Source: Journal of Thought, vol. 32, pp. 69-76 (1997)

Can the Persistence of Misconceptions be

Generalized and Explained?

Man is not logical and his intellectual history is a record of mental reserves and compromises. He hangs on to what he can in his old beliefs even when he is compelled to surrender their logical basis.

John Dewey

Misconceptions in the Science Classroom. Over the last two decades, the science education community has become painfully aware that science students "do not rush to embrace new viewpoints. Rather, they cling to ideas that form part of their world view even when confronted by information that does not coincide with this view."1 Although students readily memorize facts, they often fail to comprehend concepts. For instance, students may study the solar system for months, do well on tests, yet continue to believe that lunar phases are caused by Earth's shadow.2 Or, after an in-depth study of atmospheric pressure, many students retain their pre-instructional belief that suction pulls up liquids.3

Seven years after convincingly showing that conventional physics instruction often fails to overcome students' naive misconceptions about motion, David Hestenes and colleagues summed up the situation:4

Every student begins physics with a well-established system of commonsense beliefs about how the physical world works....Instruction that does not take them into account is almost totally ineffective, at least for the majority of students. Specifically, it has been established that (1) commonsense beliefs about motion and force are incompatible with Newtonian concepts in most respects, (2) conventional physics instruction produces little change in these beliefs, and (3) this result is independent of the instructor and the mode of instruction. The implications could not be more serious. Since the students have evidently not learned the most basic Newtonian concepts, they must have failed to comprehend most of the material in the course. They have been forced to cope with the subject by rote memorization of isolated fragments and by carrying out meaningless tasks. No wonder so many are repelled! The few who are successful have become so by their own devices, the course and the teacher having supplied only the opportunity and perhaps inspiration.

The Larger Context, and the Causes, of persistence have Received Scant Attention. Although the persistence of misconceptions has been amply documented, and although many instructional remedies have been proposed and experimented with,5 its relevance and ubiquity outside the science classroom is often overlooked. Moreover, in science education circles, its roots remain largely unexplored. This is unfortunate, for our understanding of this problem, and our instructional strategies, may benefit from a better grasp of its universality and probable causes.

Preview of this Note. This note begins by showing that misconceptions persist in many places besides the science classroom,6 and, hence, that something like the persistence of misconceptions plays a role in almost every walk of human life. This notes goes on to suggest that our search for the causes of this near-universal persistence needs to take into consideration psychological data. These data, taken together with the tenacity of misconceptions in the science classroom and elsewhere, can for the most part be plausibly traced to a few factors. This note then suggests that existing instructional approaches7 ought to be enriched by strategies which consciously take this near-universality and its probable causes into account.

A Few Examples of the Persistence of Misconceptions Outside the Science Classroom. It is ironic that many discussions of conceptual shift in the science classroom, which are often consciously modeled after the process of conceptual change in science,8 ignore the persistence of misconceptions in the history of science. It is well-known that the revolutionary contributions of countless scientists have been rejected, ignored, or ridiculed, sometimes for decades and centuries.9 Historians of science have often felt the need to account for such recurring tragedies: "The mind," says Wilfred Trotter, "likes a strange idea as little as the body likes a strange protein and resists it with similar energy. It would not perhaps be too fanciful to say that a new idea is the most quickly acting antigen known to science. If we watch ourselves honestly we shall often find that we have begun to argue against a new idea even before it has been completely stated." "The itch to suffocate the infant ideas burns in all of us," says Walshe. Indeed, Schiller believes that this inertia "deserves to rank among the fundamental 'laws' of nature."10

Originators of new ideas in science must often struggle against the tenacity of their own misconceptions. "When the decisive facts did at length obtrude themselves upon my notice," says Joseph Priestly, "it was very slowly, and with great hesitation, that I yielded to the evidence of my senses."11 Vesalius says that he could not believe his own eyes when he found anatomical structures not in accord with Galen's descriptions.12 The intellectual biographies of innovators such as Kepler,13 Mendel,14 and Newton,15 again point to the difficulty of conceptual shift. Koestler16 coined the term snowblindness to refer "to that remarkable form of blindness which often prevents the original thinker from perceiving the meaning and significance of his own discovery: Jealousy apart, the antibody reaction directed against new ideas seems to be much the same whether the idea was let loose by others--or oneself."

Scientific biographies provide another uncanny illustration of the persistence of misconceptions. The historical record indisputably shows that "almost all of those firmly placed in the pantheon of science . . . were caught up in passionate efforts to achieve priority."17 But most biographers are convinced that truly great scientists are only concerned with the truth, not with "petty" priority claims. As a result, biographers often claim that their hero was indifferent to establishing priority, "just before, as careful scholars, they inundate us with a flood of evidence to the contrary. This denial of the realities they report and then segregate is an instance of keeping intellect and perception in abeyance in the interest of preserving a prevalent myth about human behavior."18

In political history, long-lived misconceptions are strikingly conspicuous.19 General Joffre, the French Commander-in-Chief at the outset of World War I, believed that Germany would attack his country by the most direct route, through Alsace and Lorraine. Thus, when massive attacks through Belgium began, he interpreted them as diversionary tactics. It was only after the hospitals were overflowing with casualties, after Joffre went north to look for himself, and after the Germans came perilously close to conquering Paris, that Joffre relinquished this belief.20 Likewise, during that same war, most commanding generals were unable to abandon outdated offensive strategies.21

Evidence from Experimental Psychology. It is beyond the scope of this brief note to provide a detailed review of the psychological literature on the persistence of misconceptions. Here I can only touch upon a few key experiments (and remark in passing that, for some strange reason, these experiments are rarely mentioned in the context of misconceptions research).

Overall, there is overwhelming experimental evidence in favor of the assertion that "belief is a calm and satisfactory state which we do not wish to avoid, or to change to a belief in anything else. On the contrary, we cling tenaciously, not merely to believing, but to believing just what we do believe."22 Thus, debriefing experiments have repeatedly suggested that "beliefs are remarkably resilient in the face of empirical challenges that seem logically devastating."23 Evidence of conceptual inflexibility is likewise encountered in numerous problem-solving contexts.24 Resistance to conceptual change had also been observed in members of a religious cult after a failure of a prophecy which was, until then, central to their belief system.25

Perhaps the most striking evidence comes from experiments in which science Ph.D.'s served as unwitting subjects in a study of belief revision. Over 90% of these scientists were unable to let go of a spuriously-acquired false belief (in a volume formula of a sphere) even after this belief has been sharply contradicted by their own direct observations (filling two different spheres with water, transferring the water into a box, and directly measuring the volume of water in the box):26

The...outcome--all subjects clung in practice to an observationally absurd formula and none rejected it outright even on the verbal level--is surprising. Even when we deal with ideologically neutral conceptions of reality, when these conceptions have been recently acquired, when they came to us from unfamiliar sources, when they were assimilated for spurious reasons, when their abandonment entails little tangible risks or costs, and when they are sharply contradicted by subsequent events, we are, at least for a time, disinclined to doubt such conceptions on the verbal level and unlikely to let go of them in practice.27

Can the Persistence of Misconceptions be Explained? Although we can be sure about the ubiquity and import of the persistence of misconceptions, its causes remain a matter of speculation. Here I can only mention a few tentative attempts of tracing this failing to its roots.

The tenacity of convictions may be traced to the conservative impulse. Based on his studies of bereavement, Peter Marris28 argues that the process of abandoning a conviction is similar to the working out of grief. According to this view, in many seemingly diverse situations, change requires overcoming an impulse to restore the past. "The impulse to defend the predictability of life is a fundamental and universal principle of human psychology." Human beings possess "a deep-rooted and insistent need for continuity." One extreme manifestation of this impulse is the frequent failure of people undergoing psychotherapy (e.g., anorexics, obsessive-compulsives, paranoids) to restructure their mistaken, dysfunctional, and painful viewpoints and habits.

A complementary explanation has been put forward by Jonathan Baron.29 To survive and thrive, churches, nation states, and similar organizations must retain the loyalty of their members. To do so, they must convince their members of the veracity of the organizational creed "even though many outsiders will argue otherwise." Those organizations "that inculcate an ideology in which defense of one's belief is a virtue and questioning is a vice are the ones that are most likely to overcome challenges from outside." Most people in contemporary culture identify with one or more such organizations. Consequently, most people tend to be conceptually inflexible.

Such organizational pressures may be reinforced by the widespread, culturally-acquired, confusion between self-assurance and real knowledge. "Thus, when a news commentator criticizes a political candidate for waffling and being unsure (as might befit a good thinker faced with many of the issues that politicians must face), the implication is that the candidate is not expert enough to have figured out the right answers yet. Similarly, a person who adopts 'a know it all' tone of voice--speaking without qualification is giving a sign of expertise in the matter at hand."29

I remarked earlier on the role of conceptual conservatism in the history of ideas. According to some historians, the process of conceptual change in science resembles Gestalt perceptual shifts (e.g., the difficulty encountered in seeing the hag as a young lady), adjustments to wearing inverted goggles,30 or the identification of anomalous objects31 (e.g., a red 6 of spades). The most difficult mental act, according to one science historian, is to re-arrange a familiar bundle of data, to look at it differently and escape from the prevailing doctrine.32 According to this view, then, the difficulty of switching from one conviction to another--in the science classroom, experimental psychology, and elsewhere--is traceable to the difficulty of rearranging one's perceptual or cognitive field.

Instructional Implications. This constellation of factors may thus account for the persistence of misconceptions in the science classroom. The many educational and research implications of this view cannot be explored here. Suffice it to mention that we can help our students overcome these hurdles through historical case studies33 and experiential exercises.34 And, because misconceptions frequently linger outside the science classroom, science teaching has much to gain from a crossdisciplinary, holistic, approach to this problem.35


1.N. C. Burbules and M. C. Linn, "Response to contradiction: scientific reasoning during adolescence,"Journal of Educational Psychology 80, 67-75 (1992), p. 75. See also, A. B. Arons, A Guide to Introductory Physics Teaching (Wiley, New York, 1990); R. Driver and J. Easley, "Pupils and paradigms: A review of literature related to concept development in adolescent science students," Studies in Science Education 5, 61-84 (1978); S. Tobias, Revitalizing Undergraduate Science (Research Corporation, Tucson, 1992).

2.A. Lightman and P. Sadler, "Teacher predictions versus actual student gains," The Physics Teacher 31, 162-167 (1993); M. Nissani, "Phases of the moon: a guided discovery activity for clarifying the nature of science," Science Activities 31, 26-29 (1994).

3.M. Nissani, C. L. Maier, and N. Shifrin, "A guided discovery exercise for introductory physics labs," The Physics Teacher 32, 104-107 (1994).

4.D. Hestenes, M. Wells, and G. Swackhamer, "Force concept inventory," The Physics Teacher 30, 141-151 (1992). See also D. Huffman and P. Heller, "What does the force concept inventory actually measure?" The Physics Teacher 33, 138-143 (1995), p. 141.

5.C. A. Chinn and W. F. Brewer, "The role of anomalous data in knowledge acquisition: a theoretical framework and implications for science instruction," Review of Educational Research 63, 1-49 (1993); Z. R. Dagher, "Does the use of analogies contribute to conceptual change?" Science Education 78, 601-614 (1994).

6.See, for example, M. Nissani, "Conceptual conservatism: an understated variable in human affairs?" Social Science Journal, 31, 307-318 (1994).

7.E. A. Marek, C. C. Cowan, and A. M. L. Cavallo, "Students' misconceptions about diffusion: how can they be eliminated?" The American Biology Teacher 56, 74-77 (1994).

8.G. Posner, K. A. Strike, P. W. Hewson, and W. A. Gertzog, "Accommodation of a scientific conception: toward a theory of conceptual change," Science Education 66, 211-227 (1982).

9.W. I. B. Beveridge, The Art of Scientific Investigation (Norton, New York, 1950); J. M. Campanario, "Consolation for the scientist: sometimes it is hard to publish papers that are later highly-cited," Social Studies of Science 23, 342-62 (1993); D. F. Horrobin, "The philosophical basis of peer review and the suppression of innovation," Journal of the American Medical Association 263, 1438-1441 (1990); T. S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, revised edition (University of Chicago, Chicago, 1970); R. H. Murray, Science and Scientists in the Nineteenth Century (Sheldon Press, London, 1925); M. Nissani "The plight of the obscure innovator in science," Social Studies of Science 25, 165-183 (1995).

10.Beveridge, pp., 105-106.

11.R. M . Roberts, Serendipity (Wiley, New York, 1989), p. 28.

12.Beveridge, p. 103.

13.A. Koestler, The Watershed (Anchor Books, Garden City, 1960).

14.M. Nissani, "Psychological, historical, and ethical reflections on the Mendelian paradox," Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 37, 182-196 (1994); R. Olby, Origin of Mendelism, 2d. ed (University of Chicago, Chicago, 1984).

15.M. S. Steinberg, D. E. Brown, and J. Clement, "Genius is not immune to persistent misconceptions: conceptual difficulties impeding Isaac Newton and contemporary physics students," International Journal of Science Education 12, 265-273 (1990).

16.A. Koestler, Act of Creation (Hutchinson, London, 1964), p. 216.

17.R. K. Merton, "Behavior patterns of scientists," American Scholar 38, 197-225 (1969), p. 205.

18.R. K. Merton, "Behavior patterns of scientists," American Scholar 38, 197-225 (1969), p. 216.

19.M. Nissani, Lives in the Balance (Dowser, Carson City, 1992).

20.P. Strebel, Breakpoints (Harvard Business School Press, Boston, 1992), p. 3.

21.B. Tuchman, The Guns of August (Macmillan, New York, 1962).

22.C. S. Peirce, Essays in the Philosophy of Science (Liberal Arts, New York, 1957), p. 11.

23.L. Ross, and C. A. Anderson, "Shortcomings in the attribution process: on the origins and maintenance of erroneous social assessments." In D. Kahneman et al. (Eds.), Judgment Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases (Cambridge University, Cambridge, 1982), p. 144.

24.K. Duncker, "On problem solving," Psychological Monographs 58, 1-113 (1945); W. Edwards, "Conservatism in human information processing," in B. Kleinmuntz (Ed.), Formal Representation of Human Judgment (pp. 17-52) (Wiley, New York, 1968); A. S. Luchins & E. Luchins, Rigidity of Behavior (University of Oregon, Eugene, 1959); P. C. Wason, "Response to affirmative and negative binary statements," British Journal of Psychology 12, 129-140 (1961).

25.L. Festinger, H. W. Riecken, and S. Schachter, When Prophecy Fails (University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1956). See also Timnick, Lois. "Electronic Bullies." Psychology Today, 16 (Feb. 1982): 10-15.

26.M. Nissani and D. M. Hoefler-Nissani, "Experimental studies of belief-dependence of observations and of resistance to conceptual change," Cognition and Instruction 9, 97-111 (1992).

27.M. Nissani, "An experimental paradigm for the study of conceptual conservatism and change," Psychological Reports 65, 19-24 (1989).

28.P. Marris, Loss and Change, revised edition (Routledge, London, 1986).

29.Baron, Jonathan. "Beliefs about Thinking." Informal Reasoning and Education. Eds. Voss, J. F., Perkins, D. N. & Segal, J. W. Hillsdale: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1991. 169-186.

30. Stratton, M. "Vision without Inversion of the Retinal Image." Psychological Review 4, 341-360; 463-481 (1897).

31. Bruner J. S. and L. Postman. "On the Perception of Incongruity: a Paradigm." Journal of Personality 18, 206-223 (1949).

32. Butterfield, cited in Beveridge, W. I. B. The Art of Scientific Investigation. New York: Norton, 1950, p. 102.

33.J. B. Conant, "The scientific education of the layman," Yale Review 36, 15-36 (1946); M. Nissani, "An experiential component in teaching philosophy of science," Teaching Philosophy 18, 147-154 (1995).

34.M. Nissani, "A hands-on instructional approach to the conceptual shift aspect of scientific discovery," Journal of College Science Teaching 19, 105-107 (1989).

35.M. Nissani, "Fruits, salads, and smoothies: a working definition of interdisciplinarity," Journal of Educational Thought 29, 119-126 (1995); "The case for interdisciplinarity," Social Science Journal 33, #4, January 1997, in press.