Thursday, 22 November 2012

The unscientific thinking that forever lingers in the minds of physics professors

Young children are inclined to see purpose in the natural world. Ask them why we have rivers, and they'll likely tell you that we have rivers so that boats can travel on them (an example of a "teleological explanation"). Cute, but maybe not that surprising. Well, consider this - a new study with 80 physical scientists finds that they too have a latent tendency to endorse similar teleological explanations for why nature is the way it is. Oh yes, they label those explanations as false most of the time, but put them under time pressure, and their child-like, quasi-religious beliefs shine through.

Deborah Kelemen and her colleagues presented 80 scientists (including physicists, chemists and geographers) with 100 one-sentence statements and their task was to say if each one was true or false. Among the items were teleological statements about nature, such as "Trees produce oxygen so that animals can breathe". Crucially, half the scientists had to answer under time pressure - just over 3 seconds for each statement - while the others had as long as they liked. There were also control groups of college students and the general public.

Overall, the scientists endorsed fewer of the teleological statements than the control groups (22 per cent vs. 50 per cent approx). No surprise there, given that mainstream science rejects the idea that inanimate objects have purpose, or that there is purposeful design in the natural world. But look at what happened under time pressure. When they were rushed, the scientists endorsed 29 per cent of teleological statements compared with 15 per cent endorsed by the un-rushed scientists. This is consistent with the idea that a tendency to endorse teleological beliefs lingers in the scientists' minds. This unscientific thinking is usually suppressed, but time pressure undermines that conscious suppression.

The scientists' greater inclination to endorse teleological explanation under time pressure wasn't a non-specific effect of being rushed. Time pressure barely affected their judgments about other erroneous statements (i.e. simple false facts). Moreover, scientists who admitted having religious beliefs, or beliefs about Mother Nature being one big organism, were more prone than most to endorsing teleological explanation under time pressure, thus suggesting their latent unscientific thinking fed into their belief systems.

"A broad teleological tendency therefore appears to be a robust, resilient, and developmentally enduring feature of the human mind," the researchers concluded, "that arises early in life and gets masked rather than replaced, even in those whose scientific expertise and explicit metaphysical commitments seem most likely to counteract it."

In a follow-up study, humanities academics showed the same tendency to endorse more teleological statements under time pressure. Intriguingly, their levels of endorsement were lower than college students but no greater than the physical scientists. This suggests that further education of any kind leads to a greater masking of teleological belief, but only up to a point. "The [scientists'] specialised scientific training and substantial knowledge base does no more to ameliorate their unwarranted teleological ideas than an extended humanities education," the researchers said.

  ResearchBlogging.orgKelemen, D., Rottman, J., and Seston, R. (2012). Professional Physical Scientists Display Tenacious Teleological Tendencies: Purpose-Based Reasoning as a Cognitive Default. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General DOI: 10.1037/a0030399

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.


Anonymous said...

once trash enters the mind from bad childhood teaching, it gets stuck.

I often have to remind quantum physics professors
that there are no particles, no electrons, no photons----just probability fields. They constantly
talk in particle terms--Higgs particle etc.

Similarly, for general rel profs, who talk of

It helps a lot to grow up as a mathematician.

Anonymous said...

"The difference between us and [them] the following: while we believe that lightning is released as a result of the collision of clouds, they believe that clouds collide so as to cause lightning. For since they attribute everything to the gods’ will, they believe, not that things have meaning insofar as they occur, but rather that they happen because they must have a meaning.” - Seneca, on the Etruscans

Anonymous said...

Medicine is rife with teleological explanations, at least at first blush. It is easy to use this form of reasoning as a mnemonic method even if unsound ultimately as an explanation.

For example, one may say that the "purpose" of the liver is for detoxifying chemicals whereas the "purpose" of the appendix is unknown.

Hopefully, such talk is simply shorthand for statements as to what these organs do rather than what they are "for".

Anonymous said...

You cant get rid of teleology, you can just limit it. It works when no other explanations do, and so long as the person giving a teleological explanation knows they are doing it, then its fine. It's a choice.

You can give me an explanation as to why I have eyes that tells me why its better to have eyes than not have eyes, but sensory phenomena themselves, coulours themselves are the fact that grounds the whole issue teleologicaly. I have eyes, so that I can see.


Anonymous said...

I wonder whether these findings can be best explained by pointing out that people have teleological tendencies, or whether, under time pressure, people have difficulty in causal-efect relations. Did the researchers have a control condition in which they tested causal relations in the 'wrong' direction (effect => cause)? I would predict that people also make mistakes in this condition and that the findings can be attributed to difficulties in exact relationships between variables under time pressure... (?)

Interesting article!

Unknown said...

This is one of the dumbest articles I've seen here. Teleology, the explanation of phenomena by the purpose they serve rather than by postulated causes. It doesn't require a service of theological purposes unless you're of a faith that wants it to. The article doesn't recognize the difference between long and short term purposes, or those intended from intended from purposes that all things in one way or another unintentionally serve. Physicists recognize the strategies that nature and its laws have been found to follow; laws of causation, for example will work as a universal web, every part of which serves the purposes it was selected by accident or otherwise to perform.

Dov Henis said...

It takes a change of culture, of the mode of reactions to circumstances, to effect a change of habit. Genetics is the progeny of culture, not vice versa. This applies in ALL fields of human activities, including economy, to ALL personal and social behavioral aspects.

Since the early 1900’s ALL “science” has been taken over by the Technology Culture of the religious Americans, represented by the trade-union-church AAAS. Plain and simple. There has not been any science in the world since then except “religious-American-science”.

On the blissful religious science ignorance…:

USA-World Science Hegemony Is Science Blind

Since the early 2000s I have been posting many articles on science items surveyed and analyzed by me, without religious background-concepts. I have been doing this because I was deeply disturbed by the religiosity of the 1848-founded AAAS trade-union and by the consequent religious background-tint of its extensive “scientific” publications and activities.

On my next birthday I’ll be 88-yrs old. I know that I’m deeply engaged in a Don Quixotic mission-war to extricate-free the USA and world Science from the clutches and consequences of the religious-trade-union-church AAAS, adopted strangely by the majority of scientifically ignorant religious god-trusting Americans and by their most other humanity following flocks…

But I am sincerely confident that only thus it is feasible and possible to embark on a new, rational, Human culture (Scientism) and on new more beneficial and effective technology courses for humanity…

Dov Henis (comments from 22nd century)
Energy-Mass Poles Of The Universe

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