In the May 18th issue of Science there is a revew paper by Paul Bloom and Deena Skolnick Weisberg. An expanded version of it also appeared recently in Edge and many science bloggers are discussing it these days.
Enrique has the best one-sentence summary of the article:
The main source of resistance to scientific ideas concerns what children know prior to their exposure to science.
The article divides that “what children know prior to their exposure to science” into two categories: the intuitive grasp of the world (i.e., conclusions they come up with on their own) and the learned understanding of the world (i.e., conclusions they absorb from the adults around them):
The Intuitive Grasp of the World
The article suggests that some intuitive understanding of the world by the children is retained as they grow into adults. A number of bloggers touch on this briefly, but mostly focus on the taught/cultural aspects of the study. As for the intuitive part, Chad Orzel, I think, gets it right when he writes:
I often think that the process of teaching introductory mechanics isn’t really about breaking down incorrect intuitions (as is often said) but rather about bringing conscious mental processes into better alignment with existing physical intuition. Students pick the Wile E. Coyote option not because intuition tells them that’s how the world really works, but because intuition means that they haven’t had to observe the real world all that carefully, and are basically guessing based on vague recall of falling objects. They’re overthinking the problem, not over-reliant on flawed intuition.
Yukon Slim writes from the perspective of a science teacher:
What we need to do now is learn how to break this resistance. Most of the education literature I’ve read suggests that you need to induce “cognitive conflict” in the students. They have to come face to face with the inadequacy of their preconception, then be shown how another explanation is better suited to explaining reality. Unfortunately, this is just very hard to orchestrate, especially with pressures to “cover the material.” And for some people, it’s likely true that the only way to replace an emotionally held belief is with another emotionally held belief.
Melinda Barton poses some excellent questions (in an unnecessarily angry tone which will force many not to read her post – the question of framing again: angry tone does not appeal to scientists who are supposed to be the readers of that post) which inextricably connect the intuitive and taught portions of the argument:
How many of you began going to Sunday school by the time you were four? Four-year-olds may assign purpose and meaning because they’re already being taught that G-d created the world for a purpose. Or simply because impatient adults answer children’s many “But why?” questions with silly made up answers. Assigning this to “intuition” or natural tendencies is highly questionable. How would we differentiate between nature and nurture?
Read the rest of the post as her detailed criticisms of individual examples are, IMHO, quite valid, and I would love to see more discussion of her arguments in the blogosphere. Update: Melinda adds additional arguments against ‘promiscuous teleology’.
I also think that the intuitive and taught sources of resistance to science are inextricably connected, so I will address this below.
The Social/Taught Sources of Resistance to Science
A number of bloggers focus heavily on this part of the paper. Here are some sample quotes, before I lunge into my own diatribe:
Then there is the bias of the public against scientists themselves. Even though individual scientists live among us and lead mundane lives, as a group they tend to conjure up the image of … well, clever “conjurers,” somewhat like the alchemists of yore. But most important among the factors that influence our acceptance of or resistance to scientific knowledge depends on whom we listen to in our early years. If the teacher has one explanation for how animals and people came to inhabit the earth and our parents and pastor have another, which version we believe depends to some extent on whom we trust more. However, I don’t agree with the authors that this influence is always easy to predict or that it lasts a life time. Most children (unless they have been methodically indoctrinated), even in their pre-teen years are sophisticated enough to weigh two sides of a story and make up their own minds. If they choose to believe their science teacher and not their parents, it doesn’t necessarily mean that their overall trust in dad and mom will diminish. Children understand that adults are not infallible and can make mistakes. They also learn early enough that different adults (parents, coach, teacher, counselor, doctor) bring their own areas of expertise to the table. Kids therefore can make judgements regarding which adult to trust in a particular situation.
There’s also a section on how children learn that makes the point that there are different kinds of understanding prevalent in any culture: There is “common knowledge” that is transmitted with little careful scrutiny, but there is also a large body of knowledge that the ordinary fellow won’t be able to critically evaluate, but is accepted because of trust in an authority–and science tends to fall into that category.
It really gets down to trust in the experts who should know more about a subject than the average citizen. America has an unpleasant history of anti-intellectualism, and generally scientists are less trusted than politicians and the clergy — and the clergy will gladly feed intuitive but false understandings about how science works.
The critical question, of course, is who kids think of as reliable and trustworthy. Certainly teachers and parents are reliable, but are they trustworthy? Teachers sometimes make you do long, boring worksheets, and parents tell you that Lima beans taste good. Other kids are much more trustworthy than that — they’d never steer you towards Lima beans! Even more reliable and trustworthy are the characters kids see on TV. Batman and Spongebob show up at the same time every day, and their behavior is nearly perfectly predictable.
Being ever so cynical, it occurs to me that such findings could be used intentionally to foster a disbelief in rational thought in general, and to science in particular.
These overvalued ideas emerge from a variety of sources that are very different from each other and represent very different human motivations spanning the range from fear to bigotry to an excess of compassion. Hell, some cranks just like being “iconoclasts” or “contrarians” (beware people who use those terms to describe themselves – it’s almost always a sign of a crank) because they think believing in contrarian opinions makes them seem special or smart.
In other words, talking about things in a “matter-of-fact” fashion implies that there’s no doubt about their existence, and therefore children tend not do doubt them. Talking about them in a way that explicitly refers to their existence, or to our beliefs about their existence, on the other hand, causes children to believe that there is reason to doubt them. Bloom and Wiesberg note that people often say things like, “I believe in evolution,” implying that there is reason to doubt the reality of evolution, and therefore making children more wary of testimony about it.
They also note that both children and adults perceive some people as more trustworthy than others, with the trustworthiness of individuals varying depending on the domain. Doctors, for example, are trusted in the area of medicine, while preachers will be trusted (over doctors, presumably) when talking about religion. The perceived trustworthiness of a source can then influence whether we believe what they say, perhaps too much.
The authors attribute different levels of acceptance quite reasonably to cultural factors. For example, we know that both adults and children trust information that they cannot verify independently based on the trustworthiness of the information source rather than the merits. If large numbers of trustworthy people deny a concept is true, people will be less likely to believe it:
In other words, kids suss out what the community believes in, and they take that as a guide to how things are. (Indeed, the article points to research indicating that this kind of check of consensus, not moral introspection, is how people come to their moral intuitions as well.)
If everyone in our culture carries on as if X is perfectly uncontroversial, we tend not to question X. On the other hand, in cases where X is presented as tentative — even in cases where we notice that someone is going to the trouble to assert X rather than taking it as give — we may be less ready to accept X.
What makes X plausible? If we’re in a position to test the claim ourselves, that could do the job, but that’s not always possible
A lot rides, then, on what counts as a trustworthy source. For little kids, the research suggests that assessments of trustworthiness take into account whether the source is knowledgeable (a grown-up rather than a peer, a specialist who ought to know something about the subject at hand), whether the claim is made confidently rather than tentatively, and to some extent whether the claim is perceived to go with or against the self-interest of the source (little kids can be cynical!). In case of different sources making conflicting assertions, kids will trust the declarations of the sources they deem must trustworthy.
So, who do you judge most reliable if your science teacher, your parent, your pastor, and your favorite cartoon character or movie star make conflicting claims? And how entrenched will these early decisions become? What happens when you discover that your parents (or your fourth grade science teacher) don’t know everything?
So here’s the problem. How do we convince people that scientists are worthy of trust? It’s clear that the front lines are at the interface between what scientists know and what the general public knows about science. This is often framed as an issue about communicating science. Many non-scientists think that scientists need to do a better job. Is this really the problem?
The “burden” of communicating science is often assumed to fall on the shoulders of science writers and science journalists. They are the ones who write the press releases and increasingly they are the ones who write about science in newspapers and magazines. The leading “science” figures on television today are not scientists but science journalists. Even in the leading science journals such as Nature and Science it’s the science journalists and not scientists who write the articles that will be read by a wide audience.
In today’s world we have a rather paradoxical situation where non-scientists who write about science are proclaiming themselves to be experts on science communication, yet they call upon scientists to learn from them how to manipulate the media to get the science message across. But if science journalists are doing such a good job then why do we need scientists? Is it possible that the failure to make science a trustworthy enterprise is due, in part, to the failure of science journalism?
Finally, if you are going to spend some time reading on the topic, the most essential reading of all is that by John Wilkins who points out that he has covered this in detail in the past in his four-part treatise: Why are Creationists Creationists? Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4. You, like, totally have to read those four posts now – they are the Obligatory Portion of this mini-course.
Both Larry and PZ also add that the effort to increase the authority of scientists in a society necessitates a simultaneous effort to decrease the authority of clergy on scientific matters, an idea I agree with, for reasons I hope will become clear by the end of this monstrously long post if I ever get to finish it.
Finally, I have written about this topic before, in quite painful detail, so go now and read Why Creationists Need To Be Creationists? and Creationism Is Just One Symptom Of Conservative Pathology and follow all the links within them for further explanation. In a way, this is just a quick re-hash of those two posts and the originals are probably better (at least better organized).
Hierarchical View of the World
The main thesis is that resistance to science is a too-narrow look at things. It is just a part of a much broader outlook on the world which also includes one’s understanding of history, economics, law, foreign relations, politics, interpersonal relationships, sex and everything else. Such a mindset is not so much a result of overt teaching as a result of growing up in a community organized around a particular principle. And there are two basic ways for a community to be organized: hierarchical and egalitarian (interactionist).
If you grow up in a household in which Daddy has the last word on every matter in the house, and in a town in which everyone (including Daddy) defers to the local priest, sheriff or mayor, and if all people (including the priest, sheriff and mayor) shake in their boots when contemplating the anger of a vengeful God, you will grow up understanding the world – and every aspect of the world – in a hierarchical manner. This is a black-and-white world with simple causes and effects, with-us-or-against-us world of White Hats and Black Hats.
Here’s a recent example of such strict, Dobsonian childrearing method, the recently famous kid who shot a monstrously large hog. Pushing aside the questions about dishonesty of the whole episode, the importabt part is what the boy’s father wrote:
The purpose of this hunt was to give Jamison the opportunity to challenge himself and with this challenge the opportunity to overcome fear and accomplish something that would not be easily done. As he is becoming a young man, I wanted to see if the stuff I had been given him over the years would be the right stuff and if he had enough of it to rise to this and other challenges that life would surly have in store. I have disciplined my children over the years quiet regularly and many times have heard them say that their friends did not receive the same punishment. My response has always been “I am not trying to raise another child I am trying to raise a Champion”. I guess I wanted to see if I was on the right track.
This kind of mindset was fine for much of history, but it will not work in the modern world because of its stark division between the in-group and out-group (friends and foes) and the world is far too interconnected now for such a mindset. Witness what happens when hierarchical mindset runs the White House – a total disaster on every front. This is not “childish” (Chris MM rightly chastizes Jake for saying so). It is a developmental stage induced by a particular childrearing practice. It is the later developmental switch to a rational mindset that is historically new, yet necessary in today’s world.
Growing up in such a hierarchical world does not prevent one from gaining correct intuitive grasp of simple mechanics, for instance, as Chad (see the link above) shows. You can certainly catch a baseball and will not run off the cliff as if it was a cartoon. But you will have a great difficulty grasping more complex areas of science which depend on two counterintuitive ideas: a) uncertainty and b) emergent properties of complex systems.
As the Edge article (and many bloggers) agree, a high degree of certainty is needed for a (scientific) idea to be accepted unquestioningly by little kids (and by adults who came out of such upbringing). My son is big enough now to start grasping uncertainty, but for most of their lives, if they come to me with a question, they chose to ask me because I am an adult and a scientist and thus an authority. They expect a short, simple and certain answer. I may be aware of a degree of uncertainty in the matter, but I do not voice it – I say it as if it was 100% certain. This is not a good time to go into degrees of confidence and alternative hypotheses. They will deal with those when they are developmentaly mature for that.
Evolution is a theory that relies on population thinking (as Ernst Mayr pointed out many times) which is hard to grasp if one’s understanding of the world is hierarchical. Population thinking is an interactionist model of the world. So is the role of genes. For a conservative (yes, hierarchical mindset is conservative in a psychological sense, i.e. not in a particular political sense: if GOP at any point in history had a platform plank that is not based on a hierarchical view of the world, that plank was liberal and thus loved by the majority of voters), it is easy to think of a gene causing (determining) a trait. Or, a more sophisticated version: gene A causes expression of gene B which causes expression of gene C…and so on until the last gene in the cascade cuses (determines) the trait. It is almost impossible to grasp the interaction of genes among themselves and with the environment, with no single factor determining anything, but the trait emerging from the interaction. That is why conservatives misunderstand free market as well.
The Problem of Language
One of the biggest problems of the entire Culture Wars is that people like us (e.g., scientists, rational people in general) use language to impart information. We usually are not aware that a nice big chunk of population does not use language in that way at all. Their use of language is that of Phatic Language:
Phatic communion has been described as language that serves to “establish or maintain social relationships rather than to impart information,” or language used “for establishing an atmosphere rather than for exchanging information or ideas.”
In other words, in a hierarchical society, language is not used for exchange of information (except for very simple, local and personal information: “It is cold outside so bring your coat [and you better listen to me, mister, because I am your father and if you don’t listen I’ll beat the shit out of you later]”). It is used to establish social hierarchy. Where we look for information in words, conservatives look for emotional content and what it says about the social hierarchy. Thus “code words” or “dog whistle” words we often hear about in political discourse. Who is above whom in the hierarchy? Is the hierarchy stable? Is there a way I can, by appealing to someone higher above me, raise myself up in the hierarchy by pushing someone else down?
Remember in the last Presidential debates when Bush quipped how he has to keep his daughters on a leash (and Kerry’s face telling “where did this barbarian come from?”)? That was a use of phatic language. He was asserting his hierarchical view of the world, his dominance in his household and thus his belonging in the in-group with his target voters.
The inability of people raised in hierarchical community to use the language to impart cold, dry information is a big stumbling block for teaching science or for persuading people on scientific topics. The way they learn about the world has to be very simple and hierarchical: “Why are we here?” “God did it”. One cannot teach science as long as the audience looks for emotion where we try to impart information. We need to learn how to subvert this. That is a big part of what framing is: starting with phatic language and gradually teaching the audience to start using the language in a rational manner instead. And our disbelief that people actually can think and talk this way is a big stumbling block in our communication. We truly believe that truth is powerful on its own and try to “convert” people by pouncing with the truth, not realizing that all they are looking for is the emotional content of our words and their place in our hierarchy. That is why we appear snooty and condescending to them.
That is why, Larry’s protestations notwithstanding, we desparately need the advice of people whose job is to study communication. We have no idea how to talk to people with hierarchical worldviews and the phatic use of language and we better listen and be prepared to learn. All the examples that Larry points out – teaching science majors in college, talking to other scientists, writing popular science books, writing science blogs – are aimed at the audience that already is rational and uses language to get and impart information. It just does not work in persuasion and education of the irrational folk. The way to frame the science is completely different.
So, what do we do?
Phase 1 is to attain authority (that is why science reporters will not do for this – it has to be scientists themselves). In doing so, the scientists have to do more than just assert equal authority as the priest, sheriff and mayor. For a hierarchically-minded audience, the only way to rise in authority is for someone else’s authority to diminish at the same time (“How can the UN tell MY President what to do?”). It is a ladder they think of and only one person or group can be at any single rung of it. Thus, scientists have to displace clergy, lawyers and politicians as sources of authority on scientific matters. How does one do this? When dealing with kids (and adults who have not yet made the change to a rational worldview), the only way is to appear to be 100% sure. This is not the audience that gets error-bars, confidence intervals, fine points of philosophy of science, and alternative hypotheses. You tell it how it is (even if inside you cringe, knowing that what you are saying is only 98% sure). You tell it with conviction. No need to lie. Just get out of the science-paper mindset. The studies mentioned in the Edge piece confirm this notion as well.
Phase 2 is to gain trust. As Sara Robinson explained in her series “Tunnels and Bridges” and “Cracks in the Wall” (both found in the sidebar here), this is a slow and gradual process. No looking down at people. Not calling them stupid or evil. Giving them a helping hand and encouragement. Perhaps promise an induction into a secret powerful society of scientists. Even if one makes small steps, reward them even if you do not like where they got in the process: smile when the individual moves form YEC to OEC, and again when he moves from OEC to IDC, and again when he moves from IDC to Theistic Evolution, and again when he moves from Theistic Evolution to a genocentric, hyperadaptationist form of naturalistic evolution and give them a damned PhD when they understand and accept the modern evolutionary theory.
While phases 1 and 2 can, to some extent, be done simultaneously, Phase 3 can be attempted only once the person has already passed the first two phases. The Phase 3 is science education as we understand it. It can only be applied to the audience that is already rational and uses language for the exchange of information, not emotions. Actually understanding the world, not just taking your word for it (phases 1 and 2 are pretty much getting people to trust you on your word, not understanding any science yet) is something that we want them to achieve and traditional science education can do so. I am sure that Larry is really good at this phase, even though he refuses to acknowledge that the first two phases are necessary or even existent before a person can understand and accept what Larry is teaching.