March 28, 2013 | David F. Coppedge

Scientific Findings Can Be Counterintuitive

Here are examples of recent claims in science that seem to contradict what some would consider intuitively obvious.  They should be kept in mind when evaluating other widely-accepted scientific truisms, like evolution.

PhysOrg: Tough love, not small, incremental effort, is needed to turn around failing schools.

Medical Xpress:  Conservatives with their strict morality tend to be happier than fancy-free liberals.

BBC News:  The large horns on rhinoceros beetles do not slow them down during flight.

Nature: Greenland defied ancient global warming.

PhysOrg:  Geo-engineering to reduce global warming can have severe unintended consequences.

Nature: Tropical forests are unexpectedly resilient to climate change.

PhysOrg: African elephants do better in educated countries than in those with large nature reserves.

Live Science: Fossil footprint depth can be misleading; depth is not necessarily related to pressure.

Nature: The anus is a sophisticated organ.  Calling it a “remarkable orifice,” author Mary Roach said, “No engineer could design something as multifunctional and fine-tuned as an anus.  To call someone an asshole is really bragging him up.”

In a final example of counterintuitive findings, Live Science now claims that brain size didn’t drive human evolution.  It’s the organization of the brain, not its size, that makes the difference between humans and lower primates.  What would Morton and Broca have thought?  This contradicts decades of assumptions about what drove humans forward in evolution.  But was the prefrontal cortex the “driving force” in the human brain, as the article assumed, or a distinguishing characteristic of an already well-designed being?  Who would argue the evolutionary line without assuming it to be the seat of rationality?

Science is supposed to lead us away from seductive, fallible intuition (Bacon‘s Idols of the Theater) toward verifiability.  Yet scientists often contradict one another.  One thing is true this year; the opposite the next.  Don’t let intuition be your guide.  Darwin’s natural selection may seem intuitively obvious the way it is usually presented, but it is a vacuous idea: the Stuff Happens Law (9/15/2008, 9/22/2009).  We must not be fooled, even when the majority falls in line with insufficiently argued suppositions.


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