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biophile's picture

Science, society, biases

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.

Consider an example: thirty or more years ago an average person would not believe that computers would be able to accomplish much and would not affect them significantly. Now computers are everywhere and are coming to dominate our lives… Yet how many people know how to use one beyond the basic applications? Or how one functions? It seems as if many people assume that one can do anything with computers without even a vague idea of how those things would be done. It is almost thought of as magic. So many of us are content to take things as they are without scrutinizing them. This is perhaps the greatest mistake that we can make in everyday life.

On the other hand, sometimes it does not matter how well some arguments are presented or how many respected people endorse them. If what is being presented goes against a visceral feeling the information will not be believed. I suspect that some things are too well ingrained, especially among older generations, to ever be uprooted. Perhaps that is a bit pessimistic, but you would be too if you’ve had people sincerely argue with you that cells do not exist or that the Holocaust never took place. While I think that everyone is entitled to their own opinions, some misconceptions should not be allowed to be perpetuated. The belief in some African countries that having sex with a virgin will cure AIDS is one that immediately comes to mind. And even though it’s illegal, some parents (just a few, but you do hear cases of them) who do not believe in modern medicine deny their children help when they are in danger and let them die. These are extreme cases, true. But they’re a problem and there are a multitude of incorrect beliefs going undisputed within communities and that leads to trouble. This isn’t just about evolution versus creationism or common-sense versus scientifically established views of the physical world. It is about people who are getting it more wrong instead of less wrong.

How do we purge ourselves of the most hurtful biases? How do we teach others how to think for themselves without telling them what to think? How do we create a society that is more open, one in which people are aware of their own biases and strive to make decisions not based on them? I think that these are some of the questions we will need to focus on in the future.

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