Understanding-explanations-01.png

Understanding Explanations

With Deena Skolnick Weisberg and Emily Hopkins

University of Pennsylvania, 2013–2019


Overview

In 2013 I started working as a research assistant to Dr. Deena Skolnick Weisberg at Penn's Cognition & Development Lab. We, along with Dr. Emily Hopkins, investigated how people from varying educational backgrounds interpret explanations of phenomena across a range of sciences.

Reduction-steps-01.png

More specifically, we examined the "seductive allure" of reductive explanations, whereby an explanation may be considered more satisfying if it is plumped up with information from a more "fundamental" science—even when that information adds nothing to the logic of the explanation.

We found that the seductive allure effect appears in many step-wise pairings (such as chemistry–physics or neuroscience–biology). In other words, the seductive allure effect appears to be a reductive allure effect. However, the effect was especially strong in the psychology–neuroscience pairing.

A follow-up study showed that people with scientific training were less prone to the effect when rating explanations within or close to their "home" discipline. More surprisingly, perhaps, subjects with philosophical training generally appear to be immune to the effect across all tested disciplines.

This project has yielded five peer-reviewed articles:

  1. Hopkins, E. J., Weisberg, D. S., & Taylor, J. C. V. (2019). “Does expertise moderate the seductive allure of reductive explanations?Acta Psychologica, 198.

  2. Weisberg, D. S., Hopkins, E. J., & Taylor, J. C. V. (2018). “People’s explanatory preferences for scientific phenomena.” Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications, 3(44): 1–14.

  3. Hopkins, E. J., Weisberg, D. S., & Taylor, J. C. V. (2016). ”Examining the specificity of the seductive allure effect.” In A. Papafragou, D. Grodner, D. Mirman, & J. C. Trueswell (Eds.), Proceedings of the 38th Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society (pp. 1829-1834). Philadelphia, PA: Cognitive Science Society.

  4. Hopkins, E. J., Weisberg, D. S., & Taylor, J. C. V. (2016). ”The seductive allure is a reductive allure: People prefer scientific explanations that contain logically irrelevant reductive information.” Cognition, 155, 67-76. doi:10.1016/j.cognition.2016.06.011

  5. Weisberg, D. S., Taylor, J. C. V., & Hopkins, E. J. (2015). ”Deconstructing the seductive allure of neuroscience explanations.” Judgment and Decision Making, 10(5), 429-441.

Additionally, we’ve shared our studies in the following conference presentations:

  1. Taylor, J. C. V. (2017, February). On ‘Seductive Allure of Neuroscience.’ Oral presentation at the 2017 Social, Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Retreat: Philadelphia, PA.

  2. Hopkins, E. J., Weisberg, D. S., & Taylor, J. C. V. (2016, August). Examining the specificity of the seductive allure effect. Paper presented at the 38th Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society: Philadelphia, PA.

  3. Hopkins, E. J., Weisberg, D. S., & Taylor, J. C. V. (2016, June). Does expertise moderate the seductive allure of reductive explanations? Poster presented at the 42nd Annual Meeting of the Society for Philosophy and Psychology: Austin, TX.

Our findings have generated a bit of buzz in the public press. You can read write-ups at Business Insider, Mark Liberman’s Language Log, and Daniel Willingham’s Science & Education blog.

Our work was funded by the Templeton Foundation’s Varieties of Understanding project.