Evolving Thoughts

Previous posts in this thread: 1, 2, and 3

With this model of the bounded rationality of anti-science in mind, what lessons can we draw from it for public policy and education?

Assuming that the model is a good first approximation of why people choose to believe creationist and other anti-science belief sets, several implications might affect our mode of public education and discourse.

The first is that it is highly unlikely that we can argue creationists et al. out of their belief sets by merely presenting better information about science. Since they lack the epistemic values that make experimental and empirically gained knowledge worthy, unless they are experiencing cognitive dissonance through a breakdown of compartmentalization, such knowledge is unlikely to sway them. Factual evidence fails to carry the requisite amount of epistemic weight for them, compared to the value of other commitments, for example, to the probative value of the Bible or religious doctrine. Such people are effectively committed to the extensive cognitive investment they have made over the course of their own conceptual development,, particularly the core beliefs on which the subsequent decisions rest. As noted before, the earlier these commitments were made, the more embedded in their belief set they will be, and the harder to dislodge.

This is not to say that proponents of a science-based epistemic set shouldn’t try – individual cases will be quite variable on their conceptual investments, and a great number of them, like myself, will have come to these belief choices late, and be vulnerable to rational argument (by exploring the conflicting rational values they hold). But as a population, the creationist community will be unwilling to endanger their epistemic choices, particularly when they have made an entire scheme out of them. Add to this the community entanglements, and it is most unlikely that they will change willingly.

Moreover, there are other, non-rational, constraints on their choices, which will include moral and personal psychological reasons, but that is out of our scope here. One commenter suggested that the intentional stance of seeing the world as the results of agency, a form of anthropomorphism, is going to be a major block, and this is true, but that choice can be made less rational in the early stages by showing the learner that many complex situations will result as an outcome of unguided processes.

And here is the crucial point. These epistemic commitments must be made irrational early in conceptual development for the population to cease taking that step as a forced conceptual commitment. In short, education is the key. But the way education of science is often done, both formally and in the popular media, is exactly the wrong way to unforce those choices. Rote learning, emphasis on the “gee whiz” factor without any attempt to explain the underlying principles both of the things themselves and the way we learn these things, and focus on preparation in education for subsequent tertiary learning in technical and scientific disciplines (particularly medicine and engineering) is not the way to change these epistemic values. All this does is provide the learner with a set of propositions, and no way to find those propositions reasonable when they conflict with other epistemic commitments.

All children are at heart inclined to learn by trial and error, I believe. What we need to do is expose children to active learning via the employment of actual observation, experiment and analysis. We can teach our undergraduates all the critical thinking skills we like – unless they believe these are worthwhile, the return on our educational investment will be minimal.

These days, museums, which for a century were the entrĂ© to science for the layperson without education by observing evidence focus on the “gee whiz” at the expense of information. It’s hard to believe that species are constant and invariant if you see before you a thousand shells from a stratigraphic layer covering 20,000 years, but an attempt to lay these out for an exhibition at the Australian Museum in Sydney was foiled by the “exhibit designers”, who wanted only a few shells joined by arrows. so I was told by a researcher there. Museums are now entertainment, not education.

The crucial way to get people to trust science is to show them, by letting them do it, that science is the premier way to learn about the world. Science is a learning process that relies on no single person, but which each individual can engage in. I’m sure science teachers have been trying to get this message across for years, but have been swamped by the demands of curricula designed to make students tertiary ready. A better bet would be to educate the population first, and offer ways in which those who are really committed to science, and are therefore much more likely to actually become scientists or otherwise benefit from it, can become ready for the later education.

This will have a benefit – the policy makers, usually elected from the general population of non-scientists, will understand that even if they do not understand the particular discipline that is cognitively relevant to a given social issue, like global warming or HIV AIDS, that the reasons why the specialists assert these claims is not a matter of simple social construction or dogmatic faith. They may even be better able to assess these claims on their merit, and to critically reject those that are fashionable among scientists but lack the necessary evidentiary support.

It might even make Hollywood script writers present science in a better light rather than trading on the prejudices against evil and immoral megalomaniacs out to do anything for the sake of their careers and commercial interests.

Given that late conversions are improbable, the task is to ensure that the newer generations are better aware of the epistemic worth of science. Perturb the conceptual development early and the outcomes are likely to be more effectively scientific. We will never be able to eliminate anti-science, for it is often an irrational (in the traditional sense as well as the bounded sense) choice, but we owe it to our society and culture to allow learners who do make boundedly rational choices of beliefs to be able to do so on better grounds than at present.


  1. #1 NJ
    September 13, 2006

    Since they lack the epistemic values that make experimental and empirically gained knowledge worthy, unless they are experiencing cognitive dissonance through a breakdown of compartmentalization, such knowledge is unlikely to sway them.

    Shorter version in my sig file:
    Creationism is hard to remove from a person: It wasn’t reasoned in, so it can’t be reasoned out.

  2. #2 Randy
    September 13, 2006

    One of my favorite hobbies is engaging in email debates with creationists. I agree that it is very, very difficult (if not impossible) to convert a creationist. In fact I recently had a creationist admit to me in his very first post that I would never convince him.

    But I believe that it is possible to open their eyes a little bit.

    Many creationists tell me that there is “NO evidence supporting evolution”. If I can convince them, at least, that this statement is an exaggeration then I feel that I’ve won a battle if not the war.

  3. #3 dogscratcher
    September 13, 2006

    “All children are at heart inclined to learn by trial and error, I believe.”
    It seems to me that all living things are so inclined.

    I think on a more specific level, that human beings are overly reliant on anecdotal evidence in their decision making. Subjective experience is what religion is all about, objective “knowledge” is the ideal of science.

  4. #4 Rhampton
    September 13, 2006

    I’ve argued with a fair number of moderate to strongly anti-science types and they too defend their position from “meaningless-existence.” They also equate moral guidance and self-regulation with literally interpreted religion.

    On more than on occassion I’ve challenged them with the following: I do not need a traditional Christian God (or religion for that matter) to appreciate that value of good behavior (cooperation, honesty, and selflessness) and to act accordingly.

    I’ve come to realize that for a portion of our population this act of reason is, literally, beyond belief. I believe such people do need a simplified system of eternal reward and punishment (heaven & hell) to check their behavior. Furthermore, these behaviorially-limited people seem to be incapable of believing and/or conceiving that others are not so limited. Thus the “moral relativism” exemplified by more mature adults produces great personal anxiety and an unfounded fear of societal anarchy.

  5. #5 lockean
    September 13, 2006

    “The crucial way to get people to trust science is to show them, by letting them do it, that science is the premier way to learn about the world.”

    I think this is right on. Hands-on project-oriented science education really works. Unfortunately, it requires money, a fairly low student-to-teacher ratio, and a talented teacher. Most importantly, it requires the class have mostly well-behaved kids. If it’s only one or two kids with beharvioral problems hands-on education can enage them far better than textbook education, but if it’s more than one or two the project groups fall to hell. American schools really are almost overwhelmed with behavioral problems.

  6. #6 Doran
    September 13, 2006

    How does an instructor created that “hands-on project oriented science education” environment that is the holy grail of teaching? Speaking of high school curricula, many of the experiments in chemistry, biology, and physics involved some sort of curve fitting. Maybe I just had poor instructors.

    But are there any suggestions on actual experiments and teaching methods that would actually excite students? Any suggestions? For the history geek in me, I believe some sort of historical perspective may be helpful.

  7. #7 lockean
    September 13, 2006

    Doran, there are examples and suggestions here:


    My own education is insufficient for figuring out how to made this a working link.

  8. #8 Doran
    September 13, 2006


    While these sorts of programs do offer an opportunity to flex their investigative muscles, this is not going to supplant a rigorous science curriculum. High school classes must cover a vast amount of material to conform to standards, often at expense of depth and sadly clarity.

    Having students take samples of nearby rivers, streams, and lakes and study the micro-organisms found with.

    Replicating the experiments of Galileo Galilei to derive the law of fall and the decomposition of orthogonal coordinates.

    My particular focus is physics, but biology suggestions work too. How do teachers make the material interesting, rather then a burdensome chore?

  9. #9 Jim Harrison
    September 13, 2006

    Speaking of bounded rationality: from a practical point of view, evincing belief in religious ideas may be rational because its benefits as a sign of group loyalty may outway its practical disadvantages in coming to an understanding of the real world. For most people, after all, having erroneous ideas about evolution has absolutely no cost while getting in argument with your neighbor/spouse/school superintendent may. If you were really clever, you’d loudly attack evolution locally while making sure that your political activities had no appreciable effect on scientific or technological research; but the real trick is to do these contradictory things without being insincere since insincerity is liable to be detected.

  10. #10 Caledonian
    September 13, 2006

    I rather like your point, Mr. Harrison, and I may repeat it in appropriate venues. When there is no social cost associated with denying well-established science, but a significant social cost associated with contradicting the opinions of the people surrounding you, most people will have no motivation to contradict the opinions of others.

  11. #11 John Wilkins
    September 13, 2006

    If you can fake sincerity, you’ve got it made. I see that aspect as a mix of Zahavian honest signalling, and group cohesion reinforcement (if you say silly shit that only your community can take seriously, then you reinforce the cohesion of your group, and thus its durability). It’s like the cultural equivalent of reinforcing selection.

  12. #12 Jim Harrison
    September 13, 2006

    Let me admit, in a spasm of integrity, that I got the notion of hard-to-fake sincerity from Scott Atran’s book In Gods We Trust. My impression, however, is that Atran was drawing on an idea that is in general currency among certain social scientists.

    I’m reminded of a bit from the late Pierre Bourdieu, a French sociologist. Bourdieu explained why the newly rich have so much trouble imitating old money. They think that the trick is acting like you care about high culture when what is needed is to actually care about high culture. Just suffering through the opera doesn’t hack it. You’ve got to learn how to really like it.

  13. #13 Bob O'H
    September 14, 2006

    As Donald Swann once said: “Always be sincere. Whether you mean it or not.”

    John – thanks for this series. It’s been very interesting. I guess your take-home message is that we have to corrupt the youth.


  14. #14 John Wilkins
    September 14, 2006

    If it was good enough for Socrates, it’s good enough for us. Of course, I will avoid herbal teas for a while…

  15. #15 Far Away
    September 15, 2006

    About a week or 10 dys ago there was a link from the Skeptic’s circle to a very long and quite interesting discussion between lots of people but including a fairly young male creationist and someone who was very patiently and effectively explaining what evolution was actually about. (I think there was also someone who modestly called himself Jeremiah and put in occasional messages about the word of god telling us nothing but the truth.) Unfortunately, I can’t find the circuitous route I took to get from the Skeptic’s circle to the thread. The most interesting thing about this was the Creationist’s view that “blind chance” could not possibly explain how things came to be. I realised after a while that what this point of view is about is how people want to see the “meaning” of their own lives. I also realised that this view is profoundly self-centred – it is not about what is the explanation for the things we observe all around us, but its about how did the universe produce “me”.

  16. #16 pwe
    September 18, 2006

    A paper of some interest in this connection is Steven D. Verhey’s The Effect of Engaging Prior Learning on Student Attitudes toward Creationism and Evolution, which is a study of, what the title says.

    Students ranging from Christian Literalists to Atheistic Evolutionists were exposed to a variety of texts to be read and discussed.

    The paper explains (p. 4):

    Seminar reading assignments. Sections A and B used The Blind Watchmaker (Dawkins 1996) and Icons of Evolution (Wells 2002) for seminar discussions. Icons of Evolution is an ID-oriented book; students also read Icons of Obfuscation (Tamzek 2004), an online rebuttal of Wells (2002).

    As indicated, students were seggregated into groups. Four groups in all with amount of reading material increasing from A to D.

    The results can be seen in the paper at p. 6.