Launch Pad #4: An answer

August 2, 2010

I bet you’re finally wanting to know what was up with my experiment of several days ago, hm?  Well, it was a smashing, roaring success!  Thank you all for the many, many responses!  I had no idea so many people would play along with me, and I appreciate it.

I haven’t run detailed stats or anything on the answers I got, and I don’t plan to.  This is mostly to illustrate a point.  But a rough breakdown:  Almost everyone got it right.  Gold stars for everyone!  Throwing out the creative and snarky answers (turtles, indeed!), there were about a half dozen wrong answers, and about as many half-wrong answers.  The interesting thing is, there are reasons people have wrong answers to this question, which I’ll get to.

The answer:  the Earth’s tilt on its axis causes the seasons.

The wrong answer:  the seasons have nothing to do with the shape of the Earth’s orbit and the distance of the Earth from the sun.  Yes, the Earth’s orbit is slightly elliptical, but it’s so slight as to  have no noticeable effect on the planet’s climate or temperature.  It all has to do with the tilt, and which hemisphere has greater exposure to the sun during which part of the orbit. Here is a full and detailed explanation from NOAA.

Now, the explanation for why I did all this.  I basically wanted to rerun someone else’s experiment to see what happened.  To wit:

Launch Pad included quite a bit of discussion of pedagogy:  how we teach, how we acquire and retain knowledge, and so on, since big part of the whole point of the workshop is to teach writers like me to be better educators when it comes to science.  As part of the discussion, we watched a short, eye-opening film:  A Private Universe.  In it, researchers ask a group of Harvard graduates — and a couple of professors — what causes the seasons.  And most of them answered wrong — that seasons are caused by the Earth’s distance from the sun.  The researchers then went to a junior high classroom and did the same thing, thinking these kids haven’t had a chance to learn wrong information — well, they had come up with wrong answers too.  So where was everyone getting the wrong answers from?

It turns out a lot of us have a lot of assumptions about the things we think we know, and those assumptions — preconceived notions and misconceptions — can run smack dab into reality. And they can be hard to get rid of.

We are never teaching clean slates — people come to learning with a lot of assumptions already in place, and part of good teaching isn’t just imparting knowledge, but confronting wrong assumptions and overcoming them.  A lot of misconceptions come from experience:

In our daily lives, we all know a basic truth:  if you move closer to a heat source, you get hotter.  You feel more energy.  Therefore, if you knew absolutely nothing about the Earth’s orbit, and axial tilt, this would actually be a pretty good assumption about why the Earth gets hotter in summer.  This is the reason why pre-Copernican astronomy was so insistent that the Earth was the center of the universe — of course the Earth can’t be moving because we can’t feel it.  And we all see the sky turning overhead.  Therefore. . .  But that’s wrong.  Observational data doesn’t support that assumption.

There’s another item that researchers discovered:  many textbooks when discussing the seasons and the Earth’s orbit draw the Earth and sun from a side-on view, mimicking 3-D.  Like this one.   The trouble is, those diagrams turn a near-circular orbit into an ellipse and make the Earth appear to get significantly closer to the sun at various points on its orbit.  Unwittingly, in an effort to teach one concept, these diagrams plant a misconception in students’ minds.

Now, what does all this mean for me as a writer?  How do I deliver information, knowing that I may be dealing with readers’ misconceptions?  How do I deliver information that doesn’t cause new misconceptions?  What’s the best way to overturn someone’s faulty preconceptions?  I’m still mulling it all over.  It’s pretty heavy stuff.

12 Responses to “Launch Pad #4: An answer”

  1. Andrew Says:

    If you figure it out, can you please let me know? I could use it the next time I debate someone who thinks global warming is caused by solar flares. I’m

  2. SJBell Says:

    As a writer? Hmm. Well, if the specific issue is a major plot point, first take a trip to the local public library to make sure you’ve got it right. Then insert it into the text at a point where it makes sense. The standard method goes something like:

    Joe Schmoe: “Isn’t that because of ?”
    Professor Brain: “What? You watch too many movies, the truth is .”

    Another version is to have the characters all assume X is the case, and then find out it’s not when reality bites them in the ass. “I Still Know What You Did Last Summer” is a horrible movie, but one clever (or double horrible) plot point is that the main characters win a vacation on a radio program by correctly guessing the the capital of Brazil is Rio. This turns out to be a ploy by the villain to lure them to an island where the killing takes place. After it’s too late, they notice from a globe that the capital of Brazil is actually Brasilia. This can come off as the writer being a bit of a jerk, though.

    If it’s not a major plot point, I wouldn’t worry about it overmuch. Anyone who ignores the story being told in lieu of nit-picking about irrelevant technical minutia is at best seeing the forest for the tress.

    You may have heard a little anecdote attributed to Ray Bradbury:

    “A horrible little boy came up to me and said, ‘You know in your book The Martian Chronicles?’
    I said, ‘Yes?’
    He said, ‘You know where you talk about Deimos rising in the East?’
    I said, ‘Yes?’
    He said ‘No.’
    So I hit him.”

  3. Jakk Says:

    I still say turtles. Snarf.

  4. John Shearer Says:

    Sometimes I think it’s fun when a medium (we’ll use movies) embrace the misconception. I’d like to use Snakes on a Plane as my example. At some point somebody shoots a hole in the plane’s window in order to have the cabin decompress and fling all the snakes out through the hole (sorry about the spoiler). I realize airplane decompression doesn’t work that way, but we’ve all seen Goldfinger, so I could accept an already stretched premise stretched some more. Sometimes I enjoy being lied to as long as the person doing the lying doesn’t let me in on the lie. I say make stuff up – just be convincing about it.

  5. Nicholas Jackson Says:

    Sometimes it takes scientific advances longer than we might expect to filter into mainstream culture. Two prime examples of this are Darwin’s theories of evolution (which are still problematic for quite a few people today, but were so readily accepted by the 19th century British scientific and religious establishments that when he died he was given a state funeral and buried in Westminster Abbey) and current theories of anthropogenic climate change (on which there is a high level of consensus amongst the scientific community, but which hasn’t achieved such widespread acceptance amongst the rest of the population).

    Another, perhaps less contentious, example is that of the luminiferous aether. Back in the 18th century, it was hypothesised (by scientists as eminent as Newton and Huygens) that the universe was permeated by something called the “luminiferous aether”, a medium through which electromagnetic waves (ie light, radio, etc) propagated. This theory was conclusively debunked in the 1880s by the famous “Michelson-Morley experiment”, but it took a few decades for mainstream culture (and, indeed, quite a few scientists) to accept that the aether didn’t exist.

    William Hope Hodgson uses the concept in one of his last stories, “Eloi Eloi Lama Sabachthani” (or “The Baumoff Explosive”) published posthumously in 1919 (Hodgson had been killed in action during the final months of the First World War). This bothered me – why was Hodgson writing about something whose existence had been disproved thirty years earlier? Of course, one shouldn’t expect as much scientific accuracy in fantasy and horror as one finds in hard SF, but in Hodgson’s story the central character is actually a scientist, using scientific methods to investigate the paranormal.

    But then I read an H P Lovecraft story from the 1930s which also refers to the aether. It turns out that a minority of (in some cases pretty eminent and otherwise well-respected) scientists refused to accept the nonexistence of the aether until the middle of the 20th century. Lovecraft was a keen follower of scientific advances, and seems to have attended a lecture by one of these people sometime in the mid-1930s, and incorporated some elements into one of his stories.

    Which I guess goes to show that the progress of scientific research, and its absorption into mainstream culture, isn’t as straightforward as the textbooks often indicate.

  6. Re Williams Says:

    When a book’s based in something similar to our world, like Kitty’s world, I like it when the natural laws stay in place. O.k. the supernatural isn’t natural, but the seasons still happen with axis tilt and gravity still makes things fall.

    I do however agree with John Shearer when it’s so over the top that we know it’s impossible I don’t mind. Although I happen to have spent the snakes on planes movie laughing into my pillow quietly, trying not to drive my partner nuts.

    I have never thought about the concept of teaching through sci-fi/fantasy. I think it would be a fine art to show it rather than preach it.

    Of example: I remember ‘the Doomsday Book’ had a lot of change ringing in it. My mind couldn’t understand the way it was presented and I ended up skipping the passages about ringing.

    I may be walking on thin ice to use ‘Dan Brown’ and science in the same sentence. Sometimes the science he sites is accepted, sometimes it’s on the fringe. Wherever one places it on the spectrum, there’s one thing to be said about it: it confronts people with a different view and may motivate them to look further.

    I’m getting too long winded, trying to avoid packing up the office. I hate moving.

  7. Lionus Says:

    You are a writer of fiction, not fact. Good fiction very often leans on factual supports to get the reader to temporarily believe in the fiction that is being presenting to them as literary reality. As a fictional writer you are in effect lying to them for their entertainment. The Eifel Tower is in Paris, not Denver. But if you do put it in Denver in a fictional novel then you are not responsible for those people who will take that as a fact and spend their hard-earned cash to come see it as tourists.

    Somewhere on the cover or edge of your books is the dead give-away, the classification word “FANTASY”. That alone should warn anyone that every and any part of what is between the pages should be dealt with according to the phrase, “Trust, but verify. “

    Big Brother can not be everywhere to protect us from ourselves or the misconceptions we accumulate through life.

  8. carriev Says:

    If I write about something that is known, that has been studied, I want it to be right, dammit.

    I believe the primary function of my work is to entertain. I don’t want to preach and lecture. But I also don’t want to be sloppy about it.

  9. SJBell Says:

    It’s your prerogative. But I can speak from my personal experience:

    My first novel will never see the light of day. I did a good amount of research on it. I worked through five or six different books on the subject, visited the places I wanted it to be set, I researched the weather for the time I wanted it to take place, checked for any major news events that happened that day, studied the science underlying certain scenes I was creating, and so forth. All the stuff you’re supposed to do to write a novel the reader can identify with. But after 7 revisions and rereading the entire thing, I abandoned the book.

    In all the research and harping on details, I’d forgotten the most important thing: The story. The story didn’t work, it was bland and uninteresting. I had wasted a lot of time and effort doing work on a book that was doomed from the start because the idea generated zero heat. More then that, I realized that all that obsession over realism and coherent world-building had been a way of avoiding the fact that the book I cared so much about wasn’t readable.

    So now my philosophy is “Story first, justify later.” “Justify” may be through reality, a plausible excuse, or what TVTropes calls “Applied Phlebotinum”.

    Of course, you’ve published a lot more books than I, so I’m sure you know the process much better. So if it works for you, who am I to object? But in my experience, the ideas are much more important to the story than the facts.

  10. carriev Says:

    Yeah, the whole writing a publishable book thing, I may have done that a couple of times…

  11. Elena. Says:

    I found out that I was too late for the question in #3 after posting it. Ah well…
    Thinking about what you posted above, what does it say about us, who we almost all knew the answer? If Harvard graduates and pupils got it wrong, but we all knew it?
    I find it interesting what you say about assumptions, learning, misconceptions etc. Heavy stuff indead. But what do teachers do and say about that? Do they actually learn how to teach “correctly”? I’d say no, but they certainly should.

  12. E.A.V. Says:

    You know…something that has always bothered me, and that I haven’t been able to verify is a certain law quoted in a fictional book.

    Can a convicted felon ever leave the country, get a passport or fly on a plane even after their sentence is served? According to Laurrel K. Hamilton, one of her characters cannot, because of this law. But I’ve never heard of this law and can’t confirm it…so I just wonder. This is the only place where I’ve ever been confused by an author’s representation of law.

    What I like about SciFi and urban fantasy is that if you know what real science they’re basing the fiction on, you’re in the know…it’s a second layer of meaning and an incredible in-joke. I especially enjoy how Terry Pratchett combines all these things with word play to explore humorously the in-jokes and tragedies of our world. The more I learn about the world, the more I understand the subtext and context of what I’m reading. It makes me fall in love with reading again with every book.


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