People don’t naturally think like scientists (but peak learners should)

learners as scientists

One of my close friends definitely prefers “being right” than being accurate. He has lots of opinions and theories on everything, but if you show him evidence that contradicts one of them, he’ll put the full weight of his reasoning power to discount your evidence.

As it turns out, we’re all like him to a lesser or greater extent, and this flies in the face of the popular theory of discovery-based learning, which posits that students intuitively learn like scientists.

What does it mean to learn like a scientist?

It means you’re an active creator of your own learning, and you do this by

  1. exploring your environment,
  2. generating ideas about how things work,
  3. testing those ideas and
  4. changing your model accordingly.

In other words, scientific thinking is about coordinating evidence (things you observe) and theory (ideas about how those things work).

So, for people to think like scientists, they need at least to be able

  1. to distinguish theory and evidence and
  2. to update their theory in the light of new evidence.

As many studies have found, untrained people are bad at both.

After reading Researcher Deanna Kuhn’s study, you’ll indeed notice that people easily blur the difference between theory and evidence in everyday life.

Let me give you the simplest example. When you see people smile, you probably take this as evidence that they’re happy, right? But the thing is, you can’t see happy; happy is a theory. It may look like a safe theory, but it’s still a theory.

But even when theories don’t get confused with facts, shifting theories to match facts doesn’t come naturally for most people. As Lord, Ross and Lepper’s classic study showed, when they come across a fact that contradicts their theory, people will often ignore it or interpret it in a biased way (confirmation bias).

Of course, as evidence accumulates, people will eventually adjust their theory accordingly, but that process often occurs unconsciously; unlike scientists, people don’t actively review their models (Kuhn).

With information currently flowing from all directions, critical thinking is more needed than ever. But thinking like a scientist is an acquired skill, and a difficult one at that. And if you want to become a peak learner, you have no choice but to develop that skill.

The best first step you can take in that direction is to set your ego aside and ask yourself: “What would show me I’m wrong?”

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