This question often puzzled me. I can understand the need for a God, as an embodiment of people’s moral ideals. So, the fact is that our society, which views itself as based on moral principles, is fertile ground for the belief in an über-moral deity. The Brits, on the other hand, have a long history of scandalous, sometimes murderous, behaviors of their political leaders and royals. They are well-versed in their Shakespeare and, like him, are cynical about assertions of moral superiority of authority figures. Is there any wonder why only a small minority of the British go to church? This could also be the reason why the most ferocious critics of religion are British. Read, for instance, Richard Dawkins “The God Delusion“, in which he argues that God is, well, a delusion, religion is a virus, and the U.S. has slipped back to the dark ages. If this sounds extreme, try “God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything” by Christopher Hitchens.

Why should a belief in a deity clash with acceptance of science? In fact, Dr. Francis Collins, a physician and scientist par excellence, is the director of the Human Genome Project. He is also deeply religious.

But consider this little nugget: In a 2005 Pew Trust poll, 42% of respondents said that they believed that humans and other animals have existed in their present form since the beginning of time, a view that denies the very existence of evolution. And in a 2008 Republican presidential debate, none of the five, or was it six, candidates raised their hands when asked whether they believed in evolution.

This is not the only domain where people reject science: Many believe in the efficacy of unproven medical interventions; the mystical nature of out-of-body experiences; the existence of supernatural entities such as ghosts and fairies; and the legitimacy of astrology, ESP, and divination.

 

It all begins in childhood

In a review titled, “Childhood Origins of Adult Resistance to Science,” two Yale professors of psychology, Paul Bloom and Deena Skolnik Weisberg, posit that the winter of our ignorance began in childhood. They review evidence from developmental psychology suggesting that some resistance to scientific ideas is a human universal. This resistance stems from two general facts about children—one having to do with what they know and the other having to do with how they learn.

The main source of resistance concerns what children know before their exposure to science. Recent psychological research makes it clear that babies are not “blank slates”; even 1-year-olds possess a rich understanding of both the physical world (a “naïve physics”) and the social world (a “naïve psychology”). Babies know that objects are solid, persist over time (even when out of sight), fall to the ground if unsupported, and do not move unless acted upon. They also understand that people move autonomously in response to social and physical events, act and react in accord with their goals, and respond with appropriate emotions to different situations.

However, these intuitions also sometimes clash with scientific discoveries about the nature of the world, making certain scientific facts difficult to learn. The problem with teaching science to children is thus “not what the student lacks, but what the student has, namely alternative conceptual frameworks for understanding the phenomena covered by the theories we are trying to teach“. An example offered by the authors is the concept that the world is round; if it were a sphere, the people and things on the other side should fall off, right? Personally, I had difficulty understanding this concept until fourth or fifth grade.

This example concerns 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 children. Preschool children will claim that the brain is responsible for some aspects of mental life, typically those involving 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 loving one’s brother or brushing one’s teeth. This dualism is not restricted to young children. The strong intuitive pull of dualism makes it difficult for adults as well to accept what Francis Crick (Nobel laureate for discovering, together with Jim Watson, the double helix structure of DNA) 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 souls.

 

What about culture?

There are substantial differences, for example, in how quickly children from different countries come to learn that Earth is a sphere. There is also variation across countries in the extent of adult resistance to science, including the finding that Americans are more resistant to evolutionary theory than are citizens of most other countries.

When faced with information, one can occasionally evaluate its truth directly. If I claimed that rain comes from clouds, this is something that “everybody knows”, the evidence is all around us. But in some domains, including much of science, direct evaluation is difficult or impossible. Few of us are qualified to assess claims of the role of mercury in autism. So rather than evaluating the claim itself, we, instead, evaluate the claim’s source. If the source is deemed trustworthy, people will believe the claim, often without really understanding it. Consider, for example, that many Americans who claim to believe in natural selection are unable to accurately describe how natural selection works. This suggests that their belief is not necessarily rooted in an appreciation of the evidence and arguments. Rather, this scientifically credulous subpopulation accepts this information because they trust the people who say it is true.

This is not restricted to science, or to people who are not qualified to make judgments on their own. In California, we have a referendum system, whereby we vote on specific issues proposed by individuals or groups. Countless times I cast my vote on certain issues after checking who endorsed the initiative and who opposed it.

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 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.

 

What’s to be done?

The answer, of course, is what we knew intuitively all along: education, starting at a young age. This requires serious investment in science education. It requires a national commitment and political will.

Do we have what it takes?

Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD
Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD loves to write about the brain and human behavior as well as translate complicated basic science concepts into entertainment for the rest of us. He was a professor at the University of California San Francisco before leaving to enter the world of biotech. He served as the Chief Medical Officer of biotech companies, including Aphton Corporation. He also founded and served as the CEO of Madah Medica, an early stage biotech company developing products to improve post-surgical pain control. He is now retired and enjoys working out, following the stock market, travelling the world, and, of course, writing for TDWI.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Are you sure the that the concept resistance is the most appropriate? Your analysis seems based upon the idea that there are competing conceptual frameworks, so why would you describe this competition as resistance to one of them?

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