27 June 2012


Fact ~ "A recent Gallup poll found that 46 percent of adults said they believed that 'God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years'.  Only 15 percent agreed with the statement that human had evolved without the guidance of a divine power.  Remarkably, these percentages have remained virtually unchanged since Gallup began asking the question thirty years ago.

"What's going on?  Why are some scientific ideas hard to believe in?  What makes the human mind so resistant to certain kinds of facts, even when these facts are buttressed by vast amounts of evidence?  A new study in Cognition, led by Andrew Shtulman at Occidental College, helps explain the stubbornness of our ignorance.  As Shtulman notes, people are not blank slates, eager to assimilate the latest experiments into their world views.  Rather, we come equipped with all sorts of naive intuitions about the world, many of which are untrue.  For instance, people naturally believe that heat is a kind of substance, and that the sun revolves around the earth.  And then there's the irony of evolution ~ our views about our own development don't seem to be evolving.

"This means that science education is not simply a matter of learning new theories.  Rather, it also requires that students unlearn their instincts, shedding false beliefs the way a snake sheds its old skin."  ~  Jonah Lehrer in The New Yorker, Why We Don't Believe in Science.

Serendipitously, Lehrer's piece was published just a few weeks before a similar one by Anne Murphy Paul in Psychology Today, The Bigger Ball Drops Faster, and Other Myths of Physics.  What Lehrer calls instincts, Paul calls folk beliefs.  The mechanism and outcome are the same ~ "Students in conventional classrooms listen to the correct explanation, read it in a textbook, and may even produce it on an exam, but their bedrock assumptions remain untouched.  The problem with conventional science instruction, according to cognitive scientist Susan Carey, is that it assumes that its goal is to fill a gap in a student's knowledge ~ when really the issue 'is not what the student lacks, but what the student has, namely alternative conceptual frameworks for understanding the phenomena covered by the theories we are trying to teach'.  In order to persuade students to embrace new and more accurate ideas about how the world operates, science teachers need to find out which 'alternative conceptual frameworks (myths) they already hew to."

Paul goes on to describe several methods for coming to grips with folk beliefs, and for transcending our "stubborn resistance" to learning.  It turns out that the more time we spend learning, the better able we are to suppress inaccurate information.  Our reluctance, by the way, is not limited to the sciences.  "It takes mental strength and flexibility, for example, to let go of the syntax of our native tongue and adopt instead the patterns of a foreign language, or to set aside the attitudes of the present and imagine life from the perspective of historical figures.  We may never get rid of our inner ignoramus, but we can train it to stay quiet."

So what do you think?  Recall the "famous (and probably apocryphal) experiment performed by Galileo, in which he dropped cannonballs of different sizes from the tower of Pisa.  Galileo's metal balls all landed at exactly the same time ~ a refutation of Aristotle, who claimed that heavier objects fell faster."  Intuitively, we are all highly viscous, holding fast to folk beliefs without questioning them.  Are we as a culture, as a species, capable of stepping beyond intuition and embracing evidence?  Do you think a larger cannonball would hit the ground first?

Many of us are able to make that leap of imagination, or we would still be hunter-gatherers, or living in the Dark Ages.  It does seem, though, that just as many of us must be dragged kicking and screaming into the present as it actually exists .... not to mention into the future.  Small wonder, then, that we go through periods of extreme polarization within society, as we are doing now.  Sometimes progress prevails, sometimes resistance to change rules.  Given the heated debates going on in Congress, on social media, and among the electorate, during our current passage I'd say it could go either way.

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