Friday, June 08, 2007

Intuition, “common sense” and resistance to science

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

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.


pippala leaf said...

From my observation the resistance to science stems from fear of losing their fundamental beliefs or trust (that are essential for their emotional, mental stability and balance) which they have been carrying on from childhood. I find people shut down their thoughts at the moment they find the new facts start to question their faith or have a possibility that they could start doubting their long held beliefs. They refuse to think further with a fear in their sub-conscious mind that they could lose their stronghold and throw them off balance that may seriously jeopardize their emotional and mental balance. They know subconsciously that they need those beliefs to satisfy their mind about so many unresolved questions and mysteries of their life in this universe. And obviously life on this planet is not a bed of roses.

So long science cannot answer "why this universe?" an ordinary person need an alternative to hang on. Till that question answered I see a bright future for religion no matter how much loud Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris or other skeptics scream.

CuriousCat said...

Great post sunil. You should add the link to the article over at Edge that was linked to in this edition of Tangled Bank so that your readers without access to science can see some of the details.

@pippala: You are of course right, but things are not quite that black and white. I would be interested to know what you think about a post I wrote recently called "Do you believe in god". Stop by if you get the chance.

Sunil said...

madhu.....your observations and conclusions on "fundamental beliefs" are not incorrect. However, "fundamental beliefs" are drilled into us for various reasons. However, to say that everyone needs that would be incorrect. I think in this case people "need" it because they've been told that the need it! It is warped, convoluted, but there it is.

Here is Curious cat's post on god, which is quite interesting.

pippala leaf said...


I agree that "everyone needs that" would be incorrect. But again the question remains of why those "fundamental beliefs" are drilled into us. I think they originated from the fundamental questions such as: "why this universe?" "who am I?" "Why I am here?".

Thanks for the link to Curious cat's post. It's very interesting.

Munimma said...

Interesting read, Sunil. I guess people who hold a strong view, do not like it to be shaken or stirred, sometimes reaching fanatic levels.

Sunil said...

Madhu..."why this universe?" "who am I?" "Why I am here?" are all questions that humans have pondered over for centuries. But why do fables or ideas become ideology cast in stone? Instilling fundamental beliefs will not make them true, so why cling on to them? I understand the drift of your arguement, but disagree with the need for it. I think a constant effort can be made to make children grow up with openness to new ideas, as well as the ability to separate fact from fiction.

munimma, yes indeed....but how do you get people to be open to other thoughts or ideas? Particularly when they are unwilling to listen to facts or view evidence, and will rather believe what has been told to them? It's a strange problem.

gawker said...

If you've already read the God Delusion, you probably know this but Richard Dawkins explains why people's disbelief in evolution might in itself be due to natural selection. Reason one, as you said, the necessity of children to obey adults unquestioningly in order to survive, in an adult, turning into the adult's similar propensity to swallow a lot of bullshit from someone else in a position of religious authority.

Secondly, Dawkins also says it is beneficial for an organism with respect to its survival to form an opinion on something with respect to its apparent intent rather than on the basis of its underlying science. For example, if one is confronted by a tiger, the organism that will correctly deduce the tiger's intention to consume it based on observation of the tiger's general demeanour and intent will probably survive, rather than one who will sit and mull over what it is that the tiger actually wants. I found this theory quite fascinating.

Sunil said...

Gawk.....yes, Dawkins is superb at explaining these aspects, and bringing in how natural selection and survival can sometimes be counterintuitive, like the very example you gave. I still think one of his earliest best sellers, the selfish gene, is terrific, for that exact reason.

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