Misconceptions in Earth Science

This information is from papers presented at the AGI Red Lodge Writing conference, by William C. Philips.

Recent research in teaching and learning suggests that children may not merely lack knowledge about science phenomena, but may additionally have developed their own explanations for these events. Research further indicates that students cannot passively accept knowledge from an outside source. They must work with new ideas and construct their own understanding.

These new ideas may fit within students’ existing views, or may cause students to change their conceptions. Alternatively, students may misconstrue new information to fit their existing conceptions. These situations where a common-sense belief or prior conception competes with a scientifically accepted belief can be defined as misconceptions. The following list of Earth science misconceptions, compiled from surveys and misconception research, may provide a starting point for discovering and contending with student misconceptions.


Earth in Space

  • The Earth is sitting on something.
  • The Earth is larger than the sun.
  • The sun disappears at night.
  • The Earth is round like a pancake.
  • We live on a flat middle portion of a sphere.
  • There is a definite up and down in space.
  • Seasons are caused by the Earth's distance from the sun.
  • The phases of the moon are caused by a shadow from the Earth.
  • The sun goes around the Earth.
  • The sun will never burn out.
  • The sun is not a star.
  • The universe is static, not expanding.
  • The universe contains only the planets in our solar system.

Solid Earth

  • Mountains are rapidly created.
  • The soil we see today has always existed.
  • Rocks must be heavy.
  • The Earth is molten, except for its crust.
  • Gravity is selective; it acts differently or not at all on some matter.
  • Gravity increases with height.
  • Gravity can't exist without air.
  • Gravity requires a medium through which to act.
  • Earth's gravitational attraction is drastically reduced on mountain tops.
  • Continents do not move.
  • Radiation can be reduced by boiling.


  • Rain comes from holes in clouds.
  • Rain comes from clouds sweating.
  • Rain occurs because we need it.
  • Clouds move because we move.


  • Most rivers flow "down" from north to south.
  • Salt added to water doesn't change the weight of water.