Why People Believe What They Do
Scientific American April 10, 2009
On Scientific American’s Science Talk, Steve Mirsky interviews cognitive psychologist Tania Lombrozo from the University of California, Berkeley detailing some surprising data on understanding of vs belief in evolution. Particularly amazing is Steve’s positing: “So it may be justifiable to say, “Here’s what we understand about evolution as a science. We don’t care whether you accept it; we just want you to understand it.””
. . .Lombrozo: Sure. So I think one of the most surprising findings has to do with the relationship between understanding the basics of evolutionary theory and accepting it as our best account of the origins of human life. So most people, I think, [or] in particular scientists, tend to think that if people reject evolution and in particular evolution by natural selection, it’s because they don’t understand it very well; they don’t really understand what the theory is telling us. But in fact, if you look at the data from psychology and education, what you find is either no correlation between accepting evolution and understanding it or very, very small correlation between those two factors, and I think that’s surprising to a lot of people and in particular to educators and scientists.
Steve: Yeah, it was surprising to me when your data were presented. So what [does] that mean for, you know, education in the country? What should people be thinking about if they have a desire to have evolutionary theory be more accepted by more people?
Lombrozo: I think it has a couple of consequences. So, one of them is that any kind of educational intervention that increases people’s understanding of evolutionary theory is not necessarily going to have a consequence to whether or not people accept evolution. I think that’s surprising, but it also raises a lot of complicated ethical issues; whether or not it’s even appropriate in the classroom for teachers to be trying to deliberately influence students’ acceptance of evolution as opposed to whether or not they understand it. We normally think about the role of education as being one to communicate basic concepts, to communicate scientific theories, not to actually change whether or not people accept a particular theory that might conflict with their relative views. So I think it raises some complicated issues there.
Steve: So it may be justifiable to say, “Here’s what we understand about evolution as a science. We don’t care whether you accept it; we just want you to understand it.”
Lombrozo: I think that’s the way a lot of people think about education, and I think that’s a way to sidestep some complicated ethical issues about whether or not it’s appropriate to present ideas that could conflict with people’s beliefs. On the other hand, people’s policy making decisions, their medical decisions and a lot of other decisions might depend not only on whether or not they understand evolution, but on whether or not they accept it. So in some sense, I think the public has a lot at stake in whether or not people accept evolution; but I am not sure the best way to proceed given these kinds of findings about the dissociation between acceptance and belief. . . .
See full interview