Friday, June 15, 2007

Origins of Resistance to Science: Lessons for science & religion debates

There is a fascinating article in Science (May 18, 2007) by Paul Bloom & Scolnick Weisberg. It is titled Childhood Origins of Adult Resistance to Science and some aspects, such as the existence of soul or opposition to evolution, feed directly into science and religion debates. Paul Bloom was our first speaker for our Science & Religion lecture series at Hampshire College, and he talked about the origins of dualistic thinking in children that possibly leads to a concept of God. If interested, check out his excellent article, Is God an Accident? in the Atlantic Monthly (February 2001).

The Science article claims that some resistance to science is a human universal and is rooted in what children know about science intuitively and how they learn. A modified version of the paper is published at Edge. Here is the abstract for the paper:
The developmental data suggest that resistance to science will arise in children when scientific claims clash with early emerging, intuitive expectations. This resistance will persist through adulthood if the scientific claims are contested within a society, and will be especially strong if there is a non-scientific alternative that is rooted in common sense and championed by people who are taken as reliable and trustworthy. This is the current situation in the United States with regard to the central tenets of neuroscience and of evolutionary biology. These clash with intuitive beliefs about the immaterial nature of the soul and the purposeful design of humans and other animals — and, in the United States, these intuitive beliefs are particularly likely to be endorsed and transmitted by trusted religious and political authorities. Hence these are among the domains where Americans' resistance to science is the strongest.
You can read the full article here.

About resistance to science:
There are two common assumptions about the nature of this resistance. First, it is often assumed to be a particularly American problem, explained in terms of the strong religious beliefs of many American citizens and the anti-science leanings of the dominant political party. Second, the problem is often characterized as the result of insufficient exposure to the relevant scientific facts, and hence is best addressed with improved science education.

We believe that these assumptions, while not completely false, reflect a misunderstanding of the nature of this phenomenon. While cultural factors are plainly relevant, American adults' resistance to scientific ideas reflects universal facts about what children know and how children learn. If this is right, then resistance to science cannot be simply addressed through more education; something different is needed.
They then talk about children know prior to their exposure to science. For example, young children have a sense of "naive physics" - that objects fall when dropped, as well as a sense of "naive" or "common-sense psychology" - that people act and react in response to social and physical events. While "naive physics" also leads to a number of erroneous scientific conclusions (e.g. a ball out of a curved tube will follow a curved path), it is "common-sense psychology" that is more relevant for science and religion debates.

First you have the issue of seeing purpose and design everywhere:
One significant bias is that children naturally see the world in terms of design and purpose. For instance, four year-olds insist that everything has a purpose, including lions ("to go in the zoo") and clouds ("for raining"), a propensity that Deborah Kelemen has dubbed "promiscuous teleology." Additionally, when asked about the origin of animals and people, children spontaneously tend to provide and to prefer creationist explanations.

Just as children's intuitions about the physical world make it difficult for them to accept that the Earth is a sphere, their psychological intuitions about agency and design make it difficult for them to accept the processes of evolution.

Then there is the issue of "dualism" or mind/body separation, that leads to ideas about soul, etc:
One of the most interesting aspects of our common-sense psychology is dualism, the belief that minds are fundamentally different from brains. This belief comes naturally to children. Preschool children will claim that the brain is responsible for some aspects of mental life, typically those involving deliberative mental work, such as solving math problems. But preschoolers will also claim that the brain isn't involved in a host of other activities, such as pretending to be a kangaroo, loving one's brother, or brushing one's teeth. Similarly, when told about a brain transplant from a boy to a pig, they believe that you get a very smart pig, but one with pig beliefs and pig desires. For young children, then, much of mental life is not linked to the brain.
(check out Paul Bloom's Descarts' Baby for more details)

These conceptual errors, however, can lead to real social consequences:
The strong intuitive pull of dualism makes it difficult for people to accept what Francis Crick called "the astonishing hypothesis." Dualism is mistaken — mental life emerges from physical processes. People resist the astonishing hypothesis in ways that can have considerable social implications. For one thing, debates about the moral status of embryos, fetuses, stem cells, and non-human animals are sometimes framed in terms of whether or not these entities possess immaterial souls. For instance, in their 2003 report (Being Human: Readings from the President's Council on Bioethics), the President's Council described people as follows: "We have both corporeal and noncorporeal aspects. We are embodied spirits and inspirited bodies (or, if you will, embodied minds and minded bodies)."
But how do children learn about science:
Some culture-specific information is not associated with any particular source. It is "common knowledge." As such, learning of this type of information generally bypasses critical analysis. A prototypical example is that of word meanings. Everyone uses the word "dog" to refer to dogs, so children easily learn that this is what they are called. Other examples include belief in germs and electricity. Their existence is generally assumed in day-to-day conversation and is not marked as uncertain; nobody says that they "believe in electricity." Hence even children and adults with little scientific background believe that these invisible entities really exist, a topic explored in detail by Paul Harris and his colleagues.

Other information, however, is explicitly asserted. Such information is associated with certain sources. A child might note that science teachers make surprising claims about the origin of human beings, for instance, while their parents do not. Furthermore, the tentative status of this information is sometimes explicitly marked; people will assert that they "believe in evolution."

When faced with this kind of asserted information, one can occasionally evaluate its truth directly. But in some domains, including much of science, direct evaluation is difficult or impossible. Few of us are qualified to assess claims about the merits of string theory, the role in mercury in the etiology of autism, or the existence of repressed memories. So rather than evaluating the asserted claim itself, we instead evaluate the claim's source. If the source is deemed trustworthy, people will believe the claim, often without really understanding it. As our colleague Frank Keil has discussed, this sort of division of cognitive labor is essential in any complex society, where any single individuals will lack the resources to evaluate all the claims that he or she hears.
This is not just limited to science and we do that for other areas as well. Children do the same:
Adults thus rely on the trustworthiness of the source when deciding which asserted claims to believe. Do children do the same? Recent studies suggest that they do; children, like adults, have at least some capacity to assess the trustworthiness of their information sources.
So in a nutshell,
the developmental data suggest that resistance to science will arise in children when scientific claims clash with early emerging, intuitive expectations. This resistance will persist through adulthood if the scientific claims are contested within a society, and will be especially strong if there is a non-scientific alternative that is rooted in common sense and championed by people who are taken as reliable and trustworthy. This is the current situation in the United States with regard to the central tenets of neuroscience and of evolutionary biology. These clash with intuitive beliefs about the immaterial nature of the soul and the purposeful design of humans and other animals — and, in the United States, these intuitive beliefs are particularly likely to be endorsed and transmitted by trusted religious and political authorities. Hence these are among the domains where Americans' resistance to science is the strongest.

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