I’ve been thinking a lot about science literacy these days–what it is and why it’s important. As someone who favors natural (not supernatural) explanations for how the world works, and who believes in evolution, the scientific study of human nature, etc., etc., I find it hard sometimes not to feel like science in this country is under siege. This is especially distressing given that we have some major challenges facing us that rely on a scientifically literate public.
So I found this article from USA Today of particular interest. It covers some of the factors, going back to childhood experiences, that make adults resistant to science. The article mentions a paper that two Yale psychologists recently published in Science, which identifies two important elements. The first is that scientific explanations sometimes contradict the intuitive insights that children are good at forming about the way the world works. Some of these intuitive misperceptions are easier to give up than others. E.g., eventually you agree that the world is indeed round and this doesn’t mean that people in the other hemisphere will fall off, but it can be much harder to accept some of the facts of subatomic physics. Another instinctive concept is dualism, the belief that the physical body and the soul/mind are separate; some argue that this belief is innate to humans. (For example, Paul Bloom argues that this is the case in Descartes’ Baby.) The second element is that children tend to trust authority figures. This is a valuable thing when parents are telling their children not to run out in the street, etc., but it also means that parents have a responsibility to their children to tell them the truth about how the world works and not mislead them. (I think this is the basis for Richard Dawkins’s complaints about how a religious education is a disservice to children; many forms of religious education are a betrayal of this responsibility.) If you’re interested in the paper in Science, you can read the abstract or this press release from Yale.
So the idea is that these mental habits, formed in childhood, tend to carry over into adulthood and make science to some degree difficult to understand or believe, and so we have things like the frustrating persistence of the evolution/creation debate long after evolution has become the basis for modern biology. What the article doesn’t really get into is the obvious question of why the US should be so different from the rest of the world. Maybe I’m misjudging the degree to which science is ignored or denied in this country compared to the rest of the world; what comes to mind first is this graph showing the percentage of the population that accepts evolution in 34 western nations, in which the US comes in almost at the very bottom. Is there something about religious institutions in this country or about the way we raise children that encourages the persistence of juvenile mental habits? And if so, what is it and how do we change it?
Whether it’s worse in the US or not, the big question everywhere is how can people learn to think critically and put aside some of the mental habits of childhood as they grow into adulthood. The Science paper makes some suggestions for scientists who want to reach more of the public. It’s plain that teachers, parents, and religious leaders also have some responsibilities in this area, and it’s also up to each of us to do our best to understand the science that affects our lives in countless ways–even if it is counterintuitive sometimes. (Just because some scientific thinking is counterintuitive for children, does it really mean, as one author of the paper states, that it’s “unnatural” for adults?)
Another thing that struck me about this article is that recently I saw the episode of Cosmos where Carl Sagan talked about how Ionian science of roughly 2,500 years ago was overtaken by various forms of mysticism and the western world’s scientific understanding of the world was more or less stalled for centuries. It’s tempting to think of our progress as a culture as being analogous to our individual progress through childhood and into a more mature understanding of the universe in which we find ourselves. But in fact while humans proceed through childhood to adulthood and then stay there, humankind, or at least large portions of it, can lose its forward momentum or even backtrack. It’s crossed my mind lately to wonder whether we’re at the beginning of such a backtracking right now, losing sight of Enlightenment values and slipping into another dark age, where science and reason will be eclipsed by ignorance and religious fervor. Of course it’s impossible to say, but it’s a chilling thought to realize that there’s no guarantee against it happening.