Why are more school leavers not interested in pursuing maths, science and engineering at third level? Why are people very prone to believing in pseudoscience, especially in the medical area? These phenomena are usually explained as being a failure of the education system. Poor teaching of maths at second level by unqualified teachers, inadequate laboratories at second level, scientists who don’t ‘get out there’ and convey the wonders of science and an inherent cultural bias in our society towards the humanities are all seen as important causes.
If one looks at this issue via the lens of the nature versus nurture debate, the explanation for the science deficit in the population is one based purely on nurture. But what if human beings, on average, are inherently, i.e. genetically, programmed not to think scientifically? That might seem like a silly thing to say given the technological nature of our world. But, if you think about it, many of the technological advances that are all around us really are the result of the vision of quite small numbers of people: think of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, the Google guys.
Consider the notion that religion has an evolutionary origin (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evolutionary_psychology_of_religion). Now, many people can split their personality into their religious self and their rational, or scientific, selves. But I suspect that many scientists cannot and I would also suspect that the percentage of agnostics/atheists amongst scientists is much higher than it is in the general population. Maybe, therefore, being inherently ‘scientific’ makes one pre-disposed to agnosticism and thus you lose the evolutionary advantage of being religious. There is also some evidence that religious people are happier than non-religious people. It is also well-known that people with a strong bent towards mathematics are more likely to have personalities on the autistic spectrum. In short, maybe nature has conspired against science!
The continued ‘belief’ in pseudoscience is interesting but I think it ties in with what I’ve said above. If one thinks of religion in the broad sense, believing in pseudoscience is not much different from religion – it’s a belief in the mysterious, the magical. It is why otherwise sensible people can believe in something like homeopathy.
Having taught for 25 years on a degree program containing a mix of biology and engineering, I’m now convinced that the nature side of this discussion is a significant issue. No matter how hard I try, I know that most of my students will never really be interested in my subjects – I’m an engineer. They are all interested in biology, however, and indeed biology is a very popular subject amongst school leavers. Why is this? – it’s science after all. I think it’s because biology is not just a science, it’s ultimately about us and who we are. I think a similar thing arises with really fundamental sciences like theoretical physics and astrophysics. Even people who have very little interest in science are interested in issues related to the basic structure and origins of the universe. Reading about the Higgs and the Big Bang is essentially a religious quest.