Sep 27, 2017

The Internet and the illusion of explanation

The Internet started in the 1960's as a research project sponsored by the U.S. government. Since then it has developed into one of the most powerful communication tools in history. Then in 1989 the World Wide Web was invented by Tim Berners providing a further affordances via the Internet. One of the most important affordances, in my opinion, of the WWW is that I am able to learn new concepts and correct my misconceptions thanks to what other people post online.

I don't remember exactly how I came accross the concept of illusion of explanatory depth (IOED), but it was definitely online. The author of the studies, at least the ones I have read about, of IOED Frank Keil is a psychologist at Yale and his lab has a website. There is also a YouTube video in which he explains the concept, experiments, and results of illusion of explanatory depth.

The illusion of explanatory depth: The sense that one understands causally complex phenomena more "deeply" than one does.

In this video Frank Keil also points out an important reason that may give rise to the IOED, "We rarely give or hear full explanations, so we just don't know how good we are at it." In his new book Scienceblind (2017) Andrew Shtulman also addresses the IOED and states,

Researchers who have studied this illusion have determined that it’s not just a matter of general overconfidence, on par with overconfidence in our driving ability or our financial investments. It’s specific to complex causal systems—systems with multiple causal pathways, multiple levels of analysis, nonvisible mechanisms, and indeterminate end states. [..]

Our knowledge of natural phenomena thus suffers on two fronts: from our limited ability to explain these phenomena (in accurate terms) and from our limited recognition of this limited ability. We are blind to our own blindness.

He also adds that multiple-choice questions, one of the most commonly used tools for assessments, do not provide evidence for student's understanding.

Children could easily provide correct answers to multiple-choice questions without understanding why those answers are correct. It’s long been known that multiple-choice questions are easier than fill-in-the-blank questions because the correct answer to a multiple-choice question is provided as part of the question itself; one need only recognize it. [...] Multiple-choice tests measure children’s memory for earth-related information but not their understanding of it.

This also correlates with what Isaac Asimov and Howard Barrows have said in the past about these types of assessments. The solution to acquiring scientific explanations according to Shtulman, and an attitude advocated by Carl Sagan as well, is to learn how to think like scientists, not just memorization of factual information. But scientific explanations do not automatically replace faulty theories, Shtulman says,

Why aren’t intuitive theories erased by scientific ones? What contexts trigger intuitive theories, and what contexts trigger scientific theories? What skills are needed to recognize the difference between reasoning based on intuition and reasoning based on science? What skills are needed to prioritize science over intuition?

With respect to the last question, it would seem that knowing a lot of scientific facts is not enough; we must actively think like scientists. [...] If thinking like a scientist is critical to reaping the benefits of science, then educators may need to introduce scientific ideas as methods of reasoning rather than just bodies of knowledge, as approaches to problems rather than just their solutions.

I am sure there are ways of using the Internet which increase ignorance and support long-standing dogmas. But I have found the Internet and the WWW quite useful for my own learning, even more so after I learned what having a critical scientific attitude is about. It is difficult to disbelieve illusions when they are used as part of some identity. It is even more difficult to accept a counterintuitive scientific explanation that replaces these illusions.

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1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.
2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.
Daniel Dennett, Intuition pumps and other tools for thinking.

Valid criticism is doing you a favor. - Carl Sagan