resistance to science

One of the topics that comes up for discussion with my Sciblogs colleagues is the issue of ‘resistance to science’ – the tendency to prefer alternative explanations for various phenomena over science-based explanations for the same observations. It’s a topic that’s interested me for ages, as teaching any subject requires you to be aware of students’ existing concepts about it, and coming up with ways to work with their misconceptions. So I was interested to read a review paper by Paul Bloom & Deena Weisberg, looking at just this question.

Bloom & Weisberg conclude that there are two key reasons why people can be resistant to particular ideas in science. One is that we all have ‘common-sense intuitions’ about how the world works, and when scientific explanations conflict with these intuitions, often it’s the science that loses out. The other lies with the source(s) of the information you receive.

And they suggest that ‘some resistance to scientific ideas is a human universal’ – one that begins in childhood & which relates to both what students know & how they learn.

Before they ever encounter science as a subject, children have developed their own understandings about how the world works, based on their own experiences of that world. (This means that they may be more resistant to an idea if it’s effectively an abstract concept & not one that they have experienced – or can experience – on the personal level.) Bloom & Weisberg cite research showing that the knowledge that objects are solid, don’t vanish just because they’re out of sight, fall if you drop them, & don’t move unless you push them, is developed when we are very young children. And we develop similar understandings about how people operate (for example, that we’re autonomous beings whose actions are influenced by our goals) equally early.

Unfortunately for science educators (& communicators!), these understandings can become so ingrained that if they clash with scientific understandings, those particular science facts can be very hard to learn. It’s not a lack of knowledge, but the fact that the students have ‘alternative conceptual frameworks for understanding [these] phenomena’ that can make it difficult (maybe sometimes impossible?) to move them to a more scientific viewpoint. The authors give an example based on the everyday, common-sense understanding that an unsupported object will fall down – for many young children, this can result in difficulty seeing the world as a sphere, because, after all, people & objects on the ‘downwards’ side should just fall right off. And this idea can persist until the age of 8 or 9.

Another example: offered the following diagram, many college undergraduates will pick the ‘common-sense’ option, B over the correct answer, A. Interestingly, in this case, real-world experience can change this – if asked instead about the path of water from a curved hose, most would pick A (Bloom & Weisberg, 2007). (Maybe textbook authors need to think carefully about the analogies & examples that they use to illustrate concepts…)


                        Source of image: an on-line modified version of Bloom & Weisberg’s Science paper

And it seems that psychology also affects how receptive people are to scientific explanations. When you’re 4, you tend to view things ‘in terms of design & purpose, which means (among other things) that young children will provide & accept creationist explanations about life’s origins & diversity. Plus there’s dualism: ‘the belief that the mind is fundamentally different from the brain’ (Bloom & Weisberg, 2007), which leads to claims that the brain is responsible for ‘deliberative mental work’ (ibid.) but not for emotional, imaginative, or basic everyday actions. This in turn can mean that, as adults, people can be very resistant to the idea that the things that make us who & what we are, our personality & our very selves, can emerge from basic physical processes. And that shapes how we react to debates around such topics as abortion & stem cell research.

In other words, those who resist the scientific view on given phenomena do so because the latter is counterintuitive, although this doesn’t really explain the fact that there are cultural differences in willingness to accept scientific explanations. For example, about 40% of US citizens accept the theory of evolution – below every country surveyed with the exception of Turkey (Miller et al. 2006). Part of the problem seems to lie with the nature of ‘common knowlege’: if everyone regularly & consistently uses such concepts, children will pick them up & internalise them (believing in the existence of electricity, for example, even though it’s something they’ve never seen). For other concepts, though, the source of the information is important. Take evolution again: parents may say one thing about evolution, and teachers, another. Who do you believe? It seems, according to Bloom & Weisberg’s review of the research in this area, that it all depends on how much you trust the source.

The authors conclude:

These 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 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.

Yet we live in a society where ‘alternative’ explanations are routinely presented by media in a desire to present ‘balance’ where there isn’t any, or indeed, without any attempt at balance at all. And the internet makes it even easier to present non-scientific views of the world in an accessible, authoritative & reasonable way. As science communicators & educators, my colleagues & I really are up against it, & I would say there’s a need for Bloom & Weisberg’s findings to be much more widely read.

Bloom P, & Weisberg DS (2007). Childhood origins of adult resistance to science. Science (New York, N.Y.), 316 (5827), 996-7 PMID: 17510356

J.D.Miller, E.C.Scott & S.Okamoto (2006) Public acceptance of evolution Science 313: 765 – 766. doi: 10.1126/science.1126746 

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