Why Do Some People Resist Science?

Thanks to Pharyngula, I found this academic article titled Why Do Some People Resist Science?. Here are some excerpts and my reactions:

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.

And it seems like all of them are my neighbors and co-workers!

There are two common assumptions about the nature of this resistance. First, it is often assumed to be a particularly American problem, explained in terms of the strong religious beliefs of many American citizens and the anti-science leanings of the dominant political party.

If they’re suggesting that’s not true, then how do they explain this?
Public acceptanc of evolution in 34 countries. The U.S. is ranked 33rd, only ahead of Turkey.

Yes, we’re special. Not as in “precocious”. I mean as in “special class”.

Second, the problem is often characterized as the result of insufficient exposure to the relevant scientific facts, and hence is best addressed with improved science education.

That would help some people, but if your mind is closed, I doubt better science classes can open it.

We believe that these assumptions, while not completely false, reflect a misunderstanding of the nature of this phenomenon. 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.

That’s the end of their introduction. I’ll now try to grab a highlight or two from the main article.

What Children Know

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”).

This explains why fundies stay naïve their whole lives.

[T]hese intuitions also sometimes clash with scientific discoveries about the nature of the world, making certain scientific facts difficult to learn. [… ] Children’s belief that unsupported objects fall downwards, for instance, makes it difficult for them to see the world as a sphere — if it were a sphere, the people and things on the other side should fall off.

This is different from unsupported claims such as “Intelligent Design”, which somehow manage to stay aloft.

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. […] 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.

This is something I’ve noticed in fundies. Their understanding of the world seems to be completely intuitive. They can’t imagine the Universe without a creator; therefore, there is no creator. In prehistoric times, people couldn’t imagine a round Earth. That didn’t mean it wasn’t.

But Americans really are special when it comes to certain scientific ideas—and, in particular, with regard to evolutionary theory.

The authors then reproduce that chart that I showed above. See? Even they admit Americans are “special”!

How Children Learn

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. […] [I]f 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.

So children in fundie households start out behind the eight-ball. Actually, I think the Magic Eight Ball is what their parents consult for answers. (“Is there a God?” “Signs point to yes.”)

Jesus is nothing more than a magic eight-ball.
(This is a real product. You can buy it here.)

Other information, however, is explicitly asserted. Such information is associated with certain sources. […] 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. […] So rather than evaluating the asserted claim itself, we instead evaluate the claim’s source.

Some of us think that thousands of trained scientists examining mountains of consistent data are credible. Some of us think that a fat Southern anti-Semitic charlatan spouting ancient superstitions is credible.

The thankfully-dead Jerry Falwell

This deference to authority isn’t limited to science; the same process holds for certain religious, moral, and political beliefs as well. […] 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….

This means that merely telling children that life evolved isn’t going to work, if once they get home their parents tell them that what they are learning in school is just a homosexual-atheist conspiracy to kill God. (This isn’t true, of course. The Jews are also involved.)


In sum, 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.

In other words, we don’t stand a chance.

The study’s authors are less pessimistic:

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.

Yes, that would help some, but you’d have to raise science’s credibility above that of the Bible. In a population that is convinced that the Grand Canyon was created by God sneezing, I don’t see that happening.

One Response to “Why Do Some People Resist Science?”

  1. Alex, FCD Says:

    Iceland also has one of the lowest homicide rates in the western world; as well as one of the highest literacy rates, despite the fact that their language is ridiculously complicated. They were also the first country to elect a female president. Iceland also has highly progressive gay rights legislation, and is one of the few countries that has outlawed physical and emotional abuse of children in any context.

    Yay Iceland. [/off topic]