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.
Electron shells around a Boron atom. 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”?