If I could ensure that kids come away from science class with one thing only, it wouldn’t be a set of facts. It would be an attitude—something that the late physicist Richard Feynman called “scientific integrity,” the willingness to bend over backward to examine reasons your pet theories about the world might be wrong.
“That is the idea that we all hope you have learned in studying science in school,” Feynman said in a 1974 commencement speech. “We never say explicitly what this is, but just hope that you catch on by all the examples of scientific investigation.”
Teaching that spirit is easier said than done. “The hardest thing is convincing teenagers they can be wrong,” a high school science teacher from Phoenix lamented to me recently in a conversation about scientific integrity. But to be fair, it’s not just teenagers.
We’re all captives of one of the most well-established errors in human reasoning, called confirmation bias: our tendency to focus on evidence that confirms our prior expectations. Once our minds alight on a theory, our impulse is to reassure ourselves it’s true, not set out to disprove it.
For example, researchers has demonstrated that our perception of a speaker depends on whether we’ve been told ahead of time that he’s confident or shy. Our judgment of a child’s academic skill depends on whether we’ve been led to believe that she’s from a rich family or a poor one.
When we serve on a jury, we quickly form an impression about whether the defendant is guilty, and then disproportionately interpret new evidence as supporting that impression.
In other words, we need to actively look for signs that our assumptions are wrong, because we won’t do so unprompted. One such sign, scientists have suggested, is the feeling of surprise.
“Brains are continuously making predictions,” psychologist Daniel Gilbert explains in his book Stumbling on Happiness—about how a friend is likely to react when you greet her, about what will happen after you knock a glass off the table, even about what sort of word you’re going to see at the end of a sentence. We’re generally not conscious of those predictions, until the world violates them. “Surprise tells us that we were expecting something other than what we got, even when we didn’t know we were expecting anything at all,” Gilbert says.
Surprising observations push science forward. Philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn sometimes called them “anomalies,” observations that don’t make sense under the current paradigm. Eventually they help replace that paradigm with a new one. In the 16th century, an inexplicable kink in the path of Mars across the night sky helped overturn the geocentric model of the solar system in favor of the heliocentric one. And in the 19th and 20th centuries, the unexpectedly fast rotation of Mercury’s orbit helped overturn Newtonian mechanics in favor of general relativity.
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