Students can appreciate and understand the theory of evolution better if they use intuition or gut feeling while assimilating facts, a new study has revealed.
In an analysis of the beliefs of biology teachers, the researchers from Ohio State University found that a quick intuitive notion of how right an idea feels was a powerful driver of whether or not students accepted evolution, often trumping factors such as knowledge level or religion.
"The whole idea behind acceptance of evolution has been the assumption that if people understood it - if they really knew it - they would see the logic and accept it," NewsWise quoted David Haury, co-author of the new study, said.
"But among all the scientific studies on the matter, the most consistent finding was inconsistency. One study would find a strong relationship between knowledge level and acceptance, and others would find no relationship. Some would find a strong relationship between religious identity and acceptance, and others would find less of a relationship.
"So our notion was, there is clearly some factor that we're not looking at," he continued. "We're assuming that people accept something or don't accept it on a completely rational basis. Or, they're part of a belief community that as a group accept or don't accept. But the findings just made those simple answers untenable," he said.
Haury and his colleagues tapped into cognitive science research showing that our brains don't just process ideas logically-we also rely on how true something feels when judging an idea.
"Research in neuroscience has shown that when there's a conflict between facts and feeling in the brain, feeling wins," he said.
The researchers framed a study to determine whether intuitive reasoning could help explain why some people are more accepting of evolution than others. The study included 124 pre-service biology teachers at different stages in a standard teacher preparation program at two Korean universities.
First, the students answered a standard set of questions designed to measure their overall acceptance of evolution. These questions probed whether students generally believed in the main concepts and scientific findings that underpin the theory.
Then the students took a test on the specific details of evolutionary science. To show their level of factual knowledge, students answered multiple-choice and free-response questions about processes such as natural selection. To gauge their "gut" feelings about these ideas, students wrote down how certain they felt that their factually correct answers were actually true.
The researchers then analysed statistical correlations to see whether knowledge level or feeling of certainty best predicted students' overall acceptance of evolution. They also considered factors such as academic year and religion as potential predictors.
"What we found is that intuitive cognition has a significant impact on what people end up accepting, no matter how much they know," Haury said.
The results show that even students with greater knowledge of evolutionary facts weren't likelier to accept the theory, unless they also had a strong "gut" feeling about those facts.
"The results show that if we consider both feeling and knowledge level, we can explain much more than with knowledge level alone," Minsu Ha, lead author of the study, said.
In particular, the research shows that it may not be accurate to portray religion and science education as competing factors in determining beliefs about evolution. For the subjects of this study, belonging to a religion had almost no additional impact on beliefs about evolution, beyond subjects' feelings of certainty.
The study has been published in the Journal of Research in Science Teaching.