Wilkins explains it all

Wilkins is keeping us busy lately: he also has a a whole series on why creationists are creationists. The short answer to the problem he gives is to teach them the process of science, not the rote solutions, and to catch them early—I agree, college is too late. I think he missed one other corrective though. He has a diagram illustrating the forces on a growing mind that drive people towards science, or towards pro-tradition, strongly anti-science attitudes. I can’t help but notice that all the “folk-based heuristics” are driving attitudes towards the anti-science position.

There must be some folk-based heuristics that promote good science. Shouldn’t one of our strategies be to root out the anti-science forces at the earliest ages, replacing them with those science based heuristics or even folk heuristics that promote science? When there’s forces of ignorance dragging our children down, maybe we should also think about opposing the bad as well as promoting the good.


  1. says

    I think “Look before you leap” would count as a folk-based way of saying we should test our hypotheses. And there’s “Once bitten, twice shy,” which describes results of testing.

    (Yeah, this is simplistic, but it is folksy!)

  2. BMurray says

    Folk heuristics are literally the essence of superstition. Science is a concerted, deliberate effort to avoid this animal reaction to complex phenomena.

  3. RBH says

    PZ wrote

    There must be some folk-based heuristics that promote good science.

    I suspect that some folk-based heuristics that are consistent with ‘good science’ (see the several examples offered), but it’s not clear that they promote it as a coherent or global personal cognitive ‘style’ or moves the developmental trajectory in Wilkins’ diagram into what he calls “scientific concept space”.

  4. Alex says

    What an unfortunately lop-sided chart. I’m with PZ on this one. Every opportunity to instill a rational world view and quell superstitious notions must be exploited….especially at the younger ages.

  5. says

    I’ve found that when I teach research methods and critical thinking to an audience that is made up of complementary and alternative providers (mostly massage practitioners), it’s very effective to point out examples in real life that, if not purely the scientific method, at least are based on them in part. Like when babies are getting to know the world around them, and they drop things to see what happens (and the resulting glee).

    Also, there’s a lot of empiricism in things like agriculture in pre-industrial cultures–because survival is so close to the bone there, they have to go with what works in reality (and when they didn’t, they died out, like [for the most part, not completely] at Angkor Wat). Not that they don’t add layers of religious interpretation on top of it, but they observe nature closely, and modify practices as they learn it’s necessary.

    When my students learn that the scientific process is not *just* Big Pharma, they’re a lot more receptive to it.

  6. BMurray says

    It’s important to note that “folk heuristics” is sort of a term of art and doesn’t refer to folk remedies or aphorisms. It refers to the “common sense” interpretation of phenomena and appropriate reactions based on this instinctive analysis. So, for example, in “folk physics” helium ballons move in the same direction passengers do under rapid deceleration.

  7. Caledonian says

    Opposing the bad as well as promoting the good? We can’t do that — we ought to show affection and acceptance to all hypotheses and states of being. Our rejection and condemnation of rejection and condemnation must be absolute! Hate and destruction isn’t the answer, love and affirmation is, and the more completely we love the better our results will be.

  8. Scott Hatfield says

    Here’s one suggestion for everyone to ponder. Science as taught in elementary schools typically refers to the scientific method in a cookbook fashion, rather than as a way of conceptualizing wonder and problem-solving. The teacher usually tells their students that a hypothesis is an ‘educated guess’ and doesn’t explain the difference between a theory and a hypothesis.

    Those cause serious problems later on, in my experience. I have a simple mnemonic (“O.H.E.C.K.”)that I have used to teach children as young as Grade 2 scientific method. It stands for Observation, Hypothesis, Experiment, Conclusion, Knowledge-Sharing. I give them the terms, but I also provide folky aphorism to help them remember each one. Thus, a hypothesis is a ‘maybe it’s because…’ based upon a phenomena, which is ‘something that makes you wonder ‘why’….and so forth.

    I don’t know about ‘folk heuristics’, but children are naturally curious and filled with wonder and if we tell them that science is a way to use those feelings to learn we’re off to a good start.


  9. says

    The heuristic that worked on me was that my mother answered my “why?” questions as best she was able and showed me how to use an encyclopedia to look up my own answers. (I apparently once tried to explain Three Mile Island to a babysitter and was confounded by the fact that the aging house encyclopedia antedated nuclear power plants.) I grew up with the notion that all knowledge was attainable, and the parts that hadn’t already been discovered and written down for easy lookup could be discovered through the scientific method.

  10. Thinker says

    My suggestion would be the classic “you catch more flies with molasses than you do with vinegar”. Simple, visual, promoting that conclusions should be based on fact and even with a moral sideline along the lines of Caledonians thoughts that “Hate and destruction isn’t the answer, love and affirmation is”. ;-)

    BTW, I wish that saying had been on the wall of the Oval office before the administration embarked on their current foreign policy; perhaps then the world would have been a safer place by now…

  11. says

    This is how one of my old Lutheran ministers dealt with evolution (basically took it off the table):

    God is everywhere, always was and always will be. Therefore, time and space are irrelevant to God. All of the genesis chronology suggested in the Bible was, at best, a really rough, useless estimate and beside the point anyway.

  12. Alex says


    I was suggesting that notions such as “god said it, I believe it, and that settles it” should be frowned upon when teaching and interacting with young minds. I’m not sure that describing that as an attitude of “rejection and condemnation” is entirely accurate.

  13. hank says

    I was taught “you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.”

    I tested it one time. We caught the exact same number of flies, a dozen, with both baits left out in flat dishes all day.

    Molasses, is it? Dang, they lied to me as a child.

    But seriously — I think Benford nails this pretty well starting here:

    “… solutions to political and cultural difficulties can be found in the deliberate cultivation of the empirical, individualistic, skeptical Western tradition. Put another way: We wish to drive a stake through the heart of the dominant cultural traditions of piety, correctness, ideology, and faith. Then we would like to dance on their graves.”

  14. Nathaniel Tagg says

    Apparently we’re on aphorisms, not heuristics.. but to continue the thread, one I’ve always liked is “The exception proves the rule.”

    I like it partly because it’s so misunderstood. “Proving” here means testing, not upholding. If the rule has an exception, it’s not a very good rule.

    P.S. “Begging the question” doesn’t mean “asking the question”.. but then you guys knew that, too.

  15. says

    RavenT: Your use of “empiricism” reinforces that in some ways the largest problem with teaching science is the “rationalism” end. That is, the importance of thinking up the right ideas and hypotheses. This part of science is much more poorly understood (where do hypotheses come from is a case of the general problem of understanding creativity, a very hard problem) and also the most foreign to people in my experience as well.

  16. says

    Yes, you’re right, Keith. I don’t know whether the new receptiveness to science I’ve observed in the self-selected individuals who come to my classes will hold up in the long-term; I simply don’t have any way of tracking that. It’s a truly thorny problem–I think demystifying the process of science and getting people to let go of their phobias via empiricism is necessary, but I would never claim it is sufficient, because I don’t yet have evidence that it leads to any increased rationalism.

  17. says

    Scott, I am so totally stealing your “O.H.E.C.K.” mnemonic for my classes, not only because it’s easy pedagogically, but more important, your mnemonic reifies the essentialness of knowledge-sharing component. :)

    Of course, it goes without saying that I’ll credit you for it.

  18. Nes says

    Apparently we’re on aphorisms, not heuristics.. but to continue the thread, one I’ve always liked is “The exception proves the rule.”

    I like it partly because it’s so misunderstood. “Proving” here means testing, not upholding. If the rule has an exception, it’s not a very good rule.

    Oof! If that’s true, then I misunderstood it when I read it just now. I just thought that it went along with “There’s an exception to every rule,” so the meaning was that if you find an exception to a rule, it’s proven to be a good rule, because every rule has an exception. Wow, that was wordy.

  19. George says

    Another one bites the dust. E.O. Wison recently declared himself a “provisional deist”:

    In the Reuters interview, Wilson called the religious community in the United States a “powerful majority.” The Southern Baptist Convention says on its Web site it has 16 million members in 42,000 churches.

    Wilson is no longer one, having drifted away from religion in his youth. Wilson considers himself neither atheist nor agnostic but a “provisional deist.”

    “I’m willing to accept the possibility that there is some kind of intelligent force beyond our current understanding,” he said.


  20. says

    The folk heuristics that do tend towards science are those of the environmental bounded rationality that Gigerenzer and Todd discuss. I am not, here, treating environmental rationality (where the cues correlate, in fact, with the state of the environment), but the social rationality that relies on prior consensuses, i.e., traditions. Understand this is a very simplified model of a very complex set of phenomena, and of course there are going to be any number of influences, heuristics and so forth that I have left out.

  21. Caledonian says

    Simple, visual, promoting that conclusions should be based on fact and even with a moral sideline along the lines of Caledonians thoughts that “Hate and destruction isn’t the answer, love and affirmation is”. ;-)

    My God, you people couldn’t detect sarcasm if you were bludgeoned to death with it. As long as a statement activates enough associations with learned social mouthings, you’re all for it.

  22. Caledonian says

    I rather like a point that a Mr. Jim Harrison made on the linked blog: most people don’t experience any kind of social cost from doubting evolution, but they can experience a significant social cost from differing from the beliefs of the people surrounding them.

    If people are profoundly motivated by social factors, which I think they are, then most people will never really have any motivation to learn the truth about anything.

  23. Scott Hatfield says

    Keith Douglas: Right on! Like I say to my high school students, “Where does that pesky hypothesis COME from?”

    Of course, nobody knows, because hypothesis generation is not dependent on being particularly well-informed, but from being motivated to use your imagination to help you figure things out. And kids already have that ability, in spades.

    For that reason, when I teach sci. method with my mnemonic (O.H.E.C.K.) I also make sure my students know that a hypothesis is NOT an ‘educated guess’, but simply a ‘maybe it’s because.’ They’re often told the former at earlier levels by instructors who don’t want to encourage a bunch of pesky hypotheses that they themselves don’t have the resources to deal with.

    These teachers typically put a false condition in front of the hypothesis to justify their next move, which is often to tell the kid to go copy down an article from an encylopedia (“research”) before they’re allowed to propose an explanation. In other words, the teacher is not really trying to do science but instead is simply using a caricature of scientific method as another medium for skill rehearsal.

    Not that kids don’t need that rehearsal, but in the process the educational establishment sure seems to strangle a lot of the wonder out of doing science before students reach high school…..Scott

  24. Scott Hatfield says


    Feel free to swipe. After all, as Stravinsky once said, “Lesser composers imitate, great ones steal.” ..:}

    BTW, I have some materials to go with that, if you’re interested, Power Points and such. You can reach me at: epigene13@hotmail.com

    Much success in your teaching!


  25. says

    I think the guy with the example of the helium balloon has the answer. The problem is to instill an attitude of skepticism, even to what one perceives (“I’ll believe it when I see it” is not enough). My father was scientist, so I was brought up that way, but that skepticism sometimes makes it tough to communicate with other people. They think THEY are being rejected, when I’m not immediately convinced by what they say. I automatically looks for flaws in logic and evidence because I was taught to. There is no way around it, you have to start with simple experiments that challenge their perceptions.

  26. says

    Oy. Caledonian, if it makes you feel any better, I caught your sarcasm…

    I’ve often thought that the cries of “we need more science education!” are seriously misguided. Certainly, we need ~better~ science education, but just throwing money at a system that we know doesn’t work couldn’t possibly be the right answer.

    I think what the US education system needs to institute from an early age is lessons in critical thinking (how? I have no idea, I’m just saying what would be nice). It should be clear, however, that a different approach to science teaching is needed, as well… It’s just that if you’ve got a solid backing in critical thinking, even if you don’t learn a lot of “science,” you can still make good decisions about the world. You might not get taken in by psychics, or creationists, or cosmetics sales people.

    In fact, it was a class in critical thinking (called…”Making Decisions,” or something) that more or less pushed me to critically examine my beliefs and look for evidence.

  27. David Harmon says

    What we need in general is a coherent curriculum built around critical thinking. The point is to be so consistent about the basic skills and themes, that if the fundies try to squish in some 3rd-gen creationist crap, the kids will just laugh at it.

    In the particular case of proverbs, we really could use a materialist examination of a bunch of proverbs, discussing their merits and flaws, and explaining their contexts. For example, there are actually two distinct usages of “the exception proves the rule”.

    The original sense was/is legal, an argument against people trying to carve out a personal exception to rules (“They didn’t mean to include me….”) The judge could refuse on the basis that one or more exceptions were already noted in the law, and if the legislature (originally the Roman Senate) had wanted another, they’d have put it in.

    The more modern interpretation comes from science… when you’ve worked from an observation to a theory, it’s worth checking over your theory for unexpected implications, which can be used to test the theory. For example, Newtonian physics near the earth approximates the traditional rule, “what goes up must come down”. But further examination of the equations offers an alternative — that if something goes up fast enough, at the right angle, it might not come down! That’s an exception which the prior physics (i.e., Aristotle) wouldn’t have predicted. And indeed, escape velocities and launches to orbit work roughly as specified by Newton’s equations.

  28. says

    Scott Hatfield: Part of the problem in elementary school science that it was taught by the utterly clueless in my experience. My father is a PhD chemist, so my sister and I instead learned at home from an expert. But not all students have that luxury, and frankly I don’t know what to do about it. Mind you, it should be said that scientific qualifications might be necessary but not sufficient, since I had high school science teachers with graduate degrees who weren’t exactly the greatest teachers. Though, one meant well and had a tremendous passion for his subject, so …

    David Harmon: I’ve thought about a “critical thinking across the curiculum” idea from time to time. The problem is, as with many things, a bootstrapping one. I guess the only solution is to start small and inch our way in. But specifics are hard to pin down, too. Solving the transferrence of knowledge problem to some degree would be a great advance, for example.

  29. Jud says

    The issue, ISTM, is not so much one of promoting rational *thought* from an early age, as it is dealing with the negative social consequences of being a rational *thinker*. I remember being fascinated at age 6 reading how a fission bomb worked (a simplified sort of “the pie slices get blown together and form a critical mass…” version), telling other kids in school, and they being young enough to actually be fascinated, too. But by junior high and certainly by high school, anything smacking so much of being a nerd or geek would have been *very* uncool to talk about.

    I think most teenagers are justifiably afraid of standing out from the crowd if they put their scientific curiousity and reasoning skills on display, and for far too many people this lasts through adulthood.