Posted by: Jeremy Fox | June 13, 2012

Intuition, education, and zombie ideas (UPDATED)

Here’s an intriguing little cognitive psychology experiment, which shows that highly educated people evaluate the truth or falsehood of statements less quickly and less accurately if those statements are ones that appear true under a “naive” theory, but which education teaches us are actually false (e.g., “Humans are descended from chimpanzees”, “The Earth revolves around the sun.”). This suggests that pre-existing false ideas aren’t “overwritten” by education, they’re merely “suppressed”.

I wonder if something similar can explain the persistence of certain zombie ideas. Is it just inherently difficult to unlearn the first thing we ever learn about a topic, as I suggested in this old post? So that, if the first idea you ever learn about a topic is false (say, you’re taught the IDH as an undergrad), you become a zombie and it becomes very difficult to cure you? And if so, what can we do about it (besides make sure that our undergrad curricula are up to date)?

Presumably there’s a lot of research on this I’m not aware of.

p.s. Depressingly, rates of correct responses were lowest, and speed of response slowest, for questions about evolution (questions fell into 10 different subject areas across the physical and life sciences).

UPDATE: Error in first paragraph now fixed.

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Responses

  1. Which part of “The Earth revolves around the sun” amd I misunderstanding?

    • Yes, the Earth does revolve around the sun–which is something you learn in school. To the naked eye, and thus to your naive, pre-education brain, the sun appears to go around the Earth. At least, that’s what the authors of the study argue. See the linked paper for more examples of the different kinds of statements they tested.

      UPDATE: Oh, I see what confused you! I mucked up the post, will fix it right now.

      • Ahhh, now I see what you´re getting at. These examples sound very much like some sort of fallacy of assumption though.
        Or perhaps I´m filling in some blanks with incorrect assumptions. I see their both used in the paper, but didn´t see why they were characterised in exactly that way.

        What´s the naïve alternative theory to “Earth goes round sun”? Is it “Sun goes round the earth” or “crocodile eats sun, we´d better pray to crocodile god so he spits it out in the morning”? Or something else? Does anything that doesn´t match current best understanding count as a naïve theory?

        The first assumption (of the fallacy) is that we “intuitively know” where the sun goes when it disappears below the horizon, and this knowledge must be wrong.

        I also object to at least a couple of their other questions and their characterisations.

        “Plants/Bacteria turn food into energy” are said to be false scientifically/naïvely. Is it even possible to have a naïve theory about how a bacteria gains energy? And can you say Dionaea muscipula?

        I think my main problem is that they don´t present a definition of what a naïve theory is. Not even a weak definition. Just no definition.

        (This is why I don´t like science tweeting yet: it´s an oxymoron. Science (comprehension) relies on detail. Even in a 15 minute talk, I want enough detail to give me proper comprehension of the results).

      • Thanks Mike. I think the researchers did put some thought into the sort of question you raise, but whether they put enough in is an open question. I just thought it was kind of a fun little study. And it reinforces things I’ve said before, so it has that going for it. 😉 As far as I’m concerned, confirmation bias is something that happens to other people. 😉

        Re: science comprehension relying on detail, I have a post in the works on precisely that point…

    • Fixed.


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