Be very, very careful what you put into that head,
because you will never, ever get it out.

Thomas Cardinal Wolsey (1471-1530)
  Badness Survey
Click on the symbol for its explanation.

Proffering Garbage as Gems
Many educators are concerned with making sure that students are presented with a shopping list of knowledge and information. Curricular committees assemble and compile irreducible lists of topics to which a student should be exposed before graduation. (We would not want any of our graduates to have to express ignorance on topic x, so we had better add topic x to our already long list of topics to teach).

During the process of provisioning students with a vast storehouse of knowledge, it would appear that little attention is directed towards eliminating misinformation. The survey presented below, albeit anecdotal and in only one field, would suggest that the probability of having students being offered garbage as if gems is amazingly high in all levels of our educational system.

Surely the elimination of proffered misinformation should be as important a concern for educators (and curricular committees) as the provisioning of proffered information. Yet the results of the survey presented below seem to suggest that the former does not play much of a role in the considerations of educators.

The results of a class survey
In November 1996, I handed the members of my sophomore class of beginning meteorology students a questionnaire about the extent to which they had been taught scientific nonsense and from whom they might have learned it. I received 44 total responses. The percentages can add up to more than 100% because, some people learned the same thing from a number of different sources.

Percentage of Penn State University sophomores in meteorology
who had acquired bad information from a particular source
(sample size = 44 students)
garbage proffered
as gems
not at
home text-
Clouds form because
cold air cannot hold
as much water
vapor as warm air.
39% 7% 27% 30% 32% 30% 5%
There are 7 colors
in the rainbow.
5% 32% 32% 36% 86% 34% 7%
The atmosphere
behaves like a
9% 5% 41% 50% 41% 64% 14%
Greenhouse gases
behave like a blanket.
18% 5% 32% 41% 27% 61% 11%
Direction of rotation
in sink is determined
by Earth's rotation.
2% 14% 7% 39% 16% 41% 2%
Raindrops are shaped
like teardrops.
6% 14% 16% 64% 50% 16% 9%
Average 13% 13% 26% 43% 42% 41% 8%

For any particular piece of misinformation, nearly 90% of the students are likely to have been taught it (100% - 13% = 87%). That is an amazingly high probability of acquiring any particular one of the six pieces of nonsense and represents a virtual certainty that a student will be exposed to at least one of them.

Interpretation of these numbers is fraught with problems. Even taking the average as I have, assumes an unjustified equal weighting of the topics. But the numbers here are only viewed as a hint at the issues.

At first it might seem that the relatively low probability of getting any particular piece of scientific misinformation in the home implies a greater concern for the truth there. Of course, the more reasonable interpretation is that less scientific misinformation is offered in the home because less scientific information is offered there. During the next class, I asked my students whether this was, in fact, the proper interpretation and they roundly asserted that yes, it was.
Textbooks versus magazines and TV
Despite the better (but not good) showing of textbooks by comparison to magazines and television, I suspect that this merely suggests that students actually acquire more information (and thus more misinformation) via the latter two than via textbooks. Certainly, my own reading of textbooks suggests that they are a rich mine of nonsense.

Educational institutions
The probability of acquiring any particular piece of nonsense from an educational institution is about the same as that for magazines or television. This is a shameful indictment of our educational system! At first it might be thought that the universities do a better job than the grade schools or high schools. but each of the latter represents an exposure of about six years while the students surveyed had in generally only been at the university for a year and a few months. If one scaled the data to give the probability of acquiring a particular piece of misinformation per unit time, it is clear that the universities don't do any better than the public schools: all do an abysmal job.

More to be feared than ignorance
is the illusion of knowledge.