Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Promiscuous Teleology

Selected quotes shamelessly pasted from:

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. For instance, four year-olds insist that everything has a purpose, including lions ("to go in the zoo") and clouds ("for raining"), a propensity that Deborah Kelemen has dubbed "promiscuous teleology." Additionally, when asked about the origin of animals and people, children spontaneously tend to provide and to prefer creationist explanations.

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.

So....if, as children, we assign purpose to each object (Clouds are for Rain, Kittens are for Cuddling, etc...) and find it easier to accept, at this age, "created" explanations for the origins of things, then perhaps those adults who cling to "creationist theory" have simply not developed (or over-developed) the brain structure or thought patterns that govern acceptance of new ideas and new 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. A prototypical example is that of word meanings. Everyone uses the word "dog" to refer to dogs, so children easily learn that this is what they are called. Other examples include belief in germs and electricity. Their existence is generally assumed in day-to-day conversation and is not marked as uncertain; nobody says that they "believe in electricity." Hence even children and adults with little scientific background believe that these invisible entities really exist, a topic explored in detail by Paul Harris and his colleagues.

Science is not special here. Geographic information and historical information is also typically assumed, which is how an American child comes to believe that there is a faraway place called Africa and that there was a man who lived long ago named Abraham Lincoln. And, in some cultures, certain religious beliefs can be assumed as well. For instance, if 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 raised in a family/society where skepticism is the norm, or where critical analysis of scientific and/or philisophical thought is the norm may adopt such practices in the same unquestioning fashion?

But in some domains, including much of science, direct evaluation is difficult or impossible. Few of us are qualified to assess claims about the merits of string theory, the role in mercury in the etiology of autism, or the existence of repressed memories. So rather than evaluating the asserted claim itself, we instead evaluate the claim's source. If the source is deemed trustworthy, people will believe the claim, often without really understanding it.

Aha! So children raised in a family/society where science is dubbed to be untrustworthy will accept that science and the scientific method is not to be taken at face value in the same unquestioning fashion that they adopt unquestioned social mythology from parents, adults and trusted elders.

This deference to authority isn't limited to science; the same process holds for certain religious, moral, and political beliefs as well. In an illustrative recent study, subjects were asked their opinion about a social welfare policy, which was described as being endorsed either by Democrats or by Republicans. Although the subjects sincerely believed that their responses were based on the objective merits of the policy, the major determinant of what they thought of the policy was in fact whether or not their favored political party was said to endorse it. More generally, many of the specific moral intuitions held by members of a society appear to be the consequence, not of personal moral contemplation, but of deference to the views of the community.

And there we have it. There is no divine source for morality, but rather impressionable people seeking a like minded tribe to associate with, selects morality based on the consensus of said tribe. Which goes a long way to explain the shifting zeitgeist of the 21 century away from scripturally mandated moral directives to more forgiving culture driven morality. We've all but ended slavery, and sexism (*nod*...there are holdouts, granted) and are working on eliminating prejudicial discrimination based on sex and sexuality.

Given the role of trust in social learning, it is particularly worrying that national surveys reflect a general decline in the extent to which people trust scientists. 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.

It appears that the trend in Christian Fundamentalist circles is to erode the public trust in science, playing out creationism and ID illusions as alternatives. If successful, these programs may inadvertently lead to the dumbing-down of populations of C.F.'s through their widespread skepticism of the Scientific Community and subsequent lack of aptitudes for the Hard Sciences - and perhaps increasing aptitudes for the Junk Sciences. I tend to agree that promotion of trust in the Scientific Method and encouraging children to experience the varied disciplines of science with an open and childlike sense of wonder and discovery is not only healthy, but essential.

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