Crosstalk: Understanding Counterintuitive Science Needs a Culture of Rigorous Scepticism

For most organisms, it can be very beneficial from the point of view of their survival to form an opinion on something purely with respect to possible or apparent intent, and without trying to understand any science behind it.

The Thinker in The Gates of Hell at the Musée Rodin, Paris. Credit: Jean-Pierre Dalbéra/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0

The Thinker in The Gates of Hell at the Musée Rodin, Paris. Credit: Jean-Pierre Dalbéra/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0

We’re living in what Carl Sagan correctly termed a demon-haunted world. We have created a Star Wars civilization but we have Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions and godlike technology. That’s dangerous.
–E.O. Wilson

Last month, we had explored the persistence of pseudoscience in an ultramodern world being built on a science and technology overdrive. To a society as a whole, the implications of a population that is educated, and yet resistant to science (especially when it goes against their beliefs) can be considerable. Yet sometimes, we all know that even if science has shown beyond all reasonable doubt that a certain phenomenon is a certain way, and we are trained to use the scientific method, that phenomenon can be hard to believe it.

All of us, at some level, hold on to beliefs that are demonstrably false based on accumulating evidence. Perhaps there is a belief in anecdotal medical treatments which fail all scrutiny, or in ghosts, demons, monsters and angels, or astrology and divination. There is also an inclination to disbelieve processes that mountains of evidence hold to be true. This could be anything like the earth being flat and revolving around the sun, or natural selection, climate change and more. This is because our perceptions say that it is wrong. We are wired to see the apparent, and “seeing is believing”, as the cliché goes. In part, this is because of how our brains are built, and how we have evolved as organisms.

Palaeolithic brains for the space age

This wiring is very deep within us, and starts very early in life. The resistance is not merely limited to viewing some science suspiciously, but for many new ideas that challenge what is apparent. It begins very early in life, with what kids know and learn either by observation and mimicry, or active instruction. Children, even babies, “know” a lot by learning things themselves through observation. They know that solid objects will fall to the ground, for example, or that people have different emotions. Now suppose a child knows that any unsupported object will fall to the ground, it is difficult for this child to imagine or comprehend that the world is round. That is because they have observed that things will always fall off round objects. At a young age, a child cannot comprehend relative scales of the earth (and themselves), and relate it to the concept of gravity. It is just as counter intuitive at that age for a child to believe that a larger object will not fall faster than a smaller object of the same mass, when dropped from the same height. Many of us see that it takes many years for children to be able to accurately draw out the earth as a rounded globe. In essence, people reject scientific ideas because it appears to be counter-intuitive.

A level of resistance to science comes from cultural factors. In every culture, some information is specifically asserted or defined. For example, the resistance to understanding evolution is prominent in some parts of America, in certain religious groups. This is because it has been specifically asserted otherwise. Not everyone is qualified to study or understand all scientific principles of a subject (like string theory). Therefore, it’s typical for people to believe in what they are told by people they trust. Interestingly, many studies now show that children do the same thing, and will only believe things that are told to them by people they trust. These could be parents, teachers or peers. More importantly, when some data or explanation is contradicting when coming from different sources, children will believe an explanation provided by the people they trust and not the data itself.

All these early beliefs and actions continue throughout our lives. For many people who do not believe in something, they may have no clue about it, and cannot explain the basic concepts of the thing they don’t believe in. The disbelief is not based on any objective evaluation of facts but because of the sources they trust. These trusted sources have helped that group, community or organism survive and persist over time, and therefore their reasoning cannot be wrong. Logically, these sources should be the experts in that field. This is what adults are expected to do and yet we remain in constant conflict today with science because the sources we trust often do not have an (or are not capable of having an) understanding of the science.

In many ways, all of this comes down to us having brains wired for the Stone Age while we live in the Space Age.

Against ingrained beliefs to understand science

Much of our disbelief and resistance to counterintuitive scientific concepts, such as evolution through natural selection, is because of natural selection. For most organisms, it can be very beneficial from the point of view of their survival to form an opinion on something purely with respect to possible or apparent intent, and without trying to understand any science behind it. Let’s say you encounter a snarling lion on the road. Concluding that the lion wants to eat you and taking evasive measures is more likely to lead to your survival than sitting and observing the nature of the lion, counting its teeth, deducing if it is hungry/angry/deranged or not, or if it is snarling because it has a thorn in its foot, and so on.

This is why we have evolved with a wiring that instructs us to avoid snarling lions. This kind of selection does not require active thinking but can be strongly selected for in organisms with just single cells and no brain. Let’s take a soil dwelling bacteria that requires, say, a fruit, to grow. If the supply of the fruit dwindles, the best bet for the bacteria is to switch to survival mode and build resources to help it survive. So it might switch on all the genes and machinery in order to do so. But it might be entirely possible that in a certain region, and certain time, there will be plentiful supply of fruit for the bacteria that will come a day or two later. We might be able to say exactly when and how that will be today, but the bacteria are better off banking on a survival strategy than trying to figure out if food will be available in the immediate future.

Humans today are no longer just the hunter-gatherers of old, banking solely on collective tribal lore and bet-hedging strategies based on cultural traditions to survive. Our unmatched abilities to match patterns, recall past events, build collective memories and manufacture tools have resulted in both technological revolutions as well as a startling awareness of science that is as strikingly counter-intuitive as it is stunning. Today, our understanding of the natural world can no longer come from inductive inference and by relying on tribal instincts born of millennia of natural selection.

What we call ‘human civilisation’ itself only spans a few thousand years. This is a mere moment of pause during the hundreds of thousands of years of human evolution, and not even the blink of an eye in the scale of life’s evolution. Instead, we have to rely on that other human ability, to connect distant dots by recognising patterns, and removing what appears obvious. Indeed, all of this helped us develop the scientific method. For this method to thrive, science can no longer thrive in isolated silos. We need societies that foster this process of creativity, which means that societies that tolerate dissent, encourage rigorous debates and testing of ideas that flow freely, along with providing sufficient resources, will be best poised to transform our futures. And all along, we need to suppress the strong forces of our palaeolithic side to do so.

Sunil Laxman is a scientist at the Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine, where his research group studies how cells function and communicate with each other. He has a keen interest in the history and process of science, and how science influences society.