Resistance to Science

Paul Grobstein's picture

This is a place for conversation about projects in the Grobstein lab during the summer of 2007. Others are welcome to look in, and to leave comments on these conversations.

Thoughts about "Childhood Origins of Adult Resistance to Science" by Paul Bloom and Deena Skolnick Weisberg in Science 316: 996-997, 2007 (18 May)?

Mawrtyr2008's picture

More Resistance Thoughts

Ian’s comment, “I am disinclined to argue that science should be held as the fundamental stance within a society and that other beliefs are merely the result of naïve intuition and therefore invaluable” as well as some of Heather’s comments during our meeting today made me think some more about emergence. In every emergent example I can come up with, variability is the cornerstone assumption. Along this track, diversity of thought is essential to a changing, growing society.
However, this line of thought has a lot of problems that can easily be accorded to it. When I think back on our conversations about story telling and story sharing, I think about how we’ve portrayed stories as a potential vehicle towards that idealistic society. From this, I've taken away the false notion that all stories are "good" and "useful" and "productive" I don’t think we’ve focused enough on the prevalence of deliberately harmful stories and how they can at times be just as persuasive as other stories… When I learned about social darwinism for the first time, I remember thinking how frighteningly logical their thought process seemed at first even though I recognized how many atrocities resulted from it. I don’t mean to make this process out to be a huge dichotomy (“good” stories vs. “bad stories” because I really don’t see it that way. I've made this point in other forums and I think it really continues to be a wrench in this whole thought process. Harmful stories are inherently "useful" in that they motivate change of thought and responses that may generate discussion, but that usefulness pales in comparison to the actions that may have forced those stories out in the open. It's one thing to think about the Virginia Tech tragedy, and it's another entirely to actually read about it and see footage etc...

This line of thinking has no clear solution, and I recognize that. I just propose that we pay a bit more attention to the darker side of story sharing and not see it as the alpha and omega of progression.

Mawrtyr2008's picture

Childhood Origins of Adult Resistance to Science

It strikes me as quite funny that on the first read-through, I found myself agreeing with many of the central assertions of this paper, and on a second, deeper read-through, I was offended by many of those same assertions. On a third read-though I’ve figured out that it’s more the first part of this paper and the included characterizations of what constitutes science, conceived problems in education, and the lack of incorporation of storytelling that offend. As I'm continuing my inquiry into the problems associated with education, the authors’ closed-minded definition of science, and the representation of preexisting assumptions as problematic took me aback.

What offends me about the first part of this article is the preconceived notion about what "right" science is, what "right" education is. Fundamentally, in this article Bloom and Weisberg attempt to describe several types of American subcultures, and the way the people included in those cultures respond to what are traditionally known as scientific stories. Though never stated explicitly, I couldn't help but glean an undercurrent of subtle judgment of those who didn't subscribe to traditional scientific thought throughout the entire piece. I guess I don’t have any problem with the keystone observation that “some resistance to scientific ideas is a human universal” but rather how they define science to begin with. As we’ve discussed before, brain structure and function vary. Human perceptions and stories vary. However, because of the brain’s capacity to change, and its evolutionary role as an information gatherer, we’re all every day living out the scientific inquiry process. It’s how we work at a very fundamental level. Besides their problematic definition (or lack thereof) of science, I strongly disagreed with the assertion that “The problem with teaching science to children is thus ‘not what the student lacks, but what the student has, namely alternative conceptual frameworks for understanding the phenomena covered by theories we are trying to teach’”. To me, this sentence completely discounts the worth and the usefulness of different stories in the classroom. How do these observations relate to these models of education?

In the second part of the paper, I found that the cultural observations were much more powerful and useful. This section weighed the factors contributing to opinion formation in a less judgmental way. I especially thought the observation on “explicit assertion” vs. “implicit assumption” was an interesting one. I personally connected with the shock of leaving one environment with a set of implicit assumptions for another with a different set of implicit assumptions in my experiences with culture shock. This reflection brought me to a new one. I never thought before about how a child might experience similar emotions and responses to culture shock when leaving her home for the science classroom!

I'm really curious about what the authors' intention was with this paper. It's interesting to me that they make these well-cited, well-researched observations about contemporary American thought, but they don't state the ramifications (intended or otherwise) of these observations! I could see some communities reading this and saying 'Good! Let's do our best to keep "nonscientific ideologies ... grounded in common sense and transmitted by trustworthy sources" for the preservation of our society!' just as easily as I could see another community saying "Bloom and Weisberg have identified a flaw in the American education system. Let's tackle this problem of 'what the student has, namely alternative conceptual frameworks for understanding the phenomena covered by the theories we are trying to teach'." I guess overall, I'm puzzled as to why the authors spent so much time observing, and so little time commenting on the significance of their provocative observations. Why do these "biases" exist? What do you propose to do about them? Are stories other than our own useful? Are they detrimental? Does culture emerge from education and vice versa? Do you see these differences as a problem to be fixed or as human variability that is at all costs to be preserved?

Ashley Dawkins's picture

Childhood Origins of Adult Resistance to Science

The real world provides many ways to develop misconceptions when it comes to physics.  We can’t see our world functioning properly in a society that’s not literally in a vacuum.  For example, the idea behind the laws of gravity; EVERYTHING is supposed to fall at the same rate no matter the mass, width, density….But we find in our world if you ask a person “what will drop faster a penny or a feather?”, more often times than not, they will say the penny.  In reality, they both fall at the same rate, but the feather encounters air resistance that makes it seem to float slowly to the ground.  BUT when these two are placed in a vacuum, they reach the bottom at exactly the same time.

            As we grow up we see how things behave around us and justify them in our head.  These justifications are usually wrong and we develop misconceptions.  When a science is being taught it is the responsibility of the educator to find out what these misconceptions are and address them properly, or people will go back to their old ways of thinking; naive physics. Therefore, I agree with, “The problem with teaching science to children is thus ‘not what the student lacks, but what the student has, namely alternative conceptual frameworks for understanding the phenomena covered by theories we are trying to teach’”.  In saying this, I don’t believe behaving in this way (as the previous examples) is resisting science.  In fact, they have become somewhat of scientist in order to make these false observations in the first place; it’s just basing science on what they have observed; but in many cases it’s VERY wrong.

            I do believe that problems can arise from people who misconceive science, but I don’t believe it’s because people are trying to purposely resist it.  These are issues that need to be addressed and explained, most likely in a school setting. 

This article also states that if people are resistant to evolution, they are then resistant to science. I don’t believe this is true. I don’t agree with evolution, but I love science. Although, I do agree that we have a science ignorant society.  But there can be many reasons for this - people were turned off to it early on. I think it’s important to remember that science has developed because be were wrong about how the world works and there was a desire to become less and less wrong.  Scientists are most often wrong in the lab and they learn from that, we can help people learn their misconceptions so they can progress in their knowledge.

I do believe that problems can arise from people who misconceive science, but I don’t believe it’s because people are trying to purposely resist it.  These are issues that need to be addressed and explained, most likely in a school setting.  The question is; how can we address the science ignorant society to first create an interest in science.  Without an interest, they may not be interested in changing their misconceptions.

Ian Morton's picture

Response to Childhood Origins

Paul Bloom and Deena Skolnick Weisberg dedicate their paper, Childhood Origins of Adult Resistance to Science, to proposing the possible implication of childhood intuitions in leading to future resistance to scientific findings. The authors propose that both what children know and how they learn what they know are the source of this later resistance. Contrary to the tabula rasa concept, the authors propose that children have a basic understanding of the physical and social world by as early as one year of age. These childhood intuitions can stick with people for a long time, and when scientific concepts disagree with previous intuition, one may dismiss the scientific theory in favor of one’s own insight. Additionally the authors propose that people are resistant to science or any line of thought that disagrees with knowledge they have been taught throughout their lives by people they trust.

While Bloom and Weirsberg make a convincing argument, the paper itself is littered with suggestions that America needs to move past their ignorance and embrace the field of science. I am inclined to agree with the author’s stance on this issue (that the general public should strive to arrive at a better understanding of scientific theories), but I did not appreciate the rhetoric and preachy quality of this paper. So I am torn – it is my opinion that science offers “stories” that are indeed less wrong than “common knowledge” and other predispositions, and that resistance to science can be detrimental to society (e.g. resistance to medication, vaccinations etc), but I am disinclined to argue that science should be held as the fundamental stance within a society and that other beliefs are merely the result of naïve intuition and therefore invaluable.

Despite the political message of this paper, the authors do present two important points for consideration. First, one must consider the implications of childhood “naïve physics and psychology.” The authors suggest that such intuitions lead us to prefer a view of the world in which there is design and purpose with a preference for a creationist story of the world. Further, the authors propose these early propensities can account for an intuitive belief in dualism (Mind as something more than the brain). Could religion as a practice and as an institution be the result of these childhood intuitions? When, during human brain development/encephalization did these intuitions arise? Why are we so attached to our intuitions? Second, this paper presents an important concept, that of “common knowledge,” or that knowledge which we commit to memory without critically analyzing its content.

I believe the authors were right to bring their concerns about predispositions and common knowledge to our attention. I think it is important for us to consider the origins of our opinions and to recognize that they are only one opinion/“story” among many. It is foolish to put too much trust into concepts when one does not even understand them, to blindly accept opinions as fact, or to follow customs without thoughtful consideration of their origins. If we never questioned tradition, never wrote new stories, we would be enslaved by tradition.

biophile's picture

Science, society, biases

First off, I'll say that the opening of the paper was not tactful or open. I agree with the other posts in that calling people who believe in a creator or in supernatural phenomena ignorant and resistant to science is a terrible way to start off a paper. Given the fact that it was written for Science, it is to be expected that the majority of the people who read this article are of a certain mind... But that doesn't mean that you should outright insult someone and write off their beliefs just because you don't put faith in them.

Despite the assumptions that they make about what science is and what makes something valid, I think that the article has good points. The authors very concisely analyzed the factors behind why so many people have false notions about science in a world that is more educated and interconnected than ever. I have met so many people who disregard science as a whole or misunderstand some of its basic principles and I do think that it is tied in with misleading intuitions. One problem could be the culture we live in- education is encouraged, but it isn’t necessarily a well-grounded or thorough education. Children and high school students, unless they’re in the honors program or another advanced track, only learn the most basic things in their classes and often times their misunderstandings are not corrected. In general, people receive only a rather shallow science education. If someone is interested in learning more about a particular topic in science or medicine they can just read a half-page long article on MSN’s homepage or another site that provides quick and non-intimidating articles. The science presented in such a format is often incompletely explained, even inaccurately in some cases, and is easy to misunderstand when taken out of context.

As the article stated, the average person is much more likely to trust his or her own intuitions than what far-removed researchers present. The way the human brain is structured does not necessarily enable us to explore how the world actually works; it is structured so that we can adapt to our environment. Unless they have to, many people will not face what scientists and other researchers have discovered if it conflicts with their own beliefs. The idea of a spherical Earth is accepted as fact today, so most accept it without question and do not even require proof. Children have trouble accepting some of these facts because they do not agree with experiences they have had – they do not realize that there are more forces at work in the world than the ones with which they are familiar. Adults can accept some of these facts without proof because they are tacitly assumed to be true; they’ve been conditioned. I’m not sure if it’s correct to say that the biases particular to developing minds carry into adulthood, but it is obvious that many adults today have incorrect assumptions about the ways in which the physical world works.

Consider an example: thirty or more years ago an average person would not believe that computers would be able to accomplish much and would not affect them significantly. Now computers are everywhere and are coming to dominate our lives… Yet how many people know how to use one beyond the basic applications? Or how one functions? It seems as if many people assume that one can do anything with computers without even a vague idea of how those things would be done. It is almost thought of as magic. So many of us are content to take things as they are without scrutinizing them. This is perhaps the greatest mistake that we can make in everyday life.

On the other hand, sometimes it does not matter how well some arguments are presented or how many respected people endorse them. If what is being presented goes against a visceral feeling the information will not be believed. I suspect that some things are too well ingrained, especially among older generations, to ever be uprooted. Perhaps that is a bit pessimistic, but you would be too if you’ve had people sincerely argue with you that cells do not exist or that the Holocaust never took place. While I think that everyone is entitled to their own opinions, some misconceptions should not be allowed to be perpetuated. The belief in some African countries that having sex with a virgin will cure AIDS is one that immediately comes to mind. And even though it’s illegal, some parents (just a few, but you do hear cases of them) who do not believe in modern medicine deny their children help when they are in danger and let them die. These are extreme cases, true. But they’re a problem and there are a multitude of incorrect beliefs going undisputed within communities and that leads to trouble. This isn’t just about evolution versus creationism or common-sense versus scientifically established views of the physical world. It is about people who are getting it more wrong instead of less wrong.

How do we purge ourselves of the most hurtful biases? How do we teach others how to think for themselves without telling them what to think? How do we create a society that is more open, one in which people are aware of their own biases and strive to make decisions not based on them? I think that these are some of the questions we will need to focus on in the future.