Does your mind completely accept new knowledge?

No. Our childish understanding of the world lurks in our minds, even after we have learnt scientifically correct theories that refute that understanding.

The theory of knowledge restructuring tells us that once we have learnt new knowledge, the old knowledge is entirely replaced.

A number of recent findings have challenged this idea, however, by showing that early modes of thought do sometimes reemerge later in life. Alzheimer’s patients, for instance, have been shown to endorse teleological explanations for natural phenomena that typically only children endorse

Shtulman and Valcarcel (2012)

Whilst studies have shown that a child’s understanding of biology stays into adulthood, Shtulmand and Valcercel demonstrated that this phenomenon occurs across all knowledge groups.

…we compare the speed and accuracy with which adults verify two types of statements: statements whose truth-value is known to remain constant across conceptual change (e.g., “The moon revolves around the Earth,” which is true on both naïve and scientific theories of astronomical phenomena) and syntactically analogous statements whose truth-value is known to reverse across that same change (e.g., “The Earth revolves around the sun,” which is true on a scientific theory but not a naïve theory).

They predicted that “if naïve theories survive the acquisition of a mutually incompatible scientific theory, then statements whose truth-value reverse across conceptual change should cause greater cognitive conflict than statements whose truth-value remain constant, resulting in slower and less accurate verifications for those statements

In their study, participants were asked to answer 200 true or false questions. There were twenty questions in ten different categories of knowledge.

A quarter of the statements were true on both naïve and scientific theories of the domain (“steal is denser than foam”), a quarter were false on both naïve and scientific theories (“foam is denser than brick”), a quarter were true on naïve theories but false on scientific theories (“ice is denser than water”), and a quarter were true on scientific theories but false on naïve theories (“cold pennies are denser than hot pennies”).

Table 1. The five concepts covered in each domain.

Domain Concept
Astronomy Planet, star, solar system, lunar phase, season
Evolution Common ancestry, phylogeny, variation, selection, adaptation
Fractions Addition, division, conversion, ordering, infinite density
Genetics Heritability, chromosome, dominance, expression, mutation
Germs Contagion, contamination, infection, sterilization, microbe
Matter Mass, weight, density, divisibility, atom
Mechanics Force, velocity, acceleration, momentum, gravity
Physiology Life, death, reproduction, metabolism, kinship
Thermodynamics Heat, heat source, heat transfer, temperature, thermal expansion
Waves Light, color, sound, propagation, reflection

The study found that questions that were inconsistent across the naïve and scientific theories in all knowledge areas listed above were not only answered slower than those that were consistent, but they were also answered incorrectly more often as well.

When students learn scientific theories that conflicts with earlier, naïve theories, what happens to the earlier theories? Our findings suggest that naïve theories are suppressed by scientific theories but not supplanted by them.

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