The philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) offers an intriguing system for classifying misconceptions (or ‘fallacies’ as he terms them) that could be useful for teachers in understanding many of the misconceptions and preconceptions that our students hold.
My own thoughts on this issue have been profoundly shaped by the ‘Resources Framework‘ as presented by authors such as Andrea di Sessa, David Hammer, Edward Redish and others. What follows is not a rejection of this approach but rather an exploration of whether Mill’s work offers some relevant insights. My thought is that it quite possibly might; after all, it has happened before . . .
The authors, however, did not use or refer to Mill’s system of logic in developing the programs or in formulating their theory of instruction. They didn’t discover parallels between their theory of instruction and Mill’s logic until after they had finished writing the bulk of ‘Theory of Instruction’. The discovery occurred when they were writing a chapter on theoretical issues. In their search for literature relevant to their philosophical orientation, they came across Mill’s work and were shocked to discover that they had independently identified all the major patterns that Mill had articulated. ‘Theory of Instruction’ (1982) even had parallel principles to the methods in ‘A System of Logic’ (1843)Engelmann and Carnine 2013: Chapter 2
Mill’s system for classifying fallacies
In A System of Logic (1843), Mill argues that
Indifference to truth can not, in and by itself, produce erroneous belief; it operates by preventing the mind from collecting the proper evidences, or from applying to them the test of a legitimate and rigid induction; by which omission it is exposed unprotected to the influence of any species of apparent evidence which offers itself spontaneously, or which is elicited by that smaller quantity of trouble which the mind may be willing to take.Mill 1843: Book V Chap 1
Mill is saying that we don’t believe false things because we want to, but because there are mechanisms preventing our minds from duly noting and weighing the myriad evidences from which we construct our beliefs about the world by the process of induction.
He suggests that there are five major classes of fallacies:
- A priori fallacies;
- Fallacies of observation;
- Fallacies of generalisation;
- Fallacies of ratiocination; and
- Fallacies of confusion
Erroneous arguments do not admit of such a sharply cut division as valid arguments do. An argument fully stated, with all its steps distinctly set out, in language not susceptible of misunderstanding, must, if it be erroneous, be so in some one of these five modes unequivocally; or indeed of the first four, since the fifth, on such a supposition, would vanish. But it is not in the nature of bad reasoning to express itself thus unambiguously.Mill 1843: Book V Chap 1
Mill is saying that invalid inferences, by their very nature, are ‘messier’ and harder to classify than correct inferences. However, they must all fit into the five categories outlined above. Actually, they are more likely to fit into the first four categories since clear and unambiguous use of language and terms would tend to eliminate fallacies of confusion as a matter of course.
What is an a priori fallacy?
In philosophy, a priori means knowledge derived from theoretical deduction rather than from empirical observation or experience.
Mill says that a priori fallacies (which he also calls fallacies of simple observation) are
those in which no actual inference takes place at all; the proposition (it cannot in such cases be called a conclusion) being embraced, not as proved, but as requiring no proof; as a self-evident truth.Mill 1843: Book V Chap 3
In other words, an a priori fallacy is an idea whose truth is accepted on its face value alone; no evidence or justification of its truth is needed. An example from physics education might be ideas such as ‘heavy objects fall’ or ‘wood floats’. Some students accept these as obvious and self-evident truths: there is no need to consider ideas such as weight and resultant force or density and upthrust because these are ‘brute facts’ about the world that admit of no further explanation. This a case of mislabelling subjective facts as objective facts.
Falling is a location-specific behaviour: objects on Earth will indeed tend to accelerate downwards towards the centre of the Earth: this is a subjective fact which is dependent on the location of the object rather than an objective fact about the behaviour of all objects everywhere (although we could, of course, argue that falling is indeed an objective fact about objects which are subject to the influence of gravitational fields). Equally, floating is not a phenomenon restricted to the interaction between wood and water: many woods will sink in low density oils. ‘Wood floats‘ is not an objective fact about the universe but rather a subjective fact about the interaction of wood with a certain liquid.
This may be why some students are incurious about certain phenomena because they regard them as trivial and obvious rather than manifestations of the inner workings of the universe.
Mill lists many other examples of the a priori fallacy, but his examples are drawn from the history of science and philosophy, and so are of less direct relevance to the science classroom, with the possible exception of the two following examples:
Humans tend to default to the assumption that any phenomenon must necessarily have only a single cause; in other words, we assume that a multiplicity of causes is impossible. We are protected from this version of the a priori fallacy by the guard rail of the scientific method. For a complete understanding of a phenomenon, we look at the effect of one independent variable at a time whilst controlling other possible variables.
There remains one a priori fallacy or natural prejudice, the most deeply-rooted, perhaps, of all which we have enumerated; one which not only reigned supreme in the ancient world, but still possesses almost undisputed dominion over many of the most cultivated minds … This is, that the conditions of a phenomenon must, or at least probably will, resemble the phenomenon itself … the natural prejudice which led people to assimilate the action of bodies upon our senses, and through them upon our minds, to the transfer of a given form from one object to another by actual moulding.Mill 1843: Book V Chap 3
I think that this tendency might be the one in play with the difficulties that many students have with understanding how images are formed: they think that an image is an evanescent ‘clone’ of the object that is being imaged rather than being an artefact of the light rays reflected or emitted from the object. This also might help explain why students find explaining the colour changes produced by looking at an object through a colour filter or illuminating it with coloured light difficult: they assume that colour is an essential unalterable property that adheres to the object and cannot be changed without changing the object.
We’ll continue this exploration of Mill’s classification of misconceptions in later posts.
Engelmann, S., & Carnine, D. (2013). Could John Stuart Mill Have Saved Our Schools? Attainment Company, Inc.
Mill, J. S. (1843). A System of Logic. Collected Works.