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.

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