Sunday, June 03, 2007

Towards a science-aware society

Of late I have been writing on the ill-effect of religion to resist the science and the scientific study of nature. After writing on the Memetics of the religions, I decided to look further deep to understand why exactly science is obstructed – is the religion the root cause or human nature itself blocks the development. I discovered that the intuitiveness, a virtue of a human being, is considered to be the worst enemy of science education. In other words, human beings are programmed to oppose science instinctively. The best explanation comes in favor of it by analyzing the natural learning process of a human being.

Prior to exposure to organized study of science, children use their intuition to judge and gather knowledge about the world they see – both physical and social knowledge. The examples social knowledge can include the identification of parents and close relatives. The physical domain experiences include the observational fact that objects fall in the ground or it hurts more if dropped from higher places.

The problem with teaching children the science is not what student is lacks, but what the student has already assumed to be the truth as per physical domain experience. As an example, once a child ‘knows’ that objects fall, it’s difficult to convince him that the Earth is spherical in shape, because they perceive that people should ‘fall’ out of the bottom half of the sphere. Also, a flat world fits their observation that they can see, sometimes, in a dilemma, they pick up a false idea of a flat livable flat place on top of a spherical Earth.

Michael McCloskey, a professor of Cognitive Science in John Hopkins University, conducted a survey among adult American students to find out how scientific they are. He took the domain of objects in motion, something that people both read theories and observe a lot of times in their day to day life. He presented diagrams to depict a physical condition and asked the students how the motion of the object would be in those conditions. He asked how a ball should continue after coming out of curved tube, what trajectory a ball should fall when dropped from a moving aero plane or from the roof and many more of these. The result was strikingly different from what was expected, people went by ‘common perception’ or what we see in life. Most of them told that the ball from the aero plane will fall straight, or come out of a curved tube in a curved motion. Interestingly, when asked about the motion of water out of a curved hose-pipe, they mentioned it to be straight, since it comes into their direct space of observation.

McCloskey concluded that everyone (children or adults) builds a naïve theory in their brain out of the observations they make. These theories are often wrong and also carry casual explanations along with them. These naive theories are dominant in ancient scripts and continue to be the base of pseudo-science. A sustainable knowledge of science needs to overcome these barriers of naïve theories within a human being.

To overcome this resistance, the establishment of trustworthy source is necessary. Children, when unable to verify most of the claims, try to verify the sources of the claim. To a child, parents and the closer relatives are the most trustworthy source. So, in case science teacher in school teaches them about evolution and parents back home opposes that, then, they are bound to take the parents’ one. Not only that, they grow idea about books and newspaper those are trustworthy. They tend to believe ideas from an adult who is confident and who can map their theories to real life. Most notable point here is the trustworthiness they gather, carries to their adulthood. And it holds true for religious, political and moral beliefs also. The idea to overcome science resistance is to inject science at every level of information source, so that people understand them as trustworthy, even if it conflicts the naïve theories in mind.

In India, the presence of naïve theories in the form of superstitions is very potent. One example I can pick up, is related to “Snakes eating milk and banana”. These theories are present from religious background and get verified by the children from their trustworthy adults. I used to believe that snakes really eat them as society elders talked about them. I came to the correct knowledge only after a science campaign run on television. The naïve theories (example: firm land should be kept idle for a certain period of time to retain land-fertility) present among farmers are also the result of their intuitions, and campaigners find them difficult to replace with modern science (following crop-rotation).

The discussion above points out that we need more prominent scientists to come up at the stage, at public debates or at television programs to articulate and defend science as a unique process of acquiring knowledge. The society today, if it is superstitious and religious like that of India, is a result of egoistic apathy of the scientists, who ignore their social responsibility to convey their message to common people. More research and more innovations might bring more money to them, but ultimately, in a democracy, people rules. So, a social awareness of the science is the only way people can become scientific, or at least can consider science as a trustworthy source of information.

Science, Cognitive Science, Atheism, Evolution, Society, India

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