Know Your Culture

Written by on Tuesday, March 17, 2009 23:15 - Comment

The Delusions The Deluders and the “Truth”: How Culture Programs Your Mind

Why We Believe What We Do and Why We Should Be Concerned

I venture to say that most of us take for granted the reasons for why we believe what we do and what we don’t.  After all it is a process we automatically and without forewarning enter into as soon as we became able to grasp our first the-terrace-by-david-mcdonaldconcepts about the world.

To complicate matters our world is filled with biased learning sourcesand our own thinking is subject to certain subconscious tendencies predisposing us to believe in ideas having little or no validity outside of our heads and/or we are apt to confabulate spontaneously (make up on the fly).

What is the “Truth”?

Anthropologists, psychologists and other cognitive scientists use the term veridicality to refer to the degree of relationship between the ideas we have about how or why anything exists or functions and the actuality of it.

For example, it was once believed the universe revolved around the earth (geocentric view) when in actuality the earth revolves around the sun (heliocentric view).

The idea of a geocentric view would persist for over 2000 years until better tools (telescope) and methods (scientific process) were developed. Therefore the degree of veridicality between the idea of a geocentric universe, an erroneous understanding, versus a heliocentric universe, the actuality, was zero.

There was absolutely no correspondence between what was believed, geocentrism, and the reality of heliocentrism.

The “truth” is then any idea, belief or concept that accords with independently verifiable evidence. Everything else is either a fabrication, a speculation yet to be proved or disproved or an idea already proved false.

The scenario just shared illustrates the basic difference between many mythosophical concepts (spiritual, religious, philosophical) and scientific discovery.

Scientific discovery employs a methodology to remove as much error as possible from our knowledge. Scientific understanding evolves via a commitment to incorporate new information as it is proved trustworthy. The development of better tools and methods has and will continue to upturn the many erroneous ideas persisting and abound in our world.

Many mythosophical concepts are based on the primitive and un-evolved understandings of our ancient ancestors. Most present day adherents of religious ideology resist the evolution or further development of their religious concepts.

There are reasons for the resistance to what would seem to be the smartest thing to do.

New evidence should compel a revision of out-dated beliefs, but the present world leadership does not operate that way.

Our tools are unimaginably complex and evolved, but our social organizations are as primitive as at the start of Western Civilization some 6000 years ago.

It would be an easy job to remove obsolete ideas were it not for the deadly and persistent forces fighting for their continuance.

The Delusion and the Deluders

Biased Learning Sources

Three fundamental factors stand in the way of an “enlightened society”.

The first and most formidable obstacle is the tyrannical resistance of the established religio-political-commercial systems ( prevailing culture ) religious-illusionsof the West.

Blind spot number two is the liability inherent in certain learning acquired during childhood and adolescence.

Learning which then makes it difficult to release any errant and embedded ideas which have come by way of pervasive and persistent outside agents (propagandists).

Propagandists who offer ideas they would have us believe in and adhere to, regardless of their validity or consequences to us or others for supporting such ideas.

The propagandist maybe an older sibling, parent, teacher, politician, priests or the millions of sales pitches thrown at us over the course of a year.

The third roadblock is the effectiveness of assembly-line, mass-educational efforts, i.e., government approved public education and mass media propaganda campaigns).

The foregoing examples are what I mean by biased learning sources.

Being instructed during childhood or at any age is not a liability in of itself.

The liability lies in the content of what is offered and its consequences to us or others if the promoters are successful in training us (indoctrination) to believe and therefore act in accordance with their wishes.

We would be wise to root out what has been either maliciously (propaganda) or erroneously (enculturation) implanted in our minds. In the Western world much of what we are taught via the mainstream channels is either invalid, harmful to us, others and or the environment.

The Deluder Within

Subconscious tendencies are biases existing independent of outside influence. We are born with them or it may be that our cultural language structure may predispose us to certain ways of thinking.

Psychologists and alike use the term “promiscuous teleology” to define the tendency of young children to describe the world in terms of design and purpose. I wish to substitute the more telling phrase of erroneous attribution of purpose. Childlike reasoning is also used to describe the natural tendency of not only children, but of college students as well.

The other primary subconscious mental tendency is what I call non-clinical confabulation (NCC).

Clinical confabulation is a recognized mental disorder. Most mental disorders are often time everyday human behaviors taken to extremes.

NCC results from an incomplete understanding or incorrect perception of the subject in question and of the human tendency to sometimes spontaneously and automatically fill in the blanks.

It’s an automatic function of our subconscious brain processing to arrive at the quickest interpretation of an item or situation. Our conscious mind is often times the awareness of what the subconscious mind has brought to our attention.

As a thought or perception enters our awareness our conscious mind seeks to attribute a rational or best explanation of why we said, thought or did.

In other words we are naturally biased to explain objects or events with what we have at our immediate disposal even if our rational is not based on any evidence or valid logical process.

As one can see the road to “truth” is not only riddled with pot holes and infested with landmines, but there are also innumerable forks in the road. An open mind, life long learning and a reliance evidence based information will help diminish the chances of believing in and acting upon erroneous and harmful ideas.

Featured Research

Science 18 May 2007:
Vol. 316. no. 5827, pp. 996 – 997
DOI: 10.1126/science.1133398


Childhood Origins of Adult Resistance to Science

By Paul Bloom and Deena Skolnick Weisberg

Resistance to certain scientific ideas derives in large partfrom assumptions and biases that can be demonstrated experimentallyin young children and that may persist into adulthood. In particular,both adults and children resist acquiring scientific informationthat clashes with common-sense intuitions about the physicaland psychological domains. Additionally, when learning informationfrom other people, both adults and children are sensitive tothe trustworthiness of the source of that information. Resistanceto science, then, is particularly exaggerated in societies wherenonscientific ideologies have the advantages of being both groundedin common sense and transmitted by trustworthy sources.

Department of Psychology, Yale University, New Haven, CT 06520, USA.

Scientists, educators, and policy-makers have long been concernedabout American adults’ resistance to certain scientific ideas(1). In a 2005 Pew Trust poll, 42% of respondents said thatthey believed that humans and other animals have existed intheir present form since the beginning of time, a view thatdenies the very existence of evolution (2). Even among the minoritywho claim to accept natural selection, most misunderstand it,seeing evolution as a mysterious process causing animals tohave offspring that are better adapted to their environments(3).

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 existenceof supernatural entities such as ghosts and fairies; and thelegitimacy of astrology, ESP, and divination (4). This resistanceto science has important social implications, because a scientificallyignorant public is unprepared to evaluate policies about globalwarming, vaccination, genetically modified organisms, stem cellresearch, and cloning (1).

Here we review evidence from developmental psychology suggestingthat 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 todo with how they learn.

The main source of resistance concerns what children know beforetheir exposure to science. Recent psychological research makesit clear that babies are not “blank slates”; even 1-year-oldspossess a rich understanding of both the physical world (a “naïvephysics”) and the social world (a “naïve psychology”) (5).Babies know that objects are solid, persist over time (evenwhen out of sight), fall to the ground if unsupported, and donot move unless acted upon (6). They also understand that peoplemove autonomously in response to social and physical events,act and react in accord with their goals, and respond with appropriateemotions to different situations (5, 7, 8).

These intuitions give children a head start when it comes tounderstanding and learning about objects and people. However,they also sometimes clash with scientific discoveries aboutthe nature of the world, making certain scientific facts difficultto learn. The problem with teaching science to children is thus”not what the student lacks, but what the student has, namelyalternative conceptual frameworks for understanding the phenomenacovered by the theories we are trying to teach” (9).

Children’s belief that unsupported objects fall downward, forinstance, makes it difficult for them to see the world as asphere—if it were a sphere, the people and things on theother side should fall off. It is not until about 8 or 9 yearsof age that children demonstrate a coherent understanding ofa spherical Earth (10), and younger children often distort thescientific understanding in systematic ways. Some deny thatpeople can live all over Earth’s surface (10), and when askedto draw Earth (11) or model it with clay (12), some childrendepict it as a sphere with a flattened top or as a hollow spherethat people live inside.

In some cases, there is such resistance to science educationthat it never entirely sticks, and foundational biases persistinto adulthood. One study tested college undergraduates’ intuitionsabout basic physical motions, such as the path that a ball willtake when released from a curved tube (13). Many of the undergraduatesretained a common-sense Aristotelian theory of object motion;they predicted that the ball would continue to move in a curvedmotion, choosing B over A in Fig. 1.

An interesting addendumis that although education does not shake this bias, real-worldexperience can suffice. In another study, undergraduates wereasked about the path that water would take out of a curved hose.This corresponded to an event that the participants had seen,and few believed that the water would take a curved path (14).

Figure 1 Fig. 1. (A and B) Alternative intuitions about the movement of a ball out of a curved tube [from (13)]. [View Larger Version of this Image (23K GIF file)]


The examples so far concern people’s common-sense understandingof the physical world, but their intuitive psychology also contributesto their resistance to science. One important bias is that childrennaturally see the world in terms of design and purpose. Forinstance, 4-year-olds insist that everything has a purpose,including lions (“to go in the zoo”) and clouds (“for raining”),a propensity called “promiscuous teleology” (15).

Additionally,when asked about the origin of animals and people, childrenspontaneously tend to provide and prefer creationist explanations(16). Just as children’s intuitions about the physical worldmake it difficult for them to accept that Earth is a sphere,their psychological intuitions about agency and design makeit difficult for them to accept the processes of evolution.

Another consequence of people’s common-sense psychology is dualism,the belief that the mind is fundamentally different from thebrain (5). This belief comes naturally to children. Preschoolchildren will claim that the brain is responsible for some aspectsof mental life, typically those involving deliberative mentalwork, such as solving math problems.

But preschoolers will alsoclaim that the brain is not involved in a host of other activities,such as pretending to be a kangaroo, loving one’s brother, orbrushing one’s teeth (5, 17). Similarly, when told about a braintransplant from a boy to a pig, they believed that you wouldget a very smart pig, but one with pig beliefs and pig desires(18). For young children, then, much of mental life is not linkedto the brain.

The strong intuitive pull of dualism makes it difficult forpeople to accept what Francis Crick called “the astonishinghypothesis” (19): Dualism is mistaken—mental life emergesfrom physical processes. People resist the astonishing hypothesisin ways that can have considerable social implications. Forone thing, debates about the moral status of embryos, fetuses,stem cells, and nonhuman animals are sometimes framed in termsof whether or not these entities possess immaterial souls (20,21).

What’s more, certain proposals about the role of evidencefrom functional magnetic resonance imaging in criminal trialsassume a strong form of dualism (22). It has been argued, forinstance, that if one could show that a person’s brain is involvedin an act, then the person himself or herself is not responsible,an excuse dubbed “my brain made me do it” (23). These assumptionsabout moral status and personal responsibility reflect a profoundresistance to findings from psychology and neuroscience.

The main reason why people resist certain scientific findings,then, is that many of these findings are unnatural and unintuitive.But this does not explain cultural differences in resistanceto science. There are substantial differences, for example,in how quickly children from different countries come to learnthat Earth is a sphere (10). There is also variation acrosscountries in the extent of adult resistance to science, includingthe finding that Americans are more resistant to evolutionarytheory than are citizens of most other countries (24).

Part of the explanation for such cultural differences lies inhow children and adults process different types of information.Some culture-specific information is not associated with anyparticular source; it is “common knowledge.” As such, learningof this type of information generally bypasses critical analysis.A prototypical example is that of word meanings. Everyone usesthe word “dog” to refer to dogs, so children easily learn thatthis is what they are called (25). Other examples include beliefin germs and electricity. Their existence is generally assumedin day-to-day conversation and is not marked as uncertain; nobodysays that they “believe in electricity.” Hence, even childrenand adults with little scientific background believe that theseinvisible entities really exist (26).

Other information, however, is explicitly asserted, not tacitlyassumed. Such asserted information is associated with certainsources. A child might note that science teachers make surprisingclaims about the origin of human beings, for instance, whereastheir parents do not. Furthermore, the tentative status of thisinformation is sometimes explicitly marked; people will assertthat they “believe in evolution.”

When faced with this kind of asserted information, one can occasionallyevaluate its truth directly. But in some domains, includingmuch of science, direct evaluation is difficult or impossible.Few of us are qualified to assess claims about the merits ofstring theory, the role of mercury in the etiology of autism,or the existence of repressed memories. So rather than evaluatingthe asserted claim itself, we instead evaluate the claim’s source.If the source is deemed trustworthy, people will believe theclaim, often without really understanding it.

Consider, forexample, that many Americans who claim to believe in naturalselection are unable to accurately describe how natural selectionworks (3). This suggests that their belief is not necessarilyrooted in an appreciation of the evidence and arguments. Rather,this scientifically credulous subpopulation accepts this informationbecause they trust the people who say it is true.

Science is not special here; the same process of deference holdsfor certain religious, moral, and political beliefs as well.In an illustrative recent study, participants were asked theiropinion about a social welfare policy that was described asbeing endorsed by either Democrats or Republicans.

Althoughthe participants sincerely believed that their responses werebased on the objective merits of the policy, the major determinantof what they thought of the policy was, in fact, whether ornot their favored political party was said to endorse it (27).Additionally, many of the specific moral intuitions held bymembers of a society appear to be the consequence, not of personalmoral contemplation, but of deference to the views of the community(28).

Adults thus rely on the trustworthiness of the source when decidingwhich asserted claims to believe. Do children do the same? Recentstudies suggest that they do; children, like adults, have atleast some capacity to assess the trustworthiness of their informationsources. Four- and five-year-olds, for instance, know that adultsknow things that other children do not (like the meaning ofthe word “hypochondriac”) (29), and when given conflicting informationfrom a child and from an adult, they prefer to learn from theadult (30).

They know that adults have different areas of expertise:Doctors know how to fix broken arms, and mechanics know howto fix flat tires (31, 32). They prefer to learn from a knowledgeablespeaker than from an ignorant one (29, 33), and they prefera confident source to a tentative one (34). Finally, when 5-year-oldshear about a competition whose outcome was unclear, they aremore likely to believe a person who claimed that he had lostthe race (a statement that goes against his self-interest) thana person who claimed that he had won the race (a statement thatgoes with his self-interest). In a limited sense, then, theyare capable of cynicism (35).

These developmental data suggest that resistance to sciencewill arise in children when scientific claims clash with earlyemerging, intuitive expectations. This resistance will persistthrough adulthood if the scientific claims are contested withina society, and it will be especially strong if there is a nonscientificalternative that is rooted in common sense and championed bypeople who are thought of as reliable and trustworthy.

Thisis the current situation in the United States, with regard tothe central tenets of neuroscience and evolutionary biology.These concepts clash with intuitive beliefs about the immaterialnature of the soul and the purposeful design of humans and otheranimals, and (in the United States) these beliefs are particularlylikely to be endorsed and transmitted by trusted religious andpolitical authorities (24). Hence, these fields are among thedomains where Americans’ resistance to science is the strongest.

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