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UC Berkeley professors correct our most common misconceptions

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NOVEMBER 04, 2015

With such an overwhelming array of departments on campus, it’s no surprise that false information has circulated about practically every single one of them. Here are UC Berkeley professors and experts from 10 different fields of study debunking common myths they’ve heard about their disciplines.



Illustration by William Pan / Staff

According to Emily Thornbury, a UC Berkeley associate professor of English, one of the most widespread misconceptions about her field is that “Old English is the same as old English.” In fact, the period technically defined as Old English dates so far back into the past that very few texts from that period are even read by contemporary audiences.

In contrast, William Shakespeare’s English of the late 16th and early 17th century — while striking present-day students as quite old — is actually classified as Early Modern English. Even the language that Geoffrey Chaucer spoke in the late 14th century is Middle English, not Old English.

“People usually call the language Old English up to 1100 or 1150, Middle English from then up to about 1500 or 1550, and Early Modern English from then to about 1700, after which it’s just modern English,” Thornbury said. “There are real differences between the languages of the works from various time periods, although these differences are rather fuzzy at the boundary points. As you can imagine, people didn’t just suddenly stop speaking Middle English one day.”



Illustration by Lauren Glasby / Staff

In the astronomy department, one common misunderstanding — as well as a frequently missed test question — is the process behind the progression of the seasons.

“Many people think that the seasons are caused by Earth’s changing distance from the Sun,” said campus astronomy professor Alex Filippenko, who added that a possible reason for this misconception is that Earth’s orbit is, indeed, elliptical and not perfectly circular. “But if you think about it, that wouldn’t explain why seasons are opposite in the Southern Hemisphere or why summer days are long and winter days are short.”

Filippenko explained that the seasons are actually a product of the fact that Earth’s axis of rotation has a tilt of 23.5 degrees relative to its orbital plane. This means that in Berkeley, the long days of summer occur when the Northern Hemisphere is tilted toward the Sun, even if Earth is at the farthest point in its orbit.

In addition to accounting for this seasonal change in the amount of daylight hours, the tilt of the Earth also affects the position of the Sun in the sky throughout the year. This positional change, in turn, leads to the temperature fluctuations we associate with the seasons.

“The Sun appears high in the sky (during summer), so a given beam of sunlight illuminates a smaller area on Earth, thereby heating it more than in winter, when the Sun is low in the sky,” Filippenko said.

Notably, the seasons are not affected by the difference in distances from the Sun to each hemisphere created by the Earth’s tilt, which is another confusion Filippenko has noticed. He emphasized that this difference is “insignificant” in relation to the Earth’s average distance from the Sun.


Media Studies

Illustration by Crystal Zhong / Staff

Bill Turner, a UC Berkeley media studies lecturer, challenged the popular opinion that ordinary citizens do not have access to the special privileges the media enjoy.

“The First Amendment explicitly protects freedom of the ‘press,’ but the Supreme Court has never given this independent significance,” Turner said. “Indeed, the Court has refused to give reporters any (special) right of access to government facilities or information.”

Turner added that in the modern age especially, it is extremely difficult to distinguish between the general public and a specified press that represents what we would traditionally refer to as “the media,” because “we all can use digital media to publish.”



Infographic by Danielle Sundell / Senior Staff

According to Cristina Banks, a senior lecturer at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, one myth that persists in the business world is that engaging and low-stress workplaces prevent workers from being productive. In reality, Banks said, providing such workspaces has the opposite effect.

“Business executives believe that giving their employees comfortable, pleasing, sociable and nature-enhanced workspaces will lower their productivity because they will get distracted and a bit too comfortable,” Banks said. “On the contrary, employees in such workspaces are more productive because they are less stressed, less fatigued, more engaged and more socially satisfied.”

Banks added that a possible reason for today’s preponderance of unpleasant, stressful work environments is that these environments do initially get results.

“Companies employing high-stress, highly competitive and high-work-demand strategies get productivity in the short term,” Banks said. “But burning people out quickly results in lost productivity due to depression, exhaustion and sleep deprivation, which creates conditions for a revolving door of workers coming in and out of that workplace.”


Gender and Women’s Studies

Illustration by Julie Liu / Staff

A major misconception about gender and women’s studies, according to the department’s chair, Charis Thompson, is that the field “is only for people who identify as women.”

While a large component of gender and women’s studies, as the name itself recognizes, is dedicated to researching and analyzing the struggle for women’s rights, Thompson said, both men and women are affected by the progress of women and the role of gender in society.

Gender is a system we all live within,” Thompson said. “Understanding and changing hierarchies in which gender and sexuality play a part requires the participation of everyone, including straight white men.


Canadian Studies

Infographic by Alexandra Yoon-Hendricks / Senior Staff

Many Americans have a somewhat stereotypical image of what a Canadian looks like, but according to Irene Bloemraad, the chair of the Canadian studies department on campus, there is no such thing as a typical resident of Canada.

Americans, at times, have the impression that Canada’s population is not very diverse,” Bloemraad said. “Yet the proportion of immigrants in Canada’s population is much higher than in the United States.”

According to Bloemraad, one in five Canadians were not born in Canada, whereas just 13 percent of Americans were born outside the United States. She noted, however, that while the Asian and aboriginal populations are relatively larger in Canada than in the United States, the United States has a higher percentage of blacks and Hispanics than does its neighbor to the north.



Illustration by Emily Robinson / Senior Staff

Charles Briggs, the chair of UC Berkeley’s folklore department, said folklorists themselves are “responsible for the misconceptions about their field,” one of which being that folklore is composed only of old legends and stories. In essence, Briggs said, folklorists have historically attempted to make folklore a unifying cultural force by framing it “as what people had in common in the narrative past.”

“Then it got worse in the 19th century with the (Western) romantic nationalist movement, because people said, ‘All right, if we want to have a nation state, we need a nation,’ ” Briggs said. “And what makes a nation but a common cultural background? And what is the quintessence of a common cultural background? Folklore.”

Briggs said that for 300 years, the dominant view about folklore has been that it is “always dying off, just about to disappear.” According to Briggs, however, folklore is constantly evolving and is still very much alive today.

“The old conception of folklore is that it’s face-to-face oral communication between either two people or a very small group,” Briggs said. “Today, most folklore is not face to face at all but is circulated digitally.”

Briggs added that modern folklore can be transmitted through websites, social media and even memes.


African American Studies

Illustration by Anna Sapozhnikov / Staff

Darieck Scott, a UC Berkeley associate professor of African American studies, said the misconception at the root of his field is the belief that there has always been a type of natural distinction made between white and black people.

“Prior to 1492, there was no category of ‘black,’ and there wasn’t one that had to do with whiteness, either,” Scott said. ‘There is no natural category for these things.”

Scott added that the concept of race is “a fairly recent development” and that “it’s not external” to the human condition.



Illustration by Willow Yang / Staff

According to campus history professor John Connelly, most Americans mistakenly believe that the capitalist Western powers of the United States and the United Kingdom “defeated Nazi Germany almost single-handedly” during World War II, while the USSR was a failure during the war because of its practice of communism.

In fact, the war did not embody a triumph of capitalism over other ideologies, as communist forces played a major and perhaps decisive role in the Allied victory over Germany, according to Connelly.

“(Americans) are surprised to learn that the armed forces of the communist USSR  broke the back of Nazi Germany, one of the most powerful and destructive capitalist states that ever existed,” Connelly said.


Peace and Conflict Studies

Illustration by Emily Robinson / Senior Staff

According to Darren Zook, a campus lecturer of international and area studies, people often misrepresent peace and conflict studies as an idealistic department that always opposes war without considering the complicated factors at play.

“Perhaps the biggest misconception about PACS is that it is a department of peace advocacy,” Zook said. “That’s an odd thing to have to explain, because no department, not even the Military Affairs Program, advocates war. But there’s a lot of cultural and political baggage that sometimes distorts perceptions of PACS as a department of activists masquerading as academics.”

Zook said that PACS faculty conducts research in some of the most difficult conflict situations in the world in order to better understand the intricacies of these conflicts.

“There is an elegance and complexity to peace that many people do not quite grasp,” Zook said. “PACS as a field has endeavored to approach the elements of peace with the same level of academic acumen that any other department would use to approach the central elements of its own field of inquiry.”


Senior staff writer Alexandra Yoon-Hendricks and staff writers Maya Eliahou, Charles FisherAnderson Lanham, Ericka Shin and Daniella Wenger contributed to this story.

Contact Logan Goldberg at [email protected].

NOVEMBER 04, 2015