topic:  Bad Science 
 this:  Pathetic fallacy 

The Pathetic Fallacy
Animism masquerading as science in education

Alistair B. Fraser


Air hates to be crowded, and when compressed it will try to escape to an area of lower pressure.

This is what a teacher at the University of California at Davis suggests is one of the “simple facts” which intermediate students should master. Apart from the disturbing realization that the author apparently does not distinguish between pressure and density, there is the sad business of a post-medieval university proffering animism as science to children. Mind you, the air’s hate, if thwarted, might well lead to desperation, as is explained at the University of Texas at Dallas.

the atmosphere tries more desparately [sic] to escape the decreasing volume

Maybe these teachers would also recommend that the atmosphere seek professional counseling so as to help it control its psychoses, and if so, from whom? the ocean? the mountains? or, maybe the Department of Animistic Psychiatry at one of their own universities?



Pathetic Fallacy: The mistake of attributing human aspirations, emotions, feelings, thoughts, or traits to events or inanimate objects which do not even possess the capacity for such qualities. See, for example, the discussion in The Encyclopedia Brittanica.


I am not in favor of lying to students. Yet, I see it done frequently, not so much as to purposely mislead, but as a way to hide the teacher’s inability to offer a simple and correct explanation. I will not offer my students cute silliness and then rationalize it as but a simplification in the service of student understanding. Understand what, I wonder?

And so it is, that I have come to deplore the frequent use of the pathetic fallacy as a device for teaching science.

Animism: A belief that there there is conscious life --- spirits --- which occupy and animate things in the natural world such as the rocks and the air. For someone who was an animist, the things of which I complain would not be fallacious, but appropriate. For someone teaching science, on the other hand....

The Pathetic Fallacy

The pathetic fallacy is the name given the specious attribution of emotions --- which is to say, pathos --- to the inanimate. Thus, when NASA tells children that, “the moving object, due to its mass, wants to keep going,” it misleads them with the pathetic fallacy. For, to the best of anyone’s knowledge, an inanimate mass doesn’t have any wants. Well, there is a belief system which posits that everything contains a sprit which motivates and directs its actions, and that system is called animism. But, animism is not science. So, apparently we have NASA promoting animism among our children under the guise of promoting science. This is scary. (One then wonders if NASA thinks this way, or it only wants children to do so).

Do you mean to say that someone claiming to be a teacher actually wrote that? Alas, yes. The cited statements are quotations of things found in the documents at the time they were posted here. It may be that what is being said, when you visit the source, will have changed, possibly in response to the criticism found here. If that is so, that change is a good thing for science teaching. However, this would not nullify the value of the original as an example of bad science teaching.

The What and the Why

Problems such as that found with NASA’s explanation usually are only found in just those circumstances: that is, in explanations. The WHATs rarely pose difficulties, only the WHYs. So, I can safely say what happens --- “the ball rolls down the hill” ---, but caution is in order when I attempt to say why it happens. If I were to discuss the force of gravity on the ball, I am presenting a scientific explanation, but if I claim that the rolling arises from the wants of the ball, I am presenting animism. To say that the ball wants to roll down hill is not a simplification, it is simply rubbish.


So, NASA would have been safe to say that (in the absence of a force) the mass continues to move as before, but when the writer attempted an explanation, rather than opting for science, he unfortunately chose medieval mysticism and so encouraged children to believe something which runs counter to all modern insights into the behavior of nature.
Rule: When discussing the behavior of the natural world, you are not obliged to explain it; you could merely describe it. However, if you do offer an explanation, you are obliged to get it right.
The WHYs are clearly more likely to give teachers and writers problems than the WHATs. My personal rule is that in describing the behavior of the natural world, I am not obliged to explain it, but if I do, I am obliged to get it right. A teacher or writer must not present nonsense as a way of pretending to gave an explanation, and, alas, to offer the pathetic fallacy is to offer scientific nonsense.


Of Art and Science

The pathetic fallacy has occasionally been defended as the introduction of poetry into teaching: the use of an imaginative metaphor. That artistry has its place is clear: Picasso offers great art, but, alas, I would not want my surgeon’s view of anatomy to be colored by it. Similarly, the use of the pathetic fallacy in science teaching makes even less sense than the use of a (late) Picasso painting as a anatomical guide. It will do nothing but sully a student’s understanding of why the natural world works the way it does, which is, presumably the object of teaching science.
Besides, in each case in which I have seen where the pathetic fallacy used, it seemed much more likely that teacher used it to cover up an inadequacy in knowing how to explain matters correctly, rather than as a conscious decision to build an artistic and animistic metaphor.

You know you are in trouble if...

Any time a teacher uses words suggestive of human aspirations, or emotions, to explain the behavior of the inanimate natural world, there is trouble: love, hate, want, attempt and try are high on the list.

A few examples from places which should know better

University of Alaska An anticyclone has higher pressure in its center than around its edges, so the air tries to flow away from the high-pressure core.
Colorado State University A small storm tries to develop in the stratiform-covered region
University of Michigan Because opposites attract, the - charge at the bottom of the thunder cloud wants to link up with the + charge of the Earth's surface.
University of Vermont This hurricane wants to bring a powerful combo of wind and rain to our forecast
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (USA) If the tornado wants the windows open believe me, it will open them whether you like it or not!
University of Pittsburgh Ideally wind wants to move perpendicular to isobars (lines of equal pressure) from high pressure to low pressure but because of the coriolis force it does not
Astronomical Society of the Pacific Because it gets colder as you go up, the atmosphere wants to convect.
University of Oregon Even though it sometimes seems like the atmosphere tries harder, the oceans are more successful at transferring heat...
University of Virginia Sunlight heats the Earth and the atmosphere tries to redistribute the heat from warm areas to cool areas.
University of Hawaii Rain water runs off the mountains toward the ocean; it tries to run down the steepest slope it can find
Saint Louis University The atmosphere likes to absorb IR radiation so we have an imbalance.
Ohio State University The water molecules align with the field, as the field changes, the water attempts to change its position to align with the field.

And one that satirizes such silliness: There is a Calvin and Hobbs cartoon in which Calvin poses the question to Dad: “Why does ice float?” Dad responds: “Because it’s cold. Ice wants to get warm, so it goes to the top of liquids in order to be nearer to the Sun.”

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