Log in

No account? Create an account
shpalman [userpic]

When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child

25th May 2007 (22:57)

... but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

Alternative title: Science pwns not-science

There's an article in Science (pdf): Paul Bloom and Deena Skolnick Weisberg. Childhood Origins of Adult Resistance to Science. Science 316 (5827) 996-997 (2007). Here are some things which it says.

“... both adults and children resist acquiring scientific information that clashes with common-sense intuitions about the physical and psychological domains.”

These intuitions come from our evolutionary psychology: we get a “naïve physics” for understanding inanimate objects (so we know that objects are solid and they don't move unless something moves them) and a “naïve psychology” for understanding animate ones, like other humans, so that we are able to infer their beliefs, desires and emotions.

The problem is that our psychology evolved to work, not necessarily to be right. The intuitive theory of motion is similar to the theory of impetus where the motive force in an object dissipates spontaneously - we now know that Corpus omne perseverare in statu suo quiescendi vel movendi uniformiter in directum, nisi quatenus a viribus impressis cogitur statum illum mutare and the observed “dissipation of motive force” is due to friction and air resistance.

That's easy, because we all have experience of moving objects and once you get the idea of friction and air resistance it's easy to see what it is doing. But when science starts talking about things which are out of the realm of everyday experience, for example relativistic effects which are generally tiny since we don't often get anywhere near speeds close to that of light or quantum effects which happen on scales of space and time which are too small for us to directly perceive. But magnetism, which we all know about, is a relativistic effect (it happens when electric charge moves about) and computers wouldn't work if it were not for the quantized energy levels which electrons adopt in silicon crystals. It's not hard to find confusing or paradoxical things about the physics which goes beyond our intuition - especially when trying to understand the nature of reality according to quantum physics, but the strange thing is that the physics is often right no matter how strange it seems.

“... when learning information from other people, both adults and children are sensitive to the trustworthiness of the source of that information... [children] prefer to learn from a knowledgeable speaker than from an ignorant one, and they prefer a confident source to a tentative one.”

But scientists (good ones, anyway, not the rentaquotes called up by newspapers whenever there's a scare story kicking off) are often reluctant to make concrete statements about things which tend to be more complicated than they seem, full of caveats, open to interpretation, and not right in the middle of their own fields. The Popperian idea is that no scientific theory can be confirmed no matter how many supporting pieces of experimental evidence there are but one single counterexample can disprove a theory, so a scientist can never know for sure if he is right. But working scientists need theories which they can work with, so in practice a large body of experimental evidence which corroborates a theory contributes to its validity. In fact we know that any model of the physical world which is simple enough to manipulate with pencil and paper (or on a computer) is going to have limitations but as long as we bear these in mind we can still get useful results. Newton's laws of motion and gravitation have been shown to be false (to be superceded by Special and General Relativity respectively) but that doesn't mean that you can't calculate sensible answers to real world problems with Newtonian physics as long as you stay well below light speed and don't go to close to any black holes. Crucially, Newton's laws of motion can be derived from Special Relativity in the limit of speeds much slower than that of light.

Acknowledging the limits of your knowledge and presenting data and theories dispassionately and with all due caveats mentioned are virtues in science but seemingly not the way to intuitively convince a non-scientific public. Not compared to the hypocrites who complain about scientific progress when it clashes with their own made-up ideas anyway.

So science can even explain the hostility some have towards science - will they read this paper and reconsider their positions, and grow up? No.