College upperclassmen still fail at scientific reasoning

John Timmer

Most of us develop a sort of intuitive logic about how the natural world works. Unfortunately, a lot of that informal reasoning turns out to be wrong, which complicates scientific education. But as students make their way through the science education pipeline, they should gradually start moving beyond the informal reasoning of their earlier years. Or at least that’s what we’d like to think; instead, a new survey of college students, some in advanced biology classes, indicates that most end up with a confused mix of formal and informal reasoning.

The clearest example of the chasm between a typical intuition and scientific reasoning comes from the world of physics. Imagine a marble rolling around a curved track that comes to a sudden end. Physics tells us that, as soon as the marble is off the track, it’ll continue moving in a straight line until it runs into something else. But many people use informal reasoning and conclude that the marble will continue to follow a circular path even after it escapes the track. In other contexts, it involves an interventionist view of the world. As the people behind the survey put it, "When using informal reasoning, students look for ‘actors’ that drive ‘events’ and are aided by ‘enablers.’"

Scientific education, then, needs to convince people to move past their intuitions (at least if they want a more accurate picture of how the world operates).

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