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Sigal Tifferet

Senior Lecturer, Ruppin Academic Center


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Can people who deny science be educated? How?

Some of my undergraduate students deny scientific research with the following claims: (1) my experience shows otherwise, (2) scientific results are always changing, (3) each person has his own truth.
Is there a way to change their way of thinking, or should it be treated as a belief, similar to religion which is unfalsifiable?
If it is subject to change, how would you go about achieving that change?
Please do not answer the question "Should people who deny science be educated?", that is a different issue.


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    Feb 16 2011: No, they can not.

    Not if you understand what science actually is and implies.
    "Science is the set of methods that can uncover truth" (As a very very short definition)

    If you use this definition, you cannot uncover truth, hence not be propper educated.

    To go into the claims:
    (1) sure, experience shows otherwise... and experience can be delusional... show them examples of illusions (visual, auditive, taste, cognitive,...) And explain that even knowing those illusions doesn't free you from perceiving them.

    (2) Indeed. As our knowledge about the world is always incomplete and default.
    There are however results and laws that don't change, and can be asserted as true with a probability approaching 1.
    If they don't want to believe the laws of Newton, ask them to do the '10 high' test (jumping from a 10 storey building) and see whether gravity is real or not...

    (3) This is false: each person has his own image of the world and his own assumptions of what is true or not. There is only one truth. Each person has his or her own understanding of it.
    You can compare each others understanding, see where there are differences, and put them to the test (in which case you are doing scientific research!)

    Hope this helps
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      Feb 16 2011: I beg to differ that they cannot be educated. I totally understand your premise for making such statement but what about thinking outside the science box? They are probably non believers of science & have beliefs in religion etc. God vs. Darwinism... A different view! Are you saying that people who believe in religion or anything other than science are uneducated?
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        Feb 16 2011: "Are you saying that people who believe in religion or anything other than science are uneducated?"

        Not to speak for Christophe, But, as for me, I think the simple answer to that question is "Yes".

        The longer answer is that I would say, if they deny legitimate Science and its findings, they are under-educated regarding the true nature of scientific inquiry and/or operating under a cognitive disconnect about it...To me, I don't see how anyone can examine the evidence for Evolution, for example, with sufficient understanding of what the evidence presents as fact, and come away saying that it is not a valid explaination for describing the progress and diversity of life.
        • Feb 22 2011: I'm with Michael here too. To believe in anything without reproducible evidence is an act of ignorance.

          A good example:-

          A few years ago I put down my religion as "Jedi" on the UK census. I don't pretend to have super powers nor do I actually have them. I did it to prove a point. My mother was outraged, perhaps even more so than when I told her I was an athiest. My response was perhaps not the most diplomatic but I think summarises the point most other athiests will agree with.

          Being a Jedi is based on a belief in a recent film. ( at least films have special effects)
          Being a Christian/Muslim/etc requires belief in an ancient book.

          I know the film was man made, and fictitious. I also know that the book(s) are man made and fictitious. Yet she is prepared to believe the contents of a book that is largely contradictory and written by multiple parties a significant time after the events they attempt to describe. Why? A simple lack of education or simply brainwashing. Those books are no more a source of historical truth or "real truth" than any film.
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          Feb 24 2011: Not everything in this world is quantifiable and measurable, reproducible, and able to have its mystery sucked out of it so it can be properly categorized and made small. Not all science does that either. The social sciences, that so many in the scientific world don't like or do not understand, try to apply much of what you just said to things that are harder to understand.

          When you are attracted to a person of the opposite sex, neurons fire, hormones are released, and who knows how many other processes happen during the course of "mating". But when we make love, the feelings we have, the possible connection we feel, which may or may not be reproducible(and may never happen again) or any other way scientifically studied(except abstractly through statistics maybe?), should not be chalked up to ignorance. It is why science is not, in my opinion, absolute and undeniable.. it doesn't take into account all the many special things that can't be explained, or maybe SHOULDN'T be explained..

          I know you are arguing religion specifically, but I am arguing extremism.. any belief taken too far, too absolutely, is EQUALLY fallible, and likely just as bad. I thank god, or whatever the hell it is that allows us to exist, be it strings, or one of those ancient religions, that there is so much diversity in life and in people for us to all be able to type on keyboards, and send information flying every direction simultaneously so we can all see it. Yes, science made it possible, and so did whatever it is that made science possible, be it potential, big bangs, or anything else.

          I have a few characters left, so here are last thoughts. Everything is amazing, and nobodies happy http://youtu.be/8r1CZTLk-Gk

          I don't try to imagine a personal God; it suffices to stand in awe at the structure of the world, insofar as it allows our inadequate senses to appreciate it.

          So much to consider that I could never, ever, ever, make my world so small as you sound like you have.
      • Feb 16 2011: One slight comment, which makes my argument relevant, is that he asks whether they should, not whether they could. But that is not my point...

        A person who denies science, usually doesn't do so from ignorance, but rather a conflict of emotions that forces him to deny that which he can (or could) recognize as a truth.

        We can all choose in what to believe. Similarly, we can choose whether to challenge the very forces that drive us, or simply believe in them blindly. Therefore, I believe that in that sense, a person could not become an educated scientist...

        Nevertheless, they can still be educated on the interpersonal relations that we have, be charitable, or perhaps even good business men. We musn't generalize too much, for there are a thousand forms of intelligence. Just because a person refuses to believe in science doesn't mean a person cannot read and learn about other areas. Similarly to how a person who doesn't believe in religions, God, etc., can still be educated on the subject.

        Short answer: Yes.

        But not in areas that require scientific knowledge.
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        Feb 17 2011: Chandra:

        "Are you saying that people who believe in religion or anything other than science are uneducated?"

        I do not say that (It would be folly to state such at thing)

        I would claim that they either believe something contrary to truth, or something redundant (i.e. something that cannot be proven nor dis-proven).
        Which I think indicates they are either irrational or ignorant.
        As happens, education can reduce both....

        So I'd agree with
        "people who believe in religion or anything other than science are undereducated"

        @ Roberts: agree
        @ Bruno: Knowledge about interpersonal relationships or about charity or anything can be either backed or refuted by science.
        One does not need to follow the scientific method to learn something (It would be cumbersome).

        I would like to add a nice quote of John Stuart Mill in 'on Liberty'
        "In the opinion, not of bad men, but of the best men, no belief which is contrary to truth can be really useful"
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          Feb 24 2011: You said:"I would claim that they either believe something contrary to truth, or something redundant (i.e. something that cannot be proven nor dis-proven)."
          I have this instructor teaching sociology that made a point the other day that was pretty powerful.. regardless of how true or untrue what someone's belief is, if you take the example of a terrorist who destroys his body during a suicide bombing, he believes in what he believes more than anyone else can ever claim.
          Science is fallible because it is in our heads, being used by words, that are so very flexible and fragile. We all accept that what goes up(like when we jump) will come down, even if some don't accept the explanation of gravity that makes it possible. Not all science is so concrete I think, so many things science has explained, then re-explained or theorized when it didn't have it quite right the last time, or the time before.
          The sun revolved around the earth at one point remember? That was until some other "scientist" proved that it didn't. Both used science as the basis of theories that were widely accepted by the scientific community of the time. What if there is an ever BETTER explanation, the last theory not quite being wrong, just not being complete..

          Does that make science imperfect, or just so flexible in our minds that we forgive it for it's transgressions, blaming those individuals who were the REAL culprits.. right?

          Until science can prove or disprove everything that is, we need alternate perspectives to be able to look at those things, because as far as I know.. there are many legitimate questions that science, as it is now, is inadequate to even frame as a question, much less find an answer for. For some that is the faith, for others the mystery, and others(myself would be one) the beauty of whatever this reality we are all coexisting on/in.
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      Feb 19 2011: Thanks Christophe, this is the direct answer to my question. Very helpful.
    • Feb 23 2011: I want to stress what you say about "(3) each person has his own truth.", Christophe.

      As you say, "There is only one truth" - if we can ever reveal that truth or not. So the expression "own truth" is semantically paradox though widely spread because it even appears in philosophical and psychological publications. What people want to express with this term should be named "personal opinion". Personal opinions may be as close to truth as human perspective allows, even congruent, but are never identical with truth itself as being a different category. An opinion may be true ur false but never is "the truth".

      I want to point this out because the term "own truth" or "personal truth" is highly suggestive and even purposefully used for manipulation.
    • Feb 23 2011: Christophe, it's always fun to take a strident hard line of them vs us. We're kinda hardwired to do it.

      But we're also quite adept at knowledge partitioning. That is to say, we can readily and easily hold multiple incongruent pieces of information in our head and believe them all nonetheless, because it requires a degree of effort to cross reference their information and make them congruent with each other.

      It's why even in the NIS, you have 15% of scientists there been religious, while their achievements in the field of science are generally without reproach.

      Taking advantage of knowledge partitioning means that we need to find and seed ideas and information that doesn't 'raise red flags' in a denier's head. With enough of these ideas in there, you can eventually start to challenge them on the congruency of that information. They'll go through a good deal of cognitive dissonance attempting to reconcile opposing facts and ideas.

      And maybe they'll come out better, or maybe they won't. They'll probably just end up confused, but that's ok. Because you can just continue the cycle.

      The trick I suppose is in figuring out what exactly it is that you can 'seed' a person with without 'triggering' other negative mental associations that makes them reject an idea out of hand. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately depending on your perspective), each person is wired differently, the same idea will produce different set of associations that may or may not trigger another set of mental processes that ends up in the rejection of that idea.

      As a societal level, you can only really immerse people in a 'culture of science'. Ideas, media, things that glorify rationality, science, technology... all that good stuff. Something like TED, but more of it, and probably for a younger age group.

      At an individual level, it just means talk to your friends, challenge their assertions, talk about all the good stuff without going out of your way to press buttons.
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        Feb 24 2011: George,

        I think I can agree with most of what you say...

        Alice laughed. "There's no use trying," she said: "one can't believe impossible things."
        "I daresay you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."
        (Through the Looking Glass)

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