Telling people what’s right doesn’t mean they’ll get it!

Telling people what’s right doesn’t mean they’ll get it! March 18, 2008

Psyblog has a nice case study on how hard it can be to get people to take on board simple scientific facts when those facts conflict with their intuitive beliefs. In this case: how does the eye see. It turns out that a surprising number (around half) of US college students thought that seeing involves the eye sending out some kind of search beam – i.e. the ancient Greek model usually attributed to Empedocles.

But the really strange bit was found in later studies, in which the participants were actually given relevant textbook passages to read before being asked how vision works. It had virtually no effect. Psyblog comments:

Actually we shouldn’t be surprised by this. A fair amount of research has already been carried out into tackling misconceptions in science. It turns out that people are remarkably resistant to changing their beliefs. Immediately after being told the correct concept clearly enough they may get it right, but only for a short time. Soon after it will often spring right back to their original, incorrect belief.

No doubt this also reflects the classic problem that simply telling people the correct scientific explanation has virtually no effect unless they have some underlying feel and understanding for what’s going on. As the proverb has it:

“Tell me, and I’ll forget. Show me, and I may not remember. Involve me, and I’ll understand”

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