Writing for Science on Google+, I discuss the problem with memes that convey incorrect science or mislead the public. The post notes that memes have a useful place in public science communication, but not where the memes are incorrect or misinform. We received a barrage of comments about elitism and, strangely, sexism, which were later recanted…. in favour of more cries of elitism.
Our Moderators did a terrific job of looking after this post in the comments. It’s funny how these men who tried to argue this post is “sexist” don’t stand up to actual sexism within our science community, such as when women scientists are told not to discuss gender inequality within STEM. Or the routine sexist comments that women scientists face in science outreach; for example when non-experts question our knowledge of the peer-reviewed research using nothing but personal anecdotes or conspiracy theories. They question us in a way that they do not dare with our male colleagues.
A love of nature, the wonderment of space and taking delight in fun science factoids are all great things we want to encourage – but not where the information being conveyed is wrong. Read on for more examples.
Bad Meme Rising
Everyone loves a clever science meme! When done well, they educate and make us laugh; they inspire us with a pithy quote by a celebrated researcher; or they give us information that encourages us to see the world in a new way.
The trouble with memes is that many of them are misinformed at best – see almost every quote about Einstein. Bad memes reproduce incorrect myths about science – for example, the idea that people only use 10% of their brains is wrong; we use 100% of our brains all the time. At worst science memes contribute to science illiteracy, by perpetuating the idea that science is just about “pretty pictures” and that the details don’t matter. Memes give factoids that people love to share but don’t always bother to check if they’re true. They sound cool – but is it science?
Our Community is inundated with memes and we strive to correct them wherever possible. Have you seen the one with this “fact”?: “If an alien in a galaxy 65 million years away is looking at us through a telescope right now, then they are looking at dinosaurs.”
Sounds fascinating, right? This has been shared to our Community many times, and it continues to be shared even though we keep correcting it. One of our Moderators, Astrophysics Professor Brian Koberlein corrected the information just the other day. He notes:
While it’s an interesting idea, that isn’t how things work. For one, resolving images at a distance takes timed exposures, and that would blur out any dinosaur motion. For another, the region of space between us and 65 million years isn’t completely empty, so light from Earth would be distorted by interstellar media and such. Then there is the fact that the universe is expanding, so a telescope currently 65 million years away would be observing a region of time less than that now.
Basically the post takes a basic idea (that light travels at a finite speed), and draws a conclusion that simply isn’t true. It is similar to the claim that since quantum mechanics is probabilistic, “anything is possible.”
In short, no, it is not a fact.
At time of writing, there were dozens of comments beneath Brian’s correction that continue to marvel about the incorrect science in the meme…
Have you seen other bad science memes? Share them with us in the comments and tell us why they’re wrong. Our Community is striving to improve science education, so if there are some especially interesting corrections, we’ll feature your writing on our Community and Page!
Image credit: Vector Belly: http://vectorbelly.com/electrical264.html