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 entré 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.