June 27, 2013

Rejecting reality in favor of falsehood

I've always been fascinated by the ways our Old World primate brains make it difficult for us to understand many basic things, such as probability and risk, geological time, extremely large- or small-scale events, and so on.

Here's another one: an excellent psychology article about why we resist some scientific ideas more than others. Essentially, research shows that:

[...] even one year-olds possess a rich understanding of both the physical world (a "naive physics") and the social world (a "naive psychology"). [...] These intuitions give children a head start when it comes to understanding and learning about objects and people. But these intuitions also sometimes clash with scientific discoveries about the nature of the world, making certain scientific facts difficult to learn.
However, some concepts don't work that way, even when they're far from obvious:

 [The existence of germs and electricity] is generally assumed in day-to-day conversation and is not marked as uncertain; nobody says that they "believe in electricity." Hence even children and adults with little scientific background believe that these invisible entities really exist.
That's interesting, because our evidence for things like those is pretty indirect: light switches and televisions work, and washing your hands helps prevent infection. But most people have never seen a germ, much less an electron. It would seem that being able to watch the patterns of a coin flipped over and over, or observe the similarities and differences between chimpanzees and humans, would make concepts like randomness and biological evolution easier to understand than electricity or germ theory.

But that's not the case. Our brains are remarkable things, and one of the most remarkable things about them is that we can, with a little work, help ourselves get around our own cognitive limitations.

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