Why Do Some People Resist Science?

My friend Gerald shared this article with my group yesterday and I thought you'd find it interesting. For those of us who love science and see it as an invaluable tool to help us understand the universe, people who reject science (usually selectively since they still drive cars, take medication and talk on their cell phones, of course) are baffling. It's easy to dismiss them as stupid, but Paul Bloom and Deena Skolnick Weisberg at Yale University have a different hypothesis.

The paper was originally published in Science in 2007, but there is a great version on the Edge.

Here are several excerpts of the Edge article:
It is no secret that many American adults reject some scientific ideas. In a 2005 Pew Trust poll, for instance, 42% of respondents said that they believed that humans and other animals have existed in their present form since the beginning of time. A substantial minority of Americans, then, deny that evolution has even taken place, making them more radical than "Intelligent Design" theorists, who deny only that natural selection can explain complex design. But evolution is not the only domain in which people reject science: Many believe in the efficacy of unproven medical interventions, the mystical nature of out-of-body experiences, the existence of supernatural entities such as ghosts and fairies, and the legitimacy of astrology, ESP, and divination. ...

... While cultural factors are plainly relevant, American adults' resistance to scientific ideas reflects universal facts about what children know and how children learn. If this is right, then resistance to science cannot be simply addressed through more education; something different is needed.

... The main source of resistance to scientific ideas concerns what children know prior to their exposure to science. The last several decades of developmental psychology has made it abundantly clear that humans do not start off as "blank slates." Rather, even one year-olds possess a rich understanding of both the physical world (a "naïve physics") and the social world (a "naïve psychology"). ...

... These intuitions give children a head start when it comes to understanding and learning about objects and people. But these intuitions also sometimes clash with scientific discoveries about the nature of the world, making certain scientific facts difficult to learn. As Susan Carey once put it, the problem with teaching science to children is "not what the student lacks, but what the student has, namely alternative conceptual frameworks for understanding the phenomena covered by the theories we are trying to teach."

... In some cases, there is such resistance to science education that it never entirely sticks, and foundational biases persist into adulthood. ...

... An interesting addendum is that while education does not shake this bias, real-world experience can suffice. In another study, undergraduates were asked about the path that water would take out of a curved hose. This corresponds to an event that most people have seen, and few believed that the water would take a curved path.

... Our intuitive psychology also contributes to resistance to science. One significant bias is that children naturally see the world in terms of design and purpose. For instance, four year-olds insist that everything has a purpose, including lions ("to go in the zoo") and clouds ("for raining"), a propensity that Deborah Kelemen has dubbed "promiscuous teleology." Additionally, when asked about the origin of animals and people, children spontaneously tend to provide and to prefer creationist explanations.

Just as children's intuitions about the physical world make it difficult for them to accept that the Earth is a sphere, their psychological intuitions about agency and design make it difficult for them to accept the processes of evolution.

One of the most interesting aspects of our common-sense psychology is dualism, the belief that minds are fundamentally different from brains. This belief comes naturally to children. ...

... The strong intuitive pull of dualism makes it difficult for people to accept what Francis Crick called "the astonishing hypothesis." Dualism is mistaken — mental life emerges from physical processes. People resist the astonishing hypothesis in ways that can have considerable social implications. For one thing, debates about the moral status of embryos, fetuses, stem cells, and non-human animals are sometimes framed in terms of whether or not these entities possess immaterial souls. For instance, in their 2003 report (Being Human: Readings from the President's Council on Bioethics), the President's Council described people as follows: "We have both corporeal and noncorporeal aspects. We are embodied spirits and inspirited bodies (or, if you will, embodied minds and minded bodies)."

... One reason why people resist certain scientific findings, then, is that many of these findings are unnatural and unintuitive. But there is more to the story than this. After all, some unintuitive scientific facts come to be broadly accepted. Even though children may initially find it hard to understand that objects are made of tiny particles or that the Earth isn't flat, most everyone comes to accept that these things are true. How does this happen? ...

... Part of the explanation for resistance to science lies in how children and adults process different sorts of information.

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 in 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 individuals will lack the resources to evaluate all the claims that he or she hears.

This is the case for most scientific beliefs. Consider, for example, that most adults who claim to believe that natural selection can explain the evolution of species are confused about what natural selection actually is—when pressed, they often describe it as a Lamarckian process in which animals somehow give birth to offspring that are better adapted to their environments. Their belief in natural selection, then, is not rooted in an appreciation of the evidence and arguments. Rather, this scientifically credulous sub-population are deferring to the people who say that this is how evolution works. They trust the scientists.

This deference to authority isn't limited to science; the same process holds for certain religious, moral, and political beliefs as well. ... More generally, 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.

Adults thus 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; children, like adults, have at least some capacity to assess the trustworthiness of their information sources. ... They know that adults have different areas of expertise, that doctors know about fixing broken arms and mechanics know about fixing flat tires. They prefer to learn from a knowledgeable speaker than from an ignorant one, and they prefer a confident source to a tentative one. Finally, when five year-olds hear about a competition whose outcome was unclear, they are more likely to believe a character who claimed that he had lost the race (a statement that goes against his self-interest) than a character who claimed that he had won the race (a statement that goes with his self-interest). In a limited sense, then, they are capable of cynicism.

... The 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 will be especially strong if there is a non-scientific alternative that is rooted in common sense and championed by people who are taken as reliable and trustworthy. This is the current situation in the United States with regard to the central tenets of neuroscience and of evolutionary biology. These clash with intuitive beliefs about the immaterial nature of the soul and the purposeful design of humans and other animals — and, in the United States, these intuitive beliefs are particularly likely to be endorsed and transmitted by trusted religious and political authorities. Hence these are among the domains where Americans' resistance to science is the strongest.

We should stress that this failure to defer to scientists in these domains does not necessarily reflect stupidity, ignorance, or malice. In fact, some skepticism toward scientific authority is clearly rational. Scientists have personal biases due to ego or ambition—no reasonable person should ever believe all the claims made in a grant proposal. There are also political and moral biases, particularly in social science research dealing with contentious issues such as the long-term effects of being raised by gay parents or the explanation for gender differences in SAT scores. It would be naïve to ignore all this, and someone who accepted all "scientific" information would be a patsy. The problem is exaggerated when scientists or scientific organizations try to use their authority to make proclamations about controversial social issues. People who disagree with what scientists have to say about these issues might reasonably infer that it is not safe to defer to them more generally.

But this rejection of science would be mistaken in the end. The community of scientists has a legitimate claim to trustworthiness that other social institutions, such as religions and political movements, lack. The structure of scientific inquiry involves procedures, such as experiments and open debate, that are strikingly successful at revealing truths about the world. All other things being equal, a rational person is wise to defer to a geologist about the age of the earth rather than to a priest or to a politician.

Given the role of trust in social learning, it is particularly worrying that national surveys reflect a general decline in the extent to which people trust scientists. To end on a practical note, then, one way to combat resistance to science is to persuade children and adults that the institute of science is, for the most part, worthy of trust.

What do you think? Does it seem plausible and do you agree or disagree? Personally it makes sense to me, but I value your thoughts.  And also, if it is the case that this is how people form their fundamental beliefs as children, what do we do about it?

It's one thing to change education, but if they are learning something radically different at home that "makes more intuitive sense", the science learned at school will be denied in favor of their preferred authority figures, the parents.


  1. I tend to agree. One problem that was touched upon in a different way in the piece is the increasing distance between the knowledge of the specialist and the layman as we learn more and more about the universe. No one person, or even a clique, can understand it all. The layman will often ask incredulously, "How can they know that?" or, worse, state categorically, "There's no way they could know that!" Sometimes it takes years to acquire even the rudiments to begin to understand how the expert can, indeed, know. If the layman had the time and were humble enough to allow himself to be led by the hand, a light bulb would eventually illuminate in his head followed by the exclamation, "Oh, yeah!" Most of us don't have the time or the inclination. Others are so invested in in the beliefs that have been passed down to them that they're afraid of what they might find if they look too hard. I see this becoming worse and worse as time goes on.

  2. Yes, and nowadays, especially here in America, it's cool to be ignorant. They cultivate it, they're proud of it. That's something I just can't fathom. It's so much easier to cling to something you think you understand from when you were 3 than go to the trouble to challenge your indoctrinated beliefs given to you by your parents and role models.
    But then I think of people like me, and you, who like to learn. How do we do it? How did we break free of that old brainwashing and way of thinking? I used to be a believer. I didn't have a strong affinity for science. I believed in "energy" and "quantum mechanical miracles". How did I do it? Why can't more people learn to think like i did?

  3. Oh, duh. Never mind. It was a lot of really hard work to learn to exercise my brain and make it work so that it wasn't mush anymore. I had to really concentrate to learn how to think critically. And I still know I have a long way to go. Most people don't care like I did. And as I said, it was a lot of work.

  4. We all have a long way to go. In fact, I wish I could say I'm just spinning my wheels; at least holding my own. Sometimes it seems I'm sliding backward. Every new door I open reveals a whole universe of my stupidity that I never suspected was there. It's discouraging. If it wasn't so invigorating to learn something new, I think I'd give up. And maybe that's part of the problem for some believers. It would be invigorating for them, too, but they've been trained not to be able to enjoy that reward. They've been molded so that looking into certain things incites negative emotions that swamp any positive ones that might come of the experience.

  5. I think as long as you're striving, open to new information, and thinking critically about that new information, you're moving forward. Sure, we all have a long way to go, and will in fact never get "there" but we also get to stand on the shoulders of giants which really helps.

    And yes, learning is invigorating and exciting! I love it! That's an interesting idea that true believers have been brainwashed to experience looking into certain areas as negative and uncomfortable.

  6. I remember reading about people who believe the earth to be flat, and it appears it is a holdover from a belief from childhood. Children can't conceive of the earth being spherical, for reasons that make sense to the limited knowledge they have. Flat earthers just never grew out of this phase. I suspect it is similar for many who hold creationist views.

  7. Yes, that article even mentions how children can't conceive of a spherical Earth. That makes sense that some people just never grow out of it.