# Anonymous_Coward comments on Fake Explanations

• Well, one differ­ence be­tween “heat con­duc­tion” and “phlo­gis­ton” is that the former car­ries some ad­di­tional in­for­ma­tion with it—heat con­duc­tion is a well-un­der­stood mechanism by which en­ergy is trans­ferred from place to place. Maybe it does ap­ply in that situ­a­tion and maybe it doesn’t—in the ex­am­ple given, it doesn’t, there’s no heat-con­duc­tion mechanism to trans­fer heat from one side to the other—but the fact that there’s ac­tu­ally a mechanism be­hind the words sep­a­rates it, qual­i­ta­tively, from an ex­pla­na­tion like “phlo­gis­ton.” It has equa­tions be­hind it which can then be writ­ten down and tested for agree­ment with re­al­ity.

Really, I can quite un­der­stand the stu­dents… if you say “I don’t know” you have a zero per­cent chance of get­ting the ex­pla­na­tion right. If you say “that seems im­pos­si­ble,” then you’re guaran­teed to get it 100% wrong—since it DID hap­pen, and thus it must be pos­si­ble. The best course of ac­tion in the situ­a­tion is to think of all the hy­pothe­ses you can, and then guess at one of them—whichever one has the high­est chance of be­ing right, given what they know about physics.

Now, I cer­tainly hope that the stu­dents wouldn’t think that by throw­ing around guesses they’re “do­ing physics”—yes, do­ing physics would in­volve tak­ing ac­tual mea­sure­ments, and I would hope that af­ter tak­ing some mea­sure­ments of the block over time they would see “oh, this isn’t ac­tu­ally at equil­ibrium like we had all as­sumed.” (Alter­na­tively, if a stu­dent took the words and wrote down an ac­tual model of how the air cur­rents or the differ­ent met­als or the heat con­duc­tion could lead to the ob­ser­va­tions, that would also be “do­ing physics”, though the only end re­sult of it would be to yield a math­e­mat­i­cal model which would quickly be easy to proven false by mea­sure­ments or sta­bil­ity anal­y­sis.) But nei­ther of those av­enues is open to them when they walk into a class­room and the teacher asks them to “ex­plain this phe­nomenon.”

I think the stu­dents would quite hap­pily agree that they haven’t given an ex­pla­na­tion which is good by any sane mea­sure—it’s quite likely that many of them would also agree that they don’t ac­tu­ally be­lieve their ex­pla­na­tions. But I wouldn’t agree that they’re be­ing ir­ra­tional in stat­ing them.

• Every­one agrees that the physics stu­dents are just do­ing what they’ve been in­cen­tivized to do in class af­ter class. It’s just worth point­ing out that the be­hav­ior they’ve been trained to do is not at all like do­ing sci­ence, and that no­body seems to know or worry about this.

• “Eh, maybe be­cause of the heat con­duc­tion and so?”

should give you at least 13 of a point, af­ter all, one side of the plate is hot :)

• This is ex­actly the sort of mis­take that Guess­ing the Teacher’s Pass­word was writ­ten to dis­abuse. The an­swer demon­strates no un­der­stand­ing of the phe­nomenon.

• Upvoted. Heat con­duc­tion is in­volved in the true an­swer. The stu­dent has demon­strated that he at least knows where to start think­ing about the ques­tion. I’d have more re­spect for some­one who said ‘heat con­duc­tion’, or for that mat­ter ‘caloric flow’,and tried to work out how that might work than some­one who said ‘fairies’. Given that this is a ques­tion from a physics teacher, you’re not wrong to try to find physics ex­pla­na­tions be­fore you go to ‘trick­ery’, which is ex­actly the sort of ‘ex­plain ev­ery­thing’ hy­poth­e­sis that we’re ner­vous of.