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Childhood Origins of Adult Resistance to Science

Brain Stories's picture
Childhood Origins of Adult Resistance to Science
Paul Bloom and Deena Skolnick Weisberg
Science 316: 996-997, 2007 (18 May)
(excerpts for discussion)


"Here we review evidence from developmental psychology suggesting that some resistance to scientific ideas is a human universal ... even 1-year olds possess a rich understand of both the physical world ("a naive physics") and the social world ("a naive psychology") ... The problem with teaching science to children is thus "not what the student lacks, but what the student has ... alternative conceptual frameworks for understanding the phenomena covered by the theories we are trying to teach" (S. Carey, J. Appl. Dev. Psychol. 21, 2000).

The examples so far concern people's common-sense understanding of the physical world, but their intuitive psychology also contributes to their resistance to science ... children naturally see the world in terms of design and purpose ... dualism, the belief that the mind is fundamentally different from the brain, comes naturally to children ...

Adults ... rely on the trustworthiness of the source when deciding which asserted claims to believe. Do children do the same? Recent studies suggest that they do ...

These developmental data suggest that resistance to science will arise in children when scientific claims clash with early emerging, intuitive explanations. 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."


Mawrtyr2008's picture

Response to Childhood Origins of Adult Resistance to Science

It strikes me as quite funny that on the first read-through, I found myself agreeing with many of the central assertions of this paper, and on a second, deeper read-through, I was offended by many of those same assertions. On a third read-though I’ve figured out that it’s more the first part of this paper and the included characterizations of what constitutes science, conceived problems in education, and the lack of incorporation of storytelling that offend. As I'm continuing my inquiry into the problems associated with education, the authors’ closed-minded definition of science, and the representation of preexisting assumptions as problematic took me aback.

What offends me about the first part of this article is the preconceived notion about what "right" science is, and what "right" education is. Fundamentally, in this article Bloom and Weisberg attempt to describe several types of American subcultures, and the way the people included in those cultures respond to what are traditionally known as scientific stories. Though never stated explicitly, I couldn't help but glean an undercurrent of subtle judgment of those who didn't subscribe to traditional scientific thought throughout the entire piece. I guess I don’t have any problem with the keystone observation that “some resistance to scientific ideas is a human universal” but rather how they define science to begin with. As we’ve discussed before, brain structure and function vary. Human perceptions and stories vary. However, because of the brain’s capacity to change, and its evolutionary role as an information gatherer, we’re all every day living out the scientific inquiry process. It’s how we work at a very fundamental level. Besides their problematic definition (or lack thereof) of science, I strongly disagreed with the assertion that “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 theories we are trying to teach’”. To me, this sentence completely discounts the worth and the usefulness of different stories in the classroom. How do these observations relate to these models of education?

In the second part of the paper, I found that the cultural observations were much more powerful and useful. This section weighed the factors contributing to opinion formation in a less judgmental way. I especially thought the observation on “explicit assertion” vs. “implicit assumption” was an interesting one. I personally connected with the shock and disorientation of leaving one environment with a set of implicit assumptions for another with a different set of implicit assumptions in my experiences with culture shock. This reflection brought me to a new one. I never thought before about how a child might experience similar emotions and responses to culture shock when leaving her home for the science classroom! I would be very interested to see some research done comparing these two phenomena. Pushing this idea further, I’ve noticed that during the times I’ve lived abroad, I find myself defending parts of my native culture that I wouldn’t hesitate to find fault with or distance myself from were I living in the US. If children who come from communities that are very skeptical of traditional science do experience culture shock-like emotions upon entering the classroom, I wonder if their anti-science perceptions are reinforced after spending time in that environment!

In keeping with these cultural thoughts, it's interesting to me that they make these well-cited, well-researched observations about contemporary American thought, but they don't state the ramifications (intended or otherwise) of these observations! I could see some communities reading this and saying “Good! Let's do our best to keep ‘nonscientific ideologies ... grounded in common sense and transmitted by trustworthy sources’ for the preservation of our society!” just as easily as I could see another community saying "Bloom and Weisberg have identified a flaw in the American education system. Let's tackle this problem of 'what the student has, namely alternative conceptual frameworks for understanding the phenomena covered by the theories we are trying to teach'." I guess overall, I'm puzzled as to why the authors spent so much time observing, and so little time commenting on the significance of their provocative observations. Why do these "biases" exist? What do you propose to do about them? Are stories other than our own useful? Are they detrimental? Does culture emerge from education and vice versa? Do you see these differences as a problem to be fixed or as human variability that is at all costs to be preserved? I recognize the value of leaving a paper open for interpretation and letting the readers do the thinking and extrapolation. That, in fact, is the goal of many papers like this. However, I feel strongly that the researchers and authors have a responsibility to the reader to flesh their ideas and touch on potential misconceptions that might arise. Overall, this paper was chock-full of information, so much so that it ultimately led to confusion on the reader’s part. It’s wonderful that they’ve engaged so many studies and disciplines, but because of that very reason, this paper would have benefited by being much longer than a meager two pages.

Ian Morton's picture

Response to Bloom and Weisberg's Paper on Resistance to Science

Bloom and Weisberg’s paper, Childhood Origins of Adult Resistance to Science, implicates early childhood intuitions as the source of many people’s resistance to scientific theories later in life. Contrary to the tabula rasa concept, Bloom and Weisberg propose that children are born with a degree of innate knowledge, visible as the possession of a “naïve physics and psychology” in children by a year of age. However, the article does not explicitly state whether this knowledge is itself innate (which I find unlikely) or if, rather, we possess an innate predisposition to acquiring this “naïve” knowledge through our earliest experiences. Regardless, there are numerous implications of having this intuitive knowledge worth considerable attention.

What kinds of questions arise from considering this notion of naïve knowledge / intuitions? The authors suggest that such intuitions lead us to prefer a view of the world in which there is design and purpose with a preference for a creationist story of the world. Further, the authors propose these early propensities can account for an intuitive belief in dualism (Mind as something more than the brain, the belief that there is something more to us than our material being). Could religion as a practice and as an institution be the result of these childhood intuitions? When, during human brain development did these intuitions arise? Why are we so attached to our intuitions? How does our brain structure contribute to this “innate” knowledge? Does our naïve psychology pave the road towards thinking of people in terms of means and ends, stripping others of their subjectivity and reducing them to objects? (The trash man’s purpose is to clean up my trash etc.) Could our search for Truth and the meaning of life come from this innate belief in design and intent? And if so, should we as a society continue to look for Truth, or should we instead, like Paul Grobstein proposes, undergo open-ended inquiry, understanding that there is no ultimate Truth at which we can hope to arrive?

An additional point of concern for the authors was the concept of “common knowledge,” or cultural knowledge. This refers to concepts we commit to memory without first subjecting their content to critical analysis, knowledge that we incontestably accept as fact, placing trust in the source of this knowledge. Consequently, children are more willing to trust a parent’s story, information from someone they trust, than a story offered by a science teacher, to whom the child is less attached. The result of common knowledge is the formation of opinions held by a collective rather than an individual. The authors write, “Additionally, many of the specific moral intuitions held by members of a society appear to be the consequence, not of personal moral contemplation, but of deference to the views of the community.” In other words, many of us adhere to the predominantly held opinion of our environment, rather than making a personal judgment using reason, a phenomenon referred to by John Stuart Mill as one of “social tyranny.” Like Mill, I fear that social tyranny holds back our potential as a society to pursue what could be “less wrong” ways of understanding the world. There could be no progress if we were never wrong, and no one could be wrong if we all blindly accept the prevalent opinion as truth.

On a side note, while I found the major points of this article to be valuable for future thoughts, I was uneasy with the rhetoric and preaching underlying parts of the text. I am torn, as I generally agree that science offers more valuable “stories” than theology or “common knowledge,” but I was discontent with the voice the authors used in their call for society to move towards a greater appreciation for scientific theory. The authors came across as accusatory and seem to put an extraordinary amount of faith in the ability of science to serve as the pillar of truth. Despite the political nature of their paper, Bloom and Weisberg present two important ideas that pose important issues for learning in society. It would behoove us to further consider the implications of naïve intuitions and common knowledge, not just for science, but also for many aspects of social existence.

biophile's picture

Viewing science and life without bias

First off, I'll say that the opening of the paper was not tactful or open. I agree with the other posts in that calling people who believe in a creator or in supernatural phenomena ignorant and resistant to science is a terrible way to start off a paper. Given the fact that it was written for Science, it is to be expected that the majority of the people who read this article are of a certain mind... But that doesn't mean that you should outright insult someone and write off their beliefs just because you don't put faith in them.

Despite the assumptions that they make about what science is and what makes something valid, I think that the article has good points. The authors very concisely analyzed the factors behind why so many people have false notions about science in a world that is more educated and interconnected than ever. I have met so many people who disregard science as a whole or misunderstand some of its basic principles and I do think that it is tied in with misleading intuitions. One problem could be the culture we live in- education is encouraged, but it isn’t necessarily a well-grounded or thorough education. Children and high school students, unless they’re in the honors program or another advanced track, only learn the most basic things in their classes and often times their misunderstandings are not corrected. In general, people receive only a rather shallow science education. If someone is interested in learning more about a particular topic in science or medicine they can just read a half-page long article on MSN’s homepage or another site that provides quick and non-intimidating articles. The science presented in such a format is often incompletely explained, even inaccurately in some cases, and is easy to misunderstand when taken out of context.

As the article stated, the average person is much more likely to trust his or her own intuitions than what far-removed researchers present. The way the human brain is structured does not necessarily enable us to explore how the world actually works; it is structured so that we can adapt to our environment. Unless they have to, many people will not face what scientists and other researchers have discovered if it conflicts with their own beliefs. The idea of a spherical Earth is accepted as fact today, so most accept it without question and do not even require proof. Children have trouble accepting some of these facts because they do not agree with experiences they have had – they do not realize that there are more forces at work in the world than the ones with which they are familiar. Adults can accept some of these facts without proof because they are tacitly assumed to be true; they’ve been conditioned. I’m not sure if it’s correct to say that the biases particular to developing minds carry into adulthood, but it is obvious that many adults today have incorrect assumptions about the ways in which the physical world works.

It isn't bad that we have different stories to make sense of the world. And we shouldn't take what we are taught for granted, accepting it without inspection. But I think that everyone in our society should have a basic understanding of scientific principles. The ideal society to live in would be one in which each person, through trial and error, learns about the world around them instead of making assumptions. I think it is especially important that each person has a grasp on the "facts" driving each side of the controversial debates we find ourselves in today, instead of rejecting one side flat out and refusing to listen to their reasoning. I think the article would be stronger if it had applied to this concept to all realms of life, not just science: keep your mind open and think about the information you take in.
Paul Grobstein's picture

Childhood and Resistance to Science

Bloom and Weisberg call attention to an important and as yet not fully appreciated scientific story, to the increasing body of observations (from genetics as well as developmental psychology) indicating that children come into the world not as fully naive beings whose understandings are shaped entirely by those around them but rather with a pre-existing set of abilities and expectations relevant to the world they are born into. This has important implications for education that Bloom and Weisberg appropriately point out: teaching (and parenting) needs to address not so much what the student "lacks" and more what the student "has".

There is though an important additional feature of the observations underlying the story (perhaps in this case more from genetics and developmental neuroscience than from developmental psychology) with an additional implication that Bloom and Weisberg don't point out, perhaps because it might challenge their broader story: we not only come into the world having things but the things we have at that time may be different for each of us. Before one can address what the student "has", one has to know what it is, and it seems increasingly likely that this is much more variable from person to person than we (including perhaps Bloom and Weisberg) are used to thinking.

A "naive physics" (and comparable pre-experiential expectations about language and mathematics) is at this point an older story; what Bloom and Weisberg usefully emphasize is the more recent extension due to observations on "naive psychology", including tendencies to see the world as a "dualist", "in terms of design and purpose", and to "defer to the views of the community." This is relatively recent work, methodologically less straightforward, and it remains to be seen how well it stands the tests of time.

Of particular concern with regard to the work on "naive psychology" is the as yet to be fully explored issue of how significant child rearing and other early (pre-school) experiences may be in the development of cognitive and particularly social expectations. While much of the relevant work on naive physics, language, and mathematics can and has been done with infants, Bloom and Weisberg tend to speak largely of "four and five year olds" in regard to naive psychology. This is certainly old enough so that one is less inclined in this case to grant the presumption of naivete, in the sense of lacking experience with one's surroundings. It is not hard to imagine that some kinds of early child rearing practices, for example, would more encourage "dualist", "design and purpose", and "defer to the community" mindsets and others would would less do so.

My concern with regard to this issue, as well with the likelihood of significant individual variation, isn't so much that I doubt the usefulness of the story that Bloom and Weisberg are telling as a basis for further research. Existing observations certainly are adequate to motivate continuing research on how much people generally start with (allowing for individual variation) in terms of a "native psychology". Rather, what I want to warn against is the too rapid translation of a legitimate scientific story into a "truth" that people take as a given for practical purposes, in this case in the educational and political arena.

While I think teachers (and others) can usefully proceed on the general assumption that people they are working with have their own understandings that need to be taken account of, I'm much less certain it would be wise or productive to presume that these uniformly and inevitably take the particular forms that Bloom and Weisberg outline. To do so would be to ignore potentially important individual variation (why do some people in some cultures adopt dualism and others growing up in the same cultures not?) as well as potentially significant routes of change (maybe its as important for particular objectives to change child rearing as it is educational practices?). There is also the ever present danger of hearing stories like that of Bloom and Weisberg as describing "human nature", ie something that can't be changed and so one shouldn't try.

It seems to me that Bloom and Weisberg wouldn't themselves endorse the "inevitable human nature" reading of their story, given their evident interest in contributing to enhancement of scientific literacy (particularly in the American population). I do though think they may be doing that cause a bit of a disservice by setting it in the broader context they do. Among other things, Bloom and Weisberg's story might incline people to believe that a "resistance to science" can't be altered in adulthood. I think it can, with some new stories about science (cf Revisiting Science in Culture: Science as Story Telling and Story Revision and Science as Story Telling in Action).

I would certainly be happier if more Americans were familiar with the scientific stories of evolution and global warming and the relation of the mental and the physical (among other things). And I suspect that both their "counter-intuitive" character and their differences from stories told by cultural "authorities" contribute to Americans not being as familiar or comfortable with them as I would like. At the same time, I'm less inclined to diagnose the malady as a "resistance" specifically to "scientific ideas," or to encourage new educational practices that would give greater credence to scientists as "knowledgeable ... confident" authorities.

Scientists should not be in the position of appealing to peoples' wishes (however they originate) for authority or bewailing peoples' reluctance to grant authority to the products they create. Those products are always and inevitably "stories", tentative and challengeable ways to make sense of observations available at any given time. They should, like stories from any source, always be treated skeptically by everyone, including scientists themselves. The important task for science education is not to assure that scientific stories are accepted as truth but rather to be sure that people understand their usefulness for what it is: a way of making sense of things based on lots of observations and an underlying process of ongoing and skeptical evaluation. The single most important task of science education is not to get people to accept particular scientific stories but rather to give them the wherewithal to critically evaluate the stories they hear, from whatever source they come. And this holds whether it turns out that all of us, some of us, or only a few of us start life inclined to look for authorities or not.