Are we all natural-born scientists?

Carl Sagan once said: “Every kid starts out as a natural-born scientist, and then we beat it out of them. A few trickle through the system with their wonder and enthusiasm for science intact.” I have heard this argument repeated many times by those seeking to improve the teaching of STEM subjects and I think it is dead wrong. I think (but cannot prove!) that most people are not natural scientists even if they might enjoy hearing about scientific discoveries. Science is largely a way of thinking and most people employ decidedly unscientific thinking on a daily basis. As that great philosopher, Axel Rose, once said (when quoting from the film, Cool Hand Luke); “Some men you just can’t reach”. Likewise there is no point in having an argument or discussion with many people about certain topics because no matter how hard you try, you will not convince them to change their minds. As Axel says; “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate”.

I don’t think the tendency towards non-scientific thinking is a ‘nurture’ effect; I think it is largely driven by nature and probably has an evolutionary origin. It is not necessarily that non-scientific thinking confers an advantage per se but that it may be a side-effect of other psychological traits that have evolved for survival-related reasons. Similar arguments have been made to explain the persistence of religion in human cultures.

Science requires one to constantly revise one’s views in the light of new evidence. But most people think in a way that is the polar opposite of this. We start off with some preconceived idea or view of the world and then we construct what are often elaborate intellectual scaffolds to provide support for that idea or view. Take a religion like Catholicism where the organised church is filled with highly intelligent men (no women allowed) – theologians, philosophers, classicists, linguists, historians. Their life’s work is ultimately based on a model of the world in which God plays the central, interventionist role. All of their intellectual energies – especially that of theologians – is devoted to creating a highly complex, self-consistent narrative based on the underlying premise that God thinks and acts in certain ways.

The same can be said about many of the contentious issues of the day whether they be climate change, vaccinations, GM foods, fluoridation, organic farming, alternative medicine and even the health effects of electricity pylons. People take up a definite position on each of these issues and once that position is taken, they are very unlikely to change. In defending their position, people may examine the evidence but they will not do so in a completely disinterested – scientific – way. The tendency is to interpret the data in a way that supports one’s existing position. This is the phenomenon of confirmation bias and it seems to be deeply engrained in people, including scientists who are often reluctant to change in the light of new evidence. Even Einstein could never quite accept quantum theory even though the evidence for it was overwhelming. Scientists frequently defend the need for funding for basic research and they choose their supporting evidence selectively. They will mention things like GPS systems, microwave ovens, MRI scanners etc. because those technologies represent the successes. But they never mention the vast resources pumped into research that ultimately disappears down the black hole of the academic literature.

Psychologists use the word ‘cognitive dissonance’ to describe what happens to people when confronted with evidence that is inconsistent with their beliefs. If the dissonance is not reduced by changing one’s mind, the ‘sufferer’ tends to simply reject the information and seeks different evidence that suits their worldview better. Often, they may simply retreat to the embrace of like-minded people where their ideas are nurtured. Hence ‘believers’ tend to cluster together where their beliefs are constantly reinforced. This happens to us all in a less extreme way when we read the newspaper that suits our political and economic outlook. A left-leaning reader buys the Guardian, not the Telegraph, because the Guardian will reinforce his or her views, not challenge them.

So where do people get their ‘models’ of the world? That is a question that is too complex for me but I suspect we are hugely influenced by our families, our peer group and all sorts of psychological factors like how we deal with authority. The key thing is that once these models are formed, we find it hard to shake them off.

I’m not sure what all this means but I think it is something we have to be conscious of at a time when we seem to be imagining our economic future as one based heavily on science and technology. I’m not  sure we will ever have the population of ‘scientists’ to support this vision. And I’m not sure that injecting the ‘fun’ into science teaching will change that. I simply have an uneasy feeling that putting so much faith in an economy based on science and technology is a mistake because not enough people will ever buy into it; because contrary to what Carl Sagan said, most of us are not natural-born scientists. In fact we’re anything but.


About Greg Foley

A lecturer in Biotechnology in Dublin City University for more than 25 years. Trained as a Chemical Engineer in UCD (BE and PhD) and Cornell (MS). Does research on analysis and design of membrane filtration systems.
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2 Responses to Are we all natural-born scientists?

  1. conorjh says:

    What a sad view of what it is most important to being a scientist! Sagan presumably meant children are curious about the world, excited to know how it works and this make them scientist. What you describe is something else, the scientific method, the method, involving an acquired skepticism, we have learned is useful in that quest to understand the world, but curiosity is the animating spirit of science, not skepticism, and yes, Sagan is right to note that children are curious.

  2. Greg Foley says:

    My point is that the vast majority of people probably don’t have that curiosity and even those that do might not be naturally inclined to be very ‘scientific’ in the true sense of the word. Have a read of some of Jonathan Haidt’s books – fascinating stuff about how the human mind works. If anything, human beings are innately irrational in the sense that they are ruled by intuition followed up by post-hoc rationalisation!

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