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Why Are Americans Resistant to Science?

Posted in The Doctor Weighs In by Skepdude on March 31, 2009

This question often puzzled me. I can understand the need for a God, as an embodiment of people’s moral ideals. So the fact that our society, which views itself as based on moral principles, is fertile ground for the belief in an über-moral deity. The Brits, on the other hand, have a long history of scandalous, sometimes murderous, behaviors of their political leaders and royals. They are well-versed in their Shakespeare and, like him are cynical about assertions of moral superiority of authority figures. Is there any wonder why only a small minority of the British go to church? This could also be the reason why the most ferocious critics of religion are British. See, for instance Richard Dawkins “the God Delusion”, in which he argues that God is, well, a delusion, religion is a virus, and the U.S. has slipped back to the dark ages. If this sounds extreme, try “God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything” by Christopher Hitchens.

Why should a belief in a deity clash with acceptance of science? In fact, Dr. Francis Collins, a physician and scientist par excellence, is the director of the Human Genome Project. He is also deeply religious.

But consider this little nugget: In a 2005 Pew Trust poll, 42% of respondents said that they believed that humans and other animals have existed in their present form since the beginning of time, a view that denies the very existence of evolution. And in a 2008 Republican presidential debate, none of the five, or was it six, candidates raised their hands when asked whether they believed in evolution. Michelangelo%20story.jpg

This is not the only domain where 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.

It all begins in childhood.

In a review titled “Childhood Origins of Adult Resistance to Science”, two Yale professors of psychology, Paul Bloom and Deena Skolnik Weisberg, posit that the winter of our ignorance began in childhood. They review evidence from developmental psychology suggesting that some resistance to scientific ideas is a human universal. This resistance stems from two general facts about children, one having to do with what they know and the other having to do with how they learn.



Posted in Pharyngula by Skepdude on September 11, 2008

We have a little argument going on in one of the pointless poll threads. The question being asked is, “Do you believe in the Big Bang?” Some people are indignant (and correct!) and protesting that their views on scientific matters are not a matter of opinion, but of impartial assessment of the evidence; these views are independent of personal belief, and are also held provisionally, subject to revision in the face of better evidence.

These people are also being infuriatingly pedantic, and are expressing an attitude that interferes with the communication of ideas. Don’t sputter out a bunch of reservations and refuse to answer, state a general position and then drill down into the details and qualifications. Pound this into your heads, and stop boring people with irrelevant musings that only detract from the central point.

Here’s an example. Imagine you’re at a party with a bunch of normal people, not the kinds of nerds who hang out in Pharyngula comment threads. Ordinary people, drinking beer, talking about sports and the weather, and one of them has heard that you’re kind of an egghead, so they ask a simple question in terms that they understand (just like the phrasing in that poll), and they ask it in a tone that suggests they have doubts, but they’re willing to talk with you about it. They ask something like, “Do you believe evolution is true?”


More Thoughts on a Wiki Science Textbook

Posted in Neurologica by Skepdude on September 9, 2008

Last week I discussed some ideas I had about what constitutes good science education and offered a suggestion that might improve the current state of science education. I appreciate all the feedback and discussion, which is exactly what I asked for. I recognize this is an extremely complex topic with no easy solution and so ideas from a variety of backgrounds is useful.

My premise for that post and this one is that science education is currently inadequate, as evidenced by the high level of scientific illiteracy in this country and to some extent more generally. Specifically most students seem to graduate high school without sufficient critical thinking skills and appreciation for the process of science.

On resource that might help, I suggested, is an online science curriculum that properly focuses on teaching scientific method and critical thinking in an engaging way.

Let me address some of the specific points that were raised.


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How To Improve Science Education

Posted in Neurologica by Skepdude on September 5, 2008

The stated “mission” of the loosely defined “skeptical movement” is to promote science and reason. At the core of this mission is the promotion of life-long quality science education. The many blogs, podcasts, magazines, lectures, and books primarily serve this purpose – to popularize science and help teach scientific philosophy, methodology, and facts to the public.

But what about formal public science education? There appears to be general agreement among skeptics that the quality of science education is generally poor, and yet is critical to our goals. But what have we done about it? Too little, I think.