Why people believe in bad ideas

There is a must-read article at Edge by Paul Bloom and Deena Skolnick Weisberg—it’s an attempt to explain why people resist scientific knowledge that takes a psychological view of the phenomenon. The premise is that our brains have in-built simplifications and assumptions about how the world works that often conflict with how it really works—there is, for instance, an intuitive physics and a real physics that are not entirely in agreement, and that we bring our understanding into alignment with reality through education and experience. The naive assumptions of the young brain contribute to ideas like dualism and creationism. For example:

Our intuitive psychology also contributes to resistance to science. One significant bias is that children naturally see the world in terms of design and purpose. For instance, four year-olds insist that everything has a purpose, including lions (“to go in the zoo”) and clouds (“for raining”), a propensity that Deborah Kelemen has dubbed “promiscuous teleology.” Additionally, when asked about the origin of animals and people, children spontaneously tend to provide and to prefer creationist explanations.

“Promiscuous teleology” is a phrase I’m going to have to use more.

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.

Here’s part of their conclusion:

In sum, the developmental data suggest that resistance to science will arise in children when scientific claims clash with early emerging, intuitive expectations. This resistance will persist through adulthood if the scientific claims are contested within a society, and will be especially strong if there is a non-scientific alternative that is rooted in common sense and championed by people who are taken as reliable and trustworthy. This is the current situation in the United States with regard to the central tenets of neuroscience and of evolutionary biology. These clash with intuitive beliefs about the immaterial nature of the soul and the purposeful design of humans and other animals — and, in the United States, these intuitive beliefs are particularly likely to be endorsed and transmitted by trusted religious and political authorities. Hence these are among the domains where Americans’ resistance to science is the strongest.

We should stress that this failure to defer to scientists in these domains does not necessarily reflect stupidity, ignorance, or malice. In fact, some skepticism toward scientific authority is clearly rational. Scientists have personal biases due to ego or ambition–no reasonable person should ever believe all the claims made in a grant proposal. There are also political and moral biases, particularly in social science research dealing with contentious issues such as the long-term effects of being raised by gay parents or the explanation for gender differences in SAT scores. It would be naïve to ignore all this, and someone who accepted all “scientific” information would be a patsy. The problem is exaggerated when scientists or scientific organizations try to use their authority to make proclamations about controversial social issues. People who disagree with what scientists have to say about these issues might reasonably infer that it is not safe to defer to them more generally.

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. So how will we get away from this problem?

But this rejection of science would be mistaken in the end. The community of scientists has a legitimate claim to trustworthiness that other social institutions, such as religions and political movements, lack. The structure of scientific inquiry involves procedures, such as experiments and open debate, that are strikingly successful at revealing truths about the world. All other things being equal, a rational person is wise to defer to a geologist about the age of the earth rather than to a priest or to a politician.

Given the role of trust in social learning, it is particularly worrying that national surveys reflect a general decline in the extent to which people trust scientists. To end on a practical note, then, one way to combat resistance to science is to persuade children and adults that the institute of science is, for the most part, worthy of trust.

That’s a positive answer, and I think we can accomplish that by getting scientists out and about, engaging the public more. Most people don’t even meet real scientists until they go off to college, and it’s easy to mistrust strange people who work off in mysterious labs; not so easy to mistrust somebody you sit down and have coffee and conversation with. Openness is the first key building block of trust.

Another tactic not mentioned, though, is that I think we also need to work to undermine the trust in the clergy. They are not qualified authorities, and in most cases they are anti-authorities who encourage belief in falsehoods. In this case, people like Ken Ham and various money-grubbing televangelists are our best friends; they are one of the levers we use to expose the rotten core of religion and the falsity of religious indoctrination, and help us to remove one corrupting influence on children’s minds.


  1. #1 notthedroids
    May 30, 2007

    A “wrong” belief can still confer evolutionary advantage.

    That’s the hurdle that a guy like Dawkins can’t seem to get over.

  2. #2 Robert
    May 30, 2007

    “A “wrong” belief can still confer evolutionary advantage.

    That’s the hurdle that a guy like Dawkins can’t seem to get over”

    This is a statement from someone who has obviously not read TGD.

  3. #3 Brownian
    May 30, 2007

    #23. I dunno Jon. Many religious claims completely beat out natural selection for absurdity. They’re comfortable not because they’re common sense, but because they’re taught at such a young age.

  4. #4 Arnosium Upinarum
    May 30, 2007

    notthedroids said:

    “A “wrong” belief can still confer evolutionary advantage. That’s the hurdle that a guy like Dawkins can’t seem to get over.”

    What hurdle? So some wrong beliefs can confer an advantage. So what? We see it all the time, all around us.

    Dawkins never says that a wrong belief can’t or shouldn’t confer an advantage (however temporary). It’s the allegiance to any belief that cultivates and compounds further wrong-thinking that he has a problem with. He knows full well how pernicious and infectious a wrong belief can be, however personally advantageous they may be. Such beliefs threaten critical and rational thinking in huge numbers of people, just when we need it most, and I must say I agree with him.

  5. #5 stogoe
    May 30, 2007

    I have to echo #17(Robert) and #32(Arnosium); notthedroids doesn’t seem to have read TGD (I’m reading it currently, so I should know).

    It’s probably just a knee-jerk Dawkins-thwack so common among those who agree with Brayton and Chris from Muddling Memory.

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