Something My Science Textbook Lied About

It was fifth grade. Science period. There were two teachers responsible for the entire herd of fifth-graders, so they were not specialized in any particular field. Just give the kids a general idea of all the subjects, and the specialists will fill their heads later. Our teacher relied heavily on the veracity of the textbooks we were provided.

I remember this day well. I was sitting over on the right side of the classroom. The goal of the exercise was to understand the Scientific Method. I capitalized Scientific Method in the previous sentence because understanding it is really friggin’ important. It’s how we got here, for better or for worse.

The textbook chose Bernoulli’s Principle (these days, the press would doggedly refer to it as Bernoulli’s Theory, and imply that it might not be true even as planes passed overhead) as the Nugget of Knowledge that we, as young scientists, would ferret out through a process of forming a theory and putting it to the test experimentally or through observations of the world, then revising or scrapping the theory if the test did not yield the expected results. (The revising and scrapping parts were not included in this exercise, which is too bad, because it’s the fundamental strength of science.)

For me, as the evidence was exposed in the pages of the text, it was a puzzle to solve. A race with my fellow students to get the answer. Halfway through the lesson my hand shot up, and when recognized I gave the “right answer”. I recapitulated Bernoulli. I was a little disappointed by the teacher’s reaction. I had the right answer, but the important thing was how we got to the right answer. That’s what the scientific method is all about.

But even before the glow of my triumph was diminished by the cool reaction of the teacher, I was bothered. My gut told me that one of the key pieces of evidence cited by the textbook was, in fact, bogus. But it was a SCIENCE BOOK. It was right. It had to be.

The false evidence: You know how when you’re in the shower the dang shower curtain will assault you, pushing into the tub and wrapping around your leg? That was presented in this little science exercise as evidence of Bernoulli’s Principle. Even in fifth grade, even as I read that supposed clue to bring me to a conclusion I had long since surmised, it wasn’t working for me.

For years hence I thought of mechanisms where the rushing shower water got the air moving around it, lowering the pressure on this side of the curtain. But that would have required noticeable wind.

Yet, I continued to believe that shower curtains assaulted one because of Bernoulli’s Principle. The science book said so. I tried to make the water-coupling-with-air theory work. As I showered I tried to measure air flow. I held my hand next to the curtain on many occasions, forming explanations for why I couldn’t feel the wind. If I couldn’t come up with the explanation, that was my failure, not the theory’s. Um, principle’s.

The fact is, shower curtain assault has nothing to do with Bernoulli’s Principle. It’s convection. Finally I had to accept that my Science Book had been just plain wrong. It took many years to get there.

So here’s the true lesson about Scientific Method afforded me that day, one that took me years and years to learn: Don’t invent complicated explanations for why the other guy is right, when there’s a better answer in front of your face. Then prove the better answer. Proving the better answer is a step that a lot of our ‘science rebels’ miss. The actual science part. They deserve every bit as much disbelief as the mainstream guys do.

2 thoughts on “Something My Science Textbook Lied About

  1. I think there’s something special about “facts” we were given as a child… you absorb them when you don’t really know how to question incoming scientific information, and they quietly contribute to the foundation that is your world view. It can be a long time before you actually confront these “facts,” and even longer before you accept they’re false. The very fact that they were formed during childhood seems to shield them from scrutiny!

    One example I can think of is the “fact’ I learned in Sunday school that women have one more set of ribs than men do. For a very long time I held onto that – even when I stopped being religious, I assumed it was still true!

    • Even things that actually were facts back in the day stick with us as immutable truths. As a child I learned that photosynthesis was a deep mystery. Now we can map the progress of every damn atom from start to finish. Heck, at least forty years have passed since those films we watched in the Science Room were produced. Probably closer to fifty. Yet a couple of years ago I was surprised to learn that we had sussed how photosynthesis worked.

      Bumblebee flight is well-understood (and is way cool – and related to old man Bernoulli). The kids in the audience may not realize the significance of that.

      The cure for the common cold is next. If better mousetraps were really needed, we’d have them by now.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *