by John Blanton
The North Texas Skeptics is an organization devoted to the promotion of science and rational thinking in the study and understanding of the world around us. So we occasionally need to talk about science and the public's perceptions of science. John Sigler has forwarded this to me from the Internet because he considers it a remarkable indication of the state of science education in this country, and I have to agree. If all of this is strictly true (I'm a skeptic to the end), then things are much worse than we thought. As John said in his note: "[It's] kinda long and depressing, but the point is made quickly ..."
We don't have the original author's permission to reprint this entirely. In fact I have not been able to discover the name of the original author. How's that for a friend-of-friend story. So I will just relate what was said and quote where necessary. If you want to follow up, here is some information from the mail header:
From: BDEMPSEY.ENG-MAIL@SMTP.INTECOM.COM (Dempsey, Bill)
"About 6-7 years ago, I was in a philosophy class at the University of Wisconsin, Madison (good science/engineering school) and the teaching assistant was explaining Descartes. He was trying to show how things don't always happen the way we think they will and explained that, while a pen always falls when you drop it on Earth, it would just float away if you let go of it on the Moon.
Date: Thu, 15 Dec 1994 14:53 CDT
"My jaw dropped a little. I blurted 'What?!' Looking around the room, I saw that only my friend Mark and one other student looked confused by the TA's statement. The other 17 people just looked at me like 'What's your problem?'
"`But a pen would fall if you dropped it on the Moon, just more slowly.' I protested. `No it wouldn't,' the TA explained calmly, `because you're too far away from the Earth's gravity.'
"Think. Think. Aha! `You saw the APOLLO astronauts walking round on the Moon, didn't you?' I countered, `Why didn't they float away?' `Because they were wearing heavy boots,' he responded, as if this made perfect sense (remember, this is a Philosophy TA who's had plenty of logic classes).
By now the two heroes of our story were really charged up. Remarking on the stupidity of philosophy majors they went back to their dorm and conducted an unscientific, nearly random phone survey. They selected 30 respondents and asked this question:
1. "If you're standing on the Moon holding a pen, and you let go, will it
a) float away, b) float where it is, or c) fall to the ground?
Encouragingly, they report that 47 percent answered correctly (answers at the end of this article). Next they asked the remaining 53 percent (16 people):
2. "You've seen films of the APOLLO astronauts walking around on the Moon, why didn't they fall off?
"About 20 percent of the people changed their answer to the first question when they heard this one!" The others? You guessed it! "Heavy boots."
Undaunted, our heroes plugged on. One of them (Wally) was teaching a physical science class, and he gave his class the heavy boots quiz, asking what would happen to the pen and the astronauts. Here are the results:
8 people thought the pen would float away
"Of those in the first two catagories [sic], several said that the gravitational pull of the moon kept the astronauts from floating away. And some said they were wearing heavy suits. And one said they were wearing lead-weighted boots."
5 thought it would float where it is
5 said it would drop to the ground
The Internet note listed several of the actual responses to the class quiz, but I'm only going to give you a couple of the more interesting ones:
The saga goes on: "So a bunch of us TAs got together and gave our physics classes quizzes asking this question. Out of 168 people taking the quiz, 48 missed the question." Again, here are two interesting responses:
1. Float where it is
2. They don't fall off the moon because they were anchored to their hip with a rope. The rope was tied to the atronaught (sic) on one end and the ship on the other.
1. Fall to the ground
2. The reason that the astronauts fall to the ground is because the moon has a certain amount of atmosphere. This atmosphere is not half as powerful as the earth's but is (sic) still produces a minute gravitational effect.
From a class in Physics 324 — Modern Physics for Engineers:
The gravity of the moon can be said to be negligible, and also the moon's a vacuum, there is no external force on the pen. Therefore it will float where it is.
From a class in Physics 221 — First Semester Calculus-based Introductory Physics:
External forces that are present on the moon will attract the pen. There isn't gravity on the moon as there is on earth so the pen won't drop.
The original mailer included pages of responses from the students, all indicating a lack of understanding of some fairly basic science concepts. It's no good saying, "Wait! These were undergraduates. What do you expect?" This is the kind of material that should be picked up in grades four through six. By all students. My guess is that this was presented, and maybe the students did learn it then. However, we live in a society that so relies on received knowledge from entertainment and from authority figures that at a young age we quit thinking for ourselves. What should be simple problems of logic such as these are not attacked rigorously unless circumstances absolutely require it. The usual approach is to pick the most convenient answer and go with that.
I have recently gotten involved in the Science-by-Mail program, which incorporates mentors from science and industry into science projects at local schools. So far, I am finding it an interesting experience, and I believe both the students and the mentors can benefit. I know that one of the benefits I will gain from this is a better understanding of science teaching in the public schools today, and I encourage others to check out the program. Information will generally be available at our meetings.
All right, for you philosophy majors who found this issue of The Skeptic on the bus, here are the answers to the quiz:
1. The correct answer is (c) — The pen would fall to the ground (the surface of the Moon, that is).
-LAN3 seemed to be sad that it was harder and harder to find copies of this, and it's worth retelling...
2. I don't know. If they didn't fall off, how did the astronauts get back to the Earth?