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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Why science has to fight an uphill battle

This important article by Paul Bloom and Deena Skolnick Weisberg (the full version of which has recently been published in Science, 18 May 2007) examines the psychological wellsprings of resistance to scientific explanations of the world's phenomena. More particularly, it discusses the circumstances in which developing children fail to internalise information that comes from science.

Bloom and Weisberg conclude that resistance to scientific thinking will continue beyond childhood into adulthood if the scientific claims are contested within the individual's society. The resistance will be epecially strong if a non-scientific alternative (1) has currency in the society, (2) is rooted in intuitive understandings, or common sense, and (3) is championed by people who appear to be reliable and trustworthy. Bloom and Weisberg observe that this is the current situation in the United States with regard to the main ideas of evolutionary biology (the diversification of life by natural selection and associated mechanisms over the span of geological time) and neuroscience (the dependence of mind on the functioning of the brain). Such scientific beliefs clash with ideas that human beings find more intuitively plausible: the purposeful design of human and other animals; and the immaterial nature of the mind or soul. Furthermore, they are contested by trusted religious and political authorities, who endorse the more intuitive non-scientific alternatives.

As Bloom and Weisberg explain, we do not start as psychological "blank slates", but come with a rich naive physics and naive psychology from a very young age. For example, babies understand that objects are solid and persist over time, even when out of sight ... and so on. They also understand something of how people respond autonomously to social and physical events, motivated by their goals and stirred to have appropriate emotions. All this intuitive understanding of the social and physical worlds can help kids learn and survive, but the intuitions often clash with what science has discovered about how nature actually works. For example, childrens' understanding of how objects fall downwards makes it difficult for them to grasp how the Earth can be spherical, and they are not able to establish a coherent understanding of this until the age of eight or nine.

In a similar way, children's psychological intuitions about agency and design impede their ability to understand and accept the paradigm of biological evolution and the standard picture of the brain/mind relationship in modern neuroscience. Research on young children finds that they intuitively separate the mind and the brain, though they are prepared to accept that the brain is responsible for some aspects of mental life. E.g., when asked to imagine a brain transplant from a boy to a pig, young children are likely to conclude that you get a very smart pig, but still with a pig's psychological structure of beliefs and desires.

Available research suggests that some information is picked up by children as uncontroversial background knowledge in the culture around them. They will accept the existence even of unseen entities, such as germs and electricity, if it is assumed in the day-to-day conversations that they hear around them. However, the same applies if they hear supernatural beings and forces (such as deities or karma) being discussed in the same way. In those circumstances, children will pick up beliefs in such things unquestioningly. However, the information that children are exposed to may be confined to certain sources (such as a science teacher), or it may be marked as only tentative (such as if certain locutions are used, as when people say they "believe in evolution").

According to Bloom and Weisberg, the data suggests that resistance to science will arise in children when scientific claims clash with emerging, intuitive expectations of the world. It will persist through adulthood if the scientific claims are contested within a society, and will be especially strong if there is an intuitive, non-scientific alternative that is championed by people who appear to be reliable and trustworthy. In that respect, the key claims of evolutionary biology and neuroscience are liable to be rejected because they clash with intuitive beliefs (about the purposeful design of humans and other animals, and about the immaterial nature of the mind or soul), and these intuitive beliefs are likely to be endorsed and transmitted by trusted religious and political authorities.

It is almost as if we have been programmed to pick up scientifically wrong ideas, and there are certainly some powerful social interests encouraging us to stay with the program, despite the immense body of converging empirical evidence from many sources that supports the worldview of science.

Scientists are not always right, of course, as Bloom and Weisberg stress, and they may have their own biases, yet the procedures of science are more likely than any others to discover truths about the world.

Though Bloom and Weisberg do not offer an evolutionary account of the phenomena they describe, it is natural to speculate that human beings, as a species, evolved in circumstances where our naive physics and psychology were good enough for survival and reproduction, despite their shortcomings and their lamentable tendency, in current circumstances, to create a resistance to the findings of science and the scientific worldview. Back in the environment of evolutionary adaptedness, there was presumably no reproductive benefit in understanding that the Earth is not actually flat, that mental experience emerges from the functioning of the brain, that objects at sub-atomic level behave in bizarre ways, that objects travelling at relativistic velocity have certain odd (as we see them) properties such as increased mass ... and so on. Evolution had no stake in giving us the truth about all this, but only in giving us such behavioural dispositions as would get us by, and get us to pass on our genes.

Alas, much of the modern scientific world picture is massively counterintuitive for most people. It had to be worked out slowly and painstakingly, against the grain of what we are naturally inclined to think, and it is all-too-easily resisted by developing children if they encounter it is as socially contested, or as marked with indications of being tentative. Thus, it is rationally explicable why so many people don't "get" the scientific worldview, and why intellectually unsupported belief systems persist despite the lack of real evidence or even in the face of the evidence. Unfortunate though it is, it is not really that surprising when science faces an uphill battle against the forces of unreason.

3 comments:

Athena said...

Hmmm… believing that the earth is held up by elephants or turtles is not necessarily high on the scale of common sense, nor are many traditional teachings intuitively obvious. I suspect the strongest reasons are that 1) people don’t think much of these issues unless they directly impinge on their lives and 2) most people are content to go with the majority.

Russell Blackford said...

Turtle theory isn't intuitive to us, but then again we've been socialised into a lot of beliefs that are inconsistent with it. It might seem much more intuitive to someone socialised into it from childhood in a pre-industrial culture where turtles figure prominently in the environment, and in which the body of uncontroversial background beliefs that kids are exposed to is all consistent with turtle theory.

Almost any belief can seem commonsensical given the right socialisation. I suppose it may turn out that this study - the one I discuss in my post - is barking up the wrong tree, or betting on the wrong turtle - but it does seem useful to me for psychologists to carry out research to investigate whether there are any innate propensities in what we tend to find commonsensical, cross-culturally, and hence above and beyond what is taught to kids who are socialised in culturally-specific ways.

Admittedly, there's a lot more research that needs to be done, and as with anything else we need to scrutinise whatever findings emerge, but I think it's an important research program.

The idea that I'm pretty convinced of at the moment is that humans beings are primed (though not necesarily by something like a specific cognitive "module") to think in dualistic terms, and to accept answers in terms of intelligent agency as satisfying and final - even though we now know that they are not final at all. It's difficult to get any definitive corroboration, but I think there's a pretty impressive circumstantial case that cries out for more precise investigation. For example, my experience is that even people who do think very deeply about such things tend to find such explanations satisfying. I even observe it in myself: when I think about some of the typical theistic arguments I can see how they are psychologically very satisfying, even though they don't stand up logically.

E.g. there's a temptation to explain the fine-tuning of the constants in terms of the operation of intelligent agency, and to be satisfied with such an explanation. Even for me it takes a bit of wrench to think, "But intelligent agency, in our experience, is something that also needs to be explained, and seems to be dependent on great material complexity." For a lot of people, that next step just doesn't seem to be something they "get".

Back to you, Athena, and anyone else. I think this is worth kicking around, even if some are not ultimately convinced by the approach of Bloom and Weisberg ... or by my speculative riffing on it.

Athena said...

Russell, I unreservedly agree that these are ideas/theories worthwhile exploring. If only I had more time! But I will comment briefly on a few points you raised.

The experience of the Ionians and Periclean Athenians indicates that even socialization or innate propensities don't automatically trump "outside the box" thinking.

Dualistic thinking is relatively easy to understand: the division between Self/Like Self and Other.

Intelligent agency explanations are satisfying because they validate our desire for centrality, significance, meaning. The anthropic principle is an extension of that. It is bleak to realize that the universe is profoundly indifferent to us and that we don't continue as individuals past our death. In the end, we are mammals who crave warmth -- metaphorically as well as literally.