About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Monday, May 21, 2007
Acceptance of science is made difficult by innate psychological biases
An article by Paul Bloom and Deena Weisberg in Science (18 May 2007) is crucially relevant to anybody interested in skepticism or science education. There is now empirical evidence explaining why so many otherwise intelligent people can go on their whole lives rejecting fundamental notions of modern science, from evolution to Newtonian mechanics (yes, it turns out that, intuitively, we adopt Aristotelian physics, for example believing that a ball coming out of a curve tube will keep going along a curved trajectory – it doesn't, it goes straight).
According to Bloom and Weisberg, one main source of resistance of adults to novel scientific findings is that as children they were not blank slates ready to absorb scientific notions: our brain comes with a series of built-in “assumptions” about the world, presumably to help us navigate it without the need for formal education. For example, several experiments have demonstrated that even very young children know that objects will fall down if not sustained (an intuitive theory of gravity), and they already have a concept of causality (as Kant first suggested, when he said that certain “categories,” such as space, time and causality, are naturally imposed by the human mind before any experience comes to shape us).
One of the consequences of this built-in view of the world is that children often extrapolate from it to derive wrong conclusions about the physical universe: for example, they derive a flat-earth “theory” from their Aristotelian physics, and it takes scientific education to dissuade them of that notion.
Even more interestingly, children are born with a tendency to see agency everywhere, including in inanimate objects: everything has a purpose, it is “for” something, a phenomenon psychologists call “promiscuous teleology.” It isn't difficult to see how this readily accounts for both the widespread tendency to believe in the supernatural (remember that the first religious beliefs where of a pantheistic type, where all of nature was infused with purpose and agency), as well as the widespread acceptance of a dualistic theory of mind, where somehow the mind (and, therefore, the “soul”) is independent of the physical brain and can survive the latter's demise.
A second reason for the difficulty in accepting counterintuitive scientific notions is that children (and, later, adults) believe in certain kinds of authorities and are sensitive to the cultural context within which ideas are presented. So, few people today doubt that the earth is round because there is no societal controversy about the fact (though probably few people would be able to point out exactly how we do know that the earth is not flat – short of direct observation from an artificial satellite). Evolution, on the other hand, is controversial not only because it is counterintuitive, but because authority figures that are important early on in our childhood (parents, preachers) are so often vehemently opposed to it. Moreover, the very idea of evolution is cast in terms of “belief”: think of the difference between people saying that they believe – or not – in evolution, while nobody “believes” in the round earth theory, because it's an incontrovertible, societally endorsed, fact.
The upshot of all this is that science educators and skeptics have an uphill battle to fight: they have to somehow overcome both innate psychological biases and cultural entrenchment. It's a tough and largely thankless job, but all the more important when major policy decisions affecting our welfare depend on it, from global warming to stem cell research. As a recently published cartoon suggested in jest, if you don't accept evolution perhaps you should have the coherence of not asking your doctor for the latest vaccine. After all, the vaccine is the product of our understanding that viruses evolve, just in the same way that you are able to fly across the planet because it is, in fact, not flat...