Why scientific thinking matters for society

Andrew Shtulman's book isn't just about understanding data. It's about moral concern.

The things we know intuitively about the world are often false. For example, for many centuries, people intuitively knew that the world was flat—until scientific observation showed that it was round. But even then, says cognitive developmental psychologist Andrew Shtulman, “our untutored explanations for how the world works” continue to shape our thinking:

Like a palimpsest, our minds record new theories (scientific theories) on top of old theories (intuitive theories) such that both theories can become active at the same time, providing competing explanations or competing predictions. . . . In some cases, our scientific knowledge may be nothing more than a veneer, thinly covering misconceptions forged decades earlier, when we were children.

Many of Shtulman’s examples focus on our holistic perception of objects and the limitations of our point of view. It’s easier for children to think of an ice cube as a “source” of cold than to think of heat as the collective energy of the molecules within a physical system. Similarly, our perception of the world within a human timeframe leads us to perceive “geological systems in terms of discrete events, not continuous processes.” And our tendency toward essentialism leads us not only to think that baby pigs will grow up to be adult pigs, but that transplanted organs might somehow infuse recipients with parts of their donors’ personalities.