Falling on your a**e – no equations needed

Our brains set us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom.  They have allowed us to contemplate our surroundings and take actions that have improved our chances in the struggle for survival that is life on Earth (and, no doubt, on other worlds yet to be found).  We have the ability, perhaps shared with some of the primates such as chimpanzees and cetaceans such as dolphins, to retain information about our environment (extended now to the edge of the Universe with telescopes and other technologies) and make plans about what to do next.  Occasionally, our animal reactions take control and ‘fight or flight’ takes control long enough to escape predators or dangerous situations.

We have longer memories it would appear than any studied animal on the planet, with dolphins taking the second spot from elephants for social memories.  We collect, think about and act upon knowlegde that we have gathered or obtained from others and we use that knowledge to continue surviving or improving our environment or engaging in social activities.  The knowledge that we retain and use and the beliefs that we carry with us make us who we are.  The knowledge that we retain best is knowledge that is most relevant to each of in or own environment.  This knowledge builds up slowly if it is organic knowledge gleaned slowly from our surroundings.  It is practical knowledge that serves us well so it becomes embedded and forms some of our deepest beliefs.  We are loathe to, perhaps cannot even, change them.  We are often completely unaware of their existence.

This is especially true of what we now refer to as scientific knowledge.  What we know of science before we are schooled is built up slowly through our experiences of how the world works.  We quickly learn how the world will let us fall on our arses with little effort required on our own part.  The philosopher Daniel Dennett, author of some of my favourite books on beliefs and knowledge, calls these hard-won beliefs about the world, folk science.  You can read about this is in his (appropriately challenging) book ‘The Intentional Stance’ to name but one of his excellent books.  The term folk science is not a derogatory one but aims rather to illustrate the difference between the structured and detailed area of knowledge that we call modern science and our day-to-day experiences of how the world works.

In my periods as a teacher of science in secondary education in both England and Belgium, I have always been, if not amazed, then fascinated, by the reaction of children to some simple demonstrations of the fact the the world doesn’t always work the way we think it does.  One of my favourites, because it is clean, quick and easily-repeatable is the demonstration of how objects of different masses when released don’t fall in the manner that we might expect from our folk-scientific beliefs.  In the almost vacuum that is the air we live and breathe in, most solid objects (feathers and flat bits of paper behave slightly differently when viewed with the untrained eye) objects fall at what appears to be the same rate.

We might expect that heavy objects would fall faster than lighter objects and even that an object that has twice the mass of another might fall and start changing its speed at twice the rate of the other.  In the limited height of a physics classroom the difference in the time taken for the two objects to hit the floor is not noticeable.  This demonstration was often greeted with cries of “Sir, you’re cheating” or “It’s a trick”.  I would then have to give the objects along with weighing scales to the children to let them experience it for themselves.  Even then, some would continue to have difficulty with the idea until it was explained that eventually the heavier mass would gain a greater speed in air.  The important point is to acknowledge the expectation that comes from the folk physics understanding of the world before moving into a detailed scientific explanation.

The bigger point is this.  We all have our expectations about how the real world works.  Telling people that it doesn’t work the way we expect based on their experientially-gained folk science is not the way to disinter incorrect ideas (I won’t say bad ideas because our folk physics is right at the level that it needs to be) .

If, as science communicators, we wish to get across scientific ideas to the greater public we need to be aware of the entirely correct folk physics and to use that as the starting point for an improved scientific education and understanding.  Most people are able to understand even complex scientific ideas as long as we make the ideas relevant and ensure that we don’t decry the knowledge that people already have.

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