Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Promiscuous Teleology and all the fixins

Why some adults resist science and biased kids.

A great article over at gives some insight to why so many American adults resist scientific facts.

There are two common assumptions about the nature of this resistance. First, it is often assumed to be a particularly American problem, explained in terms of the strong religious beliefs of many American citizens and the anti-science leanings of the dominant political party. Second, the problem is often characterized as the result of insufficient exposure to the relevant scientific facts, and hence is best addressed with improved science education.

We believe that these assumptions, while not completely false, reflect a misunderstanding of the nature of this phenomenon. While cultural factors are plainly relevant, American adults' resistance to scientific ideas reflects universal facts about what children know and how children learn. If this is right, then resistance to science cannot be simply addressed through more education; something different is needed.

I hear those two explanation all the time from exasperated rational pals of mine; a retrograde 'Merican attitude inserted into an atrocious science education program MUST be the culprit to all these psychic friends networks and fossil hoax theorists. But you scratch that thought enough and it becomes apparent that such an answer is rather unsatisfying. Looking back at kids and suggesting we're predisposed for this kind of thinking gives better perspective.

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.

The panacea for this is of course, the scientific experiment. When one has a real world observation, those long stretch connections are easily shattered.

I love the conclusions, however.

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.

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