Mixing Memory

A little over a year ago, I wrote a post describing some research showing that there are cognitive barriers to understanding evolution. There I listed three specific factors:

  1. Intuitive theism, in which our intuitions lead us to make design inferences about complex kinds or under conditions of uncertainty; intuitions that can be reinforced culturally to an extent that it may be almost impossible to overcome them by the time we reach adulthood.
  2. Intuitive essentialism, which causes us to believe that biological kinds have hidden internal essences which determine what they are, how they will behave, and what features they should have, and which may make us interpret evidence of adaptation in transformationalist, rather than Darwinian/modern biological varationist terms.
  3. The role of explanatory power in determining the value of beliefs, and the fact that we may resist explaining our most cherished beliefs in order to avoid devaluing them.

The basic point is that people’s intuitions, which are likely innate, make the reception of scientific information about evolution more difficult, and the fact that religious beliefs are generally deeply cherished makes information that appears to lessen their value, like alternative explanations for the origin of species, more difficult to accept. In the May 18 issue of Science there’s a review article Paul Bloom and Deena Skolnick Weisberg (see also their Edge.com article, via Dr. Bloom) arguing much the same(1). Instead of focusing on evolution alone, though, Bloom and Weisberg argue that that our (innate) intuitions can negatively influence our reception of scientific information in a wide variety of domains. For example, in discussing our na´ve physics, they write:

In some cases, there is such resistance to science education that it never entirely sticks, and foundational biases persist into adulthood. One study tested college undergraduates’ intuitions about basic physical motions, such as the path that a ball will take when released from a curved tube. Many of the undergraduates retained a common-sense Aristotelian theory of object motion; they predicted that the ball would continue to move in a curved motion, choosing B over A in Fig. 1. (p. 996)

Here’s their Figure 1 (from the same page):

i-5c8d087a6a0dac5229881a0e950ccdb2-Bloom&Weisberg.JPG

It’s probably not news to many of you that our innate intuitions interfere with science education, as much has been written about it previously (Bloom himself wrote a very good book on intuitive dualism, which can interfere with learning about psychological and brain science). What may be new to many of you in this review is the discussion of children’s acceptance of testimony, much of which concerns fairly recent research. Bloom and Weisberg describe several factors that influence whether children accept testimony (much of which was discussed in a very good review by Harris and Koenig(2), which I talked about here), but the factor I find the most interesting involves how the way we talk about things influences their believability for children. Here’s a passage from the Harris and Koenig review:

[C]hildren hear people talk in a matter-of-fact fashion about the causal properties of germs or oxygen. Such remarks do not explicitly attest either to the existence of those entities or to the speaker’s faith in their existence. Thus, children rarely hear utterances such as, “There really are germs” or “I believe in oxygen.” Instead they hear claims and warnings that take the existence of the entities for granted, for example, “Throw that away – it has germs” or “He needs oxygen to breathe.” In the case of God or Santa Claus, on the other hand, children may well hear avowals such as “There really is a Santa Claus” or “I believe in God.” Such avowals may lead children to conclude that the existence of these special beings is not altogether beyond doubt. (p. 35 of the linked manuscript)

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. Thus,

If the source is deemed trustworthy, people will believe the claim, often without really understanding it. Consider, for example, that many Americans who claim to believe in natural selection are unable to accurately describe how natural selection works. This suggests that their belief is not necessarily rooted in an appreciation of the evidence and arguments. Rather, this scientifically credulous subpopulation accepts this information because they trust the people who say it is true. (p. 997)

It should also be noted that, as this example shows, it’s not just those who are opposed to science who are affected by the factors that influence the acceptance of testimony. Even pro-science individuals are subject to their own cognitive biases (yes, that means you).

Bloom and Weisberg also argue that these facts about the acceptance of testimony can also help to explain cultural/societal differences in the level of acceptance of different scientific ideas. How people talk about scientific ideas (“matter-of-factly” vs. “I believe…,” for example), and the perceived trustworthiness of religious/anti-scientific vs. scientific sources of information can vary across societies. This variation can then affect the proportion of people in those societies who accept or reject particular scientific ideas.

Finally, I think it’s important to highlight two points that Bloom and Weisberg make. The first is that that both the influence of (innate) intuitions and the acceptance of testimony are factors that are not limited to science. These play a role in determining our political, moral, and just general world beliefs. Second, these aren’t the only factors that determine our beliefs in all of these domains. A couple bloggers have criticized Bloom and Weisberg for not mentioning other potential influences. Bloom and Wiesberg don’t mention the influence of the value of beliefs on the acceptance or rejection of scientific explanations, or the role of IQ in determining whether individuals can understand scientific information, for example. However, their review is not meant to be a comprehensive list of all of the factors that influence whether people become evolutionists or creationists. Instead, it’s meant to highlight some of the specifically cognitive factors, without excluding other, non-cognitive ones.

In closing, I want to say a few more things about fellow ScienceBlogger Jake Young’s response to the article. Jake criticizes his perception of two aspects of the article, which he describes thusly:

  1. “They are arguing a very expansive view that Creationist beliefs are the result of some unremediated childishness, that Creationists beliefs are a disorder of delayed development”
  2. “They are arguing a narrow view saying that Creationist beliefs are the result of a failure to focus on trustworthy individuals with a scientific understanding, that Creationist beliefs represent a failure to teach.”

Concerning the first, Jake writes:

With respect to (1), the facile analogy of the mental failures of adults with features present in children was something I thought we abandoned with Freud. To put it another way, Bloom and Weisberg equate Creationism and the “promiscuous teleology” of children when these are not equivalent. They argue that in believing in Creationism, people of faith are persist in acting like children — like the anal retentive tendencies described by Freud.

The Freud bashing makes me cringe, in part because it’s born of both an ignorance of Freud and a fairly gross misunderstanding of what Bloom and Weisberg are arguing, and in part because in psychology, comparing someone’s ideas to Freud’s has become the equivalent of comparing someone’s positions to Hitler’s in political arguments — it’s a facile method of vilifying them in order to dismiss them without engaging what they’re saying, and it stinks.

Focusing on Jake’s point, obscured as it is by a bad analogy, though, it’s pretty easy to see how he’s mistaken. The intuitions that children have about the physical world are not, as Jake seems to believe, childish intuitions. They are, rather, intuitions that have developed over millions of years to help us, both as children and adults, navigate the world effectively. It’s not surprising, then, that science is a relatively late development in human culture. Since much of science is counterintuitive — in fact, this is the reason science is valuable; if the world were more transparent, we’d know everything science has taught us without having to work for it — science has been a slow, arduous process of overcoming these intuitions through the collection of more and more data (with the aid of technology that allows us to measure things we wouldn’t otherwise be able to) and the gradual refinement of our explanations. Bloom and Weisberg are arguing, in essence, that where science is concerned, ontogeny recapitulates cultural history. Without education, almost everyone would stick to his or her intuitions, and be an intuitive theist, essentialist, Aristotelian, and mental dualist. Science education can counter people’s intuitions, however, leading to a more science-literate population, but it has an uphill battle because it is working against such deeply (perhaps evolutionarily) ingrained intuitions. In short, these intuitions aren’t childish, they’re just human, and education isn’t about ridding us of our intuitive retentiveness, but about helping us to see the world in ways that aren’t intuitively obvious.

With regard to his second perception, that Bloom and Weisberg are arguing “that Creationist beliefs represent a failure to teach,” Jake writes:

[I]f all Bloom and Weisberg are pointing out is the failure of scientific education, then this piece is completely unremarkable.

Well, quite obviously that’s not all Bloom and Weisberg are doing. It is true that in a sense, they are arguing that the existence of anti-scientific beliefs like creationism or ESP are the result of failures of education, but they’re saying much more than that. Specifically, they’re drawing on a great deal of recent research to suggest reasons why education may be failing in general (e.g., because it contradicts innate intuitions), and why it fails more in some societies than in others. They may not be saying anything new (it is a review, after all), but much of what they’re saying has likely not been heard by many scientists outside of cognitive psychology (and in some cases, outside of cognitive development). Since the rejection of science by large swaths of the American population can have profound social and political implications, it’s important that people like Bloom and Weisberg (and Jake Young, and Chris of Mixing Memory) do everything they can to spread the word about research that sheds light on what leads to that rejection.


1Bloom, P., & Weisberg, D.S. (2007). Childhood origins of adult resistance to science. Science, 316, 996-997.
2Harris, P.L., & Koenig, M.A. (2006). Trust in testimony: How children learn about science and religion. Child Development, 77(3), 505-524.

Comments

  1. #1 pndmnm
    May 28, 2007

    evidence that we’re not here by accident

    Your point would hold more water if any such evidence existed to ignore. Recall the rhetorical maxim that it is insufficient to (attempt to, in this case) discredit another’s argument — you must also put forth one of own. Failure to do so is sufficient but not necessary to be dismissed as a troll.

  2. #2 Martin Bentley
    May 28, 2007

    No man is an Island….

    The argument is a lot simpler than it’s been stated. Religion is blatantly wrong because it is internal and logically inconsistent and is made redundant by it’s own flaws. Religion can adapt and start a new and it does, but each time it struggles with new environments and dies. Jehovah, Yahweh, Allah will go the way of Zeus, Odin, etc.

    Evolution on the other hand is just a theory, no one founds their entire worldview and beliefs on it (if they do they are an idiot) and can be changed in the face of new evidence. I don’t honestly care if the universe has an appearance of design or not, I do know that if there is a designer none of the world religions have correctly identified it and none of them are right. Evolution is the best working explanation, as opposed to Christianity for example which is the most popular dumb explication.

  3. #3 Jake Young
    May 28, 2007

    1)

    The intuitions that children have about the physical world are not, as Jake seems to believe, childish intuitions.

    That isn’t the point that I was making, as I point out earlier in that post. I agree these intuitions are absolutely intrinsic to appropriately development, and almost definitely evolutionarily proscribed.

    I write:

    Both of those understandings [naive physics and naive psychology] are important evolutionarily to the human species. Human beings arrive in this world prepared to a degree to understand how the world operates.

    My objection is to this argument is that they assume that “promiscuous teleology” results Creationist beliefs. You summarize it correctly:

    Bloom and Weisberg are arguing, in essence, that where science is concerned, ontogeny recapitulates cultural history.

    My question to them is what did people believe falsely before the Christian Revelation? Did children believe in dualism before Descartes? No doubt sense promiscuous teleology is a part of normal child development, it predated both of those historical events.

    Both Creationism and dualism are cultural constructions. They did not arrive de novo from children’s minds because they received inadequate science instruction. They were implanted in children’s minds precisely because they didn’t recieve good instruction.

    My beef with these authors is that they want to attribute what is fundamentally an issue of poor science instruction to the result of a normal psychological process. I don’t see how they are getting to that.

    2)

    The Freud bashing makes me cringe, in part because it’s born of both an ignorance of Freud and a fairly gross misunderstanding of what Bloom and Weisberg are arguing, and in part because in psychology, comparing someone’s ideas to Freud’s has become the equivalent of comparing someone’s positions to Hitler’s in political arguments — it’s a facile method of vilifying them in order to dismiss them without engaging what they’re saying, and it stinks.

    Cringe all you want, but my understanding of Freud and my analogy of Bloom and Weisberg’s argument to it is accurate.

    Particularly in his writings on sexuality and neuroses, Freud highlighted how unresolved conflicts from childhood manifest as psychological problems in adulthood. He emphasized the persistence of psychological problems in terms of the developmental stage in which the unresolved issue took place.

    Bloom and Weisberg are positing a developmental stage where children believe in promiscuous teleogy. (A finding that I do not dispute.) They are arguing that the persistence of that stage into adulthood manifests as Creationist believes. (Something I think is a load of bollocks.)

    In that sense, I think the analogy while not perfect is quite apt.

    I agree with you that Freud is the general whipping boy for the psychological profession, and it does make me cringe when people who haven’t read him talk about what he said.

    However, I have read him, and feel qualified to compare his work to others. I didn’t make that comment because of the degree to which their argument was wrong — it wasn’t a Hilter/political comparison. I made it because I think it is quite like one of Freud’s.

  4. #4 J. J. Ramsey
    May 28, 2007

    “My question to them is what did people believe falsely before the Christian Revelation?”

    Whatever creation myths were in their own culture. The point is that we naturally think teleologically, and creation myths–of which the first few chapters of Genesis are an example or two–are a normal outgrowth of this.

    “Did children believe in dualism before Descartes?”

    Most likely, yes, or something close to it. Belief in souls, ghosts, etc. is pretty common.

  5. #5 Chris
    May 28, 2007

    Jake, come on. You called them childish beliefs, and analogized it to the retention of childhood obsessions in Freud. And seriously, you’re smart enough to understand that “promiscuous teleology” can lead to the acceptance of a wide variety of creation myths (including, in more philosophically sophisticated versions, intelligent design theories). And you’re also smart enough to know that mental dualism has been around pretty much as long as, well, any ancient myth or philosophy you want to use as an example (and longer than that, I’m sure).

  6. #6 Kevembuangga
    May 29, 2007

    Excuse me Island but I don’t see any evidence that we are not here “by accident”.
    Could you point me to the evidence you seem to see of a “non accident”?

  7. #7 Drugmonkey
    May 29, 2007

    Another much-maligned psychologist has a paper that
    may illuminate
    your thinking on this issue.

    Chris, does ontogeny recapitulate cultural superstition?

    Skinner was brilliant, so was Freud. It is not necessary to take a box score on their right/wrong about the world percentages. Major contribution, as are most, is in changing the way we think about things. In their cases, the way we think about the influence of prior experiences on subsequent behavior. Not to mention the essential contributions that phenomena related to the mind/brain and behavior were amenable to study and understanding.

  8. #8 Kevembuangga
    May 29, 2007

    yet you seem to think that evidence which puts us right back there very close to that location doesn’t mean a damned thing.

    I have been asking to explain what you see as “evidence” while I see none, please EXPLAIN where you see “meaning” instead of just parroting your previous posts.

    I also think that it’s interesting that you would call Lenny and Richard crackpots, but hey…

    That I “would call Lenny and Richard crackpots”?
    I don’t give a shit about “Lenny and Richard” don’t even know who they are, my position has nothing to do with this.
    How do you know what I would do, call, or whatnot?
    You are very bad at setting up a strawman.

    Anyway, the WMAP evidence indicates that there is a very strong geocentric constraint on the forces,

    It could be some “observer bias” just like all galaxies are running away from us. Yeah, we are at the center of the Universe, idiot!

    You could argue

    No, no, no, you don’t think or speak for me and then argue on your own bullshit.

    Please answer my question : WHAT IS THE EVIDENCE YOU SEE?

  9. #9 Andrew Wade
    May 29, 2007

    Just an FYI to anyone else that is actually honestly interested, but Krauss was talking about how the motion of the Earth around the Sun traces-out the goldilocks zone, (the purple region), via the plane of the earth around the sun, or the ecliptic. It had absolutely nothing to do with the recession of galaxies from each other.

    http://centra.ist.utl.pt/outreach/images/cobe.gif

    That’s not a goldilocks zone. If the direction of motion of our solar system (relative to the CMB) were not normal to the plane of the ecliptic life should be entirely unaffected. Indeed the magnitude and direction of the CMB dipole should change significantly over the course of an orbit around the galaxy, on a timescale considerably less than the age of the Earth. On top of that the magnitude of that dipole is quite small compared to the magnitude of the CMB, and as far as I know the CMB has utterly no effect on life on earth.

    BTW, just how close is this coincidence? I think it’s the first time I’ve heard of it.

  10. #10 Chris
    May 30, 2007

    Jake, one more thing. Bloom and Weisberg are not positing a promiscuous teleology “stage,” in the Freudian or even Piagetian sense. Instead, promiscuous teleology seems to arise at a certain age (it’s not their research, by the way), and it persists into adulthood. Again, it’s not that childish or childhood stage persists, but that an intuition arises and persists. There’s a big difference, particularly since that’s what happens with cognition generally.

  11. #11 razib
    May 30, 2007

    My question to them is what did people believe falsely before the Christian Revelation?

    we have written records from as far back as the sumerians. we also have the mythologies of peoples who only recently entered into the mainstream of world civilization. i think they tend to support the idea that something analogous to the genesis story (which after all is simply derivative of a mesopatamian precursor tale) is pretty common in many cultures. additionally, in some of bloom’s earlier work i think he asked children raised in explicitly non-creationist households (i.e., those who promoted a modern scientific world-view) to pick between evolutionary stories and creationist ones in terms of plausibility. the found the creationist onces more plausible, as did those (naturally) raised in christian literalist households. only later in childhood did the former discard their creationist bias, while the latter never did.

  12. #12 James Collins
    June 1, 2007

    Evolution sounds good but it is a myth.

    If evolutionists want to end the arguments all they have to do is, get their brilliant heads together and assemble a ‘simple’ living cell. This should be possible, since they certainly have a very great amount of knowledge about what is inside the ‘simple’ cell.

    After all, shouldn’t all the combined Intelligence of all the worlds scientist be able the do what chance encounters with random chemicals, without a set of instructions, accomplished about 4 billion years ago,according to the evolutionists, having no intelligence at all available to help them along in their quest to become a living entity. Surely then the evolutionists scientists today should be able to make us a ‘simple’ cell.

    If it weren’t so pitiful it would be humorous, that intelligent people have swallowed the evolution mythology.

    Beyond doubt, the main reason people believe in evolution is that sources they admire, say it is so. It would pay for these people to do a thorough examination of all the evidence CONTRARY to evolution that is readily available: Try answersingenesis.org. The evolutionists should honestly examine the SUPPOSED evidence ‘FOR’ evolution for THEMSELVES.

    Build us a cell, from scratch, with the required raw material, that is with NO cell material, just the ‘raw’ stuff, and the argument is over. But if the scientists are unsuccessful, perhaps they should try Mother Earth’s recipe, you know, the one they claim worked the first time about 4 billion years ago, so they say. All they need to do is to gather all the chemicals that we know are essential for life, pour them into a large clay pot and stir vigorously for a few billion years, and Walla, LIFE!

    Oh, you don’t believe the ‘original’ Mother Earth recipe will work? You are NOT alone, Neither do I, and MILLIONS of others!

  13. #13 Kevembuangga
    June 3, 2007

    James Collins : Build us a cell, from scratch, with the required raw material, that is with NO cell material, just the ‘raw’ stuff, and the argument is over.

    This is a very reasonable argument AGAINST design, hugely complex systems CANNOT be designed.

    But if the scientists are unsuccessful, perhaps they should try Mother Earth’s recipe, you know, the one they claim worked the first time about 4 billion years ago, so they say.All they need to do is to gather all the chemicals that we know are essential for life, pour them into a large clay pot and stir vigorously for a few billion years, and Walla, LIFE!

    You obviously have no idea of the amount of information possibly encoded in the smallest quantity of matter, nor of what duration means.
    Have you ever heard of Avogadro’s number?
    For 18 grams of water this means more than 600000000000000000000000 molecules of water, each of which can be in a slightly different state than another (necessarily so for its physical location), which makes for an unmanageable amount of information just to describe the “current state” of those 18 grams of water.
    This is even more unimaginable for more complex molecules like proteins.
    Except at a temperature of zero kelvin all molecules are agitated and undergo brownian motion, however molecules ARE NOT BILLARD BALLS or grains of sand, chemical bonds make or break hapazardly and some bonds and also complex patterns of bonds are more stable than other, i.e. once set they will not easily break unless the temperature goes outside their stability range (usually up to higher temps), therefore they are bound to SURVIVE and thus complex molecules are necessarily CREATED out of which some longer time scales purposeless selective process can further sort out the “winning” combinations i.e. just those which happen to last longer because they benefit from self-reinforcing feedbacks which favor their own reproduction.
    THAT’S IT.
    So uneducated morons (not even at the level of Wikipedia) “know it all” because superstitious psychotic tribesmen wrote down “sacred texts” of various kinds which actually ALL boil down to : “We are baffled by this so it must have been done by someone much more clever than us”.
    More clever, yeah!

    As for durations, do you know that a billion years is 1000000000 years and this means 10000000 more than an (optimistic) 100 years human lifespan?
    Can you figure out how many “events” occur at a molecular level (at a time scale of nanoseconds or picoseconds) during such a time span in billions tons of matter?
    Hapazardly, yes, but this is NOT in the range of the sunday lottery than you are probably thinking of in your wonderment about “stir[ing] vigorously for a few billion years [into a large clay pot]“.

    Oh, you don’t believe the ‘original’ Mother Earth recipe will work? You are NOT alone, Neither do I, and MILLIONS of others!

    Sure, a very good argument : “Eat shit, hundreds of million flies can’t be wrong!”

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