Citizen Science Musings: The Downside of Intuition

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By Sheldon Greaves

Roger Bacon (c. 1214–1294). Image: Wikipedia media commons.

One of the things about the history of science that has always puzzled me is the development of the scientific method. The rise of something close to modern science starts with Aristotle, who broke with his teacher Plato and argued that the best way to understand the world was not to sit and speculate about it, but to go out and actually observe what was going on. This is a point too often glossed over by moderns who like to pick on Aristotle, who actually got a lot of things right, in spite of his mistakes.

The real breakthrough in the scientific method, we are told, comes when Roger Bacon, a Franciscan Friar, first articulates a cycle of observation, hypothesis, and experimental science. Bacon spelled this out in his Opus Tertium, which he wrote on commission for Pope Clement IV in 1265-66. Going back to the Greeks and Romans, one hears criticisms that their work was hampered because they never came up with the idea of experimental science. When I hear or read such things, there is the sense that had they been smarter, they would have come up with the idea.

But consider, that if the idea of controlled experiments was so obvious, why did it take roughly 1,600 year for someone to come up with it? Aristotle died around 322 BCE so Bacon's work comes nearly sixteen centuries later. To me, that indicates that the ideas behind experimental science are not nearly as obvious as we tend to think.

Now, a new study lends weight to the idea that our intuitions contain hard-wired programming about the world that does not necessarily reflect reality. The question revolved around polls of Americans about their views on certain scientific facts, and how some scientific ideas have not penetrated into the general populace as easily as others. I would argue that a first-order solution to this question involves cultural factors, but further investigation led by Andrew Shtulman at Occidental College revealed some new insights into the role our intuition plays when grappling with experimentally confirmed science:

To document the tension between new scientific concepts and our pre-scientific hunches, Shtulman invented a simple test. He asked a hundred and fifty college undergraduates who had taken multiple college-level science and math classes to read several hundred scientific statements. The students were asked to assess the truth of these statements as quickly as possible.

To make things interesting, Shtulman gave the students statements that were both intuitively and factually true (“The moon revolves around the Earth”) and statements whose scientific truth contradicts our intuitions (“The Earth revolves around the sun”).

As expected, it took students much longer to assess the veracity of true scientific statements that cut against our instincts. In every scientific category, from evolution to astronomy to thermodynamics, students paused before agreeing that the earth revolves around the sun, or that pressure produces heat, or that air is composed of matter. Although we know these things are true, we have to push back against our instincts, which leads to a measurable delay.

What’s surprising about these results is that even after we internalize a scientific concept—the vast majority of adults now acknowledge the Copernican truth that the earth is not the center of the universe—that primal belief lingers in the mind. We never fully unlearn our mistaken intuitions about the world. We just learn to ignore them.

Shtulman and colleagues summarize their findings:

When students learn scientific theories that conflict with earlier, naïve theories, what happens to the earlier theories? Our findings suggest that naïve theories are suppressed by scientific theories but not supplanted by them.

The bottom line is that we never really lose our intuitive sense of how the world works. So it is easy to understand one might hesitate about questions regarding the moon revolving around the Earth. In the case of Evolution, I would argue that much more than mere intuition is going on here. A lot of cultural and social pressures are in play over that particular idea, much of it brimming with emotional content. I know of no such current debates over the relative dispositions and movements of the sun, moon, and Earth.

But this does go a long way toward explaining why it took so very long for the scientific method to develop that step from observing the world, to testing the world directly.

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My thanks to David Phillips for bringing this study to my attention.

This entry was posted in Experimentation, History of Science, Measurement, Observation, Psychology. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Citizen Science Musings: The Downside of Intuition

  1. There is no fixed definition of the “scientific method,” as nicely explained in an article for the National Science Teachers Association a decade or more ago. Experimental scientists in biology, Earth science, chemistry, physics and other fields may follow very different experimental protocols. Then there’s theoretical science and its range of methodologies. As for Darwinian evolution, the glossy textbooks and videos all too often gloss over enormous knowledge gaps, including the spotty evidence for the evolution of information and the microminiature machinery inside living cells. Too often the advocates of this and other paradigms resort to criticizing the questioner rather than addressing the question.

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