Now, I realise that the title can be misconstrued as something really negative. Don’t take it too literally, I’m not going to talk about the time your parents told you Chubby the hamster ran away. What this post is about is instead the idea of teaching someone a technical or difficult concept by first feeding them a simplified version that is, hopefully, more easily understood. With experience, the person will later be introduced to the more advanced concept which will not seem as overwhelming due to the student already having some background knowledge. The elementary version is usually simple, concise and “wrong” in some way. As described in The Science of Discworld by Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen:

“A lie-to-children is a statement that is false, but which nevertheless leads the child’s mind towards a more accurate explanation, one that the child will only be able to appreciate if it has been primed with the lie”.

Sometimes the teacher will actually note that the information is slightly inaccurate, but justify it by saying: “this isn’t exactly true, but is easier to understand than the real thing.”

Or to quote The Science of Discworld again:

“Yes, you needed to understand that” they are told, “so that now we can tell you why it isn’t exactly true

I know my Chemistry teacher in 10th grade said that when she was teaching us about the arrangement of electrons around the nucleus of an atom. I spent two years learning about how electrons moved in rings around the nucleus, sort of like planets orbiting around the sun. Then first year Chemistry taught me that all of that was a lie and that in reality, things are way more confusing. I’m sure most of you have a better grasp of the Schrödinger equation than I do, so I won’t go into detail about something that pretty much made my brain explode.

From this:

Electron shells around a Boron atom. Image licensed under creative commons via Wikimedia Commons

To this:Single electron orbitals. Image licensed under creative commons via Wikimedia Commons

These “lies-to-children” are an important aspect of education. They are not intended as deceptions but are simply easier to understand. As such, many commendations are due to “liars-to-children” (read: teachers) who prepare us for more sophisticated ideas that will no doubt continue to bombard us in the future.

So my questions to you are these: How do you feel when something you thought was a simple fact turns out to be untrue? Do you experience a period of denial as you struggle to incorporate this new information? Do you feel excited that science still has so much to teach us? Or do you simply feel annoyed that you’ve wasted time and effort learning something that has now been rendered “useless”?

6 Responses to “Lies-to-children”

  1. Valerie says:

    It’s a great book isn’t it? I particularly liked the idea of there being a crab civilisation that left no historical traces behind. I think the book was written quite a while ago…the more recent Science of Discworld 2 & 3 don’t seem to have the same issue with climate change.

  2. Natasha says:

    A bit off topic but….The Science of Discworld is such a good book! I actually found some of the science bits (ok, the physics bits) quite complex & difficult (but not impossible) to understand. It’s got some serious science in there! (Although if I remember correctly, I think he argues against anthropogenic climate change at one point, which is a bit off-putting)

  3. Valerie says:

    I definitely agree with you Christine. If my teachers had tried to explain Schrodinger’s equation or Einstein’s General Relativity to me in high school, I’d have spent even more time staring blankly at them than I already did!

    How did you feel though, upon realising that you didn’t learn the whole truth? Was it annoying?

  4. Christine Hawes says:

    Studying chemistry and physics over the past few years has taught to me to always question whether what I’m being taught is the whole picture.
    There are so many things that I learnt in school that were completely pushed to the side and replaced by new ideas when I got to uni.
    In saying that, I don’t think it would have been a good idea for our school teachers to attempt explaining something like Schrodinger’s equations or Einstein’s General Relativity to us.
    Sometimes simplifications are needed to give us a basis for the the more complex ideas that will hack at our minds.

  5. Valerie says:

    I agree, simplification is really useful when it comes to explaining things. But at the same time, it’s hard to stay on the right side of the fine line between simplifying for understanding’s sake, and seeming condescending. And don’t worry about searching for an end, the whole joy/problem of learning is that there is never an end to it. 🙂

  6. Harriet Dashnow says:

    I lie to first year biology students all the time :s
    I think that simplification is an important part of education. We use analogies all the time that when you pick them apart are essentially lies. I try to let students know when I am over-simplifying. However I have to admit that my knowledge is probably also a simplification of the truth, so I’m not sure where it ends!