In the May 18, 2007 edition of Science (available only to subscribers online), Paul Bloom and Deena Skolnick Weisberg consider why so many adults resist science. They cite a 2005 Pew Trust poll finding that 42% of people believe that humans have existed in their present form since the beginning of time. Most people who do accept evolution misunderstand it. They think that evolution causes animals to have offspring that are “better adapted to their environments.” Silly beliefs are rampant in our society. People believe in out-of-body experiences, ghosts, astrology, ESP and other things far too numerous to mention (for an exhaustive review of many of these claims, see Skeptical Inquirer Magazine).
The authors reviewed developmental psychology and came to some conclusions as to why certain children grow into science-resistant adults.
First of all, it is important to consider the environments of children even before they are exposed to science. The authors point out that babies possess “a rich understanding of both the physical world (a naïve physics) and the social world (a naïve psychology – see here for a bit more on this research).” (Citing Paul Bloom’s 2004 book, Descartes’s Baby). For instance, babies know that objects are solid and that they persist over time. They know that objects fall to the ground when they are dropped. They know that people move “autonomously.”
Although these intuitions are often useful, they “sometimes clash with scientific discoveries about the nature of the world, making certain scientific facts it difficult to learn.” The authors conclude that it is thus not a problem of what the student “lacks, but what the student has.” The belief that objects fall “down” makes it hard to conceive of the world as a sphere.
Another problem is that common sense suggests that everything in the world has a purpose or a design. This is sometimes referred to as “promiscuous teleology.” This makes it difficult for people to accept the principles of evolution.
Children often believe in dualism, the belief that the mind is separate from the brain. Although they might believe that brains solve math problems, children have a hard time believing that brains allow them to do such things as “pretending to be a kangaroo, loving one’s brother or brushing one’s teeth.” This makes it difficult for them to accept what Francis crick called “the astonishing hypothesis”: the fact that mental life can emerge from a physical brain. As the authors point out, these consequent false beliefs come into play in important debates such as the debate of whether stem cell research kills “babies.”
The authors point out that there are significant differences among cultures in resistance to science. Americans resist evolutionary theory much more than the citizens of many other countries. Although nobody goes around saying they “believe in electricity,” (electricity is taken for granted as a useful concept) people do need to go around explicitly elaborating on whether they “believe in evolution.”
When we hear claims that are often disputed, most of us are not able to conduct their own experiments to determine the truth of the claim. Rather, we evaluate the claim’s source. If the source is deemed trustworthy, people will believe the claim, often without really understanding it. Consider, for example, that many Americans who claim to believe in natural selection are unable to accurately describe how natural selection works. This suggests that their belief is not necessarily rooted in an appreciation of the evidence and arguments. Rather, this scientifically credulous subpopulation accepts this information because they trust the people who say it is true . . . the same process of deference holds for certain religious, moral and political beliefs as well.
The authors cite studies showing that people will adopt political positions based merely upon whether they understand that that position is supported by their favored political party. The authors point out that many children rely on the trustworthiness of a source when deciding whether to believe a claim.
Developmental data from children suggest that children will resist science when scientific claims clash with the early emerging intuitive expectations:
This resistance will persist through adulthood if the scientific claims are contested within a society, and it will be especially strong if there is a nonscientific alternative that is rooted in common sense and championed by people who are thought of as reliable and trustworthy. This is the current situation in the United States, with regard to the central tenets of neuroscience and evolutionary biology . . . hence, these fields are among the domains where Americans resistance to science is the strongest.
This article suggests the importance of having science literate people in positions of visibility and power. In my mind, this article points out an often unappreciated way in which the presidency of George W. Bush has devastated the cause of free and vigorous scientific inquiry in the United States. The article also suggests the importance of cultivating a guilt free sense of critical thinking among children.