Bridging the gap

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Posted by: stak
Posted on: 2013-04-07 10:53:07

A lot of people believe in some science. Some people believe in a lot of science. And a few people believe exclusively in science. Some common non-scientific beliefs include things like paranormal activity, an afterlife, intelligent design - things that are generally mutually exclusive with science as we know it today.

People who believe strongly in science sometimes have a hard time understanding how other people can not believe in science. The gap between people who believe in evolution and those who believe in intelligent design, for example, is huge, with many uncompromising extremists on either side. I have a theory for how this comes to be, or at least a theory that helps me make sense of the situation.

Take the Monty Hall problem. In this problem, there is a prize hidden behind one of three doors, and you have to guess which one. After you pick a door, one of the other doors is shown to be a losing door. You then have the option of switching doors to the other unopened door or sticking with your original pick. For the vast majority of people, intuition suggests that the probability remains unchanged, and there is no advantage to switching. However, statistics says otherwise: the probability of winning is higher if you switch.

This is one of the simplest examples I can think of where human intuition is demonstrably wrong. If people are accepting of statistics, then upon being shown the logic behind this, they will realize that their intuition is wrong, and choose to discard it. However, I expect that some people place so much value in their own intuition that they refuse to believe the statistics and continue to believe their intuition. There is no real practical fallout from this - most people never run into this problem in their daily lives, and even if they did, they'd end up choosing the right door slightly less frequently. Big deal. Choosing to believe your intuition here is something that is easily done, because it doesn't noticeably impact your life for the worse, and is not fundamentally incompatible with other beliefs that you might hold.

Of course, the Monty Hall problem is just one small example. There are many examples that can be pulled from many scientific fields where common human intuition is just plain wrong. And human intuition varies from person to person, too. For some people, intuition strongly suggests creatures as complex as humans must have been designed and created by some other entity. Science says otherwise. As with the Monty Hall problem, some people, upon being shown the scientific evidence, will choose to discard their intuition and believe in evolution instead of intelligent design. But other people will not. And critically, choosing to believe intelligent design doesn't noticeably impact your life for the worse (except for having to constantly engage in debate with scientists, which is more of a meta-problem), and is not fundamentally incompatible with other beliefs that you might hold.

Some of you may disagree with that last bit - to science-believers, intelligent design is fundamentally incompatible with other beliefs. But of course, this all depends on what you believe. You don't need to believe in a all-powerful god to believe in intelligent design; it could just as easily have been an alien race that did the designing. You don't have to reject fossils; the alien race might have planted those on purpose to disguise the truth. And so on - there are many ways to make a particular belief compatible with other things that you believe. To a scientist, such beliefs violate Occam's razor (and generally sound increasingly outrageous) but to somebody who doesn't believe in Occam's razor or in making hypotheses falsifiable it's not a problem in the least. It's pretty easy to come up with a set of internally-consistent beliefs that includes intelligent design, and many people have done exactly that.

The thing that's important to me is whether or not people are forced into such belief sets, or whether they choose them. It's one thing to consciously choose to reject evolution and choose intelligent design - there are valid reasons for doing so, and I have no problem with that. Even implicitly rejecting evolution because it sounds too hare-brained and unconsciously choosing intelligent design is fine by me - it's still a choice on the part of the individual. However, I dislike it when people are forced into a choice because of their ancestors or society. Legislation that bans evolution from schools is one way this choice is forced upon people, and that seems wrong to me. On the other hand, discriminating against people who believe in religion or intelligent design is another way that this choice is forced upon people, and that too, seems wrong to me.

Let people believe what they want. If you believe in evolution, then you should realize that there are selection pressures already at work that will, in the long run, weed out the incorrect beliefs. If the world were filled with Monty Hall problems, people who trusted statistics over their intuition would thrive - that's just survival of the fittest. Who knows - over time, human intuition might even evolve to match the science!

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