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November 16, 2009

The power of subconscious theories

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

The existence and history of religion tells us that people are willing to believe things for which there is no evidence and that they will fight to hold on to them even in the face of overwhelming evidence and arguments to the contrary. But when those beliefs collapse, as they sometimes do, the switch to disbelief can often be quite sudden. I know that in my case, I had been struggling (unsuccessfully) to reconcile my scientific ideas with that of a god for some time. The realization that everything made a lot more sense if there was no god hit me like a Gestalt switch.

One specific creationist religious belief whose origins I have been curious about is the bizarre argument that is advanced by anti-evolution religious people about how the lack of transitional fossils is undermining the theory of evolution. This argument mystifies scientists because it is so palpably wrong and the fossil evidence is so strong. So where does this weird idea come from? And why does it persist?

As much of research in science education has shown, robust misconceptions are often not simply bits of false knowledge (like thinking that Portland is the capital of the state of Maine) that can be easily corrected, but instead are the manifestations of elaborate theories that emerge from a deeply rooted but fundamentally flawed premise. As long as that flawed premise remains intact and unexamined, the misconceptions that flow from it will reappear even if countered in specific cases.

I have seen this phenomenon in my own teaching of electricity to people without a science background. One of the strong misconceptions that people have about electric current is that it emerges from a source (a battery or an electrical outlet), flows through the wire, and is then 'used up' by the radio or light or whatever device it is connected to. They also think that a battery always supplies the same amount of current. Based on this model of electricity, they will then make wrong predictions about how current will flow in more complicated circuits, say by connecting two or more devices to the same source of current.

In actuality, current is never used up. It just flows around in a circuit. Current flows out of one end of the battery (or other source), goes through one wire to the device, passes through the device, and then flows back through another wire into the other end of the battery. The amount of current flowing out of the battery at one end is exactly equal to the amount of current flowing into it at the other end. But it is extraordinarily hard to persuade novice learners of this model, even when they want to learn about electricity and have no reasons to resist it. After all, the Bible does not say anything about electricity. When I tell them how current really behaves, they believe me because I am an authority figure. But yet the misconceptions persist.

If you teach the right model of current to people and then ask them a direct question about how current flows, they will give back the right answer. But when they are asked something indirect, like giving them a circuit and asking them to predict how current will flow, very often they will come up with an answer that is at variance with how it really will behave. If you trace the reasoning of the wrong answer back to its source, you will find that it arises from their original misconception of current being used up and the battery producing a fixed amount of current, even though they consciously thought they had rejected that old way of thinking. When you point this out, they will think that this time they have definitely overcome the misconception. But when they are given a yet more complicated circuit, very often they will make a wrong prediction again, based on the same underlying misconception.

It is only after it has been repeatedly pointed out to them the important role that their basic deep misconception plays in their surface thinking that they switch to seeing the current flowing in a circuit. Once they make that switch in their basic misconception, there is no going back. They cannot imagine that they could have ever thought otherwise.

The reason this particular misconception about current is so deeply held is because people have constructed it on their own. Most of them are not even aware that they have this underlying theory of electricity because they have not consciously thought about it. The theory is built intuitively. Nobody taught it to them, they just 'picked it up' because it makes sense. After all, they know that appliances have a power cord that must be connected to an electrical supply system in order to work. They know that electrical devices 'use up' power because batteries eventually die. The power cord looks like a single tube, like a garden hose, and thus electricity seems like it can flow only in one direction. All these things make sense by assuming their simple model. Most people do not look more closely and wonder why the plug has two prongs and they do not break open the wires or their devices and find that there are incoming and outgoing pathways for the current.

The theories that people intuitively create for themselves are the hardest to refute because they are buried deeply in their thinking and are not consciously articulated by them. The consequences of these misconceptions are often erroneous but if we only correct the consequences without understanding and addressing the source, then we will find that same misconception rearing its head each time a novel situation is encountered.

The misconceptions about how evolution works are of the same kind. They are created deep in the minds of people at an early age, often by well meaning, science-supporting adults who tell their children that 'we evolved from monkeys' and by some of the visual images that we have of the process of evolution, such as the one that draws it as fish→amphibian→monkey→human (with the drawing of each showing what a current typical specimen looks like).

Once these misconceptions about evolution take root at an early age by a process of intuitive thinking, they become, just like the false electricity models, hard to dislodge in adulthood even by confronting people with the most clear reasoning.

As Jonathan Swift said, "You cannot reason a person out of a position he did not reason himself into in the first place."

Next: The role that deep misconceptions play in evolution

POST SCRIPT: How not to stalk off an interview

It is not uncommon for guests on TV or radio to get miffed about something, throw a fit, and stalk off the set. Some may even do it deliberately as a strategy, knowing it will get them publicity. But it sometimes doesn't work out well, with some forgetting to take off either the earpiece or the mike and getting yanked, resulting in a less-than-impressive exit.

But the award for the worst interview termination must surely go to Carrie Prejean. Remember her? Here are some keywords to jog your memory: Miss California who was stripped of her title, supporter of 'opposite marriage', breast implants, topless photos, Donald Trump, lawsuit against Miss USA pageant, sex video.

While on a tour promoting her book, she was irked by a question posed by Larry King of all people, who is notorious for his softball questions. So she removes her mike but instead of then walking off the set, she just sits there, talks to someone off-camera, and smiles at the camera as if she was competing in a pageant, leaving King baffled as to what is going on. Watch.

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