Andrew Shtulman: SCIENCEBLIND: Why Our Intuitive Theories About the World Are So Often Wrong

(Basic Books, 2017)

Here’s a book I read earlier this year and am only just now boiling my notes down into a coherent summary. (Well actually I started boiling my notes down but ended up just cleaning up the remainder, and added a summary at the top.) The subject here is supplemental to, not quite the same as, various books about cognitive errors, perceptual illusions, and so on; but it does align with those in examining ways our naïve “common sense” takes on the world are so frequently wrong. The focus in this book is how we come up with “theories” of how the world works in the first place.

The baby-faced (judging from the jacket photo) author is a professor of psychology at Occidental College (in LA), and the book has blurbs from Steven Pinker and Michael Shermer.

Going into this, I thought about the most common examples of how intuitive thinking is wrong. First, the notion that heavier objects fall faster than lighter ones. Trials would be foiled if lighter objects are subject to friction with the air, so you can see how people would think this. (Didn’t the Apollo astronauts on one trip do this demonstration in the vacuum on the Moon?) The second example is the notion that something that slides off a table, or that’s shot into the air and reaches a high point, falls straight down. We don’t take into account the object’s sideways momentum….

So to the book. Shtulman has handily provided summaries to each section capturing each chapter’s theme. Some of these intuitive theories, or misunderstanding about the real world, are features of childhood development that can be overcome; others are persistent even in adults.


  • Matter: substances are viewed as holistic and discrete, rather than particulate and divisible
  • Energy: heat, light, and sound are viewed as material substances rather than emergent properties
  • Gravity: weight is viewed as an intrinsic property rather than a relation between mass and gravity
  • Motion: viewed as a something transferred between objects, rather than an external factor that change’s an object’s motion
  • Cosmos: earth is viewed as a motionless plane orbited by the sun, rather than a sphere in orbit around the sun
  • Earth: geological features are viewed as eternal and unchanging, rather than transient and dynamic
  • Life: animals are viewed as psychological agents rather than organic machines
  • Growth: eating is viewed as a means of satiation, rather than nourishment; aging as a series of discrete changes, rather than a continuous change
  • Inheritance: parent-offspring resemblance is viewed as a consequence of nurture, rather than by a transmission of genetic information
  • Illness: disease is viewed as a consequence of imprudent or immoral behavior, rather than due to microscopic organisms
  • Adaptation: evolution is viewed as a transformation of an entire population, rather than the selective survival of subsets of a population
  • Ancestry: speciation is viewed as a linear process of direct ancestry, rather than a branching process of common ancestry

Key quote, page 126:

We form these theories because we are built to perceive the environment in ways that are useful for daily living, but these ways to not map onto the true workings of nature. … Only scientific theories draw the right distinctions and thus only scientific theories can furnish us with beliefs that are consistently accurate and broadly applicable.

The first chapter is “Why We Get the World Wrong”; the last is “How to Get the World Right.” Key points:

  • Intuitive theories are untutored explanations for how the world works. They’re often wrong. To get things right, we need to dismantle our intuitive theories and rebuild them.
  • These theories are coherent, widespread, and robust; they’re better than nothing. But scientific theories, that get the world right, help us thrive.
  • Intuitive theories “are anthropocentric, grounded in a human timescale, a human perspective, and a human sense of value and purpose.” They have common themes: they are grounded in perception; they are thing-based (whereas science carves the world into processes); they focus on objects rather than contexts. And they are narrower and shallower than their scientific counterparts.
  • Does it matter if your neighbor misunderstands science as long as they have a sense of moral virtue? Maybe it does, if clinging to intuitive theories causes you neighbor to reject vaccines (or other health advice.)
  • Science denial is unavoidable – “there is a fundamental disconnect between the cognitive abilities of individual humans and the cognitive demands of modern society.” We must take intuitive theories seriously, becoming aware of them, and overcoming them.

Now what he doesn’t address are the way these ideas affect storytelling, especially in Hollywood movies (about how car crashes always end in explosions) and especially in almost all science fiction (why the Enterprise swooshes audibly as it streaks past the camera). Perhaps this is a separate subject, but this is where I see his subject overlapping with my study of SF.


Detailed Notes:

Chapter 1: Why We Get the World Wrong

  • Milk used to be a problem; it became dangerous once carried long distances and stored for periods of time. This was solved in 1860s by pasteurization. And yet there are people now who are opting for unpasteurized milk, as if being more “natural” is automatically better. And because the idea of heat to kill germs is counterintuitive. This entails the rejection of immunology, geology, and genetics–science denial, coupled with political and religious ideologies. But at the root are intuitive theories, our untutored explanations for how the world works. And they’re often wrong. Our intuitive theory of illness, e.g., is about behavior, not microbes.
  • Intuitive theories are better than no theory at all. But they close our minds to ideas inconsistent with them.
  • This book addresses two ideas: First, we get the world wrong. Second, to get the world right, we must dismantle our intuitive theories (not just refine them) and rebuild them. Many truths are not easy to understand.
  • We learn such theories—about cause and effects—through experience. Some intuitions about motion and matter are innate; ideas about cosmology, etc., are acquired through culture. They vary in assumptions about causality. Supernatural explanations are just as substantive than natural ones.
  • They are not a dying breed; they’re a permanent fixture of human cognition—of children. E.g. concept of heat. Conceptual change; analogy with legos.
  • Some misconceptions are simply errors. Intuitive theories are coherent, widespread, and robust, 10t. Examples: dropping a bullet and shooting a gun; dropped a cannonball from a ship’s crow’s nest. Most people guess wrong about what happens to both. Our intuition about motion involves impetus, not momentum.
  • Another example: what it means to be alive…animals and plants.
  • Scientific theories never completely override intuitive ones; it’s more like a palimpsest, p14.
  • Example of a mother who thinks science is great, it’s just not right for her or her family (!). Science deniers are often skeptical of science where it seems to conflict with political or religious beliefs.
  • Intuitive theories help us get by. Scientific ones help us thrive.

Part 1: Intuitive Theories of the Physical World

Ch 2, Matter, p19

  • Humans innately perceive heft and bulk, and must be instructed in the atomic nature of matter to understand weight and volume, and therefore density.
  • Children identify matter with tangibility, so that air isn’t seen as matter.
  • Many examples of various experiment with children, even experiences with adults.

Ch 3, Energy

  • Heat was studied beginning in the mid-1600s, but experimenters thought that cold was something that moved, not a transfer of heat. This was the source-recipient theory of heat. Joseph Black in 1761 developed the “caloric” theory; a century later came the kinetic idea.
  • Intuitive theories of heat parallel historical theories. We still talk about heat as a substance that moves. We confuse heat and temperature, e.g. in situations of heat transfer: metal feels warmer that cloth even when their temperatures are the same.
  • Things are easier to think about than processes, especially emergent processes such as heat, pressure, traffic, stock prices.
  • Sound is energy; it travels through matter but it not matter. People think of it as a substance. “Extramissionist” beliefs imagine that ears send out sound waves, or eyes emit some kind of ray. Many adults hold such beliefs, even after given correct explanations. [[ Really? Never heard this before. ]]

Ch 4, Gravity

  • Infants seem to have no expectations of gravity, or of one thing supporting another, until 4 to 6 months.
  • Children expect objects to fall straight down, despite sideways motion or obstructions.
  • The simple heuristic for looking for a fallen object is to look straight down.
  • Some 7% of Americans think the moon landings were faked, and have various explanations for how it was done. But they overlook the dust in the film, dust which could hardly be rigged on wires. There are many odd questions about mass and gravity. Why don’t things on the other side of the earth fall off? Children imagine they would. What about a stone dropped down a hole through the earth? Learning about the shape of the earth has to go with learning how gravity works. Learning several new concepts at once is like building a ship at sea; you have to use what you have to start with.

Ch5, Motion

  • Medieval physicists had various theories about objects in motion, momentum or impetus, and so on. They got nowhere because impetus is not real; it’s the wrong question. Newton clarified this with his three laws. But these laws describe motion differently than how we intuit it on our own. We tend to find force and motion inseparable. We think motion requires an explanation, while rest does not. But they are two sides of the same coin.
  • Thus we imagine a marble rolled off a table will fall straight down, p76. Or that a whirled ball released from its string will still move in a curved path. All this affects how we deal with everyday objects—except, e.g., hockey players, baseball catchers, who have to learn how things actually move. And yet we find Wile E. Coyote cartoons funny because he *doesn’t* immediately drop down.
  • Impetus theory is constructed early in life. Even physics students use impetus-based reasoning, even though they can solve equations well.
  • How about simulated microworlds, as in video games? Helps only a bit. A tutorial on Newtonian principles works better. Anyway, most video games do *not* incorporate Newtonian principles.
  • Yet even hands-on experience is ineffective in teaching such abstract ideas, e.g. watching balls of different mass roll down a ramp. It takes instruction for these lessons to sink in. One way that works is via ‘bridging’ examples, e.g. to relate pressing your hand on a spring compared to a book sitting on a table. These work quite well. Preconceptions are not necessarily misconceptions. Yet some really are (like that heavy objects fall faster than lighter ones). Both sidestepping and bridging are useful strategies.

Ch6, Cosmos (i.e., what is the shape of our world? What is its place in the cosmos?)

  • Consider that many ancient people spent their entire lives within a day’s travel from home. So what ideas would they have about the world? Exmples from Egypt to Hebrew. No one considered the world might be a sphere. Even today most children have not understood this. Children learn it, but don’t readily understand it. Children drawing a picture of the earth make odd mistakes, 93m. We call theirs ‘models’ rather than theories. Some of their ideas are ‘hollow sphere’ models. There are also the flattened sphere and the dual earth models. See diagrams p96. These models are remarkable for their consistency; children devise them on their own. Or are they swayed by interviewers’ questions?
  • Understanding the earth is a sphere requires understanding why it *looks* flat. And how a person can be on the other side without falling off. Tutorials on these subjects helped children abandon their earlier models.
  • There are cultural variations in children’s models, depending on cultural myths. Australian children are aware of being on the ‘underside’ and so are anxious about the question of why they don’t fall off.
  • Other ideas require explanation: day/night, the seasons, tides, changing constellations. Children’s ideas of these depend on the models of the earth, p102. By adolescence most understand the day, the year, etc. [[ of course I suspect many adults *can’t* explain these things just because they’ve never had occasion to think about them. And now there are some actively pushing back, prioritizing their intuitive sensations of the flat earth. ]]
  • What about other ideas, like tides or lunar phases? Most think the season are due to closeness to the sun. Videos don’t seem to help. Adult misconceptions run deep. … “I never knew that Mars had a sun.”

Ch7, Earth (i.e., why do continents drift? Why do climates change?)

  • We know that the earth is molten, that the continents drift.
  • Wegener amassed much evidence for continental drift—it was a triumph of evidence over intuition, 110.2. At one point lost continents were postulated—Lemuria! Yet geologists were skeptical; what mechanism could move continents? Nongeologists still find the idea baffling. Even modern students retain their naïve understanding of the earth (as fixed and unchangeable).
  • Why? First, the data is not plain to the naked eye. They are not obvious like volcanoes are. Students with better visuospatial skills did better.
  • Second, immense amounts of time are involved. ‘Deep time’ geologists call it. Darwin wrote of this, p117. Consider order of major events in evolution of life, p118t. (Mammals appeared long before the dinosaurs went extinct, of course.) Some people think dinosaurs and humans lived at the same time—recall pop culture tv and movies. Creationists require no evidence, of course. They at first denied dinosaurs ever existed, then had to reinterpret the evidence, e.g. to suggest that Jesus rode a T.rex (!) p119.7.
  • You also need to see earth as a dynamic system to understand its climate. Most people conflate climate with weather, and with hot weather. People are more apt to accept climate change on hot days than on cold. Such misconceptions breed naïve solutions.
  • There are ‘six Americas’ in terms of how climate change concerns people. Those more dismissive are also more politically conservative. Perhaps those who dismiss it simply don’t understand what it is. Providing information about how it works helps only a little. Info on how many scientists accept it helps somewhat. That’s the consensus effect, analogous to popular fashion and peer pressure. Yet the default strategy is the guilt trip—how we’re harming the earth. Such emotional appeal often fails against our notion that the earth is eternal and indifferent to humans. It’s more correct to say that Gaia will survive, it’s humans that are killing themselves. P126.
  • Recap of these chapters, p126b. and “We form these theories because we are built to perceive the environment in ways that are useful for daily living, but these ways to not map onto the true workings of nature.” …And: “Only scientific theories draw the right distinctions and thus only scientific theories can furnish us with beliefs that are consistently accurate and broadly applicable.”
  • Well, yes, this is the bottom line.

Part 2: Intuitive Theories of the Biological World

Ch8, Life (what makes us alive? What causes us to die?)

  • Children are unaware of mortality. Author recalls taking his 4 ½ year old son to see mummies. When children aren’t told answers about biological events, they invent answers based on things they know, like sleep and travel.
  • Begin alive is about a metabolic state—extracting energy from the environment, and so on. Children simplify this to self-directed motion. Children are attentive to organic movement over mechanical or random movement. (Because those are the ones that interact with the child.) Preschoolers don’t think plants, etc., are alive. They’re also confused about which biological activities various animals engage in. Children will attribute qualities of humans to some animals, but never qualities of animals to humans. They think things like the sun is alive. Gollum’s riddle. Rural children understand these things earlier than urban children. Except urban children who have pets.
  • So children gradually understand that death is a termination, not a journey somewhere. Five principles of death, p140m, learned at different stages. Children don’t hear much about death; more about grieving, or confusing talk about surviving as angels. This is confusing because children don’t understand the distinction between the physical body and the ‘soul’. Eventually they focus on the concept of a body. Teaching about parts of the body, e.g. with body aprons, helps. Did it make them fear death more? No, less.
  • Adults are conflicted about death. E.g., why exhume remains of soldiers who died at Pearl Harbor for identification and reburial? Further, we speak less of plants being alive than of animals. And even adults don’t completely escape the motion-based conception of life. People with Alzheimer’s revert to childlike conceptions.
  • So: children think living entities are animate, and have to learn it’s about them being metabolic.

Ch9, Growth (why do we grow bigger? Why do we grow older?)

  • Children don’t understand that a birthday indicates a passage of time since they were born; but they know older children are bigger, smarter, etc. Some young children think the birthday party *makes* you a year older. This hearkens to the vitalistic theory of biology, that some inner energy or life force is what keeps us going. Young children provide vitalistic explanations for how the body works. It takes a while to understand that being alive and growing go together. Growth is seen as a separate phenomenon, the way clouds grow.
  • A key step is whether children understand the nutritional value of food. Some get hung up on particular aspects. They get confusing directions on what they should or should not eat. Vitalistic instructions work best, emphasizing which components are healthy or not.
  • Examples of people with Williams syndrome, that combines low intelligence with normal language skills. Do they acquire vitalistic ideas of biology? E.g. not understanding why a vampire would bite a lady’s neck.
  • People can learn which foods are healthy, etc., but they still think exercise is the key to losing weight, not eating less.
  • Other beliefs are shaped by essentialism—that outward appearance is a product of an inner nature or essence. As in familiar stories in which a person or animal’s true nature comes through in the end. Children believe an animal, or person, raised by others will grow up to be like their parents. This has sociological consequences, in terms of categories of people, e.g. rich vs poor. Or issues with organ donation, even blood transfusions.
  • Children don’t realize that children grow into adults. And they have difficulty realizing that aging goes through phases. 20 and 30 year olds think their preferences will change less often in the future than they have in the past. Adults think they’ve arrived at the final phase of their identity, unable to imagine that we might change in the future.

Ch10, Inheritance (why do we resemble our parents? Where did we get our traits?)

  • Cloning and genetic engineering are scarier in pop magazines than in real life. There’s great misunderstanding about genetics and modified food, e.g. GMOs. Some of this is due to poor education, but it’s also due to essentialism. Adults associate essences with genes. But this leads to many maladaptive attitudes and behaviors, 170. Children can be tested with thought experiments. Children younger than 7 confuse inherited traits between a king and an adopted prince. Or thinking shirt color was inheritable.
  • Also, children think kinship refers only to social relations. E.g. that a close friend of a boy is a brother. Of course, adults speak in such terms, but children don’t realize those are metaphorical.
  • A third context is cross-species transformation, as in Wells. It doesn’t work because each animal retains its ‘essence’. Children think this should be possible. They think surgery turns one animal into another.
  • How to children acquire a biological understanding of inheritance? By learning where babies come from. …articles in NYT assume a certain knowledge of biochemical facts, 182b. And our beliefs about genes can influence our behavior…

Ch11 Illness (what makes us ill? How does illness spread?)

  • Humans around the world express the same reactions to things that contain pathogens and parasites. The disgust face. The insular cortex. It triggers even by seeing someone else look disgusted. Some things are disgusting only by association, 187t. [[ This is the same kind of better-safe-than-sorry overreaction as the perception of agency. ]] At the same time, we fail to be disgusted by some things that should be disgusting—agencies that spread infectious diseases.
  • Children differ in same ways in their disgust responses. The confuse disgust with anger. They don’t react to things like dead animals. They have to be trained to be wary of objects that might be contaminated, like urinals. Or glasses of milk a grasshopper had fallen into. Perhaps because some degrees of disgust are a luxury, for living in a modern society; early, one couldn’t afford to be too picky. E.g. food that’s fallen on the ground. People are sometimes disgusted by things they did not eat in their childhood; so attitudes about certain foods vary from culture to culture. Crabs, termites.
  • There are other reasons people fall ill rather than infectious diseases; genetic, nutrition. For most of history these have been blamed on internal fluids, or ‘humors’. Hippocrates. Imbalanced. To relieve them could involve bloodletting. A universal practice. Bad air, or miasma, was another popular explanation. It wasn’t until the 17th century that ‘animalcules’ were observed, and not until 1857 that Pasteur made the link to diseases. Thus germ theory and microbiology.
  • So now children are told about germs all the time. Yet they don’t always understand and react appropriately. And young children don’t distinguish between germs and poison. And the connection between germs and disease is fuzzy.
  • Same is true among adults; thus people who think you catch a cold from being cold. But this is just a folk belief. Such beliefs generally prescribe preventative measures, but sometimes these are maladaptive. A Think Biology course for children helped.
  • Other folk beliefs have supernatural flavors. Some pray to god. Some cultures attribute illness to sorcery, spirits, or witchcraft. Some Africans know how AIDS is transmitted but still blame witchcraft. And it takes adults to teach such things to children. Some people believe illness is moral; bad things happen to bad people, as if they deserve it. Knowing how we get sick isn’t the same as knowing why we get sick.

Ch12 Adaptation (why are there so many life-forms? How do they change over time?)

  • Newton and Darwin didn’t discover gravity and evolution—they discovered the principles and mechanisms behind them. Darwin had five insights. … summary 204b. Other ideas had floated around, e.g. Lamarck’s inheritance of acquired characteristics. Darwin realized that both mutation and selection are involved. Even after Darwin there were other theories, for 50 years. Eventually understanding of genetics came down in favor of Darwin.
  • Still today, students don’t appreciate its importance; they deny it utterly, or misunderstand it. Most answer incorrectly a question about woodpeckers, 206b. Intuitive theories of evolution are similar to pre-Darwinian theories. Another: about changes in moth coloration, 208t.
  • [[ well this is interesting; I didn’t realize there are so many *wrong* ideas about how evolution worked. ]]
  • Similarly, most people see extinction and speciation as rare events. 209. The common thread is that people seem to believe that adaptation occurs uniformly across all members of a species in accordance with the species’ needs.
  • Most people misunderstand variation as deviations from some ‘true’ form, recalling Plato, and essentialism. Essentialism makes sense in understanding why a swan is born of two other swans. But every population is full of variation. Yet people still think in terms of categories of identical members. People deny traits might vary—at least, children and adults who didn’t understand evolution do.
  • Even people who know about variation don’t always appreciate its role in evolution. Many people believe in a non-Malthusian, harmonious view of nature. They underestimate competitive behavior and overestimate cooperative behavior. They underestimate how many organisms die without leaving offspring. These correlate with understanding of evolution. Competition within a species was a key idea. The less informed react to video feeds of animals eating, etc.
  • Summary: two deep-seated misconceptions: that all members of a species are the same; that all members have plenty of resources at their disposal.
  • And yet in the US evolution is excluded from biology courses sometimes even in high school. And teleology infects its teaching. One source of confusion is how evolution is portrayed in pop media.

Ch13 Ancestry (where did species come from? How are they related?)

  • Most people think humans are related to monkeys through direct ancestry—actually it’s shared ancestry. Ancestry isn’t a simple line, but a nested hierarchy. Curious George looks like an ape but is called a monkey. Speciation occurs when populations have been split apart by some barrier. Yet naïve notions of an essentialist views can’t account for one species split into two becoming two different species. They imagine a kind of metamorphosis. (Which is why Creationists they ask why apes still exist if they evolved into humans; they misunderstand evolution.)
  • All life is interconnected. Everything from humans to algae is similar at a cellular level. Educators use cladograms to illustrate relationships, p225. They diagram actual relationships even when superficial similarities are misleading. Yet these are confusing to nonbiologists. The order in the diagram doesn’t matter. And some versions include ‘chart junk’ that has no meaning, 229t.
  • Also, cladograms typically leave out extinct species, which leave behind no DNA. And they often misrepresent the number of species in a group, leaving out the diversity of some groups. Omissions lead to misunderstanding, e.g. about bonobos p232. As in the famous ‘tree of life’.
  • And some people think such diagrams fictions, or lies, preferring creationist accounts. A much simpler explanation. Children use such explanations instinctively. Religion is the highest indicator of skepticism toward evolution. Creationists are often fervent in their denial, as in hate mail to Richard Dawkins, 235b. Thus hesitancy of teaching evolution. And 12% even teach creationism.
  • Even Darwin was conflicted, at first, as his studies revealed the unlikelihood of creationism. And now, many feel religion and evolution as complementary. While in some areas endorsement of evolution marks one as immoral, disloyal, lawless, and godless 237.8. Of course, many other scientific ideas were once rejected by religion as well, and now accepted even by the religious (e.g. that the earth moves, etc.). Yet the problem with the middle ground is understanding why a God would use such a process, and end up with so many poorly designed creatures? 238m. Finally, acceptance of evolution can be inspiring and motivating, 239.

14, How to Get the World Right

  • How a stone with birdlike footprints found in 1802 was interpreted intuitively: it must be Noah’s raven! (He relied on his very limited knowledge of the world.) This “highlights how intuitive theories are anthropocentric, grounded in a human timescale, a human perspective, and a human sense of value and purpose.” And are elaborated by culture—without the Bible, the idea of Noah’s raven would obviously never have occurred to him. Now with science having expanded human thought, any child could identify a dinosaur fossil.
  • These are not the only intuitive theories. The 12 here have common themes: they are grounded in perception. They are thing-based (whereas science carves the world into processes). And they focus on objects rather than contexts (e.g. volume varies by temperature, color by viewing conditions). Each theme applies to some but not all. Furthermore: they are narrower and shallower than their scientific counterparts. Intuitive theories deal with the here and now; scientific with the full causal story.
  • So how do we restructure our knowledge? We can’t start from scratch; we have to repurpose knowledge we already have. We have to get our hands dirty in the details of the knowledge itself. Example about sexing chickens. Targeted training. Another example is teaching children about = signs. Specific tutorials work well; experimentation not so much, nor does critical analysis or quantitative reasoning help with problems of intuitive theories. Science is domain specific; so must science learning.
  • A problem is that intuitive theories seem sufficient, so we don’t realize they don’t explain everything. Example of rainbows. Most people think they understand more than they do. This is the illusion of explanatory depth. We have limited ability to recognize our limited ability.
  • And our intuitive theories are resilient. We tend to fall back on them. Science actually complicates our understanding of the world, adding a new layer on top of the old. It doesn’t overwrite intuitive theories. We need to actively think like scientists.
  • It matters more whether your neighbor has a sense of moral virtue, than whether they accurately understand science. Or does it? Maybe understanding science is more important than that. There are many scientific issues with social equations that everyone should understand. Vaccinations! Intuitive theories don’t help here. Even if science denial is unavoidable – “there is a fundamental disconnect between the cognitive abilities of individual humans and the cognitive demands of modern society.” 255.7. So we must take intuitive theories serious—by becoming aware of them, and overcoming them.


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