All solids expand at the same rate.

Forces in Fluids

  1. Objects float in water because they’re lighter than water.
  2. Objects sink in water because they’re heavier than water.
  3. Mass, volume, weight, heaviness, size, and density may be perceived as equivalent.
  4. Wood floats and metal sinks.
  5. All objects containing air float.
  6. Liquids of high viscosity are also liquids with high density.
  7. Adhesion is the same a cohesion.
  8. Heating air only makes it hotter.
  9. Pressure and force are synonymous.
  10. Pressure arises from moving fluids.
  11. Moving fluids contain higher pressure.
  12. Liquids rise in a straw because of suction.
  13. Fluid pressure only acts downward.

Weather

  1. Air as a substance is not well understood. Air has negative weight or no weight.
  2. Days are shortest in winter.
  3. Water vapor is held or soaked up by the air.
  4. Humid air is Heavier than dry air.
  5. A vacuum or low pressure area pulls object into it.
  6. Wind speed is related to temperature of air – high speed means cold air and gentle or slow winds are warm.
  7. Acid rain, ozone depletion and greenhouse effect are thought to be caused by same things and produce the same changes in the environment.
  8. Air pollution is always caused by human activities.
  9. Rain water should be neutral in pH.

Life Sciences

Living Things

  1. Plants, fungi, eggs and seeds are not living.
  2. Young children do not recognize tress as living although they understand that seedlings are alive.
  3. Only large land mammals are animals.
  4. Penguins and turtles are amphibians because they are both in and out of water.
  5. Whales, jellyfish, and starfish are all fish.
  6. Behavior and habitat are criteria for classification.
  7. Food is anything useful taken into the body including: water, minerals, carbon dioxide (plants), and sunlight.
  8. Students concept of digestion is often confused both in the route and the process.
  9. Digestion is the process that releases usable energy from food.
  10. Respiration is synonymous with breathing.

Plants – Obtaining and Using Energy

  1. Plants obtain their energy directly from the sun.
  2. Plants have multiple sources of food (heterotrophic as well as autotrophic).
  3. Carbon dioxide, water, and minerals are food.
  4. Plants feed by absorbing food through their roots.
  5. Plants use heat from the sun as a source of energy for photosynthesis
  6. Sunlight is a food.
  7. Sunlight is composed of molecules.
  8. Sunlight is consumed in photosynthesis.
  9. Plants absorb water through their leaves.
  10. Plants produce oxygen for our benefit.

Cells

  1. Students are unsure about the hierarchy of atoms, molecules and cells. Cells are described as the components of many things including carbohydrates and proteins
  2. Students have difficulty discriminating between cell division, enlargement and differentiation. They may believe that living things grow because their cells get larger. The role of cell differentiation in growth is poorly understood.
  3. Students think in terms of two kinds of cells – plant and animal.

Ecosystems

  1. Stronger organisms have more energy.
  2. There are more herbivores because they have more offspring.
  3. A species high on the food web is a predator to everything below it.
  4. Energy accumulates in an ecosystem so that a top predator has all the energy from the organisms below it.
  5. Carnivores can exist in a plant free world if their prey reproduce enough.
  6. The food that is eaten and used as a source of energy is part of the good chain; food that is synthesized into the body of the eater is now food for the next level.

Heredity

  1. Daughters inherit most of their characteristics from their mothers. Boys inherit most of their characteristics from their fathers.
  2. Variation between species is a result of adaptation to environment instead of inheritance.
  3. Sexual reproduction occurs in animals but not in plants.
  4. Students do not distinguish between sexual and asexual reproduction.
  5. Asexual reproduction produces weak offspring. Sexual reproduction produces superior offspring.
  6. Students believe that transmitted characteristics are acquired during the life time of the animal.
  7. Individuals can adapt to a changing environment. These adaptations are heritable.
  8. Students do not understand the relationship between DNA, genes, and chromosomes
  9. Students can apply chance and probability to assigned genetics problems, but not to human situations in families.

Evolution

  1. Students have difficulty relating an individuals adaptation to environment with changes in species phenotypes over long period of time due to selection.
  2. Students believe that transmitted characteristics are acquired during the life time of the animal.
  3. Individuals can adapt to a changing environment. These adaptations are inheritable.

Vision and Hearing

  1. Objects are seen because they are bathed in light.
  2. Light travels from the eyes to the object.
  3. We can see because light travels to your eyes and then from the eyes to the object.
  4. Light to both our eyes and the object. There is o link between the two.
  5. Light is not necessary to see since we can see a little in a dark room.
  6. We see because we look, it has nothing to do with light.
  7. We can hear because we concentrate on the source of the sound.
  8. There is no similarity between light and sound.

Also see misconceptions for Light and Color and Vision


Sources:

  1.  Chapter 15 of: AAAS, (1993). Benchmarks for Science Literacy. New York: Oxford University Press.
  2. Phillips, W.C.  1991, Earth Science Misconceptions, Science Teacher Feb ’91 pp 21-23.
  3. Hapkiewicz, A. (1999). Naïve Ideas in Earth Science.   MSTA Journal, 44(2) (Fall 99), pp.26-30.
  4. Hapkiewicz, A. (1992). Finding a List of Science Misconceptions. MSTA Newsletter, 38(Winter 92), pp.11-14.
  5. Berthelsen, B. (1999). Students Naïve Conceptions in Life Science.   MSTA Journal, 44(1) (Spring 99), pp. 13-19.

See also https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_common_misconceptions#Science

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