Blame It on Someone Else

E xternal O rigins of Incorrect B eliefs

Cartoons and Science Fiction 'Toon Town

We begin learning about the natural world as children, initially developing expectations about what will happen based on our experiences. An early understanding of the laws of physics develops from our constant struggle against the force of gravity. By the time children are one year old, they have firsthand experience with gravity's effects as they learn to walk. A more abstract example is that infants apparently believe that when someone disappears from view, the person no longer exists.1 Experience helps them replace that belief with one of "object permanence."

Of course, children have a relatively limited range of direct experiences with the natural world. Much of their understanding of how it works comes from television. The problem is that many of the cartoons that young children see don't portray nature accurately. As you probably remember from your own childhood, youngsters develop several incorrect beliefs about gravity from such cartoons as the Roadrunner. The reason Wile E. Coyote momentarily stops moving in midair after going over the cliff is, of course, to give the character and the young viewers time to realize the danger of the situation—he inevitably looks down and then looks at the audience. To their credit, some channels now explain to children that this is an unreal, cartoon effect they call "delayed gravity."

Another incorrect belief that these cartoons generate in children is that after an object goes off the edge of something, it stops moving forward and therefore falls straight down. When my younger son Joshua was seven, I took a penny and asked him what path it would follow if I slid it off the kitchen table. He showed it making a right angle in the air and then falling straight down.

In reality, anything moving straight off a horizontal surface begins to fall immediately, but it also keeps moving forward. In fact, as things fall they continue to move forward at the same speed they had just before they began falling. As a result, the objects follow a path shaped like an arc, technically called a parabola. You can demonstrate these things by sliding a penny off a smooth surface.2

Another example of the effects of cartoons on our perception of the natural world is Hanna-Barbera's The Flintstones. It creates the impression, and most children therefore believe, that dinosaurs and humans coexisted on Earth. Indeed, it had a great impact on me as a child, since I was in one of the test audiences that rated the first Flint-

1 It's an extreme example of the more grown-up attitude of "out of sight, out of mind."

2 Don't use a pet hamster for this—it will not stop in the air so it can be grabbed before it falls, as at least one young person I know found out from experience.

stones television pilot way back in the summer of 1960. I was in college before I learned that roughly 61 million years passed between the time the last dinosaur walked the Earth and when our earliest hominid ancestors looked up at the night sky.

Science Fiction

As children age, cartoons give way to other forms of fantasy entertainment. For some, science fiction becomes a lifelong passion—and a lifelong source of incorrect beliefs about the natural world.

"But a lot of stuff you read or see in science fiction eventually becomes real."

I agree. Space travel and submarines, along with laser beams, wrist radios, and a variety of other current high technologies were all proposed in advance in science fiction books and movies. My focus is on those concepts in science fiction, like antigravity devices and faster-than-light travel, that violate tried and true laws of physics.

"But what if those laws of physics are proven wrong?"

The word "wrong" is the key here. Scientists have developed physical laws that describe how various aspects of nature work. Many of these laws have led to the development of innumerable high-tech devices, such as electronics, lasers, aircraft, rockets, and magnetic levitation trains, among many others. The accuracy of such laws in predicting how nature behaves and in leading to successful products are our measures of the laws' validity. When they are pushed into new realms, as when the laws of physics that describe the motion of a truck are used to describe the motion of small clusters of atoms, they eventually fail. The point is, however, that our successful physical laws fail at some limits of their validity, not at their cores. Instead of calling them wrong, I would say that most laws of physics are incomplete in describing how things work. Put another way, physical laws are described by mathematical equations, some of which are more accurate representations of reality than others. The less complete laws predict phenomena that experiments show are not possible—but these results are almost always at the periphery of our scientific understanding of nature.

I believe that such things as antigravity devices and faster-than-

light travel should be classified as incorrect, since there is no experimental or theoretical evidence whatsoever today that they are possible and much evidence that they are not. If experiments prove otherwise, I will be the first to admit I'm wrong. Until then, belief in anything that violates experimentally established laws of nature is to me incorrect.

Don't get me wrong. I enjoy a good science fiction story as much as anyone. Part of the process of "getting into" science fiction is suspending our disbelief in things that cannot happen or are false or impossible. I'm all for suspending my disbelief for the prospect of good entertainment. The issue is to avoid incorporating any of the invalid, fictional ideas you encounter during such times into your understanding of the real world. This is the hard part—separating fact from fiction, especially if you don't know that the fiction you are watching or reading is fiction.

We are especially susceptible to believing incorrect ideas when we are being entertained. This occurs because when we suspend our disbelief, we generally don't do so selectively. To make the most of the experience, we enter the world created by the writer, actors, or virtual reality simulations without reservation. Once inside these alternative worlds, we don't have a mental firewall that keeps evaluating and reminding us what is fact and what is fantasy. At best, that comes later.

Perhaps the most insidious problem in letting our guard down is when we encounter situations or events that seem scientifically plausible but are inaccurate. The asteroid belt image created in The Empire Strikes Back is an excellent example of that. If you don't think about the effects of gravity, it certainly seems plausible. Since the image fits well with our concept of a "belt" as a more or less solid band of matter, we let it drive our vision of the real-life asteroid belt.

When we suspend disbelief uncritically, we are taken even further from the reality dictated by the laws of nature than just the fiction in science fiction. This suspension opens whole new realms to be incorporated into our understanding of the world. By allowing concepts inconsistent with known science to influence us, we are more likely to draw incorrect conclusions about nature.

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