It's The A.C.C. People
June 7, 2012 6:41 PM   Subscribe

For very restricted definitions of "we". And "everywhere".

But the underlying neuroscience is interesting, to be sure.
posted by wilful at 6:58 PM on June 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

Unlike Kuhn's theories on the incommensurability of scientific paradigms, the layman's reaction to scientific revolutions are (most often) not clearly marked.
posted by Revort at 7:05 PM on June 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

It seems like these articles are oversimplifying somewhat. It seems to me that there are different reasons why we intuitively believe that heavy objects fall faster and why people can't accept evolution or climate change.

Hold a 10 lb ball in one hand and a 100 lb in another and its not strange that you would conclude that one ball is being pulled toward the ground faster. It seems like people who can't accept evolution are being blinded by something other than basic intuition.
posted by PJLandis at 7:08 PM on June 7, 2012 [3 favorites]

According to Dunbar, the reason the physics majors had to recruit the D.L.P.F.C. is because they were busy suppressing their intuitions, resisting the allure of Aristotle’s error. It would be so much more convenient if the laws of physics lined up with our naïve beliefs—or if evolution was wrong and living things didn’t evolve through random mutation. But reality is not a mirror; science is full of awkward facts. And this is why believing in the right version of things takes work.

It is a really interesting idea, but I'm not sure I believe it :)

In particular though, I think of the way people claim quantum physics is weird and counter intuitive. It really isn't like that though... Once you understand it you can build a very useful intuition about it.

I'd argue that this kind of thing is more like perception of gender difference. Check out CBC's Ideas about the Delusions of Gender. Gender norms and differences are another deeply intuitive thing to us. Yet those deeply intuitive differences do evolve over time and are different between cultures.

So.. Maybe the intuitions are innate in our culture, and we feel the cognitive dissonance when we are forced to believe something at odds with the culture, but then the effect isn't isolated to science (unless you mean science in the broadest possible definition--which maybe we should...).
posted by Chuckles at 7:09 PM on June 7, 2012

It's amazing what people will steadfastly hold on to despite all evidence to the contrary if it's what their entire upbringing has led them to believe. But really, only 15% believe that we evolved without divine intervention? WTH.
posted by arcticseal at 7:14 PM on June 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

The A.C.C. is typically associated with the perception of errors and contradictions—neuroscientists often refer to it as part of the “Oh shit!” circuit—so it makes sense that it would be turned on when we watch a video of something that seems wrong, even if it’s right.

The ACC is not just associated with the perception of errors and contradictions. As I've said before, it wears many hats. From the wikipedia page,
It appears to play a role in a wide variety of autonomic functions, such as regulating blood pressure and heart rate, as well as rational cognitive functions, such as reward anticipation, decision-making, empathy[1] and emotion.[2][3]
The pop-sci writeup didn't explain why the scientists chose to focus on the errors/contradictions aspect of ACC function instead of, say, the decision-making aspect (which may be involved in deciding which video to indicate as correct).
posted by Jpfed at 7:14 PM on June 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

For instance, people naturally believe that heat is a kind of substance, and that the sun revolves around the earth. And then there’s the irony of evolution: our views about our own development don’t seem to be evolving.

The other massive factor is that there isn't a massively funded social movement from superstitious throwback to maintain the theory of Phlogiston in science classes in order to prevent mythology-based power structures from slipping into obsolescence.
posted by FatherDagon at 7:25 PM on June 7, 2012 [7 favorites]

If timing people's responses to tests as a way of accessing what their subconscious believes is science, I don't believe it either.
posted by vorpal bunny at 7:26 PM on June 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Maybe your intuition says it was the decision-making aspect, and you have to spend some time talking yourself into believing it was the intuition aspect?

The article made me think about chemistry in 10th grade and how my classmates just sort of memorized and regurgitated all these facts about the invisible body parts of atoms. I would always sit there wondering, instead of applying myself to the work, if this was more learning or belief or what the difference was, since there was no way for us to verify this stuff at the level we were at. So I guess there's a fine line between learning and belief when it comes to abstract stuff that you might have to use your imagination to wrap your head around. A lot of people never figure out how to do use their mind that way.
posted by bleep at 7:27 PM on June 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

None of this strikes me as news. Science educators have known for a while that many concepts require counter-intuitive thinking. There's a nice documentary video which shows Harvard graduates giving the same explanation for the seasons as elementary-school kids. (It's warmer closer to the sun.)
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 7:31 PM on June 7, 2012

A really scorching spring heatwave seems to make climate change deniers crawl under rocks.
posted by ovvl at 7:43 PM on June 7, 2012

Is that Harvard video the one described in this post? I didn't have time to futz with getting the video to work on my iPad, but your description sound familiar to me.
posted by TedW at 7:45 PM on June 7, 2012

No, but perhaps the same series.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 8:17 PM on June 7, 2012

I don't think this shows why "we" don't believe in science. It may shed some light on why specific counterintuitive ideas are more difficult to learn; but it certainly doesn't account for why "we" prefer counterintuitive mythologies (stories of physics, beasts, etc., behaving in ways that can't be observed in nature) to logic-based systems of learning.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 8:26 PM on June 7, 2012

I was hoping this was a link to a video of something physically preposterous.
posted by figurant at 8:33 PM on June 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Peeple is dum.
posted by Lone_Wolf at 8:34 PM on June 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

The funny thing here is that Galileo probably never performed that experiment, but came to his conclusions through pure reasoning, like Aristotle is typically assumed to. But Aristotle actually based his conclusions on the behavior of everyday objects, which often do fall slower when they encounter air resistance, which tends to be high in a lot of lighter natural objects, like leaves.

Basically, this sort of thing actually argues that instead of believing repeated patterns you observe, you should stay home and make shutting up because in this case, that actually worked, making this basically he opposite of a pro-science exercise.
posted by mobunited at 9:05 PM on June 7, 2012

I flatly dispute the theory that we are born with "instincts" about scientific principles.

All this "proves," as if we needed proof, is that the education system is failing fast and people are dumb animals who in the absence of a decent education fall back on pat religious/folkloric explanations for how the world works. It's not inborn instinct. It's just dumb reasoning that anybody but Einsteins and Newtons would naturally come to without an education.
posted by Camofrog at 10:34 PM on June 7, 2012 [4 favorites]

There's a nice documentary video which shows Harvard graduates giving the same explanation for the seasons as elementary-school kids. (It's warmer closer to the sun.)

But... but... do they not realize that the seasons are different in the north and south hemispheres?
posted by Justinian at 11:03 PM on June 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Evolution seems pretty intuitive. I would imagine farmers, herdsmen, and hunter gatherers would be in touch with the natural world enough to see that strains of plants and animals that are better adapted to certain climates or environmental conditions survive better than competitors and pass those traits to their offspring. Speciation over longer periods of time would be a natural explanation for why distinct but similar animals exist. The only plausable explantion for why it's not more accepted is that it contradicts Genesis. It's really blindingly obvious and the fact that anyone can hold a contrary opinion in the face of what is probably the largest collection of evidence in support of any scientific theory ever proposed staggers the imagination.
posted by Tashtego at 11:11 PM on June 7, 2012

You know, Camofrog, that's such an absolutely perfect example of the theory in action that I can't help but wonder if you're trying to be funny. But it's subtle enough that I'll play it straight. You're either doing exactly what the researchers are talking about, rejecting evidence because it doesn't match your preconceptions, or you're pretending to be.

The evidence is that all people, when confronted with questions that contradict certain apparent principles, will hestitate before answering correctly, if they actually understand the problem. And their brains show very distinct neural patterns, that of suppressing an incorrect impulse. The original theory appears to be hard-wired, but can be overridden. This, however, takes real mental effort.

In rejecting this evidence, you are failing to override your instinctive theory about the situation. It does not explain the evidence, and in fact is directly contradicted by it, but you are actively rejecting that evidence because you don't like it. You're doing exactly what the theory predicts.
posted by Malor at 11:15 PM on June 7, 2012 [6 favorites]

I wonder if children would benefit from being taught these counter intuitive facts earlier. We could easily teach the balls falling at equal speeds earlier.

I wonder how early genetic algorithms could be taught. It's certainly worth designing a "teaching language" around them. I learned basic at age seven.

I've discussed how one should do this with quantum mechanics with friends before, never got anywhere, but this work offers more options.
posted by jeffburdges at 12:59 AM on June 8, 2012

I think we could measure someone's brain activity when watching David Attenborough narrate an explanation of evolution while watching video showing different species of fish and how similar they appear. I don't buy that because the experiment showed one result for the falling balls it would obviously have the same result for evolution because Christians hold some natural claim on common sense.
posted by Space Coyote at 1:24 AM on June 8, 2012

This is a misdiagnosis, in my opinion. The intuitive difficulty of some scientific concepts doesn't have much to do with the current rejection of evolution by some (As a matter of fact evolution seems pretty intuitive to me, especially when compared with standard stuff like Newtonian laws of motion.) The problem is not about finding science too difficult, it seems to be more a matter of finding crackpot religion too easy.
posted by Segundus at 1:26 AM on June 8, 2012

In fact if we patronizingly label the conservative lack of belief in evolution as more 'natural and intuitive' then we're painting over the fact that they've fought very hard to keep their views on things like women's equality and the place of the individual within society to be seen as the default and the inevitable result of intuition. If they were they wouldn't have had to kill so many people to keep it that way.
posted by Space Coyote at 1:28 AM on June 8, 2012

But... but... do they not realize that the seasons are different in the north and south hemispheres?
Actually, this is non-intuitive to me despite me being a college graduate and all. I have to pause for a second to consider it when it comes up.

Evolution, on the other hand, is intuitive to me. Maybe it's cultural (I'm from Europe).

I tried explaining gravity to our four-year-old yesterday, but he just laughed at me like I was pulling his leg.
posted by Harald74 at 1:43 AM on June 8, 2012

BTW, I had to put my 7 yo daughter through a head MRI yesterday (probably and hopefully for nothing) and together we marveled at the sciency bits. The technician let us look at the scans afterwards, were we could see her brain, spine, teeth and other innards and rotate the view on the computer. Interestingly enough she was slightly embarrassed by the scans, like she had posed naked or something. Which in a way, she had, but I wouldn't have guessed beforehand that she would have reacted like that.

Since we're in Norway and the scan was free, we had money to spend on a Lego set of her choosing afterwards, as a reward for her being totally still and putting up with the machine noises and all. No matter that she chose a Lego Friends (tm) set, I'm still proud of her for being a champ through it all.
posted by Harald74 at 1:49 AM on June 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think evolution is pretty intuitive, and creationism strikes a typical person around the world as ridiculous. I know it's different in America, but as someone said above, a great deal of money and coercion has been expended to try to make it that way.

And monotheism itself was not 'intuited' by more than a few extremists until quite recently in human history. People seem to slide off into animism pantheism and atheism if they are not coerced.
posted by communicator at 1:50 AM on June 8, 2012

communicator, my intuition about that (which is likely flawed...) is that the monotheistic religions place a premium on conversion and missionary work, which is missing from the earlier religions. They are then more fit to spread and expand, and win out in the evolutionary race between competing religions, regardless of if they acknowledge biological evolution or not...
posted by Harald74 at 1:58 AM on June 8, 2012

I've heard claims that monotheist religions are basically all sun god religions, but the sun gods gets a reputation for jealousy. In any case, it's usually true that monotheistic religions build a more centralized power structure, which sounds way more suitable for waging war.
posted by jeffburdges at 2:17 AM on June 8, 2012

I'd be interested to see if graduates from the southern hemisphere have the same problem with the seasons. From an early age I got used to reversing the seasons mentioned on Sesame Street and in any US or UK kids' books, and asked why that was.
posted by harriet vane at 4:07 AM on June 8, 2012

Did they try creation and evolution statements in this study?
posted by michaelh at 5:35 AM on June 8, 2012

Meh. I have to say, I'm not impressed.

First, the neurosciencey end of cog sci seems like the wild west these days. Anybody with access to an fMRI can fire off some nonsense or other. It's hard to separate out the bad science from the bad science writing, though...

A friend of mine in psych, incidentally, was telling me about a paper he'd read the other day that claimed to report that almost nobody who does such experiments knows how to correctly calibrate their fMRI contraptions (or maybe: they're not really trained in how to read the outputs) incidentally. He actually understands this stuff, and just ignores many such studies.

Also, I'm with camofrog. I doubt that much of this is intuitive. Nor is it cultural. Rather, the "intuitive" theories are simple, primitive scientific conclusions, based on readily-available evidence.

Finally, why is it supposed to be astonishing that people trust their own reasoning, primitive though it might be, rather than trusting the assertions of scientists? If, say, I don't understand any science, and you say "I'm a scientist; oh and: x", and the evidence available to me indicates that not-x...why is it supposed to be irrational for me to fail to passionately embrace x? I mean, there's an answer to this question...but it's not so simple...

Anyway, an alternative hypothesis: it's not exactly that there is an "intuitive" theory that never goes away, but gets suppressed by a "scientific" theory. Rather, it's that there's evidence of x and scientific consensus (based on evidence most of us don't know or don't understand) of not-x, and we balance the evidence and the testimony. Sometimes when we're asked what's what, we think quickly back over the evidence. Nothing weird about this. Counter-evidence doesn't go away just because the preponderance of evidence is for the lead theory.
posted by Fists O'Fury at 5:48 AM on June 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

This is one of the reasons I stopped my subscription to the New Yorker a while back. They really need to stay away from this facile, fluffy, pop-sci stuff. I'm sure it sells issues but it has undermined their reputation as a magazine for thinking people.

You don't need to invoke abstract science or quantum physics to explain the wrongness of people's intuition. Most people's intuition can't even reliably predict how a dropped ball will move.
posted by vacapinta at 6:47 AM on June 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Simply put, notwitstanding the biases we have, we need better education to overcome biases we don't have but whose lacunae are filled with nonsense

Quoted from here

The one thing I would like to see in science education, is for kids (not college age, waaaay before then) to actually learn the scientific method. Solid principles like...

- A hypothesis is useless if it can't be tested
- How will I know if the experiment worked?
- Correlation is different from causation

Such principles are woefully lacking in all branches of science education, and quite scarily they are often lacking in the teachers themselves (e.g., the number of shcools that teach creationism vs. evolution, which breaks all 3 of the above principles). Here's an old link about 65% of students in a science fair falsifying their data...

Forget about training more chemists/biologists/astrophysicists. If the kids leaving high school to pursue liberal arts courses don't get what science is, they'll grow up to be the same folks who vote down NIH budget increases, vaccuum up homeopathic cures, and whine because there's no "cure" for cancer yet (hint - there likely never will be).

Deal with the shocking lack of undersanding of what "science" actually IS in the minds of the general public, and the impact will be far greater than a thicker pipe full of new soon-to-be-jobless STEM graduates.

posted by lalochezia at 7:48 AM on June 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

This explains a lot. Basically a large number of Americans are insane.
posted by pdxpogo at 8:13 AM on June 8, 2012

Surely any english or drama majors who had seen ore read Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead [SLYT] would also side with Galileo!!!
posted by chapps at 8:38 AM on June 8, 2012

"Rather, the "intuitive" theories are simple, primitive scientific conclusions, based on readily-available evidence."

My impression is that is what the writers (possibly the researchers) intended by by their use of intuitive, not that it's something deeper (such as biologically inherent).

But no one has mentioned that there almost certainly are a number of physical "beliefs" which are, in fact, biologically intuitive. We evolved in a particular physical environment where a few things have been constant through the relevant evolutionary history. For example, it's arguable, though I'd be skeptical, that we could have a true biologically instinctive bias as to how things actually tend to fall in the real world of our environments of adaptation, where air resistance can have a large effect. Especially given our early primate heritage in the trees. We probably have a fair bit of built-in instinct with regard to climbing and falling and catching.

And I have a very vague memory of some developmental/comparative studies about catching thrown objects that indicate that there's a strong, non-learned and instinctive component...though I could easily be mistaken.

I've encountered some people in the past who claim, particularly in the context of scientific concepts, that nothing is intuitive or counterintuitive, there's only culture and what is explicitly taught. I find this a remarkable assertion that's difficult for me to accept that anyone would actually believe. I specifically had an argument about this with an astronomer with regard to relativity. According to her, relativity would be just as intuitive as newtonian physics if it were taught early enough. I have great difficulty believing that anyone could believe that we don't naturally and intuitively have a strong bias for a belief in simultaneity.

If you study the history of science it's extremely fascinating to understand how and why discredited scientific concepts were believed at one time and the thing that most people don't realize is that, usually (not always, but usually), the people in that time and place had at least as good a set of reasons to believe what they believed as scientists do today. There's a contemporary hubris that those people, then, were all ignorant fools who were cowed by some irrational influence or other that prevented them from understanding the truth that was right in front of their eyes while, in contrast, we enlightened and supremely rational citizens of the modern world have risen above all that and pretty much everything we believe now is True, with only some uncertainty about the margins. I think this is a deep flaw in contemporary science education — for the most part contemporary knowledge is presented as revealed truth with only as much historical/foundational stuff as is absolutely necessary, and then only grudgingly with the fear that it's partly a waste of time.

And the inuitive/counterintuitive issue is so enormously important, in my opinion. I have tremendous respect, even love, for the ancient Greeks and I know well and love Euclid's Elements. But mathematics really took off, hugely gained in both power and utility, when it managed to unhitch itself from the requirement of intuition. Physics, first, and some other sciences have recapitulated this aspect of the development of math as they've been forced to accept deeply counterintuitive ideas.

In my view, the development of western rationalization in the form of math and science has three primary traits: the habit of empiricism, the development and maintenance of the institutions of formalized reason and science, and the progressive acceptance of increasingly counterintuitive, challenging ideas.

I think it's deeply interesting, from an epistemological and a philosophy of science perspective, that we've effectively been forced to accept more and more absurd ideas — that we do so because they're proven true and, particularly, they're more useful than the more intuitive ideas we leave behind, and, especially, each step of the way we find that these new ideas are even more useful, more far-reaching than we even had thought they were when we initially embraced them because they were useful and far-reaching.

Whether our limited, "intuitive" prejudices are inborn, cultural convention, or the result of primitive naturalistic reasoning (or, most likely, all three), I think that out story is a triumph of laboriously working our way from the extremely limited perspective from which we began to the cosmically wide and powerful perspectives that we should be enormously proud to have achieved. Not that what we see now won't look provincial tomorrow — it probably will. But these are great achievements and making the (ironically) philosophically relativist argument that no concept about the natural world is any more or less intuitive than any other diminishes this achievement and misunderstands science in some important respect.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 10:32 AM on June 8, 2012

"Most people's intuition can't even reliably predict how a dropped ball will move."

I disagree, though there's so many nuances to this I'm unwilling to take any strong position. But I suspect that where we most likely encountered in evolutionary history, and encounter still today, falling objects with this additional motion, "we" and those objects are in the same inertial frame.

When you are moving and you accidentally drop something, for example.

Indeed, that may be the situation of most practical importance, evolutionary. In contrast, we have less opportunities to catch falling objects dropped by another someone/something in motion. It makes sense for us to cognitively default to the more common situation, considering that catching these things is difficult and very time-sensitive.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 10:44 AM on June 8, 2012

A hypothesis is useless if it can't be tested

Let's take the hypothesis that the sun revolves around the earth. How would you test that? Well, you can't really. Best you can do is show that the equations come out so much simpler that way and invoke Occam, but that's not science. The newspapers still print the time of sunrise, as if the sun is going around the earth and for the person who wants to know when that will occur, this is the simpler way to think about it. He/she wasn't going to be doing any equation this morning anyway. The whole concept of what it means for one object to move relative to another is based on our intuitive understand of what objects and motion is anyway. Scientist will have us think that solid things are mostly empty space, but when we're not doing physics, this just makes every day life more complicated. In the end, we have no nice way of linking everything together in science. We're stuck with m-theory which is bunch of patched together shit and we get to use the particular part that is relevant to what we're doing. Model-dependent realism would be just fine with the sun going around the earth when it's used in the context of when the day starts.
posted by Obscure Reference at 11:48 AM on June 8, 2012

"Let's take the hypothesis that the sun revolves around the earth. How would you test that? Well, you can't really."

No, you can, depending upon some other stuff.

I sort of hate to disagree with you about this because I kind of agree with your essential point. But I also find it annoying when people assert that various kinds of things aren't empirically testable in any sense because they're remote from us in either space or time. You get this a lot from creationists, but I hear it from all sorts of people about all sorts of things and I even hear it from scientifically-literate people and even occasionally scientists. People often work from what we might call naive, or more charitably, unimaginative notions about how hypothesis can be tested. That's ironic in this context because those naive or unimaginative notions seem to have an unconscious relationship to things being "within reach".
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 12:18 PM on June 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

particularly in the context of scientific concepts, that nothing is intuitive or counterintuitive, there's only culture and what is explicitly taught.

I think you are completely correct in the large. To claim it as a general principal is remarkably far reaching and not supported. An area for research, to be sure. However, I can't agree with you about relativity. Simultaneity is not at all required by our intuition, see adjusting aim from direct fire to parabolic arc accounting for wind, and leading the target because you know that it takes time for the projectile to travel. I think one would have to start the search with some much less sophisticated concepts than relativity.
posted by Chuckles at 4:08 PM on June 8, 2012

"Simultaneity is not at all required by our intuition, see adjusting aim from direct fire to parabolic arc accounting for wind, and leading the target because you know that it takes time for the projectile to travel."

That's not what I meant by simultaneity. Or, rather, that isn't an example contradicting it.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 4:56 PM on June 8, 2012

I think the problem is far more social than intellectual. If you're the kind of person who believes in creationism in N. America, changing beliefs is not so much an intellectual exercise as a dramatic restructuring of your social life: your grandmother will cry, your parents may reject you, your friends will believe that you're going to hell and may never look at you in the same way again. Etc. You need to want truth more than you want to maintain the most important relationships in your life. How many people in your high-school class cared enough about intellectual accuracy to do that?

I grew up in a fundamentalist Christian community. I loved science my entire childhood, but all of the people I trusted in my life were Christian (including my biology teacher), and all of the books I was given to read reinforced our existing beliefs. There is much literature written for Christians which re-interprets the science of the day to match their beliefs, essentially vaccinating their minds so that when they encounter resistance from non-believers, they know how to react. It's effective.

It wasn't until my 20s that I left home, lived abroad, and realized how silly my beliefs were. It took the better part of a decade to figure out how to live outside that kind of community.

I've been lucky -- my family has grown to be more open-minded than I ever imagined possible. But that's not the same for everyone.
posted by mhuebert at 1:46 AM on June 9, 2012

Americans are weaned on myth-worship. Myths about gods, myths about history, myths about Israel and, above all, myths about themselves and their own country. This is why they struggle with uncomfortable realities.

I have spoken.
posted by Decani at 4:38 AM on June 9, 2012

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