Heavy boots

published Dec 15, 2011, last modified Jun 26, 2013

Idiocy is, after all, free. A story.

Reprinted from here.

About 6-7 years ago, I was in a philosophy class at the University of Wisconsin, Madison (good science/engineering school) and the teaching assistant was explaining Descartes.

He was trying to show how things don't always happen the way we think they will and explained that, while a pen always falls when you drop it on Earth, it would just float away if you let go of it on the Moon. My jaw dropped a little. I blurted "What?!" Looking around the room, I saw that only my friend Mark and one other student looked confused by the TA's statement. The other 17 people just looked at me like "What's your problem?" "But a pen would fall if you dropped it on the Moon, just more slowly." I protested.

"No it wouldn't." the TA explained calmly, "because you're too far away from the Earth's gravity." Think. Think. Aha! "You saw the APOLLO astronauts walking around on the Moon, didn't you?"

I countered, "why didn't they float away?"

"Because they were wearing heavy boots." he responded, as if this made perfect sense (remember, this is a Philosophy TA who's had plenty of logic classes). By then I realized that we were each living in totally different worlds, and did not speak each others language, so I gave up.

As we left the room, my friend Mark was raging. "My God! How can all those people be so stupid?" I tried to be understanding. "Mark, they knew this stuff at one time, but it's not part of their basic view of the world, so they've forgotten it. Most people could probably make the same mistake."

To prove my point, we went back to our dorm room and began randomly selecting names from the campus phone book. We called about 30 people and asked each this question: 1

1. If you're standing on the Moon holding a pen, and you let go, will it
a) float away,
b) float where it is,
or c) fall to the ground?

About 47 percent got this question correct. Of the ones who got it wrong, we asked the obvious follow-up question:

2. You've seen films of the APOLLO astronauts walking around on the Moon, why didn't they fall off?

About 20 percent of the people changed their answer to the first question when they heard this one! But the most amazing part was that about half of them confidently answered, "Because they were wearing heavy boots."


I decided to settle this question once and for all. Therefore, I put two multiple choice questions on my Physics 111 test, after the study of elementary mechanics and gravity.

13. If you are standing on the Moon, and holding a rock, and you let it go, it will:
(a) float away
(b) float where it is
(c) move sideways
(d) fall to the ground
(e) none of the above

25. When the Apollo astronauts wre on the Moon, they did not fall off because:
(a) the Earth's gravity extends to the Moon
(b) the Moon has gravity
(c) they wore heavy boots
(d) they had safety ropes
(e) they had spiked shoes

The response showed some interesting patterns! The first question was generally of average difficulty, compared with the rest of the test: 57% got it right. The second question was easier: 73% got it right. So, we need more research to explain the people who got #25 right but did not get #13 right!

The second interesting point is that these questions proved to be excellent discriminators: that is, success on these two questions proved to be an extremely good predictor of overall success on the test. On the first question, 92% of those in the upper quarter of the test score got it right; only 20% of those in the bottom quarter did. They generally chose answers (a) or (b). On the second question, 97% in the upper quarter got it right and 33% in the lower quarter did. The big popular choice of this group was (c)...33% chose heavy boots, followed closely by safety ropes at 27%.

A telling comment on the issue of fairness in teaching elementary physics: Two students asked if I was going to continue asking them about things they had never studied in the class.

The conversation that ensued after reading this article



Nonporous suggests:

That was really interesting. So what do you think is the chief hurdle exactly? Is it that the free market is "not part of their basic view of the world, so they've forgotten it"?

It seems like the problem in that heavy boots situation is a desire to not be wrong. When I look at the list of cognitive biases I think it could be identified as anchoring or belief bias. Is this what you think is one of the chief hurdles?

derKapitalist responds:

Yes, that's exactly it. I might actually prefer the term "narrative" over "worldview", however. A worldview can be all-encompassing, whereas a narrative necessarily leaves things out. Stories skip around from scene to scene, but they're supposed to at least give you the important, necessary stuff so you can make logical sense of everything. And I mean that literally: you suppose that you have all necessary information. But what if you don't! How would you know the narrative you've been running with has been false all along? You'd need to encounter something which contradicts it.

Government schools give us all the narrative that government intervention into the market is a good thing. Teddy Roosevelt: trust-buster, the New Deal got us out of the Great Depression, etc. That narrative is internally logically consistent; to question it, you'd have to encounter evidence which you can see contradicts it, and how easy that is depends both on how hard you're looking and how readily available the contradictions are, i.e. how deeply they intervene in your life. SOPA intervenes in the lives of those who, till now, haven't looked. Whereas before they may've believed government intervention to generally be a good thing, they must now at the very least see that there are strong and notable exceptions, and this will force some of them to reconsider their previously held narrative, due to how deeply SOPA is capable of encroaching on their lives.

I don't mean this to sound like a condemnation of them, however. This happens to all of us. We all have our narratives, and necessarily so. Human beings can't parse every single bit of information that comes their way, so you leave some of it out and hope the puzzle pieces still fit. Why did it take us so long to come up with evolution, for example? All the information was there: animals breeding, changing from generation to generation. That's all you needed to notice. We selectively bred dogs for centuries without ever thinking about how that concept might apply on the macro scale. Why did this take so long to see? Why, because we already had a narrative that explained where animals came from: God created them as-is (and that's a very difficult narrative to falsify). So, obviously, we weren't about to look very hard.

Sorry for the length. As I said, I've been thinking about this a lot.