Creating Your Own Private Cosmos

Internal and Mixed O rigins of Incorrect B eliefs

I have just dropped a hammer and a pigeon feather simultaneously and from the same height. You won't be at all surprised to learn that the hammer reached the ground first. This result squares with our expectations about motion through the air. In the summer of 1971, Apollo is flew to the Moon. Standing on the Moon's virtually airless surface, astronaut David R. Scott simultaneously, and from the same height, dropped a hammer from his right hand and a falcon feather from his left. They both landed at the same time. This result flies in the face of normal understanding about motion, which we develop by integrating years of experience with moving objects.

Most of the information we get from various media and from our own reasoning, and the raw data about the natural world we get from our senses, doesn't just sit in our brains as isolated facts. Rather, we evaluate the new information by using both our common sense and the facts we've accumulated about related topics. If we choose to accept the new data as correct, either because we respect its source or because our reasoning tells us to, then we start incorporating it into our understanding of the natural world.

Let's consider how a few pieces of a typical model of the solar system develop. Children are told that the Earth orbits the Sun. Trusting the source of that information rather than their own perception that the Sun orbits the Earth, they incorporate the Sun-centered belief into their fledgling world views about the Earth and other astronomical bodies. Learning that there are other planets, children typically extrapolate that they also orbit the Sun.

Now consider a new piece of information: planets have been discovered near other stars (which is true). Generalizing from the above model of the solar system, you would expect that those extrasolar planets orbit their stars and not vice versa. If I suggest that, as is likely, many of these newly discovered planets have as-yet-undiscovered companion planets, you would expect that the companions orbit their stars too. If any new planets are found at distances from their stars where water can be liquid, then we might reasonably anticipate that life exists on such worlds. In sum, we take in new information and, using what we know, fit it into our world views, thereby creating a deeper and richer understanding of the natural world.

Unfortunately, the same thing happens when you accept incorrect information as correct. You use it to build or elaborate on your model of the natural world. For example, you probably have read or seen the statement that black holes are doorways or entrances to tunnels that connect far-flung places in the universe. This is a common construct in science fiction. If you accept it as true, then you can come to several conclusions about space travel that are inconsistent with the existing laws of physics. For instance, you might conclude that when we find such black holes, we will be able to use them to travel faster than the speed of light and thereby traverse vast distances in our galaxy in hours or days, whereas such travel in regular space would take thousands of years. You might also conclude that it is possible to enter a black hole and survive. Neither of these beliefs has a basis in our understanding of the physics of black holes. But once you accept them, you are open to believing other ideas based on them: aliens have visited the Earth from faraway worlds by traveling through black holes and thereby avoiding the long travel times through normal space. If you had been skeptical about the presence of aliens on Earth because you doubted they could get here quickly, then believing in travel between black holes will help you justify believing aliens have been, or are, here.

Once we take in any information and incorporate it into our world views, we own it. Whether the data came from others, as discussed in the previous chapter, or from our own senses, it eventually becomes part of us and is our responsibility as our minds process and use it. This chapter explores how we take in information—whether preprocessed by others or fresh from the natural world—and manipulate it to come up with wrong conclusions.

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