Sometimes, even if science has shown beyond most reasonable doubt that a certain thing is a certain way, it is extremely hard to believe it. This is because we think it goes against what we see, and “seeing is believing”, as the saying goes. I’ve often thought about this, and have come up with my own ideas on why this is so. But that’s hardly a scientific study.
I happened to come across this fascinating mini-review in Science (unfortunately, subscription is required to read the entire article) where the authors do go into details on the “childhood origins of adult resistance to science” (don’t worry, there’s nothing Freudian in that). The article starts with data from various polls, talking about human (in this case American) tendencies to disbelieve evolution or natural selection, and believe in unproven medical treatment, or ghosts or angels, astrology and divination. Now, I think almost all of us have, to varying degrees, some of these beliefs. But the implications of a population that is not just scientifically ignorant, but resistant to science (that goes against their belief) is significant.
The authors go on to extensively review studies from developmental psychology, and say why this resistance to many scientific ideas is universal. It all starts from what kids know, and what they learn. Kids, even babies, “know” a lot without being actively taught it. They know solid objects will fall to the ground, for example, or that people have different emotions. So, say that they know unsupported objects fall to the ground, it is difficult for them to actually comprehend that the world can be round. Things fall off round objects. At this stage, kids cannot comprehend the scale of the earth (and our own relative scale), or the concept of gravity. Apparently, it takes kids many years (around ages 8 or 9) to be able to accurately draw out the earth. In essence, people reject scientific ideas because it appears to be counter-intuitive.
A second level of resistance to science comes purely from cultural factors. Some information is specifically asserted or defined in each culture. For example, the resistance to understanding evolution is prominent in America, and particularly amongst certain groups of people. This is because it has been specifically asserted otherwise. Now, not everyone is qualified to study or understand some more advanced scientific concepts (the authors of this review give string theory as an example). So, it is typical for people to believe in what they are told by people they trust, which typically should be perceived experts in that field. This is what adults are expected to do. Interestingly but not surprisingly, many studies have shown that children do the exact same thing, and will believe things that are told to them by people they trust; parents, teachers, or peers. Importantly, when the data is conflicting (in their own minds), children will tend to believe people they trust, and not necessarily the data itself. (Sidetrack; I cannot remember the number of times I’ve told people something, to be completely disbelieved, till they went and found the exact same information in a textbook, journal or wikipedia. Why do some people distrust me?). Again, not surprisingly, most people who do not believe in something (say natural selection) really have no clue about it, and cannot explain the basic concepts of the thing they don’t believe in. So, their disbelief is not based on any objective evaluation of facts.
To quote the authors: “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.” link.
I’m reminded of this little incident some years ago, when I was flying to India. There was this elderly gentleman sitting next to me. He was a pastor from Kerala, with a PhD in theology. We talked about this and that, and then there was this little ad on the television screen. It was about some zoo, and (as is wholly appropriate in a zoo) there were monkeys and birds and animals and fish prancing around onscreen.
Out of nowhere, the gentleman said “just look at how beautiful and different they all are. And people say god didn’t make them but they evolved. How is it possible.”
While I thought of a suitable reply, he added as an afterthought, with a shocked look on his face as he realized the consequences of his thought; “you don’t believe in that evolution stuff do you?”
I half-thought about explaining how evolution works and why the earth is much, much older than his mind could fathom, but decided it was completely futile in this case, and that I had to sit next to him for the next 4 hours, so I just said yes, and left it at that.
But he was such a perfect example for this entire post.