Author formulated the main idea of this book as an attempt to convince people that two ideas are correct:
- We often get things wrong because “our intuitive theories in several domains of knowledge carved up the world into entities and processes that do not actually exist”.
- To get world right we need not just change believes, but to change the very concepts that articulate these believes.
- Why We Get the World Wrong
This starts with the story of milk consumption causing infection deceases before advent of pasteurization in XIX century. Traditionally milk was consumed fresh on site in villages, causing no problems, but the development of cities led to delay between milk production and consumption consequently giving time for bacteria to develop. Author uses it to demonstrate how difficult it is to get people to understand and believe scientific data. As usual it supplied by reference to the poll that demonstrate big numbers of Americans believing in all kinds of weird unscientific staff. After that author goes a bit into epistemology discussion about representation of the world via what he calls “intuitive theories” build on “causal knowledge” from observation and experiences versus representation of the world via theories produced via scientific method. The difference is conceptual and author demonstrates it by comparing explanatory theories for the same phenomenon by these two different approaches.
PART 1: Intuitive Theories of the Physical World
- Matter: What Is the World Made Of? How Do Those Components Interact?
This starts with discussion of human misperception of the world. As example author brings tall vs. wide glasses and conservation problem, then he moves to atoms and difficulty to understand general emptiness of the world. It is supported by multiple experiments with children and adults demonstrating all kind of variances between intuitive perception and scientific modeling of reality regarding material density, volume, weight, and such.
- Energy: What Makes Something Hot? What Makes Something Loud?
This is an application of the same approach to energy, heating, and cooling. Author traces development of ideas about heat and cool from ancient world to its current understanding as a function of molecular movement. There is also an interesting discussion here of extramissionist vs. intramissionist believe about flow of information in vision. Similarly, author discusses misconceptions about electricity that is often believed to be a flow, rather than transfer of energy.
- Gravity: What Makes Something Heavy? What Makes Something Fall?
This is another set of examples about misperception, this time about gravity. As the previous one it is heavily reliant on experiments with children to demonstrate how human intuitive perception of gravity works. It also includes funny mental experiment about a ball oscillating around the center of the earth.
- Motion: What Makes Objects Move? What Paths Do Moving Objects Take?
This is another discussion on disconnect between people’s intuitive understanding of motion as the process driven by some internal force, which is known to be incorrect since Newton. Also, future trajectory of movement often predicted incorrectly due to failure of considering all forces. At the end of chapter there is a bit of discussion on educational method to overcome this problem.
- Cosmos: What Is the Shape of Our World? What Is Its Place in the Cosmos?
This is about human perception of the Earth and Universe and how it developed from the flat Earth believe into contemporary Cosmology. It has some interesting staff about children and how they individually going through the same process.
- Earth: Why Do Continents Drift? Why Do Climates Change?
This is an application of the same idea to the geology and climate. It is again intuitive theory of everything not always consistent with knowledge obtained by painstaking analysis and experimentation. Obviously people who are not familiar with this knowledge tend to repeat usual staff that they come to intuitively or acquired as children from not well-educated adults. Author provide an interesting breakdown of attitudes to global warming:
Typically for his surroundings, author seems to suport alarmist position based mainly on famously non-real 97% of experts. In process he somehow manageded to miss that all empirical data of the last 20 years contradict alarmist models and show no significant warming despite increases in CO2.
At the end he provides summary of intuitive approach:
PART 2: Intuitive Theories of the Biological World
- Life: What Makes Us Alive? What Causes Us to Die?
Here author moves from non-animated world to the world of living and dying. He goes through somewhat long discussion of children’s perception of these issues as typical example of intuitive theories, summarizing it in such way:
- Growth: Why Do We Grow Bigger? Why Do We Grow Older?
This is kind of about lifecycles and human destiny to grow old and eventually die. Here is a nice illustration:
Once again author looks at intuitive theories through the prism of children’s perception, discussing vitalism, essentialism, and other theories of the past. An important point for author is that practically all intuitive theories treat live not only as qualitatively different phenomenon than unanimated material world, but also as the one that could not disassembly into material elements. Obviously contemporary science rejects this idea and maintains that live is just a specific form of material worlds and could eventually be created from material components.
- Inheritance: Why Do We Resemble Our Parents? Where Did We Get Our Traits?
Here author goes into discussion of scientific conceptions and misconceptions in genetics. Here is the nice sample when only the first two statements are scientifically correct, but all 6 are believed by majority to be true:
Overall the misconception usually come from poor understanding of the level of complexity related to genes expression and interaction with environment, leading sometime to believe that too much predefined by genes and concequent unjustified passivity in controlling one’s live.
- Illness: What Makes Us Ill? How Does Illness Spread?
The discussion of illness starts with phenomenon of disgust as a preventive mechanism for poisoning and other similar threats. Important difference here is that intuitive theories usually treat it as given, while science shows that a lot of it learned. Author provides quite a few examples of this in children and even in adults who change their attitude and behavior in relation to environment when new for them information about diseases become available.
- Adaptation: Why Are There So Many Life Forms? How Do They Change 0ve! Time?
This is mainly about Darwinism and evolution vs. creationism. It is also about popular misconceptions about genetics neatly illustrated by this picture were left side represent scientific view and right side popular view:
Author also stresses an interesting phenomenon that misconceptions often persists even in people who had specific education in the field with probably the most funny being an inability of many people to understand that morality has no place in the struggle for survival in animal kingdom and could be applied only to humans and a few other group dependent species. Another persistent “misconception” – Lamarckian adaptation, which lately become less of misconception when it was found by biologists that some ability to retain newly acquired adaptive feature and transfer it to the next generation does exist, albeit in somewhat week form.
- Ancestry: Where Did Species Come From? How Are They Related?
This is continuation of discussion on evolution, this time directed to the past. The misunderstanding here is popularity of teleological approach of development from lower forms of live to higher. Here is traditional representation of this view:
In reality there is no define direction of development and it is just random transformation of live when changing conditions demand it, continutation when there is no such demand and extinction when demands for survival are so overwhelming that available diversity within species under pressure could not provide necessary features to overcome it. Here is more realistic presentation of evolution:
- How to Get the World Right
The final chapter is about how to avoid intuitive theories and obtain more scientific understanding of the world. Author stresses that intuitive theories usually based on perceptions and experience, while scientific theories are complex, come from formal process, which is difficult to implement and which requires a serious cognitive effort to digest. Nevertheless, he makes a serious effort of convincing that it is necessary because misconceptions about reality lead to errors in judgement and actions, eventually hurting people. He supports this idea by providing such examples as vaccination when intuitive theory led its supporters to pretty bad consequences.
MY TAKE ON IT:
This is an interesting look at the problem of forming worldview consistent with the real world. In my opinion author is relaying too much on children to demonstrate intuitive theories of the world, making it way too simplified. I believe the problem, and it is a big problem, is that contemporary education does not provide people with tools to understand scientific method, its applications and limitations. Besides, author seems to be too much of an academic to understand that in real world people more often had to act based on intuitive theories that are good enough to predict consequences of actions in real world even if these theories are not really formulated, but rather just a product of experience. A good example could be takes form author’s first chapter about misconception of mechanics of the world: when two bullets one shot from the gun in perfect parallel to the floor, and another one just dropped. According to author they both hit the floor simultaneously because the only force that causes bullet drop is gravitation, which is equal for both bullets. However, in reality everybody who ever shot a gun knows that it would take much longer for flying bullet to hit the floor than for the dropped bullet. The shooter knows that from experience and, if he is not educated in physics and pressed to explain, he could come up with some idea of inherent driving power instead of correctly point out that real world is complex and bullet spin, air resistance, curvature of the earth, wind direction and so on. So, we have an interesting situation here when simplified, primitive education gives result inconsistent with reality, while intuitive non-scientific theory provides for better results. Here I think author is missing a very important problem that causes well educated people to buy into such hoaxes as global warming: difficulty to understand that real world is extremely complex, while science is generally simple and limited, so any prediction claiming to be scientific should be founded on multiple full-scale experience with phenomenon that one is trying to predict. Therefore, it is not possible to predict future climate and even weather over long term, because there are way too many unpredictable variables, some of them like son’s radiation levels, being much more influential than content of greenhouse gases in atmosphere. In other words non-theoretical common sense based on experience is just another way to comprehend reality and it is not less scientific than formal science in terms of predicting power, while lack of explanatory power does not make it less useful.