Jun 21 2012

In Praise of Confusion

A new study (yet to be published) apparently suggests that productive confusion can enhance learning. I find this conclusion to be highly plausible, but before I get to my thoughts on the matter let me summarize the study (or at least the press release).

Sidney D’Mello of the University of Notre Dame conducted a series of experiments in which subjects watched animated figures explain how to analyze scientific studies and discover any flaws. They were then tested on what they learned and their ability to analyze new studies. In some versions of the lessons the animated figures disagreed with each other and gave contradictory information, in order to generate confusion in the student. Students subjected to this confusion then performed better on later testing.

I cannot analyze the study itself as it is not yet published. I did, however, want to discuss the topic of confusion as it relates to learning and understanding. Taken at face value, the results of this study make sense to me and comport with my personal experience. In fact, they align with one of the core principles of the skeptical movement.

I am often asked the educational value of analyzing such pop claims as bigfoot, aliens, and astrology (to cite a few classic pseudosciences). Certainly, some argue, these topics are of little genuine scientific value. I agree in that it is highly unlikely that, for example, there is a large undiscovered primate living in the Pacific northwest. Skeptics address such issues for a few reasons, but primarily because it is an excellent opportunity to teach legitimate science. It is also a great case study in pathological science and the cognitive and psychological factors that lead individuals to cling to highly implausible and discredited beliefs. We all suffer from these biases and flaws in thinking, and so understanding them thoroughly through the examination of extreme cases is very useful.

Specifically related to this new study, I also find that correcting a misconception is an excellent way to learn concepts in general and science specifically. Error and misunderstandings are very instructive, forcing you to consider the topic more deeply to understand why a certain misconception is common and how we know it’s wrong. Correcting error encourages you to explore the full intellectual space surrounding an idea, rather than just accepting the idea itself.

My favorite example of this principle is creationism, which was my gateway topic into general scientific skepticism. Creationists are profoundly wrong about science and evolution in countless ways, and in order to understand exactly why they are wrong you have to have a fairly good working knowledge of evolutionary theory. For example, creationists claim that there are no transitional fossils. This claim is partly just a denial of demonstrable facts, such as the existence of transitional fossils. But when confronted creationists will evade such evidence by claiming that, say, Archaeopteryx is just a bird and is not necessarily transitional between reptiles and birds. This in turn forces a careful definition of what it means to be transitional (such as morphologically transitional vs phylogenetically transitional). Related concepts such as homology vs analogy come into play as well.

In the end, once you have thoroughly refuted the creationist claim that there are no transitional fossils, you have explored many evolutionary concepts and specific pieces of evidence, including how scientists make sense of the evidence and have tested their own ideas.

Part of the educational advantage of this approach is that it is very cognitively active. Just being told the current consensus of scientific opinion can be very passive, and does not necessarily force you to think. Debunking nonsense is a very active cognitive process, which leads to both greater understanding and memory.

In this respect the current study is in line with prior psychological research on learning and memory – the more engaged the student is in the process the better they learn and remember.

Good science teachers have been doing this for a long time. Debate is one way to get students to engage with the material. In one evolution class I took in college we had to read a science fiction novel with an evolutionary theme and then critique the science in the book. This is similar to taking apart the science in current science fiction movies, like Prometheus (which is a target-rich environment).

In short, I believe that skepticism is a great way to learn science and critical thinking. Probing for what is wrong with an idea or claim is central to science, and that, essentially, is what skepticism is.

13 responses so far

13 Responses to “In Praise of Confusion”

  1. ccbowerson 21 Jun 2012 at 2:34 pm

    I agree that this type of ‘confusion’ is way to engage a person in a deeper level of thinking, which can help benefit understanding, but I wonder how this meshes with the problems with misinformation. Introducing misinformation has been shown to be damaging, particularly to those ideologically committed to a particular point of view, in that even when the misinformation is corrected the belief in the misinformation often persists (and the correction forgotten).

    I realize that we are not talking about misinformation specifically, but there does seem to be some overlap if the confusion results in later confusion as opposed to greater understanding. Perhaps the net effect is greater understanding?

  2. Woodyon 21 Jun 2012 at 3:42 pm

    It seems to me that this study is tapping into dissonance theory in some way. If you are exposed to a topic that you don’t have any prior knowledge of, then you are likely to passively accept whatever the consensus opinion presented might be. If you are presented with conflicting opinions, then the “dissonance alarm” goes off internally, which probably heightens your attention to resolve that conflict and leads to more active engagement and improved learning. It probably only works if you don’t have a preexisting bias about the topic, though.

    I suspect that the misinformation aspect of it is very problematic – if the majority of the material readily available to the public is inaccurate, then it is going to be challenging to overturn that mindset after the fact. I suspect that even a fleeting initial exposure to misinformation can generate a very powerful bias later on in an individual. I am sure this has been extensively studied in the politics, advertising and legal arenas, but I am not familiar with the literature.

  3. ccbowerson 22 Jun 2012 at 12:37 am

    “I suspect that the misinformation aspect of it is very problematic – if the majority of the material readily available to the public is inaccurate, then it is going to be challenging to overturn that mindset after the fact.”

    The more I think about it, the more I think that the nature of the topic being discussed would have a great influence on the results of introducing contradictory information. I can see this strategy being very beneficial for certain topics, such as those in which the audience has a low level of interest, and perhaps having some conflict increases the engagement of the audience.

    For topics in which the audience is already engaged because they have an interest in a particular view (such as the ideological biases as discussed above), I see this approach as having problems. This then becomes much like the problems of misinformation, in which the important information may be lost, and the confirming (but incorrect) information may be retained due to the typical problems of confirmation bias, discomfirmation bias, motivated reasoning, and the tendency for people to forget the sources of information and details. I am curious if this result could be replicated in a wide range of topics to see if different results are obtained.

  4. Steven Novellaon 22 Jun 2012 at 9:28 am

    I think there is a difference between misinformation and a misconception.

    There is research to suggest that giving and then correcting misinformation is not a good strategy. As you say – people have a separate and often poor memory for the source of information and the truth status of information.

    Misunderstanding a concept, like the definition of a transitional species/fossil, is different. When you engage the misunderstanding and correct it with a deeper understanding of the issues, I don’t think the problems above apply.

  5. ccbowerson 22 Jun 2012 at 10:26 am

    “I think there is a difference between misinformation and a misconception.”
    “Misunderstanding a concept, like the definition of a transitional species/fossil, is different.”

    I agree that there is a difference, but sometimes that difference can be subtle and tricky because misinformation often capitalizes on misunderstandings.

    To use your example of transitional fossils, I can think of situations in which adding misunderstanding/confusion about transitional fossils inadvertently reinforces creationists preconceptions about the topic. I’m not saying it would necessarily happen, its just something I think we would have to be aware of if we wanted to use this technique

  6. tmac57on 22 Jun 2012 at 11:14 am

    If you misunderstand something,then isn’t that misinformation ? See, now I’m totally confused,and…hey!… wait a minute…is this some tricky way of enhancing our learning of this topic?!!!

  7. Karl Withakayon 22 Jun 2012 at 11:24 am

    I assume that in this study, the subjects had little or no built in bias for either side when contradictory information was presented.

    It would be interesting to see a similar study when there was some inherent bias in the subjects. I suspect that there would often be the tendency to rationalize towards the desired information and away from the undesired information when two pieces of info conflict rather than an a rational reconciliation of the conflict to produce a deeper understanding.

  8. Steven Novellaon 22 Jun 2012 at 11:49 am

    Misinformation – vaccines cause autism. Even if you correct that myth, a percentage (but a minority) of people will forget the truth status of the myth and just remember the connection.

    Misconception – quantum mechanics allows for psychic ability. This cannot be corrected by simply saying it’s not true. Giving someone a deeper understanding of why QM does not allow for a violation of relativity and does not create a special role for consciousness is more than just assigning a truth status to a claim.

    In the study, the confusion has to be quickly corrected in order for the enhanced learning effect to occur.

    To summarize you can say that misinformation deals with facts, misconceptions deal with concepts.

  9. tmac57on 22 Jun 2012 at 1:07 pm

    Thanks for clearing up my misconception about misinformation. 😉

  10. ccbowerson 22 Jun 2012 at 1:34 pm

    “In the study, the confusion has to be quickly corrected in order for the enhanced learning effect to occur.”

    I think this is the key point (I don’t think the distinction between misconception and misinformation solves that issue).

    The timing of the correction makes a large difference, I think – with too much time between the misconception and correction being problematic. If the misconception and correction occur during the same “conversation” the problems we were discussing disappear, because the person would never process the misconception as true.

  11. daedalus2uon 23 Jun 2012 at 1:18 pm

    I think the issue with timing and correction of misinformation and misconception relates more to how people tie information together (or not). There is a famous saying that science is no more a pile of facts than a house is a pile of stones. It is the structure by which the facts fit together that gives science its ability to check itself, interpolate and eventually extrapolate. Treating science as a pile of facts doesn’t allow for that.

    What Creationists do is take a pile of what they consider to be “facts”, the Bible, and then impute perfect reliability into those specific “facts”, and negligible reliability to everything else (in comparison).

    Getting away from a focus on specific facts and how facts fit together is doing science at a higher level than many people know how to do. People are familiar with fitting “facts” together in a storyline, but a storyline is primarily a social construct about social interactions, not a conceptualization of how facts actually do fit together to form a coherent model of reality.

    The Bible is a collection of stories, not a collection of facts. Many of the stories are parables, they are not meant to be literally true. In the Parable of the Talents, was there an actual master who had 3 servants who gave each of them different amounts to hold and invest? If so, how did Jesus meet up with the various participants and get their respective stories? In the Parable of the Good Samaritan, was there an actual person who was set upon by robbers and then ignored by the specific individuals mentioned? The individual was reportedly half dead. How could he have reported the identities of the priest and Levite who passed him by? Unless Jesus was there watching, if so, why didn’t Jesus intervene?

    Practicing skepticism on pop claims like aliens and Big Foot is an easy way to practice the correct form of skeptical arguments. Feynman has a great quote on that:

    “It is not unscientific to make a guess, although many people who are not in science think it is. Some years ago I had a conversation with a layman about flying saucers — because I am scientific I know all about flying saucers! I said “I don’t think there are flying saucers”. So my antagonist said, “Is it impossible that there are flying saucers? Can you prove that it’s impossible?” “No”, I said, “I can’t prove it’s impossible. It’s just very unlikely”. At that he said, “You are very unscientific. If you can’t prove it impossible then how can you say that it’s unlikely?” But that is the way that is scientific. It is scientific only to say what is more likely and what less likely, and not to be proving all the time the possible and impossible. To define what I mean, I might have said to him, “Listen, I mean that from my knowledge of the world that I see around me, I think that it is much more likely that the reports of flying saucers are the results of the known irrational characteristics of terrestrial intelligence than of the unknown rational efforts of extra-terrestrial intelligence.” It is just more likely. That is all.”


    Interestingly, right after the above quote there is another, which directly relates to the current topic.

    “Therefore psychologically we must keep all the theories in our heads, and every theoretical physicist who is any good knows six or seven different theoretical representations for exactly the same physics.”

    These theoretical representations are the conceptual structure that the data fits in. If you try to fit nonsense or non-facts into a conceptual structure, the only one that nonsense will fit into is a structure that is inconsistent.

  12. NewRonon 24 Jun 2012 at 2:39 am

    Confusion is easy. Now confission …

  13. BillyJoe7on 24 Jun 2012 at 6:58 am

    DAEDALUS: “The Bible is a collection of stories, not a collection of facts. Many of the stories are parables, they are not meant to be literally true.”

    Certainly some of them are meant as metaphor but, undeniably, some of them are meant to be literally true. For example, if original sin and redemption are not literally true, why is anyone a Christian?

    (In fact, genetics has proven that there could never have been an original “Adam and Eve”. No original sin means no need for redemption via the crucifixion of the “Son of God”. So why is anyone still a Christian in any case – perhaps they have not heard the good news!)

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