Cognitive and Affective Aspects of Complexity and Emergence

Sarah Brem, Arizona State University

My work in complexity and emergence for the past several years has focused on students' and teachers' understanding of evolutionary biology and their reaction to evolutionary theory. What I have found most interesting is that many of the concerns that people have about evolution are not just about potential conflicts with their religious beliefs, but more generally with the notion that organisms evolve without purpose or direction, that a particular outcome is a result of thousands of disconnected, stochastic events. It made me curious as to whether the battles over evolution that are so familiar are really about evolution, or whether they are about an uneasiness that complexity and emergent phenomena bring about.

I had the opportunity to explore these ideas through a NSF Synthesis grant, Evolution Challenges, which brought together approximately 60 scholars, all of whom teach and learn about evolution, but from different perspectives. There are science educators, paleontologists, evolutionary biologists, philosophers of science, developmental psychologists, cognitive scientists, curriculum developers, educational psychologists, and scholars representing a number of other disciplines. Through this project, we identified several themes that hinder learning and teaching about evolutionary biology, and I wondered whether some of these themes could also be applied to other examples of complexity and emergence.

Working with Micki Chi and many scientists in content areas, these hunches developed into a research proposal that was recently funded by the NSF. Our goal is to test hypotheses about complexity and emergence across domains, to see whether factors that hinder learning in one domain are also present in another. The geosciences are one of the domains that we want to include as a central test bed, because of the richness of examples, and their importance to learners (even if they don't know just yet how important they are!)

Here, I will highlight just a few:

Cognitive heuristics and biases. From infancy on, human beings possess powerful "rules of thumb" that help us quickly simplify situations and make decisions on the fly. In many, if not most, cases, these rules work very well, and allow us to not only survive but to flourish. However, they tend to systematically fail us in certain situations, and cases of emergence are one sort of these situations. For example, we tend to look for single causes that exist and function in a particular way for a purpose, possibly an intentional purpose. We blame a traffic jam on one fender bender and the people who slow down to look. A stream of ants across our countertop are marching in single file because they are watching the ant in front of them, knowing that the lead is taking them to the pile of spilt sugar. To use an example from the geosciences, erosion doesn't occur because of water or wind or the type of rock and dirt, the type of flora and fauna, or the amount of time that has past—it occurs because of all of these things and more happening at the same time, at different times, in different orders, and on and on. But to grasp how all of these different processes come together, with no preset purpose or promised outcome is extraordinarily difficulty. It is easier to say, "the river washed away the rock a long time ago," or "that cliff is eroding because there are no trees with root systems on it." And we may even anthropomorphize, and talk about the river and the wind as if they were living, thinking beings.

In addition to these sorts of constraints, the experiences we have with the world from childhood on further entrench our intuitions, and create what psychologists and sociologists call naïve or folk theories about the world—we have a folk biology that tells us why we look like our parents and siblings, a folk psychology that clues us in to people's motives. We also have naïve or folk geosciences, such as Steve Semken discusses when he describes the fluid-Earth/solid-Earth beliefs of the Navajo people, or Julie Libarkin and Josepha Kurdziel capture in their work on the Proto-process level of understanding that novice students show.

Affective responses to complexity and uncertainty. In my own work with my colleagues, I found that many non-scientists who had a naïve understanding of evolution, even those who accepted evolutionary theory, worried that believing in evolution gave rise to many negative consequences. They thought that belief in evolution would make people more racist and selfish, less able to accept the spiritual, and reduce their sense of purpose and self-determination. Those who believed in evolution not only had these fears, they had them to much the same degree as those who did not accept evolution. This made us curious as to whether the random, uncontrollable nature of evolution, and other emergent processes, might cause a sense of unease, even in an area that is not so politically charged. Changes in climate and the course of rivers, not to mention earthquakes and volcanic eruptions could cause concern because they are hard to understand, hard to predict, and hard to control.

My goal for this workshop is to collect more examples of emergent phenomena in the geosciences, learn how geoscience educators teach about these phenomena and what obstacles or resistance they face, and receive feedback on how my work might help us better understand what makes emergence and complexity challenging to teach and learn.

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