Alison Campbell reviews a study of why so many struggle with scientific concepts.
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 has 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 and Deena Weisberg, looking at just this question.
Bloom and Weisberg conclude 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, often it’s the science that loses out. The other lies with the source(s) of the information you receive. They suggest that “some resistance to scientific ideas is a human universal” – one that begins in childhood and which relates to both what students know and how they learn.
Before they ever encounter science as a subject, children have developed their own understandings about how the world works. This means they may be more resistant to an idea if it’s an abstract concept and not one that they have experienced – or can experience – on the personal level. Bloom and 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, and don’t move unless you push them, is developed when we are very young children. And we develop similar understandings about how people operate (eg, that we’re autonomous beings whose actions are influenced by our goals) equally early.
Unfortunately for science educators, 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 students have “alternative conceptual frameworks for understanding [these] phenomena” that can make it difficult to move them to a more scientific viewpoint. The authors give an example based on the 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 people on the ‘downwards’ side should just fall right off. This idea can persist until the age of eight or nine.
And it seems that psychology also affects how receptive people are to scientific explanations. When you’re four, you tend to view things “in terms of design and purpose”, which means (among other things) that young children will provide and accept creationist explanations about life’s origins and diversity. Plus there’s dualism: “the belief that the mind is fundamentally different from the brain”, which leads to claims that the brain is responsible for “deliberative mental work” but not for emotional, imaginative, or basic everyday actions. This in turn can mean that adults can be very resistant to the idea that the things that make us who and what we are can emerge from basic physical processes. And that shapes how we react to topics such as abortion and 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 percent 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 and consistently uses such concepts, children will pick them up and internalise them (believing in the existence of electricity, for example, even though it’s something they’ve never seen). For other concepts, the source of 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 and Weisberg, 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 and reasonable way. As science communicators and educators, my colleagues and I really are up against it, and I would say there’s a need for Bloom and Weisberg’s findings to be much more widely read.
Bloom, P; Weisberg, DS (2007): Childhood origins of adult resistance to science. Science 316 (5827), 996-7.
Miller, JD; Scott, EC; Okamoto, S 2006: Public acceptance of evolution. Science 313: 765 – 766.