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Ian Morton's picture

Response to Childhood Origins

Paul Bloom and Deena Skolnick Weisberg dedicate their paper, Childhood Origins of Adult Resistance to Science, to proposing the possible implication of childhood intuitions in leading to future resistance to scientific findings. The authors propose that both what children know and how they learn what they know are the source of this later resistance. Contrary to the tabula rasa concept, the authors propose that children have a basic understanding of the physical and social world by as early as one year of age. These childhood intuitions can stick with people for a long time, and when scientific concepts disagree with previous intuition, one may dismiss the scientific theory in favor of one’s own insight. Additionally the authors propose that people are resistant to science or any line of thought that disagrees with knowledge they have been taught throughout their lives by people they trust.

While Bloom and Weirsberg make a convincing argument, the paper itself is littered with suggestions that America needs to move past their ignorance and embrace the field of science. I am inclined to agree with the author’s stance on this issue (that the general public should strive to arrive at a better understanding of scientific theories), but I did not appreciate the rhetoric and preachy quality of this paper. So I am torn – it is my opinion that science offers “stories” that are indeed less wrong than “common knowledge” and other predispositions, and that resistance to science can be detrimental to society (e.g. resistance to medication, vaccinations etc), but I am disinclined to argue that science should be held as the fundamental stance within a society and that other beliefs are merely the result of naïve intuition and therefore invaluable.

Despite the political message of this paper, the authors do present two important points for consideration. First, one must consider the implications of childhood “naïve physics and psychology.” 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). Could religion as a practice and as an institution be the result of these childhood intuitions? When, during human brain development/encephalization did these intuitions arise? Why are we so attached to our intuitions? Second, this paper presents an important concept, that of “common knowledge,” or that knowledge which we commit to memory without critically analyzing its content.

I believe the authors were right to bring their concerns about predispositions and common knowledge to our attention. I think it is important for us to consider the origins of our opinions and to recognize that they are only one opinion/“story” among many. It is foolish to put too much trust into concepts when one does not even understand them, to blindly accept opinions as fact, or to follow customs without thoughtful consideration of their origins. If we never questioned tradition, never wrote new stories, we would be enslaved by tradition.


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