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May 27, 2007

Why we so dumb, scientifickle-like

In The New York Times Book Review, Steven Pinker reviews Natalie Angier's new book, The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science and uses the occasion to bemoan -- with good reason -- most Americans' pig-headed ignorance about essential scientific ideas and the horrid consequences this leads to.

It's a familiar cry, but one that Dr. Pinker delivers with verve and insight. Dr. Pinker advances a number of reasons for this entrenched ignorance, and some of these are familiar, too, such as the media's preference for the "newsy" and the "revolutionary," a preference that overemphasizes the supposed (and often illusory) breakthroughs over the accepted wisdom. I found Dr. Pinker's notion, however, that parents "grow their children out" of going to museums and into theater-going a little laughable, considering the dire and often utterly peripheral state of arts education in the United States.

But over at Edge, Paul Bloom and Deena Skolnick Weisberg offer some very different explanations for our resistance to basic notions in science. And it's not just Americans or even fundamentalist-yokel-Americans: "1 in 5 American adults believe that the Sun revolves around the Earth, which is somewhat shocking--but the same proportion holds for Germany and Great Britain."

Bloom and Weisberg believe that many ideas in science seem counter-intuitive or "unnatural" to people. At the same time, we also accept many of science's seemingly counter-intuitive propositions (solid objects, for instance, are actually composed of tiny molecules). The difference, they argue, lies with how this knowledge is presented or learned, whether it is "assumed" or "asserted." Their ideas make a great deal of sense when I put them up against my memories of learning science from my father (a chemical engineer) and then encountering very different, commonly accepted ideas from classmates (who were not stupid):

"Some culture-specific information is not associated with any particular source. It is 'common knowledge.' As such, learning of this type of information generally bypasses critical analysis. A prototypical example is that of word meanings. Everyone uses the word 'dog' to refer to dogs, so children easily learn that this is what they are called. Other examples include belief in germs and electricity. Their existence is generally assumed in day-to-day conversation and is not marked as uncertain; nobody says that they 'believe in electricity.' Hence even children and adults with little scientific background believe that these invisible entities really exist, a topic explored in detail by Paul Harris and his colleagues.

"Science is not special here. Geographic information and historical information is also typically assumed, which is how an American child comes to believe that there is a faraway place called Africa and that there was a man who lived long ago named Abraham Lincoln. And, in some cultures, certain religious beliefs can be assumed as well. For instance, if the existence of supernatural entities like gods, karma, and ancestor spirits is never questioned by adults in the community, the existence of such entities will be unquestioningly accepted by children.

"Other information, however, is explicitly asserted. Such information is associated with certain sources. A child might note that science teachers make surprising claims about the origin of human beings, for instance, while their parents do not. Furthermore, the tentative status of this information is sometimes explicitly marked; people will assert that they 'believe in evolution.'

"When faced with this kind of asserted information, one can occasionally evaluate its truth directly. But in some domains, including much of science, direct evaluation is difficult or impossible. Few of us are qualified to assess claims about the merits of string theory, the role of mercury in the etiology of autism, or the existence of repressed memories. So rather than evaluating the asserted claim itself, we instead evaluate the claim's source. If the source is deemed trustworthy, people will believe the claim, often without really understanding it. As our colleague Frank Keil has discussed, this sort of division of cognitive labor is essential in any complex society, where any single individual will lack the resources to evaluate all the claims that he or she hears. This is the case for most scientific beliefs."

A thought-provoking article.

Posted by jweeks at May 27, 2007 5:05 PM

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COMMENTS

It's a familiar cry, but one that Dr. Pinker delivers with verve and insight.

I agree -- but it would have started out ten times stronger if he had substantiated even one of the anecdotes in his first paragraph. Limitations of space, no doubt.

Posted by: Vance Maverick at May 28, 2007 12:59 PM



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