There are, though, a few lines of evidence arguing against this interpretation. First, the authors found that participants who had best mastered scientific concepts (determined by their overall accuracy) were especially slow to verify inconsistent statements. A learning-based explanation of performance would have predicted the opposite — that mastery and speed should go hand in hand. More convincingly, a different study has shown that even those who’ve achieved an extremely high level of competence in a specific scientific field are still prone to make classifications based on naive, early concepts from childhood. In a speeded classification task analogous to Shtulman and Valcarcel’s, university biology professors were found to take longer to classify plants as living relative to moving nonliving things, a bias toward equating motion with life that is evident in young children.
Taken together, these findings suggest that we may be innately predisposed to have certain theories about the natural world that are resilient to being drastically replaced or restructured. These naive theories provide hunches and rules of thumb that likely helped us survive long before we needed to contemplate the atom, cells, or relativity. While some theories of learning consider the unschooled mind to be a ‘bundle of misconceptions’ in need of replacement, perhaps replacement is an unattainable goal. Or, if it is attainable, we may need to rethink how science is taught.
Are you a scientist who specializes in neuroscience, cognitive science, or psychology? And have you read a recent peer-reviewed paper that you would like to write about? Please send suggestions to Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist at the Boston Globe. He can be reached at garethideas AT gmail.com or Twitter @garethideas.