The unscientific thinking that forever lingers in the minds of physics professors

Young children are inclined to see purpose in the natural world. Ask them why we have rivers, and they'll likely tell you that we have rivers so that boats can travel on them (an example of a "teleological explanation"). Cute, but maybe not that surprising. Well, consider this - a new study with 80 physical scientists finds that they too have a latent tendency to endorse similar teleological explanations for why nature is the way it is. Oh yes, they label those explanations as false most of the time, but put them under time pressure, and their child-like, quasi-religious beliefs shine through.

Deborah Kelemen and her colleagues presented 80 scientists (including physicists, chemists and geographers) with 100 one-sentence statements and their task was to say if each one was true or false. Among the items were teleological statements about nature, such as "Trees produce oxygen so that animals can breathe". Crucially, half the scientists had to answer under time pressure - just over 3 seconds for each statement - while the others had as long as they liked. There were also control groups of college students and the general public.

Overall, the scientists endorsed fewer of the teleological statements than the control groups (22 per cent vs. 50 per cent approx). No surprise there, given that mainstream science rejects the idea that inanimate objects have purpose, or that there is purposeful design in the natural world. But look at what happened under time pressure. When they were rushed, the scientists endorsed 29 per cent of teleological statements compared with 15 per cent endorsed by the un-rushed scientists. This is consistent with the idea that a tendency to endorse teleological beliefs lingers in the scientists' minds. This unscientific thinking is usually suppressed, but time pressure undermines that conscious suppression.

The scientists' greater inclination to endorse teleological explanation under time pressure wasn't a non-specific effect of being rushed. Time pressure barely affected their judgments about other erroneous statements (i.e. simple false facts). Moreover, scientists who admitted having religious beliefs, or beliefs about Mother Nature being one big organism, were more prone than most to endorsing teleological explanation under time pressure, thus suggesting their latent unscientific thinking fed into their belief systems.

"A broad teleological tendency therefore appears to be a robust, resilient, and developmentally enduring feature of the human mind," the researchers concluded, "that arises early in life and gets masked rather than replaced, even in those whose scientific expertise and explicit metaphysical commitments seem most likely to counteract it."

In a follow-up study, humanities academics showed the same tendency to endorse more teleological statements under time pressure. Intriguingly, their levels of endorsement were lower than college students but no greater than the physical scientists. This suggests that further education of any kind leads to a greater masking of teleological belief, but only up to a point. "The [scientists'] specialised scientific training and substantial knowledge base does no more to ameliorate their unwarranted teleological ideas than an extended humanities education," the researchers said.

  ResearchBlogging.orgKelemen, D., Rottman, J., and Seston, R. (2012). Professional Physical Scientists Display Tenacious Teleological Tendencies: Purpose-Based Reasoning as a Cognitive Default. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General DOI: 10.1037/a0030399

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.
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