From Alan Kay, Powerful Ideas Need Love To!,
Let me start the conversation by showing a video made by the National Science Foundation at a recent Harvard commencement, in which they asked some of the graduating seniors and their professors a few simple questions about what causes the seasons and the phases of the moon. All were confident about their answers, but roughly 95% gave explanations that were not even close to what science has discovered. Their main theories were that the seasons are caused by the Earth being closer to the sun in summer, and that the phases of the moon are caused by the Earth’s shadow. Some of the graduates had taken quite a bit of science in high school and at Harvard. NSF used this to open a discussion about why science isn’t learned well even after years of schooling. And not learned well even by most of the successful students, with high SATs, at the best universities, with complete access to computers, networks, and information.
My reaction was a little different. I kept waiting for the “other questions” that NSF should have asked, but they never did. I got my chance a few weeks later after giving a talk at UCLA. I asked some of the seniors, first year graduate students, and a few professors the same questions about the seasons and the phases of the moon and got very similar results: about 95% gave bogus explanations along the same lines as the Harvard students and professors. But now I got to ask the next questions.
To those that didn’t understand the seasons, I asked if they knew what season it was in South America and Australia when it is summer in North America. They all knew it was winter. To those that didn’t understand the phases of the moon, I asked if they had ever seen the moon and the sun in the sky at the same time. They all had. Slowly, and only in a few, I watched them struggle to realize that having opposite seasons in the different hemispheres could not possibly be compatible with their “closer to the sun for summer” theory, and that the sun and the moon in the sky together could not possibly be compatible with their “Earth blocks the suns rays” theory of the phases.
To me NSF quite missed the point. They thought they were turning up a “science problem,” but there are thousands of science “facts” and no scientist knows them all; we should be grateful that the Harvard and UCLA students didn’t “know the answers.” What actually turned up is a kind of “math problem,” a thinking and learning problem that is far more serious.
Why more serious? Because the UCLA students and professors (and their Harvard counterparts) knew something that contradicted the very theories they were trying to articulate and not one of them could get to that contradictory knowledge to say, “Hey, wait a minute…”! In some form, they “knew” about the opposite seasons and that they had seen the sun and the moon in the sky at the same time, but they did not “know” in any operational sense of being able to pull it out of their memories when thinking about related topics. Their “knowings” were isolated instead of set up to be colliding steadily with new ideas as they were formed and considered.
From Julian Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (pg 389-91),
If a hypnotized person is told to walk across the room, and a chair has been placed in his path, and he is told that there is no chair there, he does not hallucinate the chair out of existence. He simply walks around it. He behaves as if he did not notice it — which of course he did since he walked around it. It is interesting here that if unhypnotized subjects are asked to simulate hypnosis in this particular situation, they promptly crash into the chair, since they are trying to be consistent with the erroneous view that hypnosis actually changes perceptions.
Hence the important concept of trance logic which has been brought forward to denote this difference. This is simply the bland response to absurd logical contradictions. But it is not any kind of logic really, nor simply a trance phenomenon. It is rather what I would prefer to dress up as paralogical compliance to verbally mediated reality. It is paralogic because the rules of logic (which we remember are an external standard of truth, not the way the mind works) are put aside to comply with assertions about reality that are not completely true…
It is paralogic compliance when a subject can accept that the same person is in two locations at the same time. If a hypnotized person is told that person X is person Y, he will behave accordingly. Then if the real person Y walks into the room, the subject finds it perfectly acceptable that both are person Y.
I can’t help but notice the spatial rather than merely logical contradictions in these examples: the seasons in the northern and southern hemispheres, seeing the moon and the sun simultaneously, walking around the nonexistent chair, a person in two places at once. We see one “area” of reality, and we see some other “area”, but we don’t see the two areas together, at once.
Unfortunately, we “learn” many facts the way the hypnotized patient “learns” that the chair does not exist or that person X is person Y. We’ll readily agree to the truth of the fact (proof by authority in this case), but we won’t see the fact in relation to the other ways we understand the world. We see many small pictures, but cannot change our perspective to see the pictures in relation to each other.
How can we combat our tendency to “deny” these contradictory perspectives?
First, we need to place our “knowledge” in an experiential setting, rather than a verbally-mediated setting. Schooling encourages us to file our knowledge via labels. We recall facts when prompted with “keywords”; the “key” unlocks the otherwise isolated knowledge. This mental organization encourages us to reason by verbally associating via the labels (”there’s too much crime, so we need more police”), rather than seeing a system of interrelated parts. You can challenge this tendency in your own thought by eliminating the verb “to be” from your vocabulary. This exercise unearths label-based reasoning.
Second, we need to improve our ability to see more at once. We can “enlarge” our mental space by challenging our imagination. Can you see how the tilt of the earth creates the seasons as it revolves around the sun? When you look at the moon, can you relate the earth, moon, and sun in your mind’s eye? (I have trouble with this one.) We also enlarge our mental space by externalizing it: drawing diagrams, making physical models, putting pictures on the wall. We get very powerful leverage by inventing new spatial representations. Our “picture” of the world changed with the invention of the map.