Science denial has been a major issue of concern in recent years. Many factors have been proposed as the cause of science denial, including political ideology, religious ideology, and purveyors of misinformation and doubt like antievolutionists, anti-vaccination proponents, and climate change skeptics. In Scienceblind, Andrew Shtulman, associate professor of psychology and cognitive science at Occidental College, discusses yet another factor that contributes to skepticism about established science. Shtulman provides an overview of intuitive theories about the world that develop early in life, have been consistently found in people of all ages, across many different cultures, and throughout history. These intuitive theories can pose barriers for students trying to learn many of the well-established, but counterintuitive, theories central to the biological and physical sciences. Shtulman argues that, “To get the world right we need to do more than just change our beliefs; we need to change the very concepts that articulate those beliefs. That is, to get the world right, we cannot simply refine our intuitive theories; we must dismantle them and rebuild them from their foundations” (p. 5). This poses particular challenges for designing science instruction.
Scienceblind provides a very readable introduction to a vast literature on science misconceptions that stretches back to the early 1980s. The book opens with a chapter entitled “Why we get the world wrong,” providing an overview of the concept of intuitive theories. Most of the remainder of the book is divided into two parts, one summarizing research on intuitive theories in the physical sciences and the other, the biological sciences. An example of an intuitive theory of adaptation familiar to biologists is the inheritance of acquired characteristics where species evolve due to environmental pressures that cause a need for change, and all individuals in the population simultaneously respond to this need by adapting their anatomy, physiology, or behavior in order to survive. The well-established scientific theory is, of course, Darwin's theory of natural selection, which is a two-step process involving the generation of random variation followed by selection. In Darwin's theory many individuals die without having successfully passed on their genes to the next generation. Only a select few successfully reproduce. This causes the population to evolve, not the individual organisms.
Intuitive theories are grounded partly in innate expectations and partly in concepts that emerge early in a child's development. By school age these foundational concepts form students' common-sense intuitions about the world, and when scientific ideas clash with them, the common-sense ideas usually win out (Bloom & Weisberg, 2007). For example, essentialism is a foundational belief that objects have a set of observable characteristics determined by an immutable underlying nature that cannot be seen, but that gives the object its identity. Essentialism is important for learning concepts, but can interfere with learning natural selection. Students who view evolutionary change through an essentialist bias see evolution as the simultaneous transformation of the essence of all individuals in a population, rather than as the survival and reproductive success of only a select few organisms from each generation.
In addition to the intuitive theory of adaptation, the section of the book on intuitive biological theories also includes chapters on life, growth, inheritance, illness, and ancestry. A careful reading of the chapter on ancestry will help the reader understand why nonscientists continue to challenge evolution by asking, “If humans evolved from chimpanzees, then why are chimpanzees still around.” The section of the book dealing with intuitive theories of the physical world also contains chapters that may be of interest to biologists. For example, the chapter on intuitive theories of energy may be relevant for helping students to understand energy transformations at the cellular and molecular level. There is also a chapter that addresses intuitive theories of the earth (continental drift) and climate that may interest biologists.
The book closes with a chapter entitled “How to get the world right,” where Shtulman discusses some educational implications of our knowledge of intuitive theories. He concludes that science denial is unavoidable. Grounded in innate expectations and our earliest attempts to understand causal relationships in the world, intuitive theories are coherent and robust.
But there is hope. Many of the chapters on the various intuitive theories discuss educational interventions that have been successful in helping students overcome the barrier that an intuitive theory can impose to learning a well-established scientific theory. Shtulman writes, “Any educator who wants to help students confront and correct their intuitive theories needs to tailor his or her instruction to those theories” (p. 245). The key is to guide students through an evaluation of the intuitive theory and its well-established scientific counterpart. Students need a clear demonstration of how the intuitive theory fails to adequately explain the phenomenon in question, followed by a clear demonstration of how the scientific theory adequately explains the phenomenon. Scienceblind is a book that all science teachers should read, if only to sample the chapters relevant to their discipline, whether it be biology, chemistry, physics, or earth science. The ideas in this book have important implications for designing instruction and planning both formative and summative assessments that will challenge students to confront their intuitive theories and rebuild their understanding of the world. Scienceblind provides a fine illustration of how cognitive science can inform the practice of science teaching, just as the biological sciences inform the practice of medicine.