Jun 8, 2022 • 5M

Why Children Are Flat-Earthers: Examining adult resistance to science

And testing your ability to predict ball trajectories!

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Ideas for a future worth wanting. Social science. Philosophy. Culture.
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Written by Matthew Archer.

Imagine we place a ball in a tube (see the image below). What direction will it take when it comes out the other end? You have two options—the line represents the potential trajectory. Which one is correct?

Scroll down for the answer.

If you picked A, well done. Stick around for your gold star and a warm glow of superiority. If you picked B, you’ll need to stay behind after class. But if you did get it wrong, don’t feel too bad. So did over a third of undergraduates when the study was carried out. And when the options were made more complex (see below), over half got it wrong!

We get these things wrong because we’re born with what psychologists call “naive theories”. This a diplomatic way of saying wrong theories. We’re born with a naive understanding of both physics and psychology. And this is a major cause of the adult resistance to science. Paul Bloom and Deena Weisberg have a great article on this topic, which you can read here.

Much of what we know about adult resistance to science comes from experimental work in developmental psychology. We’ve figured out that babies know that objects are solid, persist over time (even when out of sight), fall to the ground if unsupported, and do not move unless acted upon. They also understand that people move autonomously in response to social and physical events, act and react in accord with their goals, and respond with appropriate emotions to different situations.

So the problem with teaching science to children is, in the words of Professor Susan Carey:

…not what the student lacks, but what the student has, namely alternative conceptual frameworks for understanding the phenomena covered by the theories we are trying to teach.

Here’s a great example: it’s not until around 8 or 9 years of age that children really understand the concept of a spherical Earth. That’s right, all children under 8 are flat Earthers. Why? Because they think that unsupported objects always fall. 

What’s really interesting, however, is that our naive physics theories can often be overturned when we have experience with the objects. For example, let’s go back to that curved tube. Imagine it’s a water hose, which direction does the water go? You see, when this question was asked, virtually nobody got it wrong.

So that’s naive physics, what about our naive psychology? Well, children tend to see design and intention everywhere. As Bloom and Weisberg write: 

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

It’s also important to realise that there are key cultural differences in the resistance to science, it’s not just our innate view of the world which causes trouble. Americans, for example, are much less likely to accept evolution. And even the ones who do often aren’t able to explain how natural selection works. That’s a clue as to why such cultural differences exist. 

Societies have differences in what’s considered “common knowledge” and how it’s referred to. Paul Bloom uses the example of the word “dog”—we all know what it refers to, so it’s easy for children to learn. But what about the word ‘germs’ or ‘electricity’—nobody says “I believe in electricity”. That’s not the case with evolution: people often say that they “believe in evolution”. This implies it’s contestable. 

Of course, even if it were contestable, most of us don’t have the skills or knowledge to contest the evidence directly, so instead we use proxies. Perhaps the most popular proxy is the source of the information. This explains why many of the Americans who say they believe in evolution can’t explain natural selection. They believe because they deem their source trustworthy. 

We see this all the time with religious, political, and moral beliefs, as Bloom and Weisberg note:

In an illustrative recent study, participants were asked their opinion about a social welfare policy that was described as being endorsed by either Democrats or Republicans. Although the participants sincerely believed that their responses were based on the objective merits of the policy, the major determinant of what they thought of the policy was, in fact, whether or not their favoured political party was said to endorse it. 

Now whilst that’s pretty damning evidence about our ability to deceive ourselves, we also have a natural tendency toward scepticism if the conditions are right:

When 5-year-olds hear about a competition whose outcome was unclear, they are more likely to believe a person who claimed that he had lost the race than a person who claimed that he had won the race.

Ultimately, however, this ability is severely constrained by everything else we’ve mentioned. The only reliable way our species has found for mitigating our personal biases is to essentially play them off against each other. In other words, science. 

Matthew Archer is the Editor-in-Chief of Aporia.