The perils of research design (and are all scientists the same?)

A new study testing the hypothesis that there is a natural preference for teleological explanations asked physical scientists from “top-ranked American universities” to judge statements such as ‘trees produce oxygen so that  animals can breathe.” Those in the control group rejected such teleological explanations but those in the timed group tended to accept the statements as true. The researchers also undergraduates and college graduates tested English and history professors. They  conclude:

“Even though advanced scientific training can reduce acceptance of scientifically inaccurate teleological explanations, it cannot erase a tenacious early-emerging human tendency to find purpose in nature. It seems that our minds may be naturally more geared to religion than science.”

The article is not open-access and my uni library does not subscribe to that journal so I can’t read the details of the study. Without knowing how many statements subjects were asked to evaluate and what the time constraint was (let alone if the subjects were appropriate choices), I’d be hard pressed to critique beyond a simple question that sums up much of my view on studies like this (often in psychology): did the study really test what it said–an underlying human bias toward teleological explanations–or did it test something all together different in the field of cognition, say something to do with language processing or semantics in timed situations? I think it gets more at the latter than the former and there is an interesting body of literature in that field!

A larger issue emerges here: the biases in research design that reflect a problem in contemporary understandings of science that all ‘scientists’ are the same. Within the field of science, you will find researchers who use science with a capital S as it if is the only law in the world. Each discipline has its own biases and agendas–science, social science or humanities–and within those disciplines, you will a wide breadth of researchers with unique perspectives and outlooks.  This study argues that it captures the perspective of physical scientist but only uses subjects who are geologists, physicists, and chemists. To truly test the question, the research design would also need to look at a broader cross section of the sciences because these three disciplines hardly represent ‘science’–where are the life sciences, for instance?!


Published by Kara C. Hoover

I am a bioanthropologist living in Alaska studying human olfactory variation and prehistoric human health and diet.

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