Why do some people resist science?

Posted on June 3, 2007

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I grew up being interested both in hard core science topics and in many things in the humanities. Even now I often find myself feeling slightly out of step when dealing with groups which are totally on one side of the divide C.P. Snow wrote about in The Two Cultures. Not surprisingly, edge.org – a site for scientists dealing with topics traditionally in the humanities domain – has been regularly visited by me. After all, looking at superstition as a natural cognitive phenomenon would seem to fit their bill. And, indeed, they have recently had an article which is of real interest to my research, even though it raises more questions than it answers.

Paul Bloom and Deena Skolnick Weisberg published an article in Science and an abreviated version is available on edge.org. Here’s the abstract:

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.

Although they do not mention it, their approach could be connected to Susan Gelman’s work on essentialism that I have already come across in the context of Bruce Hood’s work. Which just gives me another reason to look at her work – something I have not yet had the time to do.

When Bloom and Skolnick Weisberg talk of ‘naive physics’ and ‘naive psychology’ that children work with I wonder how these views form in children’s minds. In what ways they are a result of early interactions with the world and in what ways they are somehow innate. This is a particularly interesting question for me as at the last conference I went to there was a discussion of the methodology used to determine what intuitions babies have; the usual thing being to measure how long a baby looks at a scene with staring being interpreted to indicate surprise, i.e. seeing something counterintuitive.

A further question that Bloom and Skolnick Weisberg raise is what happens to these naive views once the people grow up. They are not at all clear to what degree the naive and scientific views can co-exist or compete with each other. My suspicion, however, is that the scientific views are, if anything, layered on top of the naive and never totally replace them. If the authors are right then what are thought to be philosophical views, such as mind-brain dualism, actually find their basis in that naive metaphysics. If correct – and I suspect that it is in some way – the thought makes a complete mess of a priori reasoning, making it nohing more than post hoc justification for naive intuitions. I can’t say I have a problem with that.

A valuable point that the authors make is that even those who agree with scientific explanations most often are incapable of actually explaining what it is they agree with – the example they give is of evolution, with most people who believe in it actually giving something like the Lamarkian story. The conclusion they reach is that people, due to the inability to evaluate the belief, instead evaluate the source of that belief, i.e. they decide to trust the scientists.

The authors conclude:

In sum, 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.

It is interesting to consider the possible implications what they say has for superstition. The first point to be made is that supserstition might be an effect of the naive metaphysics they mention. The question of the degree to which this naive worldview is somehow innate is then relevant to the possibility that the view, itself, is due to children arriving at it using something like heuristics. However, I am wary of saying this given the questions raised about the implications of the early developmental studies into this. Another problem, as I mentioned earlier, is to make clear the relationship between the naive and the scientific views. I suspect that further research may find what are called naive views playing a positive role in scientific progress. This seems pausible given that evolution – and I see science as an extension of evolution – always makes use of the available material, building upon what already is rather than starting anew with a blank slate.

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