Naive science

I used the concept of naive science in my last post. I find this a very useful concept and thought I would try to explain just what this means and how I see it applying in the classroom.

Naive science is a concept I became familiar with from the research on science education. Here is my understanding of what this means. The idea proposes that to function in daily life we must generate an understanding of daily experiences. These might be described as theories, models, principles or some such more familiar term. I like models. Unlike theories or models we might learn about in a more formal setting (school), we constantly generate our own models from daily experiences. The connection with science education is that these informal theories are often flawed because of misinterpretation, anecdotal data, or some other form of flawed reasoning. Educators face the challenge not only of teaching formal explanations for various phenomena, but also challenging the flawed models that many have built for themselves.

When I teach about naive science (and related concepts such as inert knowledge), I point students to the research, but also propose that we are also likely to generate our own personal theories about human behavior. I propose that is likely far easier to convince learners that formal models of physics or chemistry are superior to their preexisting ways of understand related phenomena than personal theories of human behavior. We just seem more comfortable with notions we have about human behavior because we see so much of it and we think we have insights into our own behavior than we probably have with the laws of motion, electricity, etc.

I do take liberties with naive science and propose that it fits other human limitations we now recognize as daily problems. I suggest we do not construct our models of the world completely on our own, but tend to be influenced by those we look to for support. This would seem to be consistent with notions of social constructivism. The problem, of course, is that it is very easy to look to others with similar world views making personal theories even more personally convincing.

What does the science ed research suggest is the solution? There is a tactic that is called conceptual change that proposes that to get a flawed model to change it works best to get an individual to apply this model to a real example and then demonstrate that the model does not work. The best example I can think of is to set up a simple electrical circuit with a light bulb and a battery and then have someone predict the reading with a meter on both sides of the bulb. Flawed models tend to see the current as something that is used up and to see it as water flowing in a pipe. These models kind of work, but are inaccurate. The meter will read the same on both sides of the bulb. Models of human behavior represent a far greater challenge as human behavior is far more complex than the simple properties of science concepts. Basic laws of human behavior, cognition, etc. exist, but can be modified by additional variables. It will always be possible to find anecdotal examples that fit a personal theory. This is pretty much why human research requires large sample sizes and methodological approaches (e.g., random assignment) to deal with variables that are not the focus of the research.

I was thinking about this issue today when Trump tweeted that the cold temps in the northeast should convince folks that global warming was not real. This may seem convincing, but it confuses climate and weather and offers a general, but flawed explanation of what global warming means.

I hope this explanation makes some sense. I have tried to avoid technical vocabulary and probably have played fast and loose with the deep meaning of these ideas, but I think I am close enough to present these ideas in a useful form. You can certainly explore naive science, conceptual change theory, and inert knowledge on your own.

My previous blog was meant as a caution to educators. I hope this post offers greater insight into why it is important to take this caution seriously.

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