Pure Pedantry

The latest issue of Science magazine (May 18) has several reviews devoted to the coming of age of behavioral neuroscience. However, one by Paul Bloom and Deena Skolnick Weisberg caught my eye. The review is entitled “Childhood Origins of Adult Resistance to Science,” and their core argument is that resistance to science in adulthood is the result of persistence of childhood traits. Ouch. Provocative from the very first.

Let’s go into what they actually said before I say what I think about it.

The authors begin by listing the myriad litany of unsupported things that people believe: ESP, creationist attacks on evolution, astrology, etc. Of these I have no doubt. They go on to argue that the origin of these false beliefs are the natural tendencies that babies have to see the world.

We’ll talk about that leap in a second, but on the grounds of saying that babies have “naive” ways to view the world that are biologically hard-wired they have the vast majority of evidence on their side. For example, babies know that when an object — such as rolling ball — disappears behind another object it has not disappeared from the universe. Rather they expect to see it roll out the other side. This and experiments like it suggest that babies possess a “naive physics” — an ethological understanding of how objects behave in space. Similarly, babies can predict the motor acts of others. I discussed an example of this in this post. This suggests that they possess a “naive psychology” — an ethological understanding of how people behave.

Both of those understandings are important evolutionarily to the human species. Human beings arrive in this world prepared to a degree to understand how the world operates. However, as the authors go on to point out, these understandings do sometimes conflict with what science has shown to be true, hence the reluctance to adopt scientific conclusions.

For example, children are reluctant to rejecct creationism and mind/body dualism in spite of evidence to the contrary because they comply with intuitive understandings of the world:

The examples so far concern people’s common-sense understanding of the physical world, but their intuitive psychology also contributes to their resistance to science. One important bias is that children naturally see the world in terms of design and purpose. For instance, 4-year-olds insist that everything has a purpose, including lions (“to go in the zoo”) and clouds (“for raining”), a propensity called “promiscuous teleology”. Additionally, when asked about the origin of animals and people, children spontaneously tend to provide and prefer creationist explanations. Just as children’s intuitions about the physical world make it difficult for them to accept that Earth is a sphere, their psychological intuitions about agency and design make it difficult for them to accept the processes of evolution.

Another consequence of people’s common-sense psychology is dualism, the belief that the mind is fundamentally different from the brain. This belief comes naturally to childrn. Preschool children will claim that the brain is responsible for some aspects of mental life, typically those involving deliberative mental work, such as solving math problems. But preschoolers will also claim that the brain is not involved in a host of other activities, such as pretending to be a kangaroo, loving one’s brother, or brushing one’s teeth. Similarly, when told about a brain transplant from a boy to a pig, they believed that you would get a very smart pig, but one with pig beliefs and pig desires. For young children, then, much of mental life is not linked to the brain.

The strong intuitive pull of dualism makes it difficult for people to accept what Francis Crick called “the astonishing hypothesis”: Dualism is mistaken — mental life emerges from physical processes. People resist the astonishing hypothesis in ways that can have considerable social implications. For one thing, debates about the moral status of embryos, fetuses, stem cells, and nonhuman animals are sometimes framed in terms of whether or not these entities possess immaterial souls. What’s more, certain proposals about the role of evidence from functional magnetic resonance imaging in criminal trials assume a strong form of dualism. It has been argued, for instance, that if one could show that a person’s brain is involved in an act, then the person himself or herself is not responsible, an excuse dubbed “my brain made me do it”. These assumptions about moral status and personal responsibility reflect a profound resistance to findings from psychology and neuroscience. (Citations mine.)

What explains the disparity in some people’s acceptance of science vs. others? Clearly, some individuals are overcoming their own intuition.

The authors attribute different levels of acceptance quite reasonably to cultural factors. For example, we know that both adults and children trust information that they cannot verify independently based on the trustworthiness of the information source rather than the merits. If large numbers of trustworthy people deny a concept is true, people will be less likely to believe it:

Adults thus rely on the trustworthiness of the source when deciding which asserted claims to believe. Do children do the same? Recent studies suggest that they do; children, like adults, have at least some capacity to assess the trustworthiness of their information sources. Four- and five-year-olds, for instance, know that adults know things that other children do not (like the meaning of the word “hypochondriac”), and when given conflicting information from a child and from an adult, they prefer to learn from the adult. They know that adults have different areas of expertise: Doctors know how to fix broken arms, and mechanics know how to fix flat tires. They prefer to learn from a knowledgeable speaker than from an ignorant one, and they prefer a confident source to a tentative one. Finally, when 5-year-olds hear about a competition whose outcome was unclear, they are more likely to believe a person who claimed that he had lost the race (a statement that goes against his self-interest) than a person who claimed that he had won the race (a statement that goes with his self-interest). In a limited sense, then, they are capable of cynicism.

These 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 it will be especially strong if there is a nonscientific alternative that is rooted in common sense and championed by people who are thought of as reliable and trustworthy. This is the current situation in the United States, with regard to the central tenets of neuroscience and evolutionary biology. These concepts 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 beliefs are particularly likely to be endorsed and transmitted by trusted religious and political authorities. Hence, these fields are among the domains where Americans’ resistance to science is the strongest.

Getting to my objections to this article, I see two ways to interpret their argument.

  • (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.

I am not certain the sense in which the authors would like us to interpret this article. The first part led me to believe (1), but in the second they pull back suggesting something more like (2). Not knowing what they want, let’s talk about both.

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.

Not only is this patronizing to those of faith, it doesn’t really make sense. For example, “promiscuous teleology” might explain why human beings want to see an invisible actor behind events, but it does very little to explain why people cling to this Revelation so fervently.

What did children think about mind/body dualism before Descartes — before the recognition of the brain as the seat of behavior? Creationism and mind/body dualism are cultural constructions, but Bloom and Weisberg present them as evolutionary tendencies.

With respect to (2), if all Bloom and Weisberg are pointing out is the failure of scientific education, then this piece is completely unremarkable. The statement that acceptance of science is related to cultural factors is not the news flash of the century. It’s so obvious that it borders on truism.

Thus, we have two interpretations of this article, one partronizing and the other a non-entity. That doesn’t leave me particularly impressed.

Conclusions: There are many ways to explain the failure of acceptance of science. I tend to agree with those that focus on education, if for no other reason than I cannot visualize how a evolutionary tendency to reject science would precede the idea of science historically. However, I could very well be incorrect. This is, however, beside the point.

What is wrong with this piece is that it is not productive to attribute childish features to your ideological opponents — particularly if in attributing them you have to stretch the facts. It makes you seem like a jerk, and it alienates the people you are trying to convert.

Bloom and Weisberg mention that adults and children are sensitive to the motives of others. When you argue that all people who disagree with you are displaying childish tendencies, how do you expect others to perceive your motives?

The way to argue for science is to stand with the evidence, not to construct elaborate theories to explain your opponents stupidity.

Comments

  1. #1 bioephemera
    May 24, 2007

    “Similarly, when told about a brain transplant from a boy to a pig, they believed that you would get a very smart pig, but one with pig beliefs and pig desires.”

    These children sound like they grasp heterogenous graft experiments about as well as my undergrads!

    Seriously, I didn’t get the point of this paper either. I’m glad I’m not the only one.

  2. #2 Melinda Barton
    May 25, 2007

    Finally, someone else who sees the problems with this paper, but there are so many more. I got into them on my blog. There are a variety of scientific/logical problems with their theory, including the fact that more recent studies have shown that the “naive physics” theory may have resulted from an incorrect interpretation of experimental data. The infants may actually have been responding to the novelty of certain images not the fact that the images violated the laws of physics.

    Secondly, the authors fail to take into account the level of proof needed to accept different ideas that contradict our observations or our inductively reasoned assumptions. Proving the world is round despite the fact that it appears flat is easy compared to demonstrating either the fact of evolution or the extent to which evolutionary theory explains the processes by which evolution occured.

    It’s so problematic, you’d have to read my very long blog post to see it all (and I actually decided to stop rather than post 20 pages on their flaws).

  3. #3 Biomed Tim
    May 25, 2007

    “..Not only is this patronizing to those of faith, it doesn’t really make sense. For example, “promiscuous teleology” might explain why human beings want to see an invisible actor behind events, but it does very little to explain why people cling to this Revelation so fervently…”

    It doesn’t have to explain why people cling to the idea; the theory merely seeks to explain the origin of the problem. The persistence of the problem may require an entirely different theory, but that would not undermine the theory of promiscuous teleology itself.

  4. #4 Melinda Barton
    May 25, 2007

    The theory of promiscuous teleogy is also negated by the fact that children at 4 have already received teleological education in the form of early religious training or via the frustrated adult’s made-up answers to the seemingly interminable “why” questions 4-year-old’s devise. We cannot assert that this type of thinking is innate rather than learned considering.

  5. #5 razib
    May 27, 2007

    (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.

    having read a lot of bloom’s stuff before i think i would be willing to bet a fair amount of $$$ that he doesn’t believe this.

    With respect to (2), if all Bloom and Weisberg are pointing out is the failure of scientific education, then this piece is completely unremarkable. The statement that acceptance of science is related to cultural factors is not the news flash of the century. It’s so obvious that it borders on truism.

    bloom might add that not all ideas are equally created in the mind’s eye, for a variety of reasons creationism might be at advantage, ceteris paribus, vis-a-vis evolutionary theory as a theory for the origin of life. bloom isn’t saying that creationism is childish, just that it’s a human default.

  6. #6 Jake Young
    May 28, 2007

    bloom isn’t saying that creationism is childish, just that it’s a human default.

    1) That isn’t exactly my point.

    I find it difficult to understand how it could be the human default. I can see how promiscuous teleology is a human stage, but I fail to see how its extension results in this set of beliefs without some added assistance.

    If it requires something additional to get from promiscuous teleology to Creationism, then that thing is undoubtedly education — in which case I am not impressed by this work.

    It doesn’t take a college degree to tell you that if you teach a kid bollocks, they are going to believe bollocks.

    2) My argument with the childishness is that they describe a stage in child development. Then they look at something they don’t like in adult behavior, and look for similarities between the two. This is exactly what Freud did, and it ignores the intervening interval and how the child became the adult. It is extending a child stage into adult behavior.

  7. #7 Dylab
    May 28, 2007

    I think I get your point. Do you not see any value between noticing that between the two main points of view, evolution and creationism, evolution takes a larger mental step to get to than creationism. At least that is part of what I got from the article.

  8. #8 Melinda Barton
    May 29, 2007

    Dylab, I can’t speak for Jake, but I think the mental leap is the same. Both take education. Although creation stories are common in human cultures, Biblical creationism is a literalistic interpretation of a particular text and thus must be taught. Evolution has common threads with some creation stories (including that in Genesis) and some philosophical arguments, but to accept it rationally based on the evidence, you have to be taught a.) what the evidence is and b.) how to properly interpret the evidence based on scientific principles/methods. Ironically, even most who accept evolution haven’t been properly educated in it and have all sorts of false ideas about both the fact of evolution and the theory. I don’t see anyone trying to associate the false understanding of evolution with childhood traits.

  9. #9 Melinda Barton
    May 30, 2007

    Jake,
    I’ve just “discovered” (not in the Al Gore sense) the Piraha people of Brazil. Their culture bolsters much of what you’ve argued here and it’s simply fascinating. It also calls promiscuous teleology into question in a very big way. Everett’s findings have not yet been replicated (no one has yet attempted) but attempts to do so are underway. If he’s correct about what he’s gleaned from the Piraha, it would falsify or correct a lot of theories. http://www.spiegel.de/international/spiegel/0,1518,414291,00.html

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