5 Common Scientific Misunderstandings You Should Know

Vaccine Syringe Needle

Scientific discovery offers a wealth of unusual surprises — the more we learn, the more we realize how much we probably still don’t understand. However, even the most scientifically savvy can miss things, or risk misunderstanding tidbits of science. If you’re an expert on bee colonies you might not have time to learn about vaccines or space — and visa versa. If your interests lie more in the range of Van Gogh or Bukowski, you may not be looking into how candles actually work. Below are just five facts that people tend to misunderstand.

1. How Vaccines Keep Us Healthy – Herd Immunity

Vaccines have become a source of conflict for many Americans, and many have decided to forgo vaccinating their children. There are lot of different arguments people make for this. There’s the highly controversial claim that they cause autism, which the scientific community largely opposes, and there are others who just prefer a more purist lifestyle. People are entitled to their preferences and viewpoints. However, it’s generally important to understand a few facts about how vaccines protect us from diseases before considering this plethora of other viewpoints. Vaccines help to protect us at the individual level by lightly infecting us and helping our immune systems to prepare for, and protect against, a specific disease. However, vaccines do something equally important at the population level.

What a vaccine does is to one by one weed out susceptibles in the population, thinning the number of people who can be infected until the disease can no longer replicate in a dangerous way despite its infectious nature. As a result, the disease dies out. This is known as herd immunity. A certain percentage of the population must be immune to the disease for this herd immunity to occur, however. Those getting vaccinated are conferring the advantages to those around them that are not. But if fewer and fewer get vaccinated, eventually herd immunity will be lost — a risk worth understanding and keeping in mind when considering vaccination options.

source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/free-stock/

2. How Candles Work

Many believe that lighting a candle is simply getting a piece of string to burn. Some think that the purpose of the wax is merely to slow the flames progress, to keep it elevated, or to keep the surroundings safe. However, that is not the case. Without the wax, the string itself would be next to useless. The string is not the fuel — not really — the wax is.

When a candle burns, it melts the wax closest to it, and then draws the wax up into the wick via capillary action — the means by which liquid can move into tight places despite forces such as gravity. From there, the wax is turned into resulting products  — vaporized into water and carbon dioxide, at least according to the NCA — and if anyone knows a lot about candles it’d be the National Candle Association. Basically, if a candle were a car, the wax would be the gas, the wick would be the spark plug, and if we want to get technical, the match might be the coil pack.

bees

Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/quisnovus/

3. How Honeybee Queens Rule

The answer to how honeybee queens rule is quite simple — they don’t. Not really. The name is misleading in that respect, because the hive queen doesn’t actually rule. The queen of a hive plays an important reproductive role, producing over a thousand eggs a day. She also prevents the production of additional queens by chemical signals to her hive.

However, when it comes to big decisions, honeybees are more a group mind than docile servants following the orders of a single individual. Honeybee expert Thomas D. Seeley refers to their governing as a “Honeybee Democracy” and makes it clear that decision making is cooperative.

Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jennyleesilver/

4. Correlation Isn’t Causation

This is a phrase of enormous importance in the scientific community, and even those who are well-versed in its meaning could sometimes do with a reminder. Just because something is shown to be connected to something else does not mean that it caused the latter.

For example — say a study links children who like ice cream with the hated of kickball. Do we assume that ice cream contains some sort of diabolical neurotoxin that ignites our youth with an irrational fear of the sport? No. The ice cream didn’t cause the hatred, the two are merely linked. There are a million explanations for why the two are linked, but one did not cause the other. It’s far more likely that ice cream might also be linked with obesity and obesity with avoiding sports. While this may be an obvious example, not all are. Sometimes the temptation to assume linked items are directly related via cause and effect is very tempting — and something to watch out for.

source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/gsfc/

5. The Vacuum of Space

Picture an astronaut in space. Now, picture her helmet springing a leak — exposing our handy test subject to the vacuum of space. What happens? If you picture a messy crushed-grape-splat, you’re wrong. Its effects on the human body are certainly less than pleasant, but an instant killer it is not. According to NASA, if the subject does not hold her breath she could survive up to a half minute in space without sustaining any permanent injury. Blood doesn’t boil, the body doesn’t freeze, and you don’t immediately black out, says NASA.

What will happen is possible lung damage, skin swelling, tissue damage, and suffocation. A fairly bad sunburn is also likely as the person would be directly exposed to ultraviolet radiation. It’s not that it won’t kill you — just not in the way most people expect, and not as immediately — you aren’t really dying till you’ve been in the vacuum for one or two minutes. It is possible to survive.

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