September 23, 2009


A while ago Greg Laden (of the always readable Greg Laden's Blog) posted a list of "falsehoods": misunderstandings in biology that are so pervasive in common knowledge/the media/even schools, that you have to "un-learn" them before you understand the science properly.* It reads almost like a manifesto, and if it were I would sign it because it's genius and you should definitely check it out. Since then he's been developing each falsehood with individual posts full of erudition and succinctness. They're really worth reading. You can find the links in the original post.

Some of the falsehoods are very straightforward, some challenged my own way of thinking, some I don't really agree with completely, and some proved to be a bit controversial even. I tried them out on an online forum I frequent and "an adopted baby is not the biological offspring of her mother" and "rich people have fewer babies than poor people" seemed to raise quite a bit of resistance.

I started thinking seriously about falsehoods sometime during my second undergraduate year when slowly but surely my own falsehoods were dismantled and I came to seriously understand not only how complicated biology is, but how special the way of thinking you must have to understand it is. Not that it's exceptionally difficult in any way, it's just that "common knowledge" does little to give you a good base to stand on, in some cases it even works against the proper understanding of things. It became very clear in conversations with friends and family that there were some points I just couldn't convince them of because there were ideas in the way or because the way of thinking was unfamiliar to them. I just didn't know how to get around that and I still find it very difficult sometimes. I think most biologists have encountered this at one point. With the risk of sounding arrogant, everybody thinks they know biology because they have a body, you know? And if you confront people about it things can get a bit... awkward. I remember thinking that psychologists must have it worse because, you know, everybody has a mind and think they know themselves.

Greg Laden puts it thusly:

Teaching Evolutionary Biology is hard. It is not easy, like teaching astrophysics would be. Nobody really knows anything about astrophysics, so all the instructor has to do is find the empty space in the student's brain and put some astrophysics in there. Simple

The problem with Evolutionary Biology is that everybody already knows lots of stuff about it. Everybody already knows all about animal behavior because they have a cat. Everybody already knows all about human behavior because they are a human. Everybody already knows all about mating systems because they have a mate. Or wish they did. On top of this, we have the venerable science press and the Discovery Channel.

We could add the ever present pseudoscientific white noise of diet tips, health recommendations and all the like to the science press and the Discovery Channel as a source of falsehoods, an especially sinister one, but that's another discussion.

And so I arrive at my own humble addition to the list of falsehoods. I've collected them in my head during several years of conversations with people outside of biology and with experts, reading articles and watching TV. Most of them have to do with evolution, genetics and neuroscience, those being my fields of study.

In no particular order:

1. DNA is information and genes "code" for things.

2. HIV and other pandemic diseases are nature's own population control.

3. Sexual dimorphism and gender identities/roles are a natural order.

4. Animals are either warm-blooded or cold-blooded.

5. Animals (or at least humans) have 5 clearly distinct senses.

6. Hormones control your moods.

Quite a straggling bunch, but there they are. I'll leave the list open for revision if I come to think of any other falsehoods I'd like to add.

*) Sometimes scientists also use falsehoods as a sort of "shorthand" because wording yourself using strictly the most correct definitions and all their ramifications would simply take too long. But of course, everyone involved knows what is meant (at least most of the times, I hope).

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