Recent events at Weber State University, in our country and in the Utah legislature, have me appreciating those who embrace the often counter-intuitive thinking required for science that benefits us all.
Every semester at WSU, faculty and staff can choose to participate in discussions of books relevant to teaching with others interested in the same topics. This semester, many signed up for “Scienceblind: Why Our Intuitive Theories About the World Are So Often Wrong,” written by Occidental College Professor of Psychology and Cognitive Science, Andrew Shtulman. This book also acts as a perfect segue for the April 3 lecture at WSU by Bill Nye “The Science Guy.”
Certain social elements like religion and politics have affected our scientific thinking. Galileo, for example, had to kneel and apologize to the Pope for arguing for a sun-centered (heliocentric), versus Earth-centered (geocentric), solar system. The Catholic Church, at the time, held fast to the biblical interpretation that put the Earth at the center of the universe.
More than 100 years later, Benjamin Franklin had to argue with some Protestant religious figures who felt his lightning rods attached to buildings thwarted God’s wrath in punishing evildoers. Franklin argued that an omnipotent being had far more than lightning at His disposal for punishment, and using a lightning rod to protect against lightning was no different from putting a coat on to protect against the cold. Franklin didn’t do any apologizing. Enlightenment thinking had become more the norm in 1755.
While few argue against heliocentrism and lightning rods today, politics and religion still influence a minority of people to be skeptical of scientific understanding like evolution, human-caused climate change and vaccination. This skepticism has a direct impact on our society. A false narrative of risk has created less-than-recommended levels of vaccination. The recent outbreak of measles in Washington State threatens death to unprotected children.
Shtulman says that beyond religion and politics, our notions of how the world works begin in childhood — notions that remain incredibly persistent. This is why scientific thinking (often non-intuitive) is so difficult.
WSU physicist Adam Johnston tackles these intuitions head on. Before each of his demonstrations, he asks, “What do you think is going to happen?” For example, Johnston runs some of the same experiments used by Galileo to show how heavier and lighter objects will fall to the Earth (be affected by gravity) at the same rate. Intuitively, many people believe the heavier objects will fall more quickly. He expresses amazement at the strength of these intuitions — even after seeing the demonstration, many will claim the heavier object fell “just a little quicker.”
I feel lucky to have grown up near the Boston Museum of Science, particularly regarding the Galileo experiment. The museum had two, three-story, Plexiglas tubes in the atrium. In one, a small bowling ball, and in the other, some feathers. Claws descended within the tubes, lifting up both the ball and feathers to the top of the tubes and then releasing both at the same time. The bowling ball fell quickly to the bottom. The feathers, well, they floated slowly down just like you would imagine. Then with a loud whooshing noise, the air was vacated from both tubes. The claws descended, lifted, and dropped both ball and feathers at the same time, and the bowling ball and the feathers fell at the same rate, reaching the bottom at the same time!
Even knowing what would happen doesn’t change how amazing it is to see those feathers drop as fast as the ball. And that is Shtulman’s focus. Scientific thinking doesn’t replace our instincts. They layer on top. Different parts of the brain — principally the frontal lobe — are activated to overcome our “gut instincts.”
No one is immune from our childhood-developed intuitions. For example, our childhood brains, no matter the culture, associate self-activated movement with life. So children will mistake robots as alive and plants as not alive. Shtulman notes that even Ph.D’s in biology will, in a fast-paced, time-sensitive flash card test, mislabel living objects like plants as non-living. Our frontal lobes need a little time to correct our instincts no matter how much knowledge we possess.
It’s for this reason that I celebrate those who allow their frontal lobes just a little more time to more accurately interpret the world. I include our legislators who have recognized the importance of improving our sustainable and air-quality practices through HCR2, HB127, HB304 and others. Join me in celebrating them.