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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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):
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:
- “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”
- “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.