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.