Launch Pad Day Four, Stephanie Slater on If Galileo Had Known Cognitive Psychology, They Wouldn’t Have Locked Him Up

Rachel Swirsky • July 15th, 2010 @ 5:06 pm • Launch Pad

To read the rest of my Launch Pad posts, click here.

Galileo was a typical astronomer/physicist who believed that if you just give people the facts, they’ll believe you. He had great facts and a beautiful story. What Galileo did as we know is that he made some observations using the telescope, and was the first one to write down his observations “loudly,” and he said that instead of there just being 3000 stars that you can see with your naked eye, there are more than you can imagine. It’s hard to imagine this being disturbing, but to the people of his era, it disturbed the world order. He also wrote down that the moon had blotches on it, and so did the sun, and Saturn was misshapen instead of round, and Venus was orbiting the sun, and Jupiter has moons. These all challenged the conception of what was in the heavens. (Galileo’s finger is in Florence as a relic, interestingly.)

Telling someone facts no matter how true they are doesn’t mean they will believe or understand you. Cognitive psych might have helped him avoid trouble.

It turns out that the pope and king–like people in your audiences–come into situations with preconceptions. There are at least three problem areas that we face: 1) conceptions and conceptual change, 2) cognitive load, and 3) spatial reasoning.

Does teaching exist without learning?

How People Learn:

People approach material with preconceptions. In the past, we’ve considered those to be misconceptions, but it’s more than that. Bad data exists, but we also think that people have faulty software inside their heads, tiny little faulty algorithms, and faulty firmware. That sounds judgmental, and it shouldn’t be; it’s good to think in different ways. But brains are good at different things. And so we shouldn’t assume other people’s brains work the same as ours do.

It’s not what the instructor does that matters, it’s what the student does that matters. As writers, how does this apply? She’d like to discuss this at the end of the talk.

Our commonly held model is that we used to think that inside of an infant’s brain there was nothing, just a tabula rasa, and that education would fill his brain. This is incorrect. So Galileo thought he could correct the misconceptions, and use proof, then the pope would agree.

If you want to see the research’s beginnings, start with Erlwanger in 1973.

Misconceptions, as a term, is not specific enough to be completely helpful… although it is sometimes, when you do occasionally run into something where they have an incorrect fact. You don’t just correct them, though, you bring them into a state of cognitive dissonance. You confront them with data contradicting what they believe and then ask them to resolve the contradiction (strike, posner).

What does that look like? Say, someone believes the sun doesn’t spin,–the moon doesn’t spin, we don’t spin,–so why would the sun? So we’d give them data that causes cognitive dissonance, e.g. having them plot the observation of sunspots, which indicates the sun’s movement. (Differential rotation–parts of the sun spins at different rates–since the sun isn’t solid, it’s like a bowl of water, where if you swirl the water, the liquid in different places swirls at different rates.)

If you make people wrestle with information, put them in a state of cognitive dissonance and then let them solve it, they seem to remember it better.

But it’s not all just about facts. For instance, when we look at students’ ideas of how many stars there are, we see interesting things. Stephanie puts up a video of Jay Leno interviewing people on the street about astronomy. Stephanie tries to figure out why people say the things they do? Part is bad facts, but the number thing… where they’re trying to figure out how many planets there are, or how many stars there are in the solar system.. they hardly ever see the right answer, and the wrong answers cling.

One of the most difficult misconceptions to change is how many stars are there in the solar system? Of course there’s only one. They asked a lot of upper-middle class 9th graders and they almost all answered incorrectly, and their answers cluster 7-9, 30-60, 100, 1000s, millions, or more than you can count. They got this question wrong more often than they got the question about why you see different constellations in different seasons wrong, even though the latter is much more complicated.

So what’s going on? They figured out that people who answered 7-9, 30-60, or 100 were confusing stars and planets. For 1000s and millions, they were confusing solar system with galaxy. Many people confuse the solar system and the galaxy. “Your audience” may not be able to tell the difference between planets and stars, or solar systems and galaxies.

Monte wonders if the people who confuse the solar system and the galaxy in the question, would know what the differences are between solar systems and galaxies if you asked them THAT question instead. Stephanie agrees they would.

Cecilia adds that she thinks the question itself is misleading. People don’t expect questioners to be asking a question that doesn’t really make sense, and automatically revise up from solar system to galaxy, because that question sounds more like the kinds of questions you get on tests.

Stephanie says that this may have an effect, but that people don’t revise the way Cecilia’s talking about if they have a high degree of confidence in their knowledge. If they are confident, they don’t try to consider the examiner’s psychology.

Also, a lot of us can say the “astronomical words,” but the concepts don’t get into the back of our brains. We can’t conceive of some of the stuff in astronomy.

We have, instead, algorithms called phenomological primitives (p-prim). These are good things–they can give us things like basic math, which we see in birds who can count a few numbers, and seem to be able to do this without training. We also have that one. Another p-prim we have is “closer is more,” which you can see when people do things like fight to be in the first row of a concert (is that cross-cultural?), or when babies think that if they go closer to a fire they get more heat (…but there’s evidence that kids don’t know this innately, so wtf?). Well, anyway, I seem to have hit one of her misconceptions, so she’s going to ignore me. We’re back to hard-wiring.

So, anyway, at any rate, westerners do end up with an algorithm that “closer is more”, which appears to be true. This works for things like being warmer, but misleads us on understanding the seasons, where people seem to think that seasons occur because the sun is closer or further away. You can also see this when people answer that telescopes are placed on mountains because they’re closer to space.

We can see that the phenomenon reappears. When you beat the p-prim in one circumstance, it crops up again as soon as you shift the parameters.

P-prims: Close means more, motion requires force, interference, you can’t make something from nothing, 1-2-3 more

1-2-3 more is the one that goes back to Galileo’s problem. We can count with basic math to one, two, three, and more than that we no longer distinguish quite as well in our base brains. The difference between million and billion? We understand abstractly, but have no real sense for.

For instance, ask people to tell them about the big bang, and then ask them to tell you about what happened before the big bang. 86% said that they’d heard of the big bang, and many knew that it was a theory relating to the beginning of the universe. 69% said there was matter existing before the big bang. part of our problem is that the term big bang makes us think of explosions, and we can’t imagine explosions that consist of nothing. 49% of students describe the big bang as an explosion that distributes matter throughout the universe. 17% describe the big bang as an event that combined matter together to form objects in the universe.

They did not encounter a significant-sized sample that could say there was nothing before the big bang; that the big bang created space. The idea of “no space” was really wierd.

So, they created a question based on their answers.

The big bang is best described as:
A) The event that formed all matter and space from an infinitely small dot of energy.
B) The event that formed all matter and scattered it into space.
C) The event that scattered all matter and energy throughout space.
D) The event that organized the current arrangements of planetary systems.

The correct answer is A, because B indicates space already exists. However, Mike and Ian point out that A is not great as an answer either because “infinitely small” is not correct.

After instruction, a lot of people understood it was A, but many wanted to pick C because it indicated there was still stuff.

Galileo’s third error… when we’re trying to teach astronomy, we teach with complicated diagrams. Stephanie Salter shows the video on the private universe which we’d watched a few days ago.

In order to understand how Venus’s phases imply heliocentrism, you have to have a large amount of content knowledge, a grasp of astronomical geography, and have a great deal of highly sophisticated spatial reasoning.

You’d just avoid it, but the same problems come up with anything that have to do with objects of motion in relation to each other, or points of view from object to object, and etc.

Seasons: common misconceptions

*distance variations
*distance variations causedby tilt
*wobbly tilt
*erroneous artronomical geography
*rotation related events
*geocentric models

We’re all taught that the planet’s orbit is an ellipse, which is true, but the orbit is so close to a circle that it’s not worth talking about with the general population. It’s useful for astronomers doing calculations, but not casually.

Students take the facts and mush them to make them fit their p-prims.

The real barrier to learning about seasons seems to be spatial reasoning. So someone decided to get kids to act it out using their bodies.

When kids do this, not only does it work statistically significantly, but the less the kid talked and the more the kids figured it out for themselves, the better it worked. At-risk kids caught up with the “normal” kids even on the hardest measures. They also had better retention.

This works fabulously for simple, factual matters. Unfortunately, there are some things that aren’t about facts. When philosophies, attitudes, etc. get involved, people won’t listen.

That’s what happened to Galileo. People wouldn’t listen because they had emotional/moral/philosophical reactions to Galileo’s claims, including facts like “there are dark spots on the moon.” They believed the moon was perfect, and it was resonant with other beliefs, so they would not revise this belief in the face of facts–even though the facts had been available pre-Galileo, since you could see the blemishes with the naked eye.

This remains a problem today when people’s emotions get in the way of their learning about issues such as climate change, big bang, and macroevolution.

What we know is that on some topics, conceptual change, which is giving people facts, showing them models and so on, will not work. And you have to work toward what they call a “hot conceptual change.”

People aren’t all about facts. They have emotions and personal dispositions that affect what they learn.

People handle emotions differently, and here we’re going to divide people into two groups. These two groups, apparently, are those who react with “anger and threat” versus those who react with “cognition and closure.” (I strongly doubt these are the only two groups.)

Anyway, presumably this model is useful for thinking about education, even though it seems simplistic. So, the way to deal with the differences between learners, is to focus on what the learner or hearer is doing, rather than what the teacher is doing. One technique is to abstract the issues so that the hearer’s opinions aren’t being challenged, but rather a fictional person who espouses the hearer’s opinions is being challenged.

This relates to science fiction, because fiction is a good model for creating less personally charged situations in which people may be able to safely analyze their positions and the contrary ones.

For instance, Star Trek did this with race relations. One episode was “Plato’s Stepchildren” in which Kirk was forced to kiss Uhura. Another episode, “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield,” in which two men who look the same to the audience, and the characters on the ship also can’t tell the difference between them… but I guess the people think they’re vastly different from each other? Haven’t seen the episode. Anyway, I guess this is a “we see race because of socially constructed beliefs about what features should be marked.” We can stand back and look at these issues that relate to us, because the issues are shown as affecting people who aren’t us.

Star Trek TNG has been hesitant to deal with sexuality, but did in things like “The Outcast.” The authors say they’ve tried to have homosexual relationships on the show but have been edited back. In “The Outcast” they try to deal with homosexuality by looking at a society that’s supposed to be androgynous. The people in the society all look like women, though Frakes had wanted them to look like men. Stephanie argues that using women was better because it allows everyone to accept that relationship.

There is no data to support this, but… um, yes.

So, now we’re talking about the relationship between research and theory. In this case, we have no research and we only have theory, I guess.

Making people angry turns them off, and makes it hard for them to learn, so writing things that make people angry will only appeal to people who already agree with you.

This seems true, but we’re back to the idea that all people need to create an argument with the same energy and pitch. Why? I still think that movements work best when people use different techniques, and these amplify each other.

She says that creating analogies is better than talking about an issue directly, and that letting people construct their own analogies is more powerful than handing them one.

Supporting student thinking:
Teach spatial content with spatial instruction
Change simple misconceptions using conceptual change models
Address p-prims explicitly
address affective beliefs using argumentation

Well, that’s about it for me. I don’t think her research on classroom learning is as broadly applicable to social movements as she does, or at least, I’m not convinced of it in the absence of data.

Oh well. Hopefully w’ell get back to astronomy soon.

4 Responses to “Launch Pad Day Four, Stephanie Slater on If Galileo Had Known Cognitive Psychology, They Wouldn’t Have Locked Him Up”

  1. musicalcolin says:

    I dunno, Algorithms in the brain? This sounds like another misconception based on a preconception. Specifically that the brain is a computer.

  2. Dylan Fox says:

    A lot of what she seems to have said links in with the cognitive behavioural therapy I’ve been through. When your brain becomes convinced of a particular ‘fact’ (the moon is perfect, people hate me, etc), it collects any and all evidence which supports that point of view and discards any which contradicts it. The longer your brain holds on to these facts, the more entrenched they get because the more evidence your brain has to support them. These things are buried deep down in the brain and so filter into every experience you have. They’re all filtered through these deep-rooted ‘facts’. So, when someone challenges them they’re suddenly challenging your whole world view. They’re challenging a fundamental part of ‘you’. Of course you’re going to want to defend it.

    In the CBT I went through, we called them, ‘bottom lines’. When you get through all the layers of action, reaction, thought, emotion, memory and everything else, you get to this core belief, the bottom line. The p-prims sound like a combination of this idea of the bottom line and the Jungian idea of the collective unconscious, those tiny bits of programming that every species seems to know and share without ever being taught (things like mother=protection, fire=heat, poison=bad).

    Using fiction to challenge people’s bottom lines makes a lot of sense to me. You’re depersonalising it and suddenly it’s not an attack on the individual, so people are more likely to listen and absorb. Of course, there needs to be a willingness on the part of the audience to be challenged, otherwise they’re just going to dismiss it…

    Sorry for the long comment. Just thought I’d share my experiences as you seemed a bit skeptical.

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