Yesterday’s post, “Using Science to Be Happier” touched on a topic that is probably ripe for further exploration: our intuition about the world around us is frequently entirely wrong. In the post, I was explicitly referring to Dr. Laurie Santos’ contention that the things we generally think make us happier, don’t—for example, many people yearn to avoid human contact, while science tells us that happier people are much more social.
Thinking about that topic today, I came up with a short list of other examples where science blatantly contradicts our common sense about the world around us, and since I don’t have any other ideas, and it’s late in the day, here’s that short list, padded out to fill the word count, because I am too lazy and tired tonight to do much more than this.
My first and favorite example is the intuitive-but-incorrect idea that the world is flat and that the sun moves through the sky. I don’t want to surprise any of my readers, but this is about as incorrect as it can be. The world is roundish (kind of pear-shaped, really, although at large scale it’s tough for us to tell), and so large that to our human eyes, it only appears flat to anyone not paying attention. The horizon curves away from us in all directions, when we can see the horizon at all. In flatter regions, or out on the ocean, anything tall moving away from us will slowly sink below the horizon, giving away the real shape of the planet on which we stand.
Likewise, with respect to the Earth, the sun is relatively motionless: it sits at the center of a bunch of smaller planets orbiting around. The sun is not literally stationary, though: it is moving through space. But it does not orbit the Earth at all. It just doesn’t.
A trickier one, involving human psychology, but one that I enjoy reading about, involves rich people and their motivations. In our capitalist society (remember, I am an anti-capitalist politically), people observe that very rich people are often assholes, and many conclude that the rich people got that way because they are assholes. It must, they think, take a certain kind of personality to have the drive to accumulate all that wealth.
But there are many social scientists doing studies on the link, if any, between wealth and empathy. My favorite is Paul Piff of Berkeley, who has done a ton of studies about this topic, and his work strongly suggests the opposite: as someone becomes rich, regardless of whether they strive and earn their wealth or if it’s randomly given to them, they gradually lose their empathy towards others and gain a strong sense of entitlement.
My favorite example is the rigged Monopoly game. Piff has replicated this many times. The players are told upfront that the game will be rigged to favor one or the other in ways like one of them starting with twice as much cash as the other, or being able to roll two dice instead of one to move. Then the beneficiary of the advantage is decided by a coin toss. There’s no skill involved to this point, and yet, as the game progresses, the player with all the advantages begins to act much more aggressively towards their opponent. And in interviews after-the-fact, they will talk much more about their choices and strategies, and downplay the lift they got to begin with.
So it’s clear that gaining wealth will often drain a person of their connection and feeling of society, which in a harsh environment would mean that person becoming more and more ostracized and therefore more vulnerable. Humans have succeeded when we work together for everyone’s benefit. Except in America, it seems, more’s the pity.
I’ve come across stories like this all my life, and they are a strong reason why I consider myself a skeptic and an atheist. The lesson, at least to me, is clear: beware your common sense, or at least consider your intuitions with some skepticism, because when studied dispassionately and in a controlled environment, they could turn out to be misleading in the extreme.