Bad Meme Rising

Bad Meme Rising

Everyone loves a clever science meme! When done well, they educate and make us laugh; they inspire us with a pithy quote by a celebrated researcher; or they give us information that encourages us to see the world in a new way.

The trouble with memes is that many of them are misinformed at best – see almost every quote about Einstein. Bad memes reproduce incorrect myths about science – for example, the idea that people only use 10% of their brains is wrong; we use 100% of our brains all the time. At worst science memes contribute to science illiteracy, by perpetuating the idea that science is just about “pretty pictures” and that the details don’t matter. Memes give factoids that people love to share but don’t always bother to check if they’re true. They sound cool – but is it science?

Our Community is inundated with memes and we strive to correct them wherever possible. Have you seen the one with this “fact”?: “If an alien in a galaxy 65 million years away is looking at us through a telescope right now, then they are looking at dinosaurs.”

Sounds fascinating, right? This has been shared to our Community many times, and it continues to be shared even though we keep correcting it. One of our Moderators, Astrophysics Professor Brian Koberlein corrected the information just the other day. He notes:

While it’s an interesting idea, that isn’t how things work.  For one, resolving images at a distance takes timed exposures, and that would blur out any dinosaur motion. For another, the region of space between us and 65 million years isn’t completely empty, so light from Earth would be distorted by interstellar media and such.  Then there is the fact that the universe is expanding, so a telescope currently 65 million years away would be observing a region of time less than that now.

Basically the post takes a basic idea (that light travels at a finite speed), and draws a conclusion that simply isn’t true. It is similar to the claim that since quantum mechanics is probabilistic, “anything is possible.”

In short, no, it is not a fact.

At time of writing, there were dozens of comments beneath Brian’s correction that continue to marvel about the incorrect science in the meme…

Have you seen other bad science memes? Share them with us in the comments and tell us why they’re wrong. Our Community is striving to improve science education, so if there are some especially interesting corrections, we’ll feature your writing on our Community and Page!

Image: Vector Belly: http://vectorbelly.com/electrical264.html

#science   #stem   #stemeducation   #scienceoutreach  

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34 Comments


  1. Even bad memes can be the starting point for inquiry. Why would humans think starlight is pretty when overcast nights are warmer? What was the advantage of having clear nights to our ancestors? Are  there cultures that look up at the sky and perceive starlight as dangerous and a nice, evening, fog as just the thing for comfortable living? 

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  2. Science on Google+ A Human body can bear only up to 45 del (units) of pain. Yet at time of giving birth, a mother feels up to 57 Del (units) of pain. This is similar to 20 bones getting fractured at the same time.


    Makes me cringe to see people reshare this. I don’t have enough hands to deliver the required amount of facepalms to describe how I truly feel.

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  3. I appreciate the spirit of this post, but the example given, of an alien race 64 million light years away seeing dinosaurs on Earth, is not an example of a meme spreading bad information and Brian Koberlein ‘s response is nothing but pedantic naval-gazing at its worse. In the Hacker world we call this response a “well actually,” it’s meant to belittle the person who spoke up and poo-poo their idea while simultaneously puffing up the critic’s ego by allowing them to demonstrate their knowledge of the subject in an arrogant and dismissive way.


    This is exactly the kind of intellectual bullying that discourages women and minorities from going into STEM, and in the Information Technology world, we are so sick of this childish behavior that we are starting to fight back, like here:


    https://www.hackerschool.com/manual#sec-environment


    Yeah, we get it. You’re so incredibly smart that you can deluge a beautiful and true (in the “spherical cows” sense) idea with enough BS to make it sound impossible–when really it’s just implausible–but in the Hacker world we are still going to think the idea that using light bending around a black hole for earthlings to view Earth’s past history is a wonderful and enlightening idea:


    http://rein.pk/gravitational-lensing-to-observe-ancient-earth/


    Get over yourselves.

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  4. Ryan Somma Are you implying that women/minorities can’t understand and appreciate accurate science? That seems to be kind of a bizarre meme in itself. We don’t have to look at everything under an electron microscope to represent it fairly and with scientific accuracy. We also don’t have to dumb it down for anybody other than children and even then only where accuracy isn’t sacrificed. 

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  5. Agree with the dissenters. This comic basically encourages people to quash any girl’s sense of wonder (and possible interest in science) by being a dick and a know it all. Shut them up before you have to work with them in the lab. Yeah, that’ll help.

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  6. I think the discussion is ungendered actually. The issue is ‘dumbing down’ of something which may be incredibly nuanced and faceted to a meme. Something gets lost in translation. The dinosaur meme is not the worst by far. Most science memes are erroneous if not outright misinformation. C’est la vie.

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  7. Dr. Koberline is a disciplined scientist, and he only expresses a dissection of the argument from his well educated perspective. It is through the lens of that perspective that he is compelled to point out any discrepancy, as true science demands.


    His motivation here on G+ is to propagate understanding. It would be beneath him to correct anyone out of ego to demonstrate intellectual superiority. His credentials speak loudly enough.


    It is clear to me from the personal time he invests writing that his goal is sharing his education of physics with those of us who want a better grasp of our Universe.


    I and many others here are very grateful for his freely given contribution to further expand our understanding. I have learned a great deal from him.


    Thank you Brian Koberlein!


    I submit that those who find offence in being corrected are naval gazing. Science requires us to tear down an idea if we can, and for that task Brian is well armed.

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  8. I have no idea why gender is in the discussion, though I do agree that the questioning the dinosaur thing is a bit pedantic. An alien species 65 million light years away looking at Earth would be looking at Earth with dinosaurs on it. OK, they wouldn’t be able to actually detect the dinosaurs short of having a flabbergastingly large telescope, but that’s not really the point. They’re still looking at dinosaurs (just as if I look toward the Andromeda galaxy I’m looking at stars as they were 2 million years ago – the fact my eyes can’t resolve them is beside the point).


    For meme purposes I think it’s OK to simplify things a little (e.g. “planet with dinosaurs” => “dinosaurs”).


    While Brian Koberlein’s posts are excellent, the refutation of that particular meme would have been far better if phrased as a question rather than bluntly stating what was wrong (i.e. “So does that mean the aliens would be able to detect the dinosaurs ? Well, no, and here’s why…).


    One of the worst memes I’ve seen was the infamous “space vortex” gif attempting to disprove heliocentric motion (which I went to some pains to correct : http://astrorhysy.blogspot.cz/2013/12/and-yet-it-moves-but-not-like-that.html). In that case, unusually, the gif itself was actually not that bad, but the “science” behind it was dire.


    I think a much bigger problem (as I said recently elsewhere, can’t find the original post though) are mainstream media headlines wherein scientists are said to have “proved” something. They almost never have. Usually a research group has shown that a particular model is valid, and maybe slightly more likely than other, competing models. Proof is very rare – headlines give the misleading impression that science is a series of dramatic, decisive discoveries. Science is more about gently prodding the boundaries of knowledge, not pushing them back. That’s something I think needs to be emphasised more in science communication.


    That said, there are some cool facts of which we’re certain that are worth promoting via memes. “Your age is the number of times you’ve been around the Sun” was a nice one.

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  9. No gender? A cat in tie (and whiskers) shames a girl into silence. It’s the comic, not the discussion that I was referring to. WIthout that comic (a bad meme itself) the discussion as introduced would be fine.

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  10. So the pushback against accuracy and rejection of hype in science outreach is that scientists are elitist? If someone is inclined to take offense, and nothing I can say will likely change that. But, to me, the opening line of the post makes it clear how powerful a well-done science meme can be. It then makes the case that it’s worth getting memes right. We can appreciate them even more if there is solid science behind them. It’s those pesky little details that distinguishes the truth and beauty of legitimate science from pseudoscience and junk science. 

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  11. Truly amazing. Chill out. Humor and facts walk separate paths. One to entertain and one to educate. Like fact and fiction. Never the twain shall meet. Appreciate both. Learn to laugh. LOL 😆. Could start a conversation about Superman’s ability to fly. Right?

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  12. “While it’s an interesting idea, that isn’t how things work. For one, achieving 90 percent the speed of light would require incredible amounts of energy. For another, as the car got closer to the speed of light, its relativistic mass would become prohibitively great to continue acceleration. No matter how many times we debunk this meme, Albert Einstein keeps posting this nonsense about a car moving at 90 percent the speed of light appearing to shrink to 44 percent of its usual length.”


    “While it’s an interesting idea, that isn’t how things work. For one, it ignores the need for longterm sociopolitical and environmental stability in order for a civilization to cooperate on such a project. For another, why wouldn’t the civilization find more efficient ways of harnessing the hydrogen power rather than wait for that energy to leave their sun? No matter how many times we debunk this meme, Freeman Dyson keeps posting this idea that alien civilizations might enclose their suns in a sphere of solar panels to harness their energy.”


    “While it’s an interesting idea, that isn’t how things work. For one, demons don’t exist. For another, demons don’t exist. No matter how many times we debunk this meme, James Clerk Maxwell keeps insisting it might be possible to convert information to energy and vice versa.”

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  13. Rajini Rao You’re and others on this thread are correct. I should have left gender out of it and simply focused on the fact that people everywhere are turned off to science by jerks. If people want to enlighten others, that’s fine, but that’s not what’s being done here, the example in the cartoon and the example in the post are examples of people being arrogant and dismissive.


    What these elitists haven’t learned yet is that the world of knowledge is much much bigger than they realize. Whenever you ridicule someone for not knowing full complexities of a scientific fact, you are demonstrating your deeply profound ignorance of just how big the world of knowledge really is. When you realize how much you don’t know, you approach science with much more humility.

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  14. Ryan Somma I suspect you would not recognize science if it bit you on your backside! Even a cursory look at my profile page would show much love, energy and enthusiasm this particular “elitist” puts into science communication. As the saying goes pearls before swine. Do take your negativity elsewhere on the internet where hype and misinformation are passed off as science! 

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  15. I agree with the main underlying theme of the post that IF done well, memes could potentially be educational and effective.


    Most of us do realize appreciating science is not one or the other: often times it involves tedious preparation, other times it is fun to read and think about and marvel at. The cartoon just happens to emphasize a point that is often overlooked. In a meta way, on its own, most of us understand the cartoon is oversimplified (it’s a cartoon, after all) and not to be taken literally; the message would be different if shared in isolation, but that’s why it’s important for people to read the accompanying text in the post itself to establish relevance, context, and intent.


    Some very amusing irony here is that a few people completely ignored the post’s text — which clearly acknowledged memes could potentially be informative and enjoyable, but that they are often inaccurate or wrong (which are all true statements) — and then asks for any examples, yet some people solely fixated on the cartoon to see what they wanted to in order to turn this into a contentious issue about elitism. Funnily enough, this is the picture perfect example of why isolated memes or other representations are terrible at conveying accurate information precisely because people tend to ignore everything else! lol 😛


    Getting back to the original post, I think seeing “cool” things is a great way to spark curiosity or interest, but I also think there are certainly ways information can be presented as both fun/creative/cool and accurate to an appropriate degree of simplicity (or technicality) for that particular target audience. Some people might argue because this post is advocating for better information and clarity that it is necessarily against fun or wonder, but (in my opinion) I don’t think that’s true since those two stances are not mutually exclusive. I’m not good at the whole meme thing, but I’ve seen (a few) people do a pretty good job of taking advantage of memes to deliver interesting verified facts and explanations.


    Just showing a picture without any additional text or details probably doesn’t further anyone’s understanding of what it is they are looking at. That’s okay as a passing “oh hey, that’s nice” and also fine if it’s clearly a factoid-related joke (I like the punny ones!), but it depends on purpose. Memes are really just another way to disseminate information, but a basic property of memes is that they are usually reductionist and therefore more likely to be incorrect. This causes significant problems in select cases where memes are falsehoods about “dangers of mercury in vaccines” or misleading information about “a global ebola pandemic”, for example. Emotionally-charged topics are the ones frequently targeted. I guess we can’t make generalizations about all memes, but some are definitely misused.


    We can extend this conversation to information beyond memes too. One difficulty with information acquisition and memory is that we are unlikely to remember where a single piece of information came from. Even passively acquired info or hearsay from TV, movies, friends, family, etc. will be integrated, and months or years down the road, that purported fact or explanation will be attributed in our minds as originating from somewhere else. The circumstances are lost, but some vague or tenuous idea persists and then transforms into an accepted myth that gets passed along because verification is impossible or takes a prohibitive amount of time to double-check. Ain’t nobody got time for that! 😛 Many times, this inaccuracy is inconsequential, perhaps even just pedantic; other times, it is detrimental.


    Whether or not we intend for it to happen, passive information influences our perception in a real and direct (not just an abstract) way. And perceptual generalizations from memes, movies, and news do affect our personal reality and understanding of the world.

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  16. Most people only glance at what the media wants us to think about science. Very few people actually attempt to apply the scientific method to any problem or question for themselves.  That’s real science.  Most people are pop theorists at best.

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  17. Ryan Somma You mention you should have left gender out of it; that’s good because not only did a woman of colour write this post as Rajini Rao pointed out, but you should know that Rajini, myself and another woman Moderator for Science on Google+ collectively run STEM Women on G+. We work hard on general science outreach in our SoG+ community and we promote women’s participation and representation in STEM in our other community. We are all practising scientists and we volunteer our time to educate the public about science. We do it because we love science and want to improve public dialogue with real scientists. Rajini’s public outreach is smart but fun to read and she often uses science memes and gifs to educate.


    That is the point of this post, as Johnathan Chung has so thoughtfully pointed out. This post is not against memes; it is not about elitism; it is about misinformation in bad memes.


    Brian Koberlein is another highly committed science educator who uses images to expand public engagement in science. Here, he has corrected the misinformation on a meme that continues to find its way into our Community. That’s another point of this post: we’ve specified that this post reflects a recurring issue we see in our Community, with people sharing memes that are not scientifically correct. Our express aims in our Community are to educate and improve outreach; so part of this means we correct bad memes (and posts). The fact that we have a category for memes, however, shows that we see a place for memes in science education, just not when they’re conveying falsehoods.


    I wrote this post by the way. Much of my writing on G+ focuses on how poor science communication negatively impacts on society. For example when science is twisted to suit political aims (see my recent post on climate change policies); or when bad science reporting stigmatises the sick; poor; women; and minorities.


    Bad science memes are not to blame for general lack of science understanding, but they do contribute. As noted in the post good science memes are useful. But poor science should be corrected. This is not elitism. It is responsible science communication.

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  18. Why do we assume that the immune system has the same response to any old thing we make a vaccine out of?  I very much doubt this.  Also, the assumption that it is very unlikely to actually experience the thing the vaccine is supposed to protect you against – because my observation tells me otherwise.  In the Fifties, people got polio from the oral polio vaccine.  I find little science on this subject. 

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  19. Oh, and about the 10% brain myth…


    It’s actually a giant misinterpretation.


    You see, only 10% of the volume of your brain is neuron tissue, the rest of the brain is glial tissue. Glial cells are support cells, they give the brain shape and act as a life support system for the neurons. However, these glial cells are incapable of actually transmitting nerve impulses.


    So while only 10% of the brain’s volume is involved in thought, that 10% accounts for 100% of all of the brain’s thinking. The remaining 90% cannot be tapped into, it’s just a bunch of scaffolding at the very least.


    It’s just like the interior of your laptop. Only 10% of the volume is actually involved in the computational process, the remaining 90% is circuit board and structural support.

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  20. John Poteet They did the research… it is because of water.  When our eyes were developing it was the sparkle of sun on water that we were first attracted to… because without water we die.  That primal attraction to sparkling is the same reason why people like stars, (cut) diamonds and so on. 

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