Thursday, May 24, 2007

Resisting Science?

The "culture war" propaganda erupting from the scientific community is really beginning to grate on my nerves, especially since many of the arguments are scientifically and logically unsound. Edge has "Why Do Some People Resist Science?", an attempt to explain a phenomenon that is truly overblown and probably doesn't even exist.

The questionable interpretations of current public polls begin with the first line, "It is no secret that many American adults reject some scientific ideas." It is no secret that some believe that. It's highly questionable that many American adults do, in fact, reject some scientific ideas much less science itself.

Opinion polls like the 2005 Pew Trust poll cited in the article ask people what they believe about x, but cannot give us any real insight into why people believe what they do. It is unfortunate and a bit foolish that beliefs that contradict science (unlike any other field of endeavor) are automatically interpreted as a rejection of science.

For instance, a 2001 Ipsos-Reed poll showed that only 63% of Americans passed a quiz on basic historical facts, when passing meant getting at least half the questions right. (Anyone remember when getting half the questions right meant you failed?) That means that 37% of Americans couldn't even score 50% on a quiz that asked such simple questions as "Who was the first president of the United States?" or "In what year was the Declaration of Independence signed?"

Yet, we've had no uproar over Americans' "rejection" of historical ideas and facts, simply a reasoned debate as to how to improve history education. Similarly, polls that show that many American adults are functionally illiterate or mathematically illiterate (innumerate) never provoke diatribes or even reasoned explanations on why Americans reject literature and math.

Secondly, Bloom and Weisberg, like many ersatz culture warriors, end up comparing apples and oranges in demonstrating why some scientific ideas are "accepted" while others are "rejected", ignoring the tremendous differences between the two ideas compared and the differing standards necessary to get someone to understand them well enough to accept or reject them. For instance, the "round earth" v. "evolution" comparison ignores that the first idea is far easier to demonstrate and thus to grasp than the latter.

Anyone who has ever shown a child a globe or a satellite picture of earth knows that they accept the roundness of our home planet rather easily. The implications of this fact lead to questions, of course. So, kids will ask why we don't fall off, a question easily answered by a quick analogy comparing gravity to magnetism.

Evolution on the other hand requires a bit more in the way of mental gymnastics. What simple visual aid can be placed before the child to allow him to automatically grasp the concept of life beginning with a single cell and becoming ever more diverse until you have millions of very distinct organisms? Even most kids can understand basic inheritance, looking like mom or dad or grandma. Most can get very basic natural selection based on a simplistic example of an animal that can hide surviving predators better than one that can't. But the complexities of macroevolution, fossilization, genetics, the interpretation of evidence, principles of uniformitarianism, etc. (all necessary to truly understanding evolution) aren't exactly "see and learn."

If it were not for the false "rejection" premise, Bloom and Weisberg could offer a way for us to understand why learning some types of concepts is difficult and why our inaccurate common sense will trump poorly understood but more accurate scientific data. They could also provide clues to new teaching methods based on an understanding of our natural perceptions of the world. This potential makes their fundamental error and its deleterious effect on their work all the more disappointing.

UPDATE: Sorry, I had to publish quickly since I was at work. Here are some more scientific problems with the study, problems that call the theory as a whole into question.

The "naive physics" of infants mentioned in the article (par.4) has been questioned as a possible misinterpretation of experimental data. In one study, infants were shown a train running into a wall, then shown the train going through the wall. When the babies were "surprised," the experimenters interpreted this as an understanding of the solidity of objects and the impossibility of one going through another. Later studies seem to have demonstrated that the babies were in fact reacting to novelty rather than reacting from a naive understanding of basic physics. Similar problems have arisen with the naive psychology also discussed. (I'm trying to find net links to the studies, but since I read them in print some months ago, the tracking is slow. Please be patient.)

The children's difficulty with the spherical earth (par. 5) is described as "distort[ing] the scientific understanding in systematic ways." Is this really a distortion or the burgeoning attempt to understand? Maybe, it's just semantics, but the term "distort" seems to imply some refusal to accept rather than an inability to fully understand a concept that defies our experience. The children accept that it's a sphere, but still haven't quite grasped that we live on the outside of the sphere and don't fall off. I think any person who has ever taught children, as I have, can relate to the child's habit of understanding something only partially and creatively compensating for what is missing or even merging two incomplete concepts into one.

"In some cases, there is such resistance to science education that it never entirely sticks..." (par. 7) Is it really resistance? Or is there a flaw in how science is taught and how much? Rote memorization, superficial textbooks, and reliance on "authority" over explanation makes science boring and complex ideas more difficult to teach and learn. I found many of my science classes rather boring until I was given permission (in 7th grade Spanish class, no less)to read science magazines piled in the back of the room. I fell in love and that love affair has lasted ever since. Would the passion that made me seek out and learn scientific ideas ever have existed if I'd been confined to my boring science lectures and multiple-choice tests? I don't think so.

As for the ball/tube diagram, I find myself wondering what orientation is to be assumed for the tubes. Lying on their sides, A is correct. Upright, neither is correct. The ball's inertia will give way to gravity, leading to a downward curved trajectory. The hose example given is similarly flawed. Every time I've watered a lawn, the water has obeyed the laws of physics, following a curved trajectory towards the ground.

The next paragraph is particularly special. "Promiscuous teleology," my foot. How many of you began going to Sunday school by the time you were four? Four-year-olds may assign purpose and meaning because they're already being taught that G-d created the world for a purpose. Or simply because impatient adults answer children's many "But why?" questions with silly made up answers. Assigning this to "intuition" or natural tendencies is highly questionable. How would we differentiate between nature and nurture?

And let us not forget that much of what is credited to intuition could come about just as easily through inductive reasoning, like the fact that objects fall. In the early stages of learning to grasp and hold objects, babies drop A LOT of things. These experiences surely make an impression.

"My brain made me do it." (par. 12) is not implying that "some of our decisions have nothing to do with our brains". This legal defense implies that there is some defect or abnormality in the defendent's brain that deprives him of the ability to make conscious decisions about his behavior in a way that normal people with normal brains would. It's a highly flawed theory, but it is not evidence that people don't realize that their actions are controlled to some extent via their brains. I think most human beings simply think that there's a difference between an act controlled by your brain over which you have no control and acts controlled by your brain which you can control. And there is!

The "cultural" difference between the U.S. from Europe (par. 14) is one of many factors and probably the most insignificant. The "culture-specific resistance to evolution" can just as easily be linked to the extremely large gap between the quality of education in Europe v. the U.S.

"...belief in germs and electricity..." (par. 16 on) are a bit different than belief in evolution. Germs/electricity are objects which can be said to exist. Although they are invisible, their effects are readily experienced in daily life. Neither the fact nor theory of evolution has effects which can be experienced in daily life and readily attributed to them. Neither is an object which can be said to exist. Also, germs/electricity were once explicitly asserted, becoming common only much later, as are many ideas that do not derive solely from common experience or natural mental tendencies.

The arguments that common knowledge is never questioned is ridiculous. Even children occasionally think their parents are full of it and look for alternate explanations. Although appeal to authority is common, it is not absolute. (Hence, our acceptance of scientific authority on some things but not others.)


Okay, forgive me. That's it. Error, errors, errors! Grrrrrrr! And this got published (in a different version) in Science! I think I change my mind about their potential.

UPDATE 2: What do Babies Know? Thanks for your patience. It took some time to track this down. I searched the online archives of all of the science mags I read, which is about 10 of them rough estimate. No luck. Then, I remembered that the article was in Time's special issue on the human brain. Enjoy.

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