What turns children into science-resistant adults?

| June 2, 2007 | 19 Replies

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.


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Category: American Culture, Education, Evolution, Politics, Religion, Science

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich and his wife, Anne Jay, live in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where they are raising their two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (19)

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  1. Erich Vieth says:

    I found a modified version of the Bloom Time Magazine article at Edge.com: http://www.edge.org/documents/archive/edge211.htm

  2. And yet some of the best universities in the world are in the States and most of the groundbreaking discoveries in research happen there. Kind of ironic.

  3. grumpypilgrim says:

    "And yet some of the best universities in the world are in the States and most of the groundbreaking discoveries in research happen there. Kind of ironic."

    Perhaps not so ironic, if we consider two things:

    1) many fields of scientific research have military applications and receive military funding; and

    2) many of the students doing scientific research in American universities come from outside the U.S.

    Put these two together, and it's not too hard to see why America can claim both some of the world's best scientific research, and world's worst public understanding of science.

  4. Dan Klarmann says:

    "…some of the best universities…": Note the names on any research papers. The universities may be in the U.S, but most of the best researchers are imports.

    Also, note the Oral Roberts University, whose School of Law produced so many of those on the legal staff of the current administration.

    Also, the U.S. has a wide spread on any bell curve. Money, superstition, education, etc. This wide spread seems to me to indicate that the best and worst fit philosophies for understanding the universe would both be well represented here, with the middle ground somewhat less populous than is found in other developed nations.

  5. grumpypilgrim says:

    Perhaps what also turns (American) children into science-resistant adults is the poor quality teaching of science in grade schools. According to the teachers I know and the data I've seen, the vast majority of America's math and science teachers have neither a major nor a minor in either of those two subjects. Many don't understand the material themselves, let alone have the skills to effectively teach it to students. Indeed, I still remember one of my high school advisors trying to discourage me from studying calculus, because, she said, "It's so hard."

    Career options might also have an impact. Science is notorious for its low wages relative to, say, plumbing or assembly-line work, while engineers in America often must endure frequent periods of unemployment. Careers in these fields just don't have the luster they did during the Cold War (when they were considered important for national security) and, especially, during the space race (when they were considered glamorous and adventurous). Kids in the 1960s were excited about becoming astronauts or nuclear physicists, and in the 1970s they were excited about computers and electronics, but what do they see today? Scientists are marginalized, and many are just society's doomsayers — griping about things like air pollution, species extinction and global warming. Where's the fun and excitement in that? Another problem is the obvious distain that the Religious Right displays toward science, which must have some impact on eager, young minds. Indeed, one of the most promising new technologies today is stem cell research, and we've seen how religious conservatives want to eviscerate that field. About the only scientists who capture the attention of kids these days (and who don't horrify religious radicals) are the ones who dig up fossils of cool dinosaurs, but how many people can reasonably expect a rewarding career in that field?

    Children aren't stupid. The reason they turn into science-resistant adults is because that's what American society, either explicitly or implicitly, teaches them to become.

  6. Vicki Baker says:

    I remember reading somewhere that the best education in the world would be pre-school in Italy, elementary school in France, high school in Germany, undergrad at Oxford or Cambridge, and grad school in the U.S.

  7. Vicki Baker says:

    Well, my parents are fundamentalist Christians and 3 out of 5 of their kids are employed in scientific fields. 5 out of 5 are agnostic or at least non-members of any church, 4 out of 5 married devout Catholics.

    I can't help tying this thread with the other one where I made the comment about children being raised in captivity. Because it relates to my other basic principle of parenting:


    My parents set pretty strict restrictions on our consumption of mass media, as a result of which we were thrown onto ourselves for entertainment. This led to:

    1. Construction of a time machine ( basically a booth on a rotating turntable – rotate fast enough and you would either travel in time, throw up, or pass out – or maybe all three. Unfortunately, Dad stopped the experiment when the booth fell off the base and almost injured a neighbor kid.)

    2. Seceding from the union after the unsatisfactory election of 1968.

    3. Attempt to build a dug-out canoe by burning out the center of a log.

    4. Construction of 3 lake-worthy sailboats.

    5. Several ground-breaking independent films.

    6. Numerous newspapers, literary anthologies, and political manifestoes.

    7. Deconstruction and reconstruction of various devices in the basement rec room, including a 1953 Austin Healey.

    As a parent, I have tried to continue the tradition of free-range parenting combined with deprivation of mass media. Pretty easy to do when I work at home on the only source of canned entertainment – DVD's on the computer.

    If you want to raise scientists and artists, you have to resist the cries of "I'm bored!" and you have to be willing to let them get dirty and make a mess. The rest pretty much takes care of itself.

  8. Shenlon says:

    I've never understood why "religious" must mean "anti-science." Sure, there are plenty of the "religious right" that deny many scientific findings, but why does a belief in God necessarily have to conflict with anything? It can't be proved, or disproved. It's merely a belief. Darwinism requires a certain level of faith to make the giant jumps in logic and scientific discovery that it makes. Why must one be branded as "science-resistant" if one only wants to question the validity of non-proven scientific theories and hypotheses?

    What of the people who have had intimate experiences with such things as were mentioned in the article, such as out-of-body experiences, ghosts, astrology, and ESP? Who's to say these aren't real? I personally don't believe they are what the people practicing them say they are, but there's certainly something there that can be studied.

  9. Dan Klarmann says:

    Shenlon: "Darwinism" is a Creationist term to describe a particular form of misrepresentation of the huge base of facts and theory that make up the modern theory of evolution. Nothing in the theory of evolution denies the existence of God.

    Darwin was a member of the third generation of scholars who accepted the basic observation that species evolve. His singular contribution was to suggest the mechanism of "survival of the fittest" and to publish this idea in popular books instead of in staid journals. He also had the effrontery to suggest that this process that had been noted and accepted in many species of plants and animals might also apply to man.

    There are no leaps of faith in the actual theory of evolution (beyond the initial belief in causality in a consistent universe), unlike the versions (parodies?) of the theory one might find in Creation Institute publications.

  10. Mary says:

    The current issue of Discover magazine (June 2007) has an article discussing the nature of the soul – that sense that we have a part of us that is separate from our bodies. The scientists involved (sorry, I can't name them at the moment – I don't have the magazine handy and can't find the article online) are studying out-of-body and near-death experiences in order to figure this out and are theorizing that quantum physics may play a part in this sense of soul. I have to agree with Shenlon's question regarding out-of-body experiences, ghosts, astrology, etc. "Who's to say these aren't real?" Before bacteria and viruses could be seen with a microscope, scientists were hard-pressed to explain how something you couldn't see could kill you. Just because we can't explain these amorphous phenomena yet doesn't mean they aren't real on some level. It also doesn't make those of us who believe in them kooks or unscientific. (Although, I'm sure to be roundly criticized and called superstitious for saying so.) Some of us are simply withholding judgment on these unexplained phenomena until we get more information on them – the more scientific that information is, the better.

  11. Erich Vieth says:

    Mary – I would not call you unscientific for withholding judgment on a topic that appears to be worthy of investigation. I concur with the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, which:

    Does not reject claims on a priori grounds, antecedent to inquiry, but examines them objectively and carefully.

    See http://www.csicop.org/about/

    On the other hand, CSI has done a thorough job of demolishing many of the sorts of claims you've mentioned through the use of the scientific method.  For instance, if ESP cannot be shown to pass a simple double-blind study convincingly, why would a rational person insist that there is something to it?

    Regarding the soul, please do share the link to the Discover article you mentioned. Beware, however, that quantum mechanics is often mentioned, blithely and without any depth of understanding, as an "explanation" for the soul.

    For a lighter note regarding the soul, see http://dangerousintersection.org/?p=535  

  12. grumpypilgrim says:

    Shenlon asks, "…why does a belief in God necessarily have to conflict with anything? It can’t be proved, or disproved. It’s merely a belief."

    The answer, Shenlon, depends upon what you mean by the word, "God." If your definition of "God" includes a belief that our planet is only 6,000 years old, then it is not "merely a belief;" it is a belief that is contrary to a very large amount of scientific evidence. Thus, it can, indeed, be disproved.

    On the other hand, there are definitions of "God" that would not necessarily conflict with modern science. The problem, of course, is that the more one leans toward these latter definitions, the more one must abandon the literal truth of the Bible. Therein lies the conflict between science and Christianity. People who desperately want their holy book to be literally and absolutely true must declare war against any science that conflicts with their rigid interpretation. Meanwhile, people who admit their holy book might not be literally and absolutely true, open the door to arguments that their religion is a sham. This shocks the conscience of fundamentalists, who entrench themselves further and adopt even more rigid interpretations.

  13. Ben says:

    "Quantum effects in microtubules are going to be inconsequential relative to ion fluxes and chemical changes in membrane properties and channels, and there is no explained mechanism to regulate quantum effects. It’s like trying to explain the tides by speculating about the dabbling of gnats in estuaries. The people who talk about this stuff usually seem to have absolutely no knowledge of neuroscience."


    "explaining brain function by appeal to quantum mechanics is akin to explaining bird flight by appeal to atomic bonding characteristics. The structures of all bird wings do involve atomic bonding properties that are correlated with the kinds of materials in bird wings: most wing feathers are made of keratin, which has specific bonding properties. Nevertheless, everything we might want to explain about wing function can be stated independently of this atomic structure. Geometry, stiffness, and strength are much more relevant to the explanatory target of flight, even though atomic bonding properties may give rise to specific geometric and tensile properties. Explaining how birds fly simply does not require specifying how atoms bond in feathers."


  14. Mary says:

    Erich – I'd love to be able to give you a link to the Discover article, but I've done a search of their site and it appears as though they don't post every article from their current issue – probably to get us to buy a copy from the newstand. (Don't blame 'em for that, really.) The soul article is part of The Invisible Planet, June 2007 issue.

    I certainly wouldn't claim to understand quantum physics. I think it's such a complicated subject that metaphors get used to describe it, but probably don't do it justice. Discover magazine impresses me as a fair and thorough magazine, and the scientists who are discussing the soul in relation to quantum physics make it clear that their theory is still tenuous. I think it's worth watching, though.

    Question for you – other than the double-blind study, which seems to be the gold standard for scientific inquiry and proof, do you know of any other testing methodologies that are supposed to give us definitive proof of a theory?

  15. Ben says:

    A theory is like a skyscraper. You can keep building and building, as long as the foundation is strong, and each floor is stacked neatly. There is no rule that says a theory can never be "knocked down". But, as long as it seems sturdy, and resist falling, we shall continue to build.

  16. Dan Klarmann says:

    A scientific theory is a rigidly defined logical model that covers all tests and observations, and contains both the description of how to disprove it, and predictions for results of tests not-yet done. When the evidence fails to support a theory, then it gets modified to fit the data.

    Example: "The universe is only 6,000 years old" is a perfectly acceptable hypothesis (proto-theory). It depends on all observations dating back to no earlier than that time. It predicts that all continuous processes must extrapolate forward from the current condition at a rate commensurate with the age.

    Only if every test and every observation met those criteria, then it would become a theory.

    But there are millions of observations that disprove this hypothesis from Astronomy (stellar distances within our own galaxy are too big, red shift makes it even bigger, 2.7K background), Biology (tree rings, coral layers, fossil density vs. ecosystem support per microclime), Geology (deposition rates vs. stratum depths, fossilization rates, many isotope decay clocks, bulk cooling rates), genetics ("junk" gene drift rates), Other disciplines.

    The only piece of evidence affirming it is a precise and narrow interpretation of multiple conflicting passages in one particular anthology (The Bible).

    Until 120 years ago, the James Ussher Biblical chronology was acceptable to science. But evidence kept coming up to push the date back. By the 1890's, the world was 20,000,000 years old according to several independent measurements in several fields of study. By the time of the Scopes Trial (1920's), it was estimated as over a billion. It stabilized in the 1970's to the working theory that the crust of our planet congealed about 4,500,000,000 years ago, and that the universe may be as little as about 3 times as old.

  17. Erich Vieth says:

    Dan, thanks for the article regarding the "creation science" museum. The authors are obviously angry. I am angry that we've allowed our minds to decay to the point where we ignore the obvious and embrace the tenuous.

    To those who praise such a silly musuem, I say we should let them use the "principles" of their "science" to make an airplane that flies or a drug that heals.

  18. Dan Klarmann says:

    Here’s a scathing column about faith versus science in America:
    God puts scientists out of work

  19. Erich Vieth says:

    Mary: the double blind study is a terrific approach for ruling out experimenter bias. I don’t know that it is the only way of ruling out that bias, but it is a standard tool for doing this. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Double_blind Humans are too good at believing what they want to believe. They are subject to the confirmation bias and they experience the (often powerful) placebo effect. Therefore, we do need methods of ruling out these biases.

    If there are other methods of ruling out such biases effectively, I am not aware of them (not that I’ve considered this question at length). Perhaps the scientists and engineers who read this blog could help out.

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