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Resistance to science (and what we can do about it) February 17, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Belief, Evolution, Science, Superstition.
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In their article “Childhood Origins of Adult Resistance to Science, Paul Bloom and Deena Weisberg try to understand why 40 percent of Americans reject the well-established theory of evolution, why so many people believe in the efficacy of unproven medical interventions, and other such embarrassments. Resistance to science has important implications for our society: “a scientifically ignorant public is unprepared to evaluate policies about global warming, vaccination,  genetically modified organisms, stem cell research, and cloning.”

Alternative intuitions about the movement of a ball out of a curved tube

One problem is that scientific truths are often counter-intuitive. For example, which of the lines depicted to the right predicts the movement of a ball coming out of a curved tube? Many college students answer incorrectly, choosing B instead of A. Another common intuition that conflicts with modern science is dualism, the belief that the mind is fundamentally different from the brain. It’s hard for people to accept that mental life emerges from physical processes, but this misconception interferes with our debates about the moral status of embryos, fetuses, stem cells, and nonhuman animals. As for evolution, studies show that children tend to exhibit “promiscuous teleology,” thinking that everything in the world has a purpose — e.g., clouds exist in order for us to have rain. This helps explain why evolution is more difficult to accept than creationism.

But what accounts for the significant differences in resistance to science between cultures, and for the different levels of resistance shown to different scientific theories within the same culture? Why, for example, are Americans more resistant to evolutionary theory than are citizens of most other countries, and why do they not resist other counter-intuitive theories, such as the germ theory of disease or heliocentrism? Bloom and Weisberg distinguish between a society’s “common knowledge” — information that is implicitly assumed and treated as certain, like electricity and germs — and knowledge that is explicitly asserted, and sometimes marked as tentative, like evolution. When faced with a claim of the latter kind, people often decide whether to accept it based on the deemed trustworthiness of its source; so resistance to science is especially strong when “there is a nonscientific alternative that is rooted in common sense and championed by people who are thought of as reliable and trustworthy.” In the U.S., for instance, nonscientific intuitions about the immaterial nature of the soul and the purposeful design of humans and animals “are particularly likely to be endorsed and transmitted by trusted religious and political authorities.”

It seems to me, then, that we should be asking ourselves why people promoting these anti-scientific ideas are nevertheless considered reliable and trustworthy in our society. For comparison, notice that we no longer see many religious and political authorities proclaiming that the sun revolves around the earth, or that disease is caused by demons. Why not? Because nobody likes to be laughed at. The problem is that some ideas which should have been laughed off the face of the earth decades (if not centuries) ago are continuously treated with a respect they do not deserve. We live in a culture which, due to misplaced concerns about political correctness and fear of giving offense, often fails to put pressure on bad thinking and bad ideas, instead endorsing the absurd notion that all opinions on a subject are equally valid and must be treated with equal respect.

The U.K. government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, John Beddington, is mad as hell about this, and he’s not going to take it any more:

In closing remarks to an annual conference of around 300 scientific civil servants on 3 February, in London, Beddington said that selective use of science ought to be treated in the same way as racism and homophobia. “We are grossly intolerant, and properly so, of racism. We are grossly intolerant, and properly so, of people who [are] anti-homosexuality…We are not—and I genuinely think we should think about how we do this—grossly intolerant of pseudo-science, the building up of what purports to be science by the cherry-picking of the facts and the failure to use scientific evidence and the failure to use scientific method,” he said.

[...] “I really would urge you to be grossly intolerant…We should not tolerate what is potentially something that can seriously undermine our ability to address important problems.

“There are enough difficult and important problems out there without having to… deal with what is politically or morally or religiously motivated nonsense.”

Beddington also had harsh words for journalists who treat the opinions of non-scientist commentators as being equivalent to the opinions of what he called “properly trained, properly assessed” scientists. “The media see the discussions about really important scientific events as if it’s a bloody football match. It is ridiculous.”

Indeed it is: we do not show respect to Holocaust deniers, nor do we give equal air time to geocentrists, and we must behave likewise towards other discredited ideas like creationism, dualism, homeopathy, etc. If we are to successfully meet the challenges that face us, we must demand a higher level of intellectual honesty in our discourse, where people are expected to support their views rationally, and are ridiculed and marginalized if they cannot. We need more intolerance — of bad ideas.

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