Funded Grants

The roles of intuition and reflection in understanding science

People everywhere are woefully uninformed about the basic facts of science. In poll after poll, millions of people have been shown to believe that dinosaurs coexisted with humans, that the earth’s continents are fixed in place, and that the sun orbits the earth. Likewise, millions are skeptical that genetically modified foods are safe to eat, that climate change is caused by humans, and that humans evolved from non-human ancestors. Public ignorance of science stems from a number of factors, but one factor that plagues our understanding of all domains of science is a reliance on intuitive theories. Intuitive theories are untutored explanations for how the world works. They are our best guess as to why we observe the events we do and how we can intervene on the world to change the outcomes of those events—events as diverse as freezing, floating, falling, rotting, breeding, bleeding, growing, and dying. The world is a complex place, and we have devised our own homespun theories for explaining that complexity.

Three decades of research in cognitive development and science education have revealed much about the content and structure of intuitive theories across several domains of knowledge. Less is known, however, about the fate of those theories after we have acquired a scientific theory of the same domain. Indeed, recent research from my lab and others suggests that intuitive theories are not replaced by scientific theories but instead coexist with those theories, influencing our inferences about the natural world for decades to follow. Most educated adults know that the moon orbits the earth and that the earth orbits the sun, but, when asked to verify those facts under time pressure, we verify the latter more slowly and less accurately than the former, presumably because we have always believed that the moon orbits the earth but had to learn that the earth orbits the sun and not vice versa. Both beliefs accord with science but only one accords with intuition.

These findings imply that our understanding of science is constrained by pre-scientific intuitions not only when learning science but also when reasoning about science later in life. I plan to investigate this phenomenon on two fronts. On one front, I plan to investigate whether, and how, intuitive theories change in the face of a scientific alternative. What factors maintain intuitive theories across the lifespan? And what factors influence whether we deploy intuitive theories or scientific theories when reasoning about phenomena covered by both? On another front, I plan to investigate the role of cognitive reflection in understanding and endorsing scientific ideas. At what point in the development of cognitive reflection are children most receptive to scientific ideas? And how do individual differences in adults’ disposition toward cognitive reflection influence their receptiveness to scientific ideas? Together, these lines of research promise to shed new light on how our knowledge of natural phenomena is represented in the mind and how those representations are influenced by everything from momentary experiences to enduring dispositions.