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Preconception and Learning

Suppose when you were a small child you believed that the sun revolves around the earth. This wouldn’t be surprising since nothing in your experience would refute the idea. Then one day you go to school and your teacher informs you that the opposite is true—the earth revolves around the sun—and this has been fully accepted by all leading thinkers for nearly five centuries. Would the new information replace your old view, or merely suppress it?

New research from two psychologists at Occidental College point to the latter explanation, i.e., mutually contradictory explanations for scientific phenomena persist in an individual, even when one is demonstrably false. The study participants were college undergraduates who answered as quickly as they could 200 true/false questions in ten scientific knowledge domains (astronomy, evolution, fractions, genetics, germs, matter, mechanics, physiology, thermodynamics, and waves). The questions were either true or false based on “naïve” theories (the sun revolves around the earth) or “scientific” theories (the earth revolves around the sun). In all ten domains participants were slower and less accurate at verifying statements that required a conceptual reversal. The authors interpret these results by concluding that “naïve” beliefs survive the imposition of a newly learned “scientific” belief and persist for many years.

While the experimental design is difficult to explain (consult the paper if you are really curious), the resulting interpretation is unsettling. It suggests that science educators can’t be successful if they just fill students’ heads with facts. They must also help them unlearn previous beliefs so that they are equipped to act on the correct answer uninfluenced by the discord of already holding a contradictory view. While this may help us understand why demonstrably unscientific views are stubbornly held to by many of our fellow citizens on subjects like evolution, climate change, vaccines, genetically modified foods, etc., it also makes the task all that more difficult if we expect that reasoned, evidence-based discourse would guide our civic work together.

Tom Tritton is President and CEO of CHF.

Posted In: Education

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