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The Big Answer


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Scienceblind: Why Our Intuitive Theories About the World Are So Often Wrong

a book by Andrew Shtulman

(our site's book review)

We Must Dismantle Our Intuitive Theories and Rebuild Our Knowledge from Its Foundations, Scientifically

Humans are born to create theories about the world—unfortunately, they're usually wrong, and keep us from understanding the world as it really is. Associate Professor of Psychology and Cognitive Science at Occidental College, Andrew Shtulman helps us carve through our mental filters that distort our conceptions and perceptions.

Why do we catch colds? What causes seasons to change? And if you fire a bullet from a gun and drop one from your hand, which bullet hits the ground first? People almost always get these questions wrong. Worse, we regularly misconstrue fundamental qualities of the world around us. In Scienceblind: Why Our Intuitive Theories About the World Are So Often Wrong, cognitive and developmental psychologist Andrew Shtulman shows that the root of our misconceptions lies in the theories about the world we develop as children. They're not only wrong, they close our minds to ideas inconsistent with them, making us unable to learn science later in life.

If you fire a bullet from a horizontal gun in a vacuum and drop one from your hand in a vacuum, which bullet hits the ground first? Both hit simultaneously. Most people get this wrong.
If you fire a bullet from a horizontal gun in a vacuum and drop one from your hand in a vacuum, which bullet hits the ground first? Both hit simultaneously. Most people get this wrong.

So how do we get the world right? We must dismantle our intuitive theories and rebuild our knowledge from its foundations. The reward won't just be a truer picture of the world, but clearer solutions to many controversies—around vaccines, climate change, or evolution—that plague our politics today.

"A fascinating, empathetic book"—Wall Street Journal

"This timely, important, and well-crafted book by Shtulman voices a convincing and unsettling argument about the persistence of science denial that has even broader implications for the state of public discourse...[A] thoughtful analysis."—Publishers Weekly


The Human Mind Has Surely Not Evolved to Do Science

Rocket scientists are made, not born. It takes a lot of study and learning to become any kind of scientist, let alone a rocket scientist
Rocket scientists are made, not born. It takes a lot of study and learning to become any kind of scientist, let alone a rocket scientist

The human mind has surely not evolved to do science. Rocket scientists are made, not born. It takes a lot of study and learning to become any kind of scientist, let alone a rocket scientist. Andrew Shtulman explains in great detail and with a great sense of humor how we hold intuitive theories about the world that constitute formidable cognitive obstacles both in the history of science and science education. This book should be read by everyone who is involved with science. The problem with our intuitive childhood-evolved theories is that they feel very real, giving us false confidence about how much we really know. We will stubbornly deny evidence that contradicts these beliefs. In other words, we are denying science in favor of intuitive theories. The large-scale implications of science denial make this book unsettlingly timely and relevant; it reminds us to trust evidence over intuition. If it's not political ideology but rather cognitive errors that produce scientific illiteracy, then perhaps we can find ways to fix our mental glitches without wading into politics—the place where good intentions go to die.

The human mind has surely not evolved to do science—we must dismantle our intuitive theories and rebuild our knowledge from its foundations
The human mind has surely not evolved to do science—we must dismantle our intuitive theories and rebuild our knowledge from its foundations


We stubbornly deny evidence that contradicts our intuitive beliefs—in other words, we are denying science in favor of intuitive theories
We stubbornly deny evidence that contradicts our intuitive beliefs—in other words, we are denying science in favor of intuitive theories

The Earth is Spherical, Not Flat Like It Appears

The prototypical example of denying science in favor of intuitive theories and that underscores the point, is the earth being flat. Anyone can see it is flat by looking outdoors. It's flat, says our intuitive theories. But only locally—which is all we can really view. On a larger scale, it is a sphere, as our astronauts confirmed with snapshots from orbiters. The term flat-Earther is often used in a derogatory sense to mean anyone who holds ridiculously antiquated views. Interestingly, most scholars in the Middle Ages, including those read by Christopher Columbus, correctly maintained that the Earth was spherical. (Modern Flat Earthers, like other science-denying groups, are motivated by a paranoid distrust of established experts.)

The flat Earth model is an archaic conception of Earth's shape as a plane or disk. Many ancient cultures subscribed to a flat Earth cosmography. Aristotle provided evidence for the spherical shape of the Earth on empirical grounds by around 330 BC. Knowledge of the spherical Earth gradually began to spread beyond the Hellenistic world from then on. Theories espoused by modern flat Earth societies are commonly labeled pseudoscience. (Source: Flat Earth)

Flammarion
The Flammarion engraving of 1888 depicts a traveler who arrives at the edge of a flat Earth and sticks his head through the firmament

Electrons Can Actually Exist in Two Places at Once

Another prototypical example of denying science in favor of intuitive theories is the belief that things can only be in one place at a time—we intuitively know this positively and beyond doubt. Everyone knows this, and it is true for bigger things. But it is wrong for particles such as electrons. They can exist in two places at once and that is not merely a theoretical abstraction. It is a very real aspect of how the subatomic world works, and it has been experimentally confirmed many times over. Intuition seems sane and science fact seems insane in this example. Tell any kid—and most adults—that something can exist in two places at once and he'll tell you how stupid you are. He will—in 2017—accuse you of spewing alternative facts or fake news. Yet you are speaking truth. Scientists have their work cut out for them, convincing you that crazy things are true and intuitions about them are dead wrong.

Amazingly, Shaq is the fourth basketball-famous living human to espouse flat-Earth beliefs in recent weeks. After Irving asserted that our absolutely, positively round planet is just a stone pancake floating in space, fellow NBA stars Wilson Chandler and Draymond Green stepped up to voice their agreement
Amazingly, Shaq is the fourth basketball-famous living human to espouse flat-Earth beliefs in recent weeks. After Irving asserted that our absolutely, positively round planet is just a stone pancake floating in space, fellow NBA stars Wilson Chandler and Draymond Green stepped up to voice their agreement

Shtulman describes several intuitive theories of the physical world and several intuitive theories of the biological world that not only hobble our ability to learn science but also make us susceptible to scientific misconceptions, or in today's parlance, alternative facts about science. So these intuitions blind us to science. For example: "Amazingly, Shaq is the fourth basketball-famous living human to espouse flat-Earth beliefs in recent weeks. After Irving asserted that our absolutely, positively round planet is just a stone pancake floating in space, fellow NBA stars Wilson Chandler and Draymond Green stepped up to voice their agreement." (Source: There are now 4 NBA stars who claim to believe the Earth is flat, Adam Rosenberg, Mashable)

Half our population believes that humans are not responsible for climate change but they are wrong
Half our population believes that humans are not responsible for climate change but they are wrong

Half of Americans Choose to Believe That Climate Change Is Not Our Fault

"Consider these two widely endorsed misconceptions: that humans are not responsible for climate change (endorsed by around 50 percent of Americans) and that genetically modified foods are dangerous to eat (endorsed by around 60 percent of Americans). The first misconception is a byproduct of our intuitive theories of geology and the second is a byproduct of our intuitive theories of inheritance." (Source: In Public Understanding Of Science, Alternative Facts Are The Norm, Andrew Shtulman, NPR)

In spite of overwhelming scientific evidence, half of Americans choose to believe that climate change is not our fault
In spite of overwhelming scientific evidence, half of Americans choose to believe that climate change is not our fault

According to Shtulman, what is needed in science education is: "The most important thing is just for educators to point out the existence of intuitive theories. You devise activities that get students to articulate their intuitive theories. You set up some situation where you have them make predictions, predictions that you know are going to be based on intuition, and you know are going to be wrong. And then you show them that they’re wrong and then you get them to see the difference between their way of reasoning about the problem and the way that scientists reason about the problem, to try to highlight those discrepancies. The most important thing is just for educators to point out the existence of intuitive theories. You devise activities that get students to articulate their intuitive theories. You set up some situation where you have them make predictions, predictions that you know are going to be based on intuition, and you know are going to be wrong. And then you show them that they’re wrong and then you get them to see the difference between their way of reasoning about the problem and the way that scientists reason about the problem, to try to highlight those discrepancies." Our Intuitions About the World Are Usually Wrong, Thomas MacMillan, NY Magazine


Mental and Emotional Filters That Distort Our Conceptions and Perceptions

Shtulman helps us carve through our mental filters that distort our conceptions and perceptions, but these distortions don't end there. There are emotional filters as well. In Toward a Psychology of Being, we learn about deficiency cognition and being cognition. The former, deficiency cognition, refers to seeing through a filter of needs so you see what you need to see, which is the type of emotional cognition filter that exists in people whose childhoods did not fill needs very well. The latter, being cognition, is seeing from a condition of being so no emotional cognition filter is present. This lack of a distorting filter exists in people whose childhoods did fill needs well.

This lack of a distorting filter in people who see clearly with being-cognition (rather than distortedly with deficiency cognition) advantages them in learning science as well. For one thing, they think for themselves and are less susceptible to church authorities or media pundits doing their thinking for them. For another thing, they are less susceptible to political and commercial advertising propaganda. Why? Such propaganda is manipulative and it aims to influence by pushing your emotional buttons. The ads are psychologically fine-tuned for maximum impact. But people who see clearly with being-cognition have fewer buttons and less intense buttons. The better you are brought up and the more you have had early needs filled well, the harder you are to manipulate because you are at cause, not at effect. The propaganda is aimed at the majority of people with deficiency cognition filtered perceptions and lots of buttons to push. The at-cause person (who is in the minority) is virtually propaganda proof. See Media Sexploitation and Freedom of the Press—an American Delusion.

What does all this have to do with moving wrong intuitive childhood science theories aside and replacing them with correct science? A lot. When the at-cause, being-cognition perceiving person learns science, he is open to learning new things since his brain is not filled with what we call *mind mud that gets in the way of thinking, learning, and being open to new things.

When the at-cause, being-cognition perceiving person learns science, he is open to learning new things since his brain is not filled with what we call mind mud that gets in the way of thinking, learning, and being open to new things
When the at-cause, being-cognition perceiving person learns science, he is open to learning new things since his brain is not filled with what we call *mind mud that gets in the way of thinking, learning, and being open to new things

Mind mud: In order to cope with all their familys' unnerving dysfunctionality and the frustration associated with it, people repress their lives’ less pleasant realities and tell themselves what they need to hear to feel “okay” about themselves (which their Facebook "friends" will be happy to reinforce). But underneath is the truth, the negative self-talk, and the negative-emotion-cluttered minds in these intrinsically smart people, so muddied by all this that these very normal people seem “dumb” and naïve when in fact all they are is smart people who happen to be cluttered up with mind mud.

Mind-cluttered people have lower EQ (emotional intelligence) than non-mind-cluttered people. IQ accounts for only 20 percent of successfulness. Character accounts for much of the rest, according to Daniel Goleman, Don Eberly, and us. IQ gets you hired, but EQ (emotional intelligence) gets you promoted. If your mind doesn’t get clogged up with the mind mud of emotional stress engrams, your emotions are more constructive, present-based and benevolent, and you end up as a smarter, more perceptive person who is open to new things—including learning science.

Being propaganda proofed from a good childhood, the at-cause person is not influenced at all from such malarkey as Make America Great Again or "no one really understands climate so there is no proof man is responsible for climate change" or "evolution is all bogus since the Bible says God created the Earth and the people and plants and animals in 6 days (He rested on day 7) so science is wrong."

As a result, such a propaganda proofed person will make political decisions intelligently and based on his own thinking and analysis, not based on media propaganda—which is mostly misinformation and half-truths and lies anyway. This is imporant for humankind's future. Even if such a person is religious, he certainly isn't a Bible Literalist. Only 24% believe the Bible is the literal word of God, the lowest in Gallup's 40-year trend. See Record Few Americans Believe Bible Is Literal Word of God. Creationism belief polls find that only 15 percent of people believe that fairy tale.

Man is easy to manipulate by yanking the chains of his insecurities
Man is easy to manipulate by yanking the chains of his insecurities

Think Tanks, PACs, and Rich Oligarchs Distort Climate Discussions

"Humans are not responsible for climate change" is an idea confounded by incorrect intuitive theories of geology AS WELL AS malign influences from Big Oil and associated think tanks like Atlas Economic Research Foundation, International Policy Network, The Atlas Foundation, Heartland Institute, Global Warming Policy Foundation, Fueling Freedom Project, Texas Public Policy Foundation, and The American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research (AEI). Discussions about climate change are crippled by interference from think tanks and PACs and corporatocracy greed and misinformation from phony "experts" and Big Oil and political sell-outs. These entities create polarization everywhere so that solutions will always be impossible and corporatocracy profits will never falter. ExxonMobil is currently under investigation for funding a campaign of disinformation to sow doubt about climate change.

ExxonMobil is currently under investigation for funding a campaign of disinformation to sow doubt about climate change
ExxonMobil is currently under investigation for funding a campaign of disinformation to sow doubt about climate change


Republicans and Big Oil are saturating the media with lies and misinformation about climate change, pollution, and financial system regulations—we're all choking on all these lies
Republicans and Big Oil are saturating the media with lies and misinformation about climate change, pollution, and financial system regulations—we're all choking on all these lies

Scienceblind: Why Our Intuitive Theories About the World Are So Often Wrong is laid out in two sections. Part One covers six intuitive theories of the physical world (matter, energy, gravity, motion, cosmos, and the earth). Part Two covers six theories of the biological world (life, growth, inheritance, illness, adaptation, and ancestry). We recommend this book to anyone looking to better understand their own mind, the world, or the relationship between the two.

See also these books relating to science denial and science lies: