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Folk Science

‘Folk science’ is the study of our intuitive human understanding of the world around us. Our ‘folk science’ understanding of the world gives us two main faculties: one of social game play, allowing us to predict the actions of friends and competitors, and the other of objective reasoning and logic. They have allowed us to cope with daily duties necessary for survival as well as to live through war, disease, and famine.

Unfortunately, what has been essential for our survival is now proving, in some cases, to be in direct contradiction to the conscious involvement needed for our educational advancement. The importance of being able to carry out mundane day-to-day tasks essential to our survival, such as finding food and shelter, can’t be understated. However, we need ‘objectively-thinking problem solvers’ such as Newton, who shunned the study of social complexities in favour of the study of the physical nature of the world, if we are to solve the scientific problems that face humanity today.

Our natural mode of learning is a predilection for social game play and competitiveness with peers. Richard D. Alexander, an evolutionary biologist from the University of Michigan, has suggested that population expansions occurred at times when we had become masters of our environment. As a result, the importance of competition for land and food became paramount and social interaction played an integral part in this competition. The need for better understanding and predictions of the actions of early man’s acquaintances catalysed the development of built-in social skills such as reading non-verbal signals, deciphering facial expressions, and sharing a language and ideology.

These skills are still a part and parcel of everyday life. However, as we do these on ‘autopilot mode’, it becomes very hard to break out of this predisposition and exploit a more conscious attitude to learning about the world objectively, which is the motivation for all science. For example, even young children can estimate and describe the trajectory of a thrown object, such as a tennis ball, due to our evolutionary knowledge of gravity’s effect, but people’s explanations of the forces governing that ball's dynamics are often wrong. The majority believe that the object is being propelled forward by a force that constantly acts on the ball when in fact after it has left the thrower’s hand, we only have the downward force of gravity and a small frictional force due to air resistance.

Not only is this innate knowledge compromising our conceptual understanding of the physical world but it acts as a massive distraction in the classroom. Children are much more likely to engage in social game play that can distract them from consciously engaging in problem solving or utilising their working memory capacity. Many believe that the popularity of working in groups in schools does not lend itself to the development of this way of thinking, but the sole pursuit of individualistic learning could be disastrous. Therefore, a healthy balance must be struck.

A good analogy of the disparity between evolutionary need and educational advancement is the analysis of people with schizotypal personalities (not to be confused with schizophrenia). This type of personality is categorised by the fact that their brain does not filter out external stimuli to the extent that the average person’s would. This can lead to the person being classed as eccentric and ostracised for their strange behaviour, reducing their ability to work effectively in group-led school work. The reduced ability to filter sensory information in people with schizotypal personalities could also lead to an overwhelming of the senses and a lack of hierarchical importance of information that would make everyday tasks more difficult: historically hunting and foraging. This may account for the relative rarity of such personality types today. However, these people tend to be much more creative and innovative, showing a progressive approach to solving scientific problems. We should encourage these students even though they may not participate as well in group work and in general encourage those who think ‘outside the box’.

Better understanding of innate knowledge and a strong link between this science and education could affect a better learning environment for the next generation and ultimately a progression in mankind’s scientific knowledge.

Sam Covill is an undergraduate MSc student in Chemical Physics

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