A Review of
Why Our Intuitive Theories About the World Are So Often Wrong
Reviewed by Alisa Williams
In an age where scientific information is readily at our fingertips, why do so many people resist or flat-out deny scientific explanations for everything from pasteurization and immunization to geology and genetics? This is the question Andrew Shtulman, a cognitive and developmental psychologist, seeks to answer in his book Scienceblind.
The quick answer is intuitive theories, our “untutored explanations for how the world works,” get in the way of reality (4). These intuitive theories are pervasive and indiscriminate – even scientists with years of study subconsciously resort to false intuitive theories when tested. This alone seems cause for alarm, but Shtulman offers hope. If we can understand why our minds insist on carving “up the world into entities and processes that do not actually exist” then we can also course correct our minds by dismantling those pesky intuitive theories so we can “rebuild them from their foundations” (5).
To best explain just how pervasive our intuitive theories are, Scienceblind is laid out in two sections. Part One covers six intuitive theories of the physical world (matter, energy, gravity, motion, cosmos, and the earth) and Part Two covers six theories of the biological world (life, growth, inheritance, illness, adaptation, and ancestry).
Each chapter poses seemingly simple questions about its subject, and then shows the reader how our intuitive theories formed in childhood give us (incorrect) answers to these questions, why we hold so steadfastly to these theories even in adulthood, and what answers the correct scientific theories hold for us.
Particularly interesting is the historical discussion on each theory. Shtulman takes us from ancient understandings on each topic all the way through present day conclusions. Peppered throughout are numerous studies on children that have been conducted over the decades that show how a child’s simplistic view of the world is uncannily similar to ancient understanding. Shtulman included several real conversations between researchers and children of various ages that, while a bit anecdotal, were amusing and insightful. I would have liked to see even more information about these many studies on children’s beliefs – specifically how many children took part in each study, and how/if the conclusions have been replicated by subsequent studies – but I understand why Shtulman kept his summaries of each brief, pointing us ever onward in our quest for enlightenment from the intuitive theories that blind us.
Shtulman explains that psychologists have identified three hallmarks of intuitive theories that make them stronger to dispel than other types of misconceptions: “First, intuitive theories are coherent; they embody a logically consistent set of beliefs and expectations. Second, intuitive theories are widespread; they are shared by people of different ages, cultures, and historical periods. Third, intuitive theories are robust; they are resistant to change in the face of counterevidence or counterinstruction” (10).
Even as we learn new, correct scientific theories, these do not replace our incorrect intuitive theories. Rather, our brains “write” the correct on top of the incorrect, and when pressed, even the brightest, most educated among us, tend to revert back to those base theories. “In some cases, our scientific knowledge may be nothing more than a veneer, thinly covering misconceptions forged decades earlier, when we were children,” writes Shtulman (14).
One study, outlined in the chapter on energy, was particularly fascinating:
…researchers have monitored scientists’ brains with fMRI as the scientists reason through two types of problems: problems that everyone (scientists and nonscientists alike) can answer correctly and problems that only the scientists can answer correctly. On the first type of problem, scientists show patterns of neural activity similar to those experienced by nonscientists, but on the second, they show more activity in areas of the brain associated with inhibition and conflict monitoring: the prefrontal cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex. Scientist can answer scientifically challenging problems – that’s the benefit of their expertise – but to do so, they must inhibit ideas that conflict with their scientific knowledge of those problems. They must inhibit latent misconceptions (54-55).
A similar study discussed in the chapter on life describes biology professors’ difficulty in classifying plants as alive when under time pressure. It seems even as we grow and learn, we must constantly battle the intuitive theories of our childhood. Shtulman explains this process “is slow and hard-won because we have no existing templates for these concepts. We must repeatedly replace one approximation of reality…with another…After many such revisions, our new theories look nothing like our old theories, but their lineage is unquestionable” (72).
So, why do we form these intuitive theories in the first place? Quite simply, because “we are built to perceive the environment in ways that are useful for daily living” (126). Unfortunately for us, these short cuts that help us navigate daily life in an often dangerous world are not particularly helpful – and are often harmful – when we need to understand the long-term effects and consequences of our behavior.
One significant example Shtulman gives is our (mis)understanding of genetics, which can lead to “maladaptive attitudes and behaviors” (170). Our intuitive theories on the role of genes in determining our destiny can negatively affect our decisions on how we treat members of different social categories, our view on the moral culpability of criminals, and even the foods we eat (or overeat).
Now that we are aware of our intuitive theories and know why we form them, Shtulman concludes with an explanation on how we can overcome this predisposition. It’s not an easy one-time solution, but rather a continuous acknowledgement and awareness of the default intuitive theories that lie just below our consciousness. “Science has refined and expanded human thought, allowing us to entertain ideas that previous humans had never been able to entertain before, as long as we are receptive to those thoughts and not completely blinded by our intuitive theories,” Shtulman tells us (243).
I appreciated Shtulman’s unique perspective in Scienceblind. The psychological explanation of how we can get fundamental aspects of our lives and world so wrong was insightful and refreshing. It was also comforting to know that even scientists struggle against their intuitive theories of the world. I would recommend Scienceblind to anyone looking to better understand their own mind, the world, or the relationship between the two.