Nonfiction Notes: Neil F. Comins, HEAVENLY ERRORS: Misconceptions about the real nature of the universe (2001)

This is a book I’ve had for nearly 20 years, since its publication in 2001, and finally I sat down last year, 2020, and read it. I had thought it would be a book about common misconceptions of the universe (as the subtitle says) along the lines of: there is no “dark” side of the moon; things fall at the same rate, regardless of weight (disregarding air friction); spaceships do not make sounds in space; and so on.

It’s partly about that, but just as much about *why* people believe incorrect things, with a heavy emphasis on psychological biases, intuitive thinking established in childhood, and social forces encouraging pseudo-science. Thus this book is on the same spectrum from that textbook LOGIC AND CONTEMPORARY RHETORIC, Shermer’s WHY PEOPLE BELIEVE WEIRD THINGS, Bering’s THE BELIEF INSTINCT, Shtulman’s SCIENCELBIND, and the numerous books about human psychology, from Kahneman, Haidt, and others.

The author is a professor at the University of Maine.

Here’s a set of bulleted take-away points, followed by my 3700 words of summary notes taken while reading.

Take-Away Summary:

  • Preface—“Our brains evolved to help us survive, not to comprehend the cosmos.”
  • The author, a professor at the University of Maine, became dejected at how often students retained naïve ideas about the world and universe even when told and explained otherwise.
  • Among such misconceptions: the density of the asteroid belt (as shown in The Empire Strikes Back); why the seasons change; the source of the sun’s energy; what causes the tails of comets; what causes the moon’s phases; the causes of the tides; and many more.
  • Where do these misconceptions come from? Children watch cartoons, which portray nature in intuitive, not accurate, ways. Science fiction routinely portrays things like antigravity and faster-than-light travel, which are impossible according to known science. The common presence of in the media of astrology, magic, deliberate misinformation, errors in textbooks, history deliberately misrepresented (e.g. left-wing and right-wing history). And due to how the news media has priorities different from those of scientists; and how everything, including nonsense, is out there on the web.
  • How we take in information and draw wrong conclusions. The colors of stars; eyewitness testimony; human memory; the shortcomings of common sense; common mistakes of reasoning (list below).
  • How misconceptions are hard to replace. Humans are poor at statistics; we are subject to perceptual illusions; we develop emotional ties to our beliefs, and disregard evidence (Galileo, Kepler, Newton); how we should avoid an anthropocentric view of the universe.
  • There’s no easy way to help people unlearn deep-seated incorrect beliefs. Not even with irrefutable evidence. A few methods work.
  • Critical thinking guidelines: long list (see below at Chapter 7).
  • The problems misconceptions create include paranoia; attraction to conspiracy theories; rejection of actual science that can improve lives.
  • Our personal cosmologies generally form in our teens, often shaped by religion. Unlike religion, science helps you sort out plausible from implausible. It’s never complete, and parts may change, but the reward is intellectual freedom.

Complete notes:

Preface: “Our brains evolved to help us survive, not to comprehend the cosmos.” Author teaches intro astronomy, has written a textbook.

“Abandon common sense, all ye who enter here!”


Author recalls a telescope in Arizona where he would step outside at night and felt a connection to the universe. Then he went back to teach at the University of Maine, and became dejected by student responses, how slowly it took them to understand, how frequently they misunderstood common phenomena, p5m. Students retain naive ideas even when told otherwise.

Ch I, Fun in the Sun: some misconceptions close to home.

Here he surveys some common misconceptions about the solar system:

  • The asteroid belt doesn’t look like the one in The Empire Strikes Back. (So many bodies so close together would quickly coalesce.) Even so, Pioneer 10 was cautious.
  • Why the seasons change. Common answers: in summer we’re closer to the sun. (Forgetting the seasons are reversed in the southern hemisphere.) Or perhaps the rotation rate changes. (Who thinks this??) Or the axis tilt. Yes: they change the duration and intensity of sunlight on a given day.
  • What is the source of the sun’s energy? Molten lava? Burning hydrogen? No, and you can calculate why not. The correct answer came in the 1920s with the understanding of fusion.
  • What causes the tails of comets? Not steam streaming through the air. Are the comets heated up and burn off gases? And do the tails always trail after the comet? No; tails are caused by heating from the sun, and the tail is always directly away from the sun, even as the comet moves away from the sun. Further, there’s a second tail which curves slightly away… p28.
  • Which planet is hottest? Not Mercury. Venus, because of the greenhouse effect.
  • What causes the moon’s phases? Some people think—the shadow of earth. (really??) But that wouldn’t work at all, p34. There isn’t a dark side of the moon. Correct explanation p37. [[ also that most people don’t realize the moon is visible during the day, half the time. ]]
  • What causes the tides? Some people think wind. How many high tides are there a day? Two. True explanation about lunar gravity…
  • 50 more things people have incorrect beliefs about, list p46-47. [[ From my current perspective it seems he is mixing together a couple distinct ideas. Many of these 50 things occur just because most people have no reason to think about these things, i.e. they don’t pay attention. The corrective is simple education. Maybe most. But some are assumptions based on personal experience in everyday life; that stars twinkle; that the sun and stars a different things, and so on. The truth about these things isn’t obvious. ]]

Ch 2, Blame It on Someone Else: external origins of incorrect beliefs.

One problem is that children watch cartoons, which don’t portray nature accurately—how Wile E. Coyote stops in the air for a moment before falling straight down. Or that The Flintstones portray humans and dinosaurs together.

Similarly, science fiction portrays things like antigravity and FTL travel that contradict known science. It’s not that those laws of physics may be ‘proved’ wrong—laws get extended, not proven wrong [or they wouldn’t have been considered laws in the first place].  He repeats example of asteroid belt in Star Wars.

[[ I think he’s on the wrong track here—the question is, *why* do cartoons portray motion this way? Because as we now know children form intuitive theories just like it. [ cf. Shtulman’s SCIENCEBLIND ] Or, if cartoons confound those expectations, they do so because it’s funny! It’s not as if cartoons, or science fiction, deliberately portrays things incorrectly in some arbitrary way. They do so to satisfy audience expectations, wherever those expectations come from. ]]

Another point is that experts in one field often maintain errors about other fields.

Then there’s the issue of what the word ‘misconception’ actually means. There are other words to use: naïve beliefs, etc, p56t. So some of the issues here are language, where people use the same words in different ways.

Science is both a body of knowledge and a process. Occam’s razor. Kepler and Newton. A student conflating ‘solar system’ with the entire universe. How the term ‘black hole’ is misleading. Similarly pulsar.

P64 explanations of what meteoroids, meteors, etc. are; and about galaxy, supernova, white dwarf. [[ one could also attribute such confusions to the inability of humans to appreciate vast distances … ]] And the confusion of astronomy and astrology.

Mythical concepts:

Astrology. Consider mechanisms of how it might work. [[ this won’t convince believers ]] No evidence for any new forces in nature.

Magic. As in Harry Potter; as in ghosts, witchcraft, the power of prayers. These are all magical thinking. Wishful thinking, even as adults. “At some level most of us know that wishing doesn’t make things happen, but that doesn’t stop anyone from trying.”

Misinformation. Sometimes things we’re told are simply wrong. Even when learning correct information, we’re slow to update our conclusions, or we massage the new info to meet our prior conclusions. Or the idea that the asteroids were once a planet.

Errors in textbooks should make one cautious. Examples of errors p71.

Some information we get is deliberately biased to reflect beliefs, interests, and goals. E.g. left-wing vs. right-wing history. And some information will be overcome by new information.

News Media. The tension between scientists and reporters. E.g. findings from Hubble. And sometimes findings are tentative and change. E.g. a retraction that didn’t make the news. Also, consumers are biased toward ‘exciting’ and sensational news. Beware news of scientific ‘breakthroughs.’ And stories on TV and radio are typically only a minute 45 seconds. Reporters and their editors are seldom scientists. And reporters perceive the need of being ‘balanced.’ And it’s important to be aware of those publications that exploit human gullibility, p80.

The Internet. Now everything is on the web. Anything goes; withhold judgment. E.g. creation science sites. Maintain skepticism.

3, Creating Your Own Private Cosmos: internal and mixed origins of incorrect beliefs

Dropping a hammer and a feather. On the moon, they hit the ground at the same time. We understand the world through observation and common sense. Knowing that earth revolves round the sun, we presume stars of other planets revolve around their suns. But accepting incorrect information can lead to false conclusions. E.g. traveling through black holes. That could lead to beliefs about aliens coming to earth.

This chapter is about how we take in information and comes up with wrong conclusions.

Sensory misinterpretation. In addition to the usual five senses, we also sense heat and acceleration.

We have the inclination to think the sun is yellow. But the sun actually emits more light in the blue-green area of the spectrum. But that light is scattered, making for a blue sky. And our eyes are more sensitive to yellow. [[ well I think this is beside the point – you could argue that the color of anything is dependent on conditions of light etc etc. every observations is conditioned on what’s being observed, and the observer. ]]

Or that stars twinkle. [[ but they *do*, from where we see them. ]] They don’t twinkle from space. Also was once widely believed the earth is at the center of the universe, and everything orbits around it. And so on, p90.3…

Spiral galaxies—the space between the arms are *not* devoid of stars. Also, the brightest stars don’t last the longest; most stars aren’t singletons, but pairs or clusters.

Inaccurate or incomplete… p92

Eyewitness testimony… most stars are *not* white. Not everything in the night sky is a star. Circumstances mitigate what we see.

Human memory is fallible over time; we forget details. We draw assumptions based on hasty generalizations. Thus we build telescopes to see what we cannot with the naked eye. We tend to fill in gap in information with personal experience. One activity that is more wrong than not is…. “common sense.”

The shortcomings of common sense, p99

The scripts we build up as adults to apply to ordinary situations amount to common sense: “sound practical judgment that is independent of specialized knowledge or training” p100t. (Stereotyping is another.) But common sense often fails when it comes to science. Example UFOs. Jumping to the conclusion they are aliens ignores various facts about the natural world that might explain them. Or: how we jump to conclusions about who would commit a school shooting.

Common mistakes of reasoning:

  • Overgeneralization. We extrapolate what we know to what we don’t. e.g. all 65 moons in the solar system are not like our moon. Or the other planets. Or why people think season are due to closeness to the sun. One scientist calls the fundamental beliefs we develop phenomenological primitives, or p-prims, 105t. E.g. closer means stronger. Or dying away—why we think a rocket engine must keep firing through space. Most people assume newly discovered planets are similar to earth. Or how we attribute to others our own motivation.
  • Uniqueness. People commonly believe what they know of personally must be unique, p107.
  • Permanence. That things will last forever. But none of these are: comets; the earth, moon, and sun; constellations.
  • Patterns. We find them even when they don’t exist. Lines and circles; shapes in the sky; cause and effect. But there are many situations where cause and effect are not so obvious.
  • We tend to choose the first explanation that comes to mind. E.g. that idea about seasons; others 112b.
  • Incorrect and incomplete reasoning. Incorrect logic. E.g. what hasn’t been proven false must be true.
  • Incomplete reasoning. E.g. direction of force of friction.
  • Animating, anthropomorphizing, p117. [[ie attributing agency]] Worshiping the sun. children pretend their toys are alive. Cars, computers. Words like want, need, feel. Life-cycle as applied to stars. And how we need to know ‘why’ something happens. “…but if we give anthropomorphic or theistic explanations of natural events, we obscure our understanding of nature” p120 – this is as close as he gets to undermining the idea of gods.

Ch4, Survival in a Misperceived World: how well did our ancestors do without understanding nature?

Nothing science fiction writers have come up with is as strange as what we’ve learned about how nature actually works. (another dig!)

Science is socially acceptable but unnatural; it only developed in the last 800 years. This is clear to students faced with daunting math and physics. Words used loosely have specific meanings in science. Yet science is more accurate than common sense.

How our ancestors survived: consider their health. We now know about bacteria and other organisms invisible to the naked eye. But they didn’t: infections had serious consequences: ear infections could lead to deafness; strep throat; conjunctivitis, etc. Willow bark gave way to aspirin, but only since 1899. And now we have vaccines, for many things, 132b. Examples of tetanus and polio; how behavior and dress at certain times of year have changed.

Furthermore, as cities grew people were exposed to dirt and pollution. Lead in ancient Rome. Smoke and soot from burning fuels. Car exhaust, until catalytic converters. Before cars, horse manure. Epidemics were easily spread.

Science and quality of life: speed. The nostalgic old days never existed, except perhaps for the upper classes. “we are in a period of unprecedented transition” 138b. And it will continue. The internet, but be careful.

Science is alien to most people, but it’s impersonal, it builds consensus.

Why do we have common sense and not scientific sense? Author recalls trying to reconcile this with his early belief in a higher power. Answer: we evolved to survive, 140b. Not because of any intention. To survive, our response to stimuli must be fast. Fight or flight; falling out of trees. Using our senses. If something worked, we stuck with it; no need for experimentation. That arose later.

With science we’ve acquired a great body of knowledge that we use to create things. If only by a few people. The reason it’s good to learn more science is to be able to respond to issues like global warming, and beware ‘gut’ feelings.

[[ Answer: They didn’t do very well. That’s part of it; the other part is surviving in the ancient environment was relatively simple… ]]

Ch5, Breaking Up Is Hard to Do: misconceptions are hard to replace

There are lots of beliefs about the effects of the full moon. Some studies show correlations, more thorough studies do not. Humans are poor at statistics. Example of hospital mortality rates. Despite which, beliefs about the moon endure. Confirmation bias, 147b.

Also, people believe the moon looks bigger when near the horizon. Easily shown to be false. Perhaps because we perceive the sky overhead as being closer than the horizon.

We can study how the brain works. Information isn’t stored as it is in computers. We make associations and connections. These are reasons why it’s difficult to change our beliefs.

Emotional ties: to possessions, to beliefs. Do blind taste tests—better yet, double blind.

Effects of new ideas.  Much new information doesn’t affect our beliefs. Ideas that are used in other contexts are hard to replace. Examples about life on Mars.

Strength of evidence against our beliefs. Extreme example: the death of loved one. Or: history of beliefs about the size and fate of the universe. Early on: everything revolved around the earth. In circles because circles are perfect. But observations required refinements: epicycles. First revolution: Copernicus’ sun-centered universe. Galileo discovered four moons of Jupiter: so everything did not orbit the earth. The Church banned his book, of course. Then Kepler realized the orbits were ellipses. His three laws of motion. Why ellipses? Newton, 1687. Why didn’t gravity collapse everything together? He proposed, because the universe is infinite, and God kept the balance. His law of gravitation seemed to work. Then Einstein, 1915. Then Hubble, 1929. The expanding universe. Typically, those uncomfortable with the idea proposed other explanations (tired photos) but none has stood up.

And then steady state vs. big bang. Big bang required believing the universe was once very small, and that it began at some fixed time in the past. Yet, such ideas were still intolerable to many people; and so models of oscillating universes… unless observations show it will expand forever.

[[ This series of beliefs is probably the best example of how science has refined our beliefs in things, and how resistors have appealed to the ancients and to religious authority to resist such refinements. ]]

A personal cosmology: as a child author imagined that eventually humans would learn everything, and then have nothing new to learn or do. A big crunch would avoid that: our descendants could help determine new laws for the next universe. A very anthropocentric view. Author’s preference for this notion affected his reactions to changing evidence… until 1998, when he realized he didn’t ‘need’ to believe one thing or another. Still confident that some scientific mechanism for the creation of the universe will be discovered.

Ch6, The Sage on the Stage or the Guide by Your Side: a peek behind the effort to help you unlearn misconceptions

When author started teaching, he was confident that capable students would comprehend clear explanations… But students are not blank slates; they come with prior beliefs. There are no easy ways to help people unlearn deep-seated incorrect beliefs…

[[ This parallels the realization that you can’t change people’s understanding of an issue by explaining the evidence. You can’t change people’s minds, mostly. ]]

Two basic ways: first we identify the incorrect belief; then compare to how nature actually works. In one method the teacher guides the student in experiment; in the other, the teacher aggressively confronts the incorrect belief with irrefutable arguments and experiments. The former may work best for some students, but takes more time; so the usual method is conventional teaching.

About his personal teaching efforts. Show, don’t tell. He asks his students for misconceptions his class corrected for them. (current link to these is ). He heard about the death of Wm J Kaufmann and asked to revise his textbook with examples of misconceptions. He makes efforts to ensure attendance—by giving them small assignments at the end of each class that they have to turn in. List of topics, p178. Results of answers to questions from beginning to end of semester, p180ff. Comments from students. Hands-on demos help. Careful not to make students defensive about their current beliefs. E.g., exploring reasons why Saturn’s rings aren’t solid.

Some people try to reconcile earlier beliefs with new beliefs, e.g. children told the earth is round.

Example of student who said she wasn’t really interested in astronomy. Despite which, she scored highest in class—because she had the fewest misconceptions to overcome.

Ch7, Let the Buyer Beware: how to avoid future misconceptions.

Beware claims in advertising. “Studies show…” Use of certain words is glib. What studies? Some people react against ‘critical thinking’ because they think it’s negative, finding fault with things. Guidelines for critical thinking:

    • Don’t rely on unrepresentative or incomplete data. E.g. biased ‘studies’. Knowing one is in a study affects results.
    • Question authority. Beware grade-school teachers, news broadcasters, politicians.
    • Consensus of expert option should be considered correct until shown to be otherwise. Experts are trained, subject to peer review, etc. What if experts disagree? Probably wait until a consensus emerges. E.g. issues about neutrinos. Minority viewpoints often lead to nonscientific beliefs—cold fusion. And experts in one field aren’t experts in others.
    • Don’t rely on the words of the ancients. The ancient philosophers speculated without evidence.
    • Traditions and traditional beliefs are insufficient justification for believing something is true. Tradition without evidence may just be wishful thinking.
    • Consider the arguments rather than the person providing the information. E.g., don’t reject evidence from Soviet scientists. And Newton was a nasty person.
    • Use Occam’s razor whenever you have two competing explanations. Example of pulsars—evidence of ETs?
    • Questions assumptions. E.g. about the formation of life.
    • Be sure that the logic you use is correct. E.g. post hoc ergo propter hoc, cart before the horse.
    • Just because something is logically possible doesn’t mean it necessarily occurs.
    • Just because something is physically possible doesn’t mean it necessarily occurs.
    • Just because something hasn’t been disproven doesn’t mean it’s correct…and vice versa.
    • Be wary of common sense and intuition when applied to scientific matters. E.g. common sense that the earth was the center of the universe. Beware plausibility, intuition.
    • Don’t find patterns where they don’t exist, don’t overgeneralize, and be wary of analogies. We see many patterns where they don’t exist, because evolution. Markings in stones.
    • Identity and investigate the core issues. A car’s color isn’t relevant. Don’t confuse scientific and engineering issues.
    • Develop intellectual humility. Admit not knowing or understanding something.
    • Be sure you have the correct definitions. Don’t be shy about asking for clarifications.
    • In science at least, the truth is not necessarily the opinion of the majority. Scientific conclusions are subject to change with new evidence.
    • If you have good reasons to believe certain concepts and a new idea conflicts with those concepts, then you have reason to doubt the new idea. E.g. new diets; new methods of teaching.
    • Keep an open mind when conflicting ideas exist, but no so open that your brain falls out. Example about ozone layer.
    • Learn not to defend a belief farther than the evidence justifies. Be aware if your ego is involved. E.g. how life might have formed, vs your belief in God’s action.

Ch8, Conflicts and Dangers: the problems that misconceptions create

Many people have unscientific beliefs about aliens, time travel, astrology, angels, ghosts, demons, creationism, telepathy, ESP, magic, etc 216t. But are such beliefs harmful? Look at two examples.

Aliens on earth. Consider what needs to be true for them to have traveled so far. And why? Are they hiding? Do you worry that people you meet are actually aliens? This leads to a sort of paranoia. And what are the implications for evolution? Or did God do it?

Homeopathic medicine. In such cases we waste money and endanger lives. The consensus on homeopathic products is that any positive results are due to the placebo effect.

Antiscience. Such beliefs can lead to prejudice against actual science—misunderstanding, refusing to change personal beliefs, considering science a monolithic organization out to crush opposition; thinking it dehumanizing; blaming science fiction problems like nuclear accidents.

Example of believer in steady state theory on various personal grounds. His notions of singularity were incorrect.

Personal science. Blaming science for nuclear bombs, say, presumes that scientists knew in advance what the consequences would be. In fact once the bombs were dropped many scientists lobbied against them.

The scientific process. Most people don’t understand how science works. It’s not about knowledge that is sacrosanct. It’s not about proving theories true. Theories can always be disproven. And theory in science means more than just some notion or guess. Theories explain observations and make predictions. Further, scientific knowledge is rarely kept from the public; anyone can participate. Finally, there is no one scientific personality.

And yet, some people wall off new beliefs from old ones.

Epilogue: false personal cosmologies

Beliefs about big-ticket issues generally form in our teens. These are personal cosmologies, often shaped by religion. Some fundamentalists taking author’s class learn what he says to take tests then promptly forget it. Sometimes they were angry—at the author, or at the religious authorities who made them believe things they came to believe were false.

Most personal cosmologies are filled with misconceptions. Unlike religion, science helps you sort out plausible from implausible. It’s never complete, and parts may change, but the reward is intellectual freedom.


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