A week or so ago, a recently-single friend of ours mentioned that the online dating site he's using asks some interesting questions. One of them is "Which is larger, the Sun or the Earth?" According to his research, 9 out of 10 people answering this question get it wrong. Wrong!
How can you get to be an adult in this country and not know that the Sun is the largest body in the solar system? Wouldn't you have encountered this information many times over the course of 12 years of school? Enough times to lodge that piece of information in your head?
In teaching geology, planetary geology, and meteorology, I've also come across some very consistent misinformation. For example:
Clouds are made of water vapor. Nooooo, they're made of water droplets. Given the high humidity (a measure of how much water vapor is in the air) we experience around here in the summer, we'd be living in a constant cloud if clouds were made of water vapor!
Seasons are caused by the changing distance between the Earth and Sun. Actually, the Earth is closer to the Sun in January than it is in July (and from where I'm sitting right now, that is NOT translating into much warmth!). Seasons don't have anything to do with actual distance from the Sun --instead they have to do with whether Earth's axis is tilted toward the Sun, or away from the Sun. That's why Australia has winter when we have summer and vice versa.
The lava feeding the volcanoes at the surface of the Earth comes from the core. No. The core of the Earth is metallic. If lava was coming from the core, we'd have continents made of metal, rather than rock. An interesting thought, really.
The ozone hole and global warming are the same thing. It's funny, really, how incredibly mixed up people are on these two topics. I've had students tell me that the warming of the Earth is causing the increase in greenhouse gases (I know --what?!), which is then destroying the ozone layer. Gah! Sometimes I don't even know where to start. And this is after they've read the textbook and heard the lecture.
These strongly held misconceptions drive me nuts through each semester, but I acknowledge that these may be concepts students haven't encountered in detail before they reach my class. However that size difference between the Sun and Earth question? In my circle of friends, we all agree that a wrong answer on that one is grounds for immediate disqualification as a human.