Edge 211 — May 29, 2007
(5,600 words)


Why Do Some People Resist Science?
By Paul Bloom and Deena Skolnick Weisberg

PEN/Robert Bingham Fellowship for Writers
Awarded to Janna Levin


[Cover Story]

Life 2.0
Lee Silver

Making It Happen
Barrett Sheridan

Our Synthetic Futures
Rudy Rucker


Jared Diamond

Sunday Book Review
'The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science' by Natalie Angier
Steven Pinker

Human Mate Selection Is a Many-Splendored Thing

My Week: Richard Dawkins

Jimmy Wales

David Rockwell

Science Journal
Biodiverse MySpace? Online Encyclopedia To Name All Species
Robert Lee Hotz

Mark Moffett

PBS Greenlights Wired Science to Premiere in October

Newsweek International
June 4, 2007

Life 2.0

COVER STORY A band of maverick scientists—including Craig Venter, who decoded the human genome—are in the verge of rewriting life's genetic code from scratch. They think they can create artificial cells that can manufacture drugs and new materials, prowl the bloodstream for caner and turn sunlight into biofuels. Are they playing God?

By Lee Silver
Newsweek International

June 4, 2007 issue - It last happened about 3.6 billion years ago. a tiny living cell emerged from the dust of the Earth. It replicated itself, and its progeny replicated themselves, and so on, with genetic twists and turns down through billions of generations. Today every living organism—every person, plant, animal and microbe—can trace its heritage back to that first cell. Earth's extended family is the only kind of life that we've observed, so far, in the universe.

This pantheon of living organisms is about to get some newcomers — and we're not talking about extraterrestrials. Scientists in the last couple of years have been trying to create novel forms of life from scratch. They've forged chemicals into synthetic DNA, the DNA into genes, genes into genomes, and built the molecular machinery of completely new organisms in the lab—organisms that are nothing like anything nature has produced.

The people who are defying Nature's monopoly on creation are a loose collection of engineers, computer scientists, physicists and chemists who look at life quite differently than traditional biologists do. Harvard professor George Church wants "to do for biology what Intel does for electronics"—namely, making biological parts that can be assembled into organisms, which in turn can perform any imaginable biological activity. Jay Keasling at UC Berkeley received $42 million from Bill Gates to create living microfactories that manufacture a powerful antimalaria agent. And then there's Craig Venter, the legendary biotech entrepreneur who made his name by decoding the human genome for a tenth of the predicted cost and in a tenth of the predicted time. Venter has put tens of millions of dollars of his own money into Synthetic Genomics, a start-up, to make artificial organisms that convert sunlight into biofuel, with minimal environmental impact and zero net release of greenhouse gases. These organisms, he says, will "replace the petrochemical industry, most food, clean energy and bioremediation."[...more]

Making It Happen
Craig Venter galvanized the Human Genome Project. Can he do it for synthetic biology?

By Barrett Sheridan
Newsweek International

June 4, 2007 issue - Craig Venter is the rude boy of molecular biology. He made himself famous by decoding the human genome faster and cheaper than anyone expected, beating a team of rivals led by the U.S. National Institutes of Health. Since then, Venter has spent much of his time aboard Sorcerer II, his high-tech research vessel, trolling the seas in search of new proteins. The findings will be helpful, he says, on his next project: synthesizing a living organism from a handful of inert chemicals. If he succeeds, he'll be able to turn cells into biochemical factories that can churn out biofuels. NEWSWEEK's Barrett Sheridan spoke with him by phone from Edinburgh, Scotland, on the problems and potential of synthetic biology. [...more]

Our Synthetic Futures
What might happen if we repurpose biology to our own ends?

Web-exclusive commentary
by Rudy Rucker
May 27, 2007

The SynBio approach is onto something big—a new version of nanotechnology, which is the craft of manufacturing things at the molecular scale. SynBio’s plan is to capitalize on the fact that biology is already doing molecular fabrication all the time. What might happen if we repurpose biology to our own ends?

One big worry is what nanotechnologists call the “gray-goo problem.” What’s to stop a particularly virulent SynBio organism from eating everything on earth? My guess is that this could never happen. Every existing plant, animal, fungus and protozoan already aspires to world domination. There’s nothing more ruthless than viruses and bacteria—and they’ve been practicing for a very long time. [...more]

By Paul Bloom and Deena Skolnick Weisberg

"In sum, the developmental data suggest that resistance to science will arise in children when scientific claims clash with early emerging, intuitive expectations. This resistance will persist through adulthood if the scientific claims are contested within a society, and will be especially strong if there is a non-scientific alternative that is rooted in common sense and championed by people who are taken as reliable and trustworthy. This is the current situation in the United States with regard to the central tenets of neuroscience and of evolutionary biology. These clash with intuitive beliefs about the immaterial nature of the soul and the purposeful design of humans and other animals — and, in the United States, these intuitive beliefs are particularly likely to be endorsed and transmitted by trusted religious and political authorities. Hence these are among the domains where Americans' resistance to science is the strongest."


PEN/Robert Bingham Fellowship for Writers ($35,000) [5.21.07]

To Janna Levin
For her novel A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines (Knopf)

The fellowship honors an exceptionally talented fiction writer whose debut work—a novel or collection of short stories published in 2006—represents distinguished literary achievement and suggests great promise.

2007 Awardee

This year's PEN/Robert Bingham Fellow is Janna Levin for her novel A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines (Knopf).

From the judges' citation: "Early in Janna Levin's brilliant first novel…the reader is asked, 'Don't our stories matter?' The question is tremendous, challenging the premise of fiction itself and the choice of the stories she tells, the lives of two great scientists, Kurt Godel and Alan Turing, their extraordinary achievements and their personal tragedies. Levin, who is a physicist and astronomer, does not exclude her own story. She's our Virgil who takes us from the Viennese café of 1931 in which Godel, young and untried, has already come upon his incompleteness theory, to the little hut in Bletchley Park where Alan Turing breaks Germany's Enigma code, and to Levin's own prospect of this day in New York in the 21st century. 'Craving an amulet, a jewel, a reason, a purpose, a truth.' The writer's voice is always present with authority and wonder, observing, listening in, unafraid of her own inventions. Levin's imagery is beautiful, often as elegant as solutions in her home field of mathematics, and always as clear as the answer we seek in the proof of a fine story."


"Danger – brilliant minds at work...A brilliant book: exhilarating, hilarious, and chilling." The Evening Standard (London)

Hardcover — UK
£12.99, 352 pp
Free Press, UK

Paperback — US
$13.95, 336 pp
Harper Perennial

WHAT IS YOUR DANGEROUS IDEA? Today's Leading Thinkers on the Unthinkable With an Introduction by STEVEN PINKER and an Afterword by RICHARD DAWKINS Edited By JOHN BROCKMAN

"A selection of the most explosive ideas of our age." Sunday Herald "Provocative" The Independent "Challenging notions put forward by some of the world’s sharpest minds" Sunday Times "A titillating compilation" The Guardian

"...This collection, mostly written by working scientists, does not represent the antithesis of science. These are not simply the unbuttoned musings of professionals on their day off. The contributions, ranging across many disparate fields, express the spirit of a scientific consciousness at its best — informed guesswork "Ian McEwan, from the Introduction, in The Telegraph

Paperback — US
$13.95, 272 pp
Harper Perennial

Paperback — UK
£7.99 288 pp
Pocket Books

WHAT WE BELIEVE BUT CANNOT PROVE Today's Leading Thinkers on Science in the Age of Certainty With an Introduction by IAN MCEWAN Edited By JOHN BROCKMAN

"An unprecedented roster of brilliant minds, the sum of which is nothing short of an oracle — a book ro be dog-eared and debated." Seed "Scientific pipedreams at their very best." The Guardian "Makes for some astounding reading." Boston Globe Fantastically stimulating...It's like the crack cocaine of the thinking world.... Once you start, you can't stop thinking about that question." BBC Radio 4 "Intellectual and creative magnificance...an impressive array of insights and challenges that will surely delight curious readers, generalists and specialists alike. " The Skeptical Inquirer

May 21, 2007


Author Jared Diamond has a book that tells why civilization succeeds. Yeh, I've read it. It's called The Bible.

"Jared Diamond tells Stephen we have about another 50 years to go." ...


May 27, 2007

'The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science'
By Natalie Angier
Reviewed by Steven Pinker

A refresher course on the fundamentals of science that every person should master.

First Chapter

Though we live in an era of stunning scientific understanding, all too often the average educated person will have none of it. People who would sneer at the vulgarian who has never read Virginia Woolf will insouciantly boast of their ignorance of basic physics. Most of our intellectual magazines discuss science only when it bears on their political concerns or when they can portray science as just another political arena. As the nation’s math departments and biotech labs fill up with foreign students, the brightest young Americans learn better ways to sue one another or to capitalize on currency fluctuations. And all this is on top of our nation’s endless supply of New Age nostrums, psychic hot lines, creationist textbook stickers and other flimflam.

The costs of an ignorance of science are not just practical ones like misbegotten policies, forgone cures and a unilateral disarmament in national competitiveness. There is a moral cost as well. It is an astonishing fact about our species that we understand so much about the history of the universe, the forces that make it tick, the stuff it’s made of, the origin of living things and the machinery of life. A failure to nurture this knowledge shows a philistine indifference to the magnificent achievements humanity is capable of, like allowing a great work of art to molder in a warehouse.


June 2007

Human Mate Selection Is a Many-Splendored Thing

David Buss has a grand unified theory about the evolution of desire. His research has identified 115 love acts, 147 things you can do to upset or annoy the opposite sex, and 237 reasons to copulate. But can that help me find romance?

by Karen Olsson

...It's a counterintuitive picture--at least to women like myself, for whom the search for a mate is no saunter through the produce department--and it didn't exactly catch on with Darwin's Victorian contemporaries. The idea of sexual selection gathered dust for a century, until biologists began thinking again about an evolved basis for social behavior. In 1972 a biologist named Robert Trivers published a crucial paper, "Parental Investment and Sexual Selection," which went a long way to resurrect the theory. Trivers explained differences in sex roles as the consequence of biologically mandated differences in "parental investment," defined as any investment of time or energy a parent devotes to one offspring at the expense of that parent's ability to invest in other offspring. ...


May 27, 2007


Travelling via the US is a bit of a trial for the evolutionary biologist, thanks to security gone mad. But later, he goes on to encounter another, lovely, kind of booby - and a terrific eco-friendly sports car

It was good to be alive as I swam among the marine iguanas and the breathtakingly tame Galapagos sea lions, or walked among the flightless cormorants (unique to Galapagos) hanging their useless stubby wings out to dry. This week I came within touching distance (I did not touch) of nesting wave albatrosses, and of boobies, high-stepping their powder-blue feet in the slow-motion ballet of their surreal courtship. I have watched, spellbound, as boobies and pelicans rained down like arrows into the water, in a feeding frenzy that must strike the fish below with the fishy equivalent of shock and awe.

Our impressive Ecuadorian guides told us that boobies eventually go blind, the consequence of years of repeated high-velocity impacts of their eyes on the water. As Darwin would have realised (The Origin of Species is rich in such economic insights), this accords with natural selection. Eventual death by blinding is the price paid for successful reproduction earlier in life - successful passing on of the genes that laid down this ultimately suicidal behaviour.


May 24, 2007


Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales says that his staff is scrambling to protect Wikipedia from Stephen.


May 24, 2007


A conversation with architect David Rockwell. His book, co-authored with Bruce Mau, is "Spectacle".


May 25, 2007


Biodiverse MySpace? Online Encyclopedia To Name All Species
By Robert Lee Hotz

Formal rules of nomenclature are the hidden scaffolding of science. In crucial ways, however, our vintage system of classification teeters on its foundations, shaken by insights from genetics and evolution that alter how we look at life.

The world may be home to 10 million species of plants, bacteria and animals, researchers estimate; yet only 1.8 million of them have been identified. So, when biodiversity experts this month announced a plan to pool knowledge of every species on a single Web site, it served to highlight how little we know of life and how much there still is to inventory.

Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson and his colleagues launched the new online Encyclopedia of Life with $12.5 million from the MacArthur Foundation and the Sloan Foundation. Over the next decade, they intend to create a Web page for every species known and named. "We are going for nothing less than the complete mapping of the world's biodiversity," Dr. Wilson said.


May 23, 2007


Mark 'Dr. Bugs' Moffett

Conan meets some jealous slugs, a deadly frog, and a lesbian lizard.


May 3, 2007

PBS Greenlights Wired Science to Premiere in October

PBS has picked up the first season of Wired Science, a production of KCET/Los Angeles in association with Wired Magazine, to premiere nationwide October 3, 2007, at 8 p.m. The 10-week primetime series translates Wired's award-winning journalism, design and irreverent attitude into a fast-paced, one-hour weekly television show that will span the globe to chronicle the scientific advances and technologies that are transforming the world.

Wired Science will also have a strong online presence at www.pbs.org/wiredscience. The site, which re-launches in the fall, will feature streaming video of series stories, articles by Wired writers, opportunities for audience interaction and comprehensive educational resources that extend the viewer's experience beyond broadcast.

..."Wired Science imports the DNA of Wired Magazine into an exciting new medium for us," said Chris Anderson, editor in chief of Wired Magazine. "We're delighted to partner with KCET and PBS, as their viewers and our readers have a lot in common: We're all fascinated by the many ways that science and technology are changing the world around us."

The developmental data suggest that resistance to science will arise in children when scientific claims clash with early emerging, intuitive expectations. This resistance will persist through adulthood if the scientific claims are contested within a society, and will be especially strong if there is a non-scientific alternative that is rooted in common sense and championed by people who are taken as reliable and trustworthy. This is the current situation in the United States with regard to the central tenets of neuroscience and of evolutionary biology. These clash with intuitive beliefs about the immaterial nature of the soul and the purposeful design of humans and other animals — and, in the United States, these intuitive beliefs are particularly likely to be endorsed and transmitted by trusted religious and political authorities. Hence these are among the domains where Americans' resistance to science is the strongest.

By Paul Bloom and Deena Skolnick Weisberg

PAUL BLOOM is a psychologist at Yale University and the author of Descartes' Baby. DEENA SKOLNICK WEISBERG is a doctoral candidate in psychology at Yale University.

Paul Bloom's Edge Bio Page
Deena Skolnick Weisberg's Edge Bio Page


It is no secret that many American adults reject some scientific ideas. In a 2005 Pew Trust poll, for instance, 42% of respondents said that they believed that humans and other animals have existed in their present form since the beginning of time. A substantial minority of Americans, then, deny that evolution has even taken place, making them more radical than "Intelligent Design" theorists, who deny only that natural selection can explain complex design. But evolution is not the only domain in which people reject science: Many believe in the efficacy of unproven medical interventions, the mystical nature of out-of-body experiences, the existence of supernatural entities such as ghosts and fairies, and the legitimacy of astrology, ESP, and divination. 
There are two common assumptions about the nature of this resistance. First, it is often assumed to be a particularly American problem, explained in terms of the strong religious beliefs of many American citizens and the anti-science leanings of the dominant political party. Second, the problem is often characterized as the result of insufficient exposure to the relevant scientific facts, and hence is best addressed with improved science education.

We believe that these assumptions, while not completely false, reflect a misunderstanding of the nature of this phenomenon. While cultural factors are plainly relevant, American adults' resistance to scientific ideas reflects universal facts about what children know and how children learn. If this is right, then resistance to science cannot be simply addressed through more education; something different is needed.

What children know

The main source of resistance to scientific ideas concerns what children know prior to their exposure to science. The last several decades of developmental psychology has made it abundantly clear that humans do not start off as  "blank slates." Rather, even one year-olds possess a rich understanding of both the physical world (a "naïve physics") and the social world (a "naïve psychology"). Babies know that objects are solid, that they persist over time even when they are out of sight, that they fall to the ground if unsupported, and that they do not move unless acted upon. They also understand that people move autonomously in response to social and physical events, that they act and react in accord with their goals, and that they respond with appropriate emotions to different situations.

These intuitions give children a head start when it comes to understanding and learning about objects and people. But these intuitions also sometimes clash with scientific discoveries about the nature of the world, making certain scientific facts difficult to learn. As Susan Carey once put it, the problem with teaching science to children is "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." 

Children's belief that unsupported objects fall downwards, for instance, makes it difficult for them to see the world as a sphere — if it were a sphere, the people and things on the other side should fall off. It is not until about eight or nine years of age that children demonstrate a coherent understanding of a spherical Earth, and younger children often distort the scientific understanding in systematic ways. Some deny that people can live all over the Earth's surface, and, when asked to draw the Earth or model it with clay, some children depict it as a sphere with a flattened top or as a hollow sphere that people live inside.

In some cases, there is such resistance to science education that it never entirely sticks, and foundational biases persist into adulthood. A classic study by Michael McCloskey and his colleagues tested college undergraduates' intuitions about basic physical motions, such as the path that a ball will take when released from a curved tube. Many of the undergraduates retained a common-sense Aristotelian theory of object motion; they predicted that the ball would continue to move in a curved motion, choosing B over A below.

An interesting addendum is that while education does not shake this bias, real-world experience can suffice. In another study, undergraduates were asked about the path that water would take out of a curved hose. This corresponds to an event that most people have seen, and few believed that the water would take a curved path.

Our intuitive psychology also contributes to resistance to science. One significant bias is that children naturally see the world in terms of design and purpose. For instance, four year-olds insist that everything has a purpose, including lions ("to go in the zoo") and clouds ("for raining"), a propensity that Deborah Kelemen has dubbed "promiscuous teleology." Additionally, when asked about the origin of animals and people, children spontaneously tend to provide and to prefer creationist explanations.

Just as children's intuitions about the physical world make it difficult for them to accept that the Earth is a sphere, their psychological intuitions about agency and design make it difficult for them to accept the processes of evolution.

One of the most interesting aspects of our common-sense psychology is dualism, the belief that minds are fundamentally different from brains. This belief comes naturally to children. Preschool children will claim that the brain is responsible for some aspects of mental life, typically those involving deliberative mental work, such as solving math problems. But preschoolers will also claim that the brain isn't involved in a host of other activities, such as pretending to be a kangaroo, loving one's brother, or brushing one's teeth. Similarly, when told about a brain transplant from a boy to a pig, they believe that you get a very smart pig, but one with pig beliefs and pig desires. For young children, then, much of mental life is not linked to the brain.

The strong intuitive pull of dualism makes it difficult for people to accept what Francis Crick called "the astonishing hypothesis." Dualism is mistaken — mental life emerges from physical processes. People resist the astonishing hypothesis in ways that can have considerable social implications. For one thing, debates about the moral status of embryos, fetuses, stem cells, and non-human animals are sometimes framed in terms of whether or not these entities possess immaterial souls. For instance, in their 2003 report (Being Human: Readings from the President's Council on Bioethics), the President's Council described people as follows: "We have both corporeal and noncorporeal aspects. We are embodied spirits and inspirited bodies (or, if you will, embodied minds and minded bodies)."

In addition, certain proposals about the role of imaging data in criminal trials assume a strong form of Cartesian dualism. Some have argued that if one could show that a person's brain is involved in an act, then the person himself or herself is not responsible, an excuse that Michael Gazzaniga dubbed "My brain made me do it." This belief that some of our decisions have nothing to do with our brains reflects a profound resistance to findings from psychology and neuroscience.
One reason why people resist certain scientific findings, then, is that many of these findings are unnatural and unintuitive. But there is more to the story than this. After all, some unintuitive scientific facts come to be broadly accepted. Even though children may initially find it hard to understand that objects are made of tiny particles or that the Earth isn't flat, most everyone comes to accept that these things are true. How does this happen?

Also, there are cultural factors that need to be explained. Americans are not more resistant to science in general. For instance, 1 in 5 American adults believe that the Sun revolves around the Earth, which is somewhat shocking—but the same proportion holds for Germany and Great Britain. But Americans really are special when it comes to certain scientific ideas—and, in particular, with regard to evolutionary theory. The relevant data are shown below, from a 2006 survey published in Science. What explains this culture-specific resistance to evolution?

How children learn

Part of the explanation for resistance to science lies in how children and adults process different sorts of information.

Some culture-specific information is not associated with any particular source. It is "common knowledge." As such, learning of this type of information generally bypasses critical analysis. A prototypical example is that of word meanings. Everyone uses the word "dog" to refer to dogs, so children easily learn that this is what they are called. Other examples include belief in germs and electricity. Their existence is generally assumed in day-to-day conversation and is not marked as uncertain; nobody says that they "believe in electricity." Hence even children and adults with little scientific background believe that these invisible entities really exist, a topic explored in detail by Paul Harris and his colleagues.

Science is not special here. Geographic information and historical information is also typically assumed, which is how an American child comes to believe that there is a faraway place called Africa and that there was a man who lived long ago named Abraham Lincoln. And, in some cultures, certain religious beliefs can be assumed as well. For instance, if the existence of supernatural entities like gods, karma, and ancestor spirits is never questioned by adults in the community, the existence of such entities will be unquestioningly accepted by children.

Other information, however, is explicitly asserted.  Such information is associated with certain sources. A child might note that science teachers make surprising claims about the origin of human beings, for instance, while their parents do not. Furthermore, the tentative status of this information is sometimes explicitly marked; people will assert that they "believe in evolution."

When faced with this kind of asserted information, one can occasionally evaluate its truth directly. But in some domains, including much of science, direct evaluation is difficult or impossible. Few of us are qualified to assess claims about the merits of string theory, the role in mercury in the etiology of autism, or the existence of repressed memories. So rather than evaluating the asserted claim itself, we instead evaluate the claim's source. If the source is deemed trustworthy, people will believe the claim, often without really understanding it. As our colleague Frank Keil has discussed, this sort of division of cognitive labor is essential in any complex society, where any single individuals will lack the resources to evaluate all the claims that he or she hears.

This is the case for most scientific beliefs. Consider, for example, that most adults who claim to believe that natural selection can explain the evolution of species are confused about what natural selection actually is—when pressed, they often describe it as a Lamarckian process in which animals somehow give birth to offspring that are better adapted to their environments. Their belief in natural selection, then, is not rooted in an appreciation of the evidence and arguments. Rather, this scientifically credulous sub-population are deferring to the people who say that this is how evolution works. They trust the scientists.

This deference to authority isn't limited to science; the same process holds for certain religious, moral, and political beliefs as well.  In an illustrative recent study, subjects were asked their opinion about a social welfare policy, which was described as being endorsed either by Democrats or by Republicans. Although the subjects 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 favored political party was said to endorse it. More generally, many of the specific moral intuitions held by members of a society appear to be the consequence, not of personal moral contemplation, but of deference to the views of the community.

Adults thus rely on the trustworthiness of the source when deciding which asserted claims to believe. Do children do the same? Recent studies suggest that they do; children, like adults, have at least some capacity to assess the trustworthiness of their information sources. Four- and five-year-olds, for instance, know that adults know things that other children do not (like the meaning of the word "hypochondriac"), and when given conflicting information about a word's meaning from a child and from an adult, they prefer to learn from the adult. They know that adults have different areas of expertise, that doctors know about fixing broken arms and mechanics know about fixing flat tires. They prefer to learn from a knowledgeable speaker than from an ignorant one, and they prefer a confident source to a tentative one. Finally, when five year-olds hear about a competition whose outcome was unclear, they are more likely to believe a character who claimed that he had lost the race (a statement that goes against his self-interest) than a character who claimed that he had won the race (a statement that goes with his self-interest). In a limited sense, then, they are capable of cynicism.


In sum, the developmental data suggest that resistance to science will arise in children when scientific claims clash with early emerging, intuitive expectations. This resistance will persist through adulthood if the scientific claims are contested within a society, and will be especially strong if there is a non-scientific alternative that is rooted in common sense and championed by people who are taken as reliable and trustworthy. This is the current situation in the United States with regard to the central tenets of neuroscience and of evolutionary biology. These clash with intuitive beliefs about the immaterial nature of the soul and the purposeful design of humans and other animals — and, in the United States, these intuitive beliefs are particularly likely to be endorsed and transmitted by trusted religious and political authorities. Hence these are among the domains where Americans' resistance to science is the strongest.

We should stress that this failure to defer to scientists in these domains does not necessarily reflect stupidity, ignorance, or malice. In fact, some skepticism toward scientific authority is clearly rational. Scientists have personal biases due to ego or ambition—no reasonable person should ever believe all the claims made in a grant proposal. There are also political and moral biases, particularly in social science research dealing with contentious issues such as the long-term effects of being raised by gay parents or the explanation for gender differences in SAT scores. It would be naïve to ignore all this, and someone who accepted all "scientific" information would be a patsy. The problem is exaggerated when scientists or scientific organizations try to use their authority to make proclamations about controversial social issues. People who disagree with what scientists have to say about these issues might reasonably infer that it is not safe to defer to them more generally.

But this rejection of science would be mistaken in the end. The community of scientists has a legitimate claim to trustworthiness that other social institutions, such as religions and political movements, lack. The structure of scientific inquiry involves procedures, such as experiments and open debate, that are strikingly successful at revealing truths about the world. All other things being equal, a rational person is wise to defer to a geologist about the age of the earth rather than to a priest or to a politician.

Given the role of trust in social learning, it is particularly worrying that national surveys reflect a general decline in the extent to which people trust scientists. To end on a practical note, then, one way to combat resistance to science is to persuade children and adults that the institute of science is, for the most part, worthy of trust.

[This is a modified version of P. Bloom & D. S. Weisberg, "Childhood origins of adult resistance to science", published in Science, May 18, 2007. This article contains citations of the experimental studies discussed here.]

John Brockman, Editor and Publisher
Russell Weinberger, Associate Publisher

contact: [email protected]
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Edge Foundation, Inc
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