Sunday, April 26, 2009

Why don't astronauts float away on the moon? Heavy boots, of course!

If you're not facepalming, you should review your introductory physics book. Either way, there's an excellent summary about this particular question that really shows how little the average person understands basic scientific principles. Here's the introduction:
"About 6-7 years ago, I was in a philosophy class at the University of Wisconsin, Madison (good science/engineering school) and the teaching assistant was explaining Descartes.

He was trying to show how things don't always happen the way we think they will and explained that, while a pen always falls when you drop it on Earth, it would just float away if you let go of it on the Moon. My jaw dropped a little. I blurted "What?!" Looking around the room, I saw that only my friend Mark and one other student looked confused by the TA's statement. The other 17 people just looked at me like "What's your problem?" "But a pen would fall if you dropped it on the Moon, just more slowly." I protested.

"No it wouldn't." the TA explained calmly, "because you're too far away from the Earth's gravity." Think. Think. Aha! "You saw the APOLLO astronauts walking around on the Moon, didn't you?"

I countered, "why didn't they float away?"

"Because they were wearing heavy boots." he responded, as if this made perfect sense (remember, this is a Philosophy TA who's had plenty of logic classes)."
I had a similar experience when I was taking Sex, Gender, and Sexology my freshman year. It was a graduate level class offered through the Health and Kinesiology department. I'm pretty sure I was the only freshman foolish enough to take a grad level class, but it sounded so awesome that I couldn't resist (and it was). I was also the only biologist in the class of 70 people - most people were in psychology, sociology, anthropology, or history.

We were talking about the possible biological causes of homosexuality, and our professor mentioned how there is probably a genetic component. One of the outspoken anthropology PhD students raised her hand.

"Well that's obviously wrong," she said. "A gene is either on or off, and we know people aren't either straight or gay. There's a continuum."

A shot up my hand. "Um, that's not how genetics works. You can have multiple genes effecting one trait, or different levels of regulation. That's how you can get continuous traits like height or skin color. You're not just tall or short."

Her friend smiled and gave her the You Just Got Owned By a Freshman look.

Add this to my friend's Anthropology TA who was convinced DNA was made up of proteins, and you can see why my opinion of Anthropology is a little shaky.

8 comments:

  1. Well, I might be able to pull a logical syllogism out of that, but it sure wouldn't relate to physics.

    *facepalm* He's an embarrassment to those of us who study philosophy...

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  2. To be fair, she did redact her statement about DNA... she just played it off so that it made all of the TAs (not just her) look dumb.

    She was a really great TA though, to be honest.

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  3. I agree, there is a lot of handwaving in the social sciences and a lot of philosophers use concepts in their articles that they don't know much about at all.

    Which makes reality-based philosophers (like Dennett) such a godsend

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  4. The funny part is that the idea that heavy boots holding astronauts down would mean there's gravity. Without gravity, those boots would only have mass and no weight.

    I find that there are a lot of people who eschew hard science altogether and then go into the public eye and say things that are obviously wrong with absolute conviction. It's not limited to social sciences majors either. In the business world it's often an epidemic in management levels of corporations that deal with R&D.

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  5. Oh goodness gracious, that is ridiculous, but hilarious. I'd love to have called someone out like that as a freshman. It'd have been really self-satisfying and a nice stroke to my ego.

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  6. p.s. It's not just social science majors, certainly. There are nincompoops in every major.

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  7. I have to say... the thought that DNA is made of proteins seems to have significantly fewer logical fallacies than to say a pen would float away but heavy boots wouldn't... Simply forgetting a fact is different than putting forward and argument containing obvious logical inconsistencies.

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