Do We Underestimate How Difficult It Is to Internalize Scientific Knowledge?

Yes, I think we do. Three decades of research in the fields of cognitive development and science education have shown that students enter the science classroom not as empty vessels, ready to be filled with knowledge, but as fonts of intuition, brimming with rich, though generally inaccurate, theories of everyday phenomena that often interfere with learning. Physics students, for example, hold theories of motion predicated on the belief that forces are transferred from one object to another upon contact and must dissipate before objects can come to a rest. Chemistry students hold theories of heat predicated on the belief that heat is a kind of substance that flows in and out of objects and can ultimately be trapped or contained. And biology students hold theories of adaptation predicated on the belief that all members of a species evolve together, with each organism producing offspring better adapted to the environment than it was at birth.

Science educators are thus charged with two tasks: Not only must they help students learn the correct, scientific theory at hand, but they must also help students unlearn their earlier, less accurate theories. This process has typically been thought of as a kind of “irreversible reaction,” with scientific knowledge supplanting or overwriting earlier intuitions, but recent research suggests that those early intuitions may never be fully overwritten.

In a forthcoming article in Cognition, Joshua Valcarcel and I report the results of a study designed specifically to probe for naïve intuitions in the minds of adults with many years of science education. We asked our participants to verify two types of statements as quickly as possible: statements whose truth value was consistent across both naïve and scientific theories of a particular domain (e.g., “The moon revolves around the Earth,” which is true on both naïve and scientific theories of astronomical phenomena) and statements involving the same conceptual relations but whose truth value differed across those theories (e.g., “The Earth revolves around the sun,” which is true on a scientific theory but not a naïve theory). We hypothesized that, if naïve theories survive the acquisition of a mutually incompatible scientific theory, then the latter should cause greater cognitive conflict than the former. Consistent with this hypothesis, we found that participants verified statements involving a tension between naïve and scientific theories more slowly and less accurately than statements that did not, and we documented this effect in 10 different domains of knowledge (astronomy, evolution, fractions, genetics, germs, matter, mechanics, physiology, thermodynamics, and waves). Our findings thus suggest that naïve theories are suppressed by scientific theories but not supplanted by them. How long the two coexist, and in what form they coexist, are questions still in need of answers.

Andrew Shtulman is a professor of psychology at Occidental College.

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