If you are of the lot who is stubbornly trying to improve
critical thinking skills around the world and feels
a bit frustrated by the wave of nonsense that regularly
hits the airwaves, you are not alone. If you insist
in thinking that all you need to do is to explain things
just a little bit better and people will see the light,
you are committing what is known as the rationalistic
It is probably true that better knowledge and understanding
of science improves one's ability to grasp the real
world; if that were not the case the entire education
system should be thrown out, a step that only a minority
of right wingers is prepared to take in the US at this
moment. But it is also undeniably true that explaining
science to many people does not make them any less true
believers in pseudoscience.
For example, John Moore reports in an article in The
Science Teacher (May 2000) that subjects were surveyed
for their beliefs in the paranormal, UFOs and astrology
before taking a course which dissected the evidential
bases for all these pseudosciences. While skepticism
had marginally increased toward the end of the course,
credulity had returned with a vengeance only a year
after the test!
It seems to me that we should try to understand what
causes the rationalistic fallacy if we hope to make
any progress in fighting the rampant irrationalism that
manifests itself in countless forms. It might save us
a lot of misdirected efforts and a trip or two to the
psychotherapist when the depression hits.
The first thing to realize is that many people who
believe in all sorts of weird things are not stupid;
at least, not in the generally accepted sense of the
term. Sure, if we define intelligence as the ability
to grasp the real world, then anybody who does not understand
quantum mechanics is an idiot. But remember the immortal
words of physicist Richard Feynman: If you think
you understand quantum mechanics, you dont understand
No, the fact is that many people who believe in pseudoscience
live successful lives. Some are college graduates. They
can understand very well the reality of everyday life;
sometimes they even successfully make complex decisions
such as investing their money or planning a career.
The answer must therefore lie elsewhere.
I think the problem is in what we mean by understanding
reality. Thomas Henry Huxley, the 19th century
scientist known as Darwins bulldog,
was very successful in lecturing to the general public,
to an extent that neither Richard Dawkins nor Stephen
Gould can dream of today. Huxleys fundamental
philosophy was that science is common sense writ large.
Since most people are equipped with both an innate curiosity
and a moderate dose of common sense, if we explain things
appealing to their already existing mental tools they
will understand. Indeed, this is the philosophy behind
most science documentaries.
The problem is that most modern science is not a matter
of common sense at all! On the contrary, from physics
to cosmology, from evolutionary to molecular biology,
our current scientific understanding of the world is
extremely counter-intuitive. The reason for this is
that sciences realm of investigation now literally
spans the whole of creation, from the beginning of time
until now (roughly 20 billion years) and from the subatomic
level to the largest aggregates of galaxies. Let us
remember that in Huxleys time most scientists
thought the earth was a few million years old, the existence
of galaxies was yet to be discovered, and nobody had
the foggiest idea of what an atom or a gene was.
Evolutionary psychologists such as Steven Pinker suggest
an explanation for this state of affairs. According
to the standard Darwinian theory, our brains are at
least in part the result of natural selection to improve
our fitness; but the question is: to what kind of environment?
Obviously, the one that we have inhabited for most of
our evolutionary existence: forests and savannahs, where
reality meant being able to procure food
and mates while carefully avoiding predators. Is it
any wonder, then, that we simply cant understand
If we add to this mix the fact that people still want
answers to the fundamental questions of life (probably
an annoying byproduct of being self-aware), it doesnt
take much to understand why evolution and the Big Bang
are discarded in favor of all-powerful and all-good
imaginary friends who watch over every detail of our
lives (especially the sexual scenes). Even the much-touted
fact that Europeans accept evolution and are less religiously
fundamentalist than Americans has, I would argue, a
far less flattering explanation than it is usually assumed.
It is not that Europeans are smarter or know more science
(this is demonstrably not so); rather, it is probably
that through history they have had their fill of religious
wars and witch hunts and they are putting their current
trust in another category of priests, the scientists
(at least until these, too, screw things up in some
So, what do we do about it? Unfortunately, identifying
the causes doesnt necessarily cure the disease.
We are in no position to reshape the human brain to
bring it up to speed with the current human environment.
We can, however, get more familiar with the large literature
on human cognitive neuro-sciences; getting to know how
the brain works has to be the first step toward designing
better tools and arguments to educate people.
We can also be more understanding when we do confront
an irrational position, and not dismiss our interlocutor
as a simpleton (at least, not too quickly). Demonstrating
sympathy and reaching out to the right brain
may be a better way to get to the left one. But that
is subject matter for another column.
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