How do you convince a person who doesn’t believe in science that they actually do? That question, which has plagued science advocates since Galileo’s time, drove the Science Marches in April and has only become more pertinent since then. With alternative facts and science denial becoming more than just news trends, it’s becoming increasingly urgent to convince people to believe in basic truths.
How to do so, however, remains a beguiling and depressing riddle.
Enter Scienceblind, a new book written by Andrew Shtulman, Ph.D., a cognitive and developmental psychologist at Occidental College, where he’s become an expert on how people think about science. Understanding science, he argues, is more than just agreeing with a protest sign; it’s a lifelong process of continually evaluating our beliefs so we can catch ourselves when we default to our intuitive theories about the world, which are often wrong.
Getting science right, Shtulman argues, means dismantling those intuitions. In a conversation with Inverse, he explained how to do that, what’s up with Flat Earth truthers, and what to do with people who stubbornly refuse to believe the facts.
Do you think science denial is especially rampant now, or are we just more aware of it?
I think with President Donald Trump winning, our awareness of the science denial has come to a head. However, I’ve been concerned with science denial since 10 years ago, when I was in graduate school. I’ve always been aware of it and noticing developments. Evolution has consistently been taught in the public schools since the Scopes trial, and there are all these battles that have been happening. Now it seems like people are more aware of it because of climate change.
Evolution is one of these things where you can take it or leave it. It doesn’t really matter for daily life whether or not somebody accepts evolution. It does in certain ways, because evolutionary biology informs antibiotic use and how we think about non-human species, et cetera, but climate change is much more pressing — the fact that there are so many people who will deny that it exists or that humans are involved in it. I think that’s what’s really made science denial more of an issue.
Why do you argue that we have to get the world wrong before we get it right?
The problem lies in the fact that knowledge is so interconnected that any one concept that you hold is going to be connected to so many others. You can’t really break into a scientific theory and all of the concepts that it entails without having some grounding, and the grounding is going to come from everyday experience and everyday observation and interaction with the world. Those everyday observations and interactions are going to lead you to form categories that aren’t scientific, but you can’t learn the scientific stuff without having that base knowledge.
For example, you can’t understand what heat is until you’ve actually had some thermal experiences. But those thermal experiences are going to lead you to think about heat as a substance, and something that’s flowing in and out of objects, which is fundamentally wrong. It just wouldn’t make sense to try to convey these concepts of heat and temperature and thermal equilibrium, if you had no groundwork for understanding. The concepts are trying to explain something, so you need to know the phenomena themselves and have an appreciation for the phenomena before you can appreciate the scientific explanation. As you appreciate the phenomena, you’re going to be developing your own set of explanations, leading to new theories.
How can a person check to make sure they’re not relying on bad intuition?
We have an amazing technology now, Google, that can help us figure it out. To give you a case in point, the hardest chapter for me to write was the chapter on Earth science, because I never took Earth science. In my high school, it was not part of the track. I knew I wanted to talk about that area of knowledge because it involves climate change and this belief that humans and dinosaurs coexisted and so forth, but as I sat down to write it, I would continually write things that I thought were the science, but it turns out I was just spewing out intuitive views that were not the science. I was constantly checking myself and realizing that yeah, it was a problem that I never took Earth science.
I was very aware of it. I think that it’s hard to do that if you’re not trying to catch yourself, and especially if you’re someone who’s just a confident person in general and doesn’t have much humility. Even when someone points out that you’re wrong, you would prefer to believe your intuition over collective wisdom.
How can we dismantle incorrect intuitive theories on a systematic level?
I think that would be a hard enterprise to undertake on your own. I think it’s possible, because we have so many great books and resources and documentaries that can really help you learn a field if you didn’t learn it properly to start with. But if we’re going to start from scratch and change our curricula for children, then I think that’s a place where we can get it right the first time is if intuitive theories are taken seriously. Instructors need to work really hard to get students to articulate their intuitions and see how those intuitions are not just inconsistent with a scientific view but just inconsistent with reality. I think that’s the way better direction to go, which is just to demonstrate, okay, you made these predictions about this domain of phenomena. Now, let’s see if we’re right. You really have to engage with the content itself and devise activities and lessons that are very specific to the content and to the intuition.
How do we deal with individual people who don’t believe in fact-checked science?
I think that it would be impossible in a 10-minute conversation to achieve conceptual change. However, I think what might be useful is flagging salient, deep misconceptions. That might foster doubt in who you’re talking to. It might lead the person to seek out more information on their own.
In the case of climate change, the biggest misconception there is just conflating weather and climate. People will say, “I don’t believe in climate change because we had a cold winter.” If you can just plant a seed of doubt that weather and climate are only loosely related, and that the climate is a global phenomenon, and that the kinds of processes that are involved there are different from what affects your local weather, then maybe that will work to make them think more deeply about their views.
With vaccinations, I think the best place to start is just to hit that original study and say, “It’s already been shown that the original study connecting vaccination and autism was falsified, and we have no other data to demonstrate that.” People will still be skeptical of vaccines and the idea that you would inject a child with chemicals, and something mysterious is happening at a molecular level. That’s hard to deal with, but yeah, perhaps just if you get some of the main misconceptions flagged, then the additional cognitive work will happen later on when you go vote.
How is it that the Earth being flat is still something we’re talking about?
Yes, you still come across people who articulate these views [that the Earth is flat] very strongly, and have their own reasons for holding them. It’s also hard to hold onto those fringe views in today’s world because of how much information you’re getting to the contrary. Even if you don’t understand why the Earth is a sphere, it’s really hard to maintain this idea that the Earth is flat, given that all our representations of the Earth are spheres, and pictures of the Earth from space are round, etcetera. The flat Earth view is consistent with intuition, and so you’re always going to have those intuitions that pull you away from a spherical view. For people who just feel very comfortable with their own intuition, I think that you’re going to get that minority that always goes back to it.
Another perspective on this issue that I think the intuitive theory view helps us take is that these people aren’t crazy. We’re all predisposed to think of the Earth as flat. It’s just that we know better. Most people will take the counter-evidence at face value and realize that our intuition is wrong. It’s not as if there’s a certain group of people that are just irrational and constructed these beliefs on their own. We’re all predisposed to have those beliefs, but most of us have managed to keep them in check.