Naïve theories are suppressed by scientific theories but not supplanted by them

We read a fair bit of current science most days, then are a bit shaken by our lack of progress in educating the broad population. This New Yorker piece looks at some of the work attempting to account for our failure:

Last week, Gallup announced the results of their latest survey on Americans and evolution. The numbers were a stark blow to high-school science teachers everywhere: forty-six per cent of adults said they believed that “God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years.” Only fifteen per cent agreed with the statement that humans had evolved without the guidance of a divine power.

What’s most remarkable about these numbers is their stability: these percentages have remained virtually unchanged since Gallup began asking the question, thirty years ago. In 1982, forty-four per cent of Americans held strictly creationist views, a statistically insignificant difference from 2012. Furthermore, the percentage of Americans that believe in biological evolution has only increased by four percentage points over the last twenty years.

Such poll data raises questions: 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 view. Rather, we come equipped with all sorts of naïve 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.

Read the whole thing.

One thought on “Naïve theories are suppressed by scientific theories but not supplanted by them

  1. Frank Eggers

    There’s one factor that has not been considered.

    It is widely believed that a belief in evolution is incompatible with a belief in God. Actually, there are many religious people who believe in both evolution and God. Perhaps we need to make it clear to people how that is possible; doing so would make them less likely to reject evolution.

    The article asserted that the fact that two objects of unlike weight will fall at the same rate is counterintuitive may be correct, but there is a common sense way to explain it. Suppose that two identical cannon balls, connected together with a long string, are dropped together. Obviously they will land at the same time. Suppose that we repeat the experiment several times, each time making the string shorter. What logical reason is there to believe that they will fall faster as the string is made shorter, even when the string becomes so short that the two cannon balls become one object? Using that approach, and perhaps expanding upon it, should make it obvious, without actually performing the experiment, that weight would have no effect on falling speed, assuming that air resistance is negligible.

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