Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Understanding and Belief

Steve Mirsky of Scientific American interviewed cognitive psychologist Tania Lombrozo from the University of California, Berkeley back in 2009. Lombrozo studies why people believe what they do, specifically, why they believe what they do about evolution, intelligent design, or creationism. The entire interview is interesting and worth reading. Here's an excerpt I found particularly fascinating:

Mirsky: Let's talk about some of the basics and some of the surprises about the people who accept and don't accept evolution and their reasons for it.

Lombrozo: Sure. I think one of the most surprising findings has to do with the relationship between understanding the basics of evolutionary theory and accepting it as our best account of the origins of human life. So most people, I think, [or] in particular scientists, tend to think that if people reject evolution and in particular evolution by natural selection, it's because they don't understand it very well; they don't really understand what the theory is telling us. But in fact, if you look at the data from psychology and education, what you find is either no correlation between accepting evolution and understanding it or very, very small correlation between those two factors, and I think that's surprising to a lot of people and in particular to educators and scientists.

Mirsky: Yeah, it was surprising to me when your data were presented. So what [does] that mean for, you know, education in the country? What should people be thinking about if they have a desire to have evolutionary theory be more accepted by more people?

Lombrozo: I think it has a couple of consequences. One of them is that any kind of educational intervention that increases people's understanding of evolutionary theory is not necessarily going to have a consequence to whether or not people accept evolution. I think that's surprising, but it also raises a lot of complicated ethical issues; whether or not it's even appropriate in the classroom for teachers to be trying to deliberately influence students' acceptance of evolution as opposed to whether or not they understand it. We normally think about the role of education as being one to communicate basic concepts, to communicate scientific theories, not to actually change whether or not people accept a particular theory that might conflict with their relative views. So I think it raises some complicated issues there.

Two things are worth noting about this. First, Lombrozo is correct that the role of a public school teacher is to present students with the relevant ideas, not to indoctrinate them in those ideas. Teachers should teach students the pros and cons of evolutionary theory and let the students decide for themselves what they believe.

Second, the difficulty with teaching just the facts on evolution is that, by itself, it's apparently not enough to persuade many students that evolution is true. The problem is not that students don't understand the concepts and therefore don't accept them, the problem is that many of them do understand the theory and find it literally incredible.

The reason some Darwinists want students to be inculcated with Darwinism and don't want any criticism of Darwinism taught in the classroom is that they know intuitively that if students are made aware of the profound difficulties with naturalistic explanations of the origin of life and the inability of natural selection and random mutation to account for the enormous biological sophistication of living things, many kids will simply be skeptical of the whole business.