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Question
Dear Jeff,
There is little doubt that there has always been a huge gap between pre-scientific and scientific people. How can tolerance and harmony be achieved? Only with love and understanding? Why does there seem to be so little? Why do beliefs stand in the way of friendships with the other side? Why must atheists and theists always be true believers first and compromising people afterwards? Why is it important to be right? Only for ego? Does not truth exist in layers and tolerance.


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Answer
Hey Charles,
Sorry the response took me so long! Busy times!

Your questions gets at two issues - Education and Ideology. Some people are ignorant about science because they do not have access to a scientific education but other people are ignorant about science because they deliberately or avoid or reject scientific ideas for ideological reasons.


World Science Education:
First, many people are pessimistic about world development, but actually the world is making great progress at a steady rate. For instance, here [1] is changes in the Human Development Index, here [2] is current real GDP growth, here [3] and here [4] is a progress update on vaccine-preventable diseases in the developing world, and here [5] and here [6] show a decline in a variety of world violence [7]. Predicting the future is risky in a field as complicated as international politics, but the trends for world development are favorable despite the doom and gloom favored by the media.

The educational resources accessible from the Internet are also increasing. Not only is there Wikipedia and YouTube, but now there is publicly available courses [8-11], free experts [12] and experts for hire [13]. These resources are changing the way classrooms function [14-16], improving the resources available even to classrooms with limited access to the technology [3][17]. There is no replacement for a qualified instructor, but these digital resources have the potential to make instructors much more effective.

So overall I'm optimistic about the future of science education. Maybe it will take 30 years for Africa to reach the point that China is at now, 30 years for China to reach the point the US is at now, and 30 years for the US to reach the point Korea is at now. But under those assumptions, almost the entire world will have a Korea-style education (or better) by the end of the century. Of course a lot of things can happen between now and then, but to me it seems closer to inevitable then insurmountable.

And by the way, I expect atheism to increase as well. Here is a recent post on that subject [18].


Overcoming Anti-Scientific Sentiment:
The US, of course, has an excellent economy, a long-standing public education system, and nearly universal access to Internet educational resources. Yet Americans still subscribes to a variety of unscientific views from creationism [19][20], climate change denial [21][22], anti-vaccine sentiment [23], anti-GMO sentiment [24], and a several other issues [25].

This seems like not so much a problem of a pre-scientific people as an anti-scientific people. Of course, since science is (by definition) demonstrable, anti-scientific people are by definition people who are lacking a scientific education. They literally don't know any better. I've made the point before that commonplace features of contemporary religion are unscientific [26]. So I do see it primarily as an education problem, even when all the educational resources are there.

I can point the finger at religion for anti-evolution sentiment and politics for anti-climatology sentiment, but neither fact explains why religions and political factions feel the need to wage war on science (and by extension, reality). And now we get into your really questions - Why do people have stronger desire to feel that they are right than to be right?

I don't fully like Richard Dawkins' explanation that he gave in God Delusion [27]. In it he posited that ideas are shaped by selective pressures as they are transmitted and therefore evolve to be transmitted. So far so good. He further contends that problematic features of religion - the resistance to facts, the threats implicit in the doctrine of faith by salvation, the specific moral instruction - exist to transmit religious ideas most effectively. Religion is literately a parasite of the mind. Whether or not that's true, that can't be the full explanation, though, because I doesn't explain why people are so unscientific to begin with - this is what I find to be the more interesting question.

Humans made be naturally logical but they can also have a naturally irrational side. A type of confirmation bias [28][29] called the backfire effect [30][31] is probably the most dramatic examples of this. The backfire effect refers to a set of experimental results that show that people can actually become more certain in their beliefs when presented with evidence to the contrary. In the face of such a phenomenon, how can anyone be convinced of anything?

Research on the rationality shows that the backfire effect does not occur in cases of pure logic, for example, no experimental participants insist their erroneous mathematical result is correct after being shown the right answer. Similarly, individuals are most likely to exhibit irrational behavior in response to controversial political positions that they have a strong emotional investment in. Here is a detailed and well-cited discussion of these findings [32]. This suggests it is possible to educate someone given the right framing. This why science education, early and often, is so important, because it helps prevent individuals from taking in false ideas and it gives them the tools necessary to sort fact and fiction. Part of the modern atheist/skeptic/scientific movement has been about encouraging people to see disagreements as empirical questions and therefore resolved by demonstrable impersonal data rather than social pressure. I think we need to assert our right to express ourselves, but I think its both factually incorrect and a strategic misstep when we insult believers. A recent study shows that an atmosphere of ideological insults make people more resistant to persuasion [33]. One of things I like about answering questions on AllExperts is that it is a carefully curated space. There is no unnecessary negativity, I can be very detailed and educational, most of the communication is one on one, and I can demonstrate I'm invested in the other person by the care I put into my response. I try.

There is another option as well, however. Some psychologists are theorizing that our use of reasoning is carefully adapted for arguing not impartial analysis [34][35]. Arguing was an evolutionary adaption that our ancestors use to persuade others to help and to gain social status over rivals. Consequently reasoning is best at rationalizing and justifying one's own behavior and one's own worldview. But if no one could win arguments, if arguments had literately nothing to do with reality, than there would be no point in making them at all. Therefore when two people argue there is not just a bias towards the better debater, but also a bias towards the person who is actually right. That's what led these researchers to actually affirm democracy [36][37], even as they take a cynical view of human use of reasoning. Their model is something like an American-style courtroom - There are two people are rigidly committed to opposing positions, but the general public (the jury) as well as informed experts (the judge) can learn a lot from the argument. The process means we have to avoid tribalism (excellently described here [38]), but at least the process gives individuals the opportunity to join the right tribe. What is worse than ideological motivated arguments, the researchers contend, is a system in which no argues at all. But after carefully considering this argument, I still believe that cultivating a culture of compassionate rationality is the best way to transcend the barriers of ignorance and bias.

It can feel disheartening to consider the barriers to rational and scientific thought, but we have to remember that we are succeeding [7][18][39]. The world has never had a more compassionate, knowledgeable, fair-minded, and scientific population than it does today. We've made progress. We're making progress. But we've got a lot of work to do.


Links:
[1] http://hdr.undp.org/en/countries
[2] http://www.translationdirectory.com/images_articles/translation_industry/GDP_rea
[3] http://www.gatesnotes.com/2015-annual-letter
[4] http://www.gatesnotes.com/Health/The-Miracle-of-Vaccines?WT.mc_id=12_03_2014_GT_
[5] http://si.wsj.net/public/resources/images/RV-AE378_VIOLEN_G_20110923205707.jpg
[6] http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/foreigners/2014/12/the_world_is_
[7] http://www.amazon.com/Better-Angels-Our-Nature-Violence/dp/0143122010
[8] http://www.coursera.org/
[9] http://www.khanacademy.org/
[10] http://ocw.mit.edu/index.htm
[11] http://www.udacity.com/
[12] http://www.allexperts.com/
[13] http://helpouts.google.com/
[14] http://www.knewton.com/flipped-classroom/
[15] http://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/flipping-the-classroom/
[16] http://www.pewinternet.org/2013/02/28/how-teachers-are-using-technology-at-home-
[17] http://www.wired.com/2013/10/free-thinkers/all/
[18] http://en.allexperts.com/q/Atheism-2724/2015/1/young-people-move-religion-1.htm
[19] http://www.gallup.com/poll/21814/evolution-creationism-intelligent-design.aspx
[20] http://ncse.com/rncse/30/3/americans-scientific-knowledge-beliefs-human-evolutio
[21] http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/09/23/most-americans-believe-in-climat
[22] http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2014/11/22/3596041/poll-religion-climate-end-ti
[23] http://www.nclnet.org/survey_one_third_of_american_parents_mistakenly_link_vacci
[24] http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/05/us/on-hawaii-a-lonely-quest-for-facts-about-gm
[25] http://www.people-press.org/2009/07/09/section-5-evolution-climate-change-and-ot
[26]http://en.allexperts.com/q/Atheism-2724/2014/1/atheism-15.htm
[27] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_God_Delusion
[28] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Confirmation_bias
[29] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wason_selection_task
[30] http://youarenotsosmart.com/2011/06/10/the-backfire-effect/
[31] http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2011/03/denial-science-chris-mooney
[32] http://www.dartmouth.edu/~nyhan/opening-political-mind.pdf
[33] http://grist.org/living/the-science-of-why-comment-trolls-suck/
[34] http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/15/arts/people-argue-just-to-win-scholars-assert.
[35] http://www.dan.sperber.fr/wp-content/uploads/2009/10/MercierSperberWhydohumansre
[36] https://sites.google.com/site/hugomercier/theargumentativetheoryofreasoning
[37] http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1707029
[38] http://slatestarcodex.com/2014/09/30/i-can-tolerate-anything-except-the-outgroup
[39] http://en.allexperts.com/q/Atheism-2724/2014/9/animal-abuse-christianity.htm

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Jeffrey Ellsworth

Expertise

I am well versed on the arguments for both sides about the existence of God and am especially aware of the philosophical ramifications and psychological reactions to atheism. Also, if you have a question about atheism as that pertains to Science or Skepticism, I may be an especially good pick. However my knowledge of non-Judeo-Christian religions and Biblical archaeology is generally limited to knowledge about directions to more informative resources.

Experience

I've been an atheist for 14 years now, open about it for 9 years after being raised in a Roman Catholic family. In that time I have held many different philosophical perspective on the subject and had different emotional and psychological reactions to atheism. I have absorbed many internet articles, video debates, atheist publications, and secular podcasts in my process of understanding and supporting the atheist movement. I routinely hold conversations on the subject.

Publications
One article in If Journal, an interfaith publication.

Education/Credentials
I have a BS in Physics and Mathematics from the College of William & Mary I am pursuing my Ph.D in Physics at Indiana University at Bloomington. I have very little formal training in philosophy or sociology.

Awards and Honors
I was president of the William & Mary Students for Science & Secularism before graduating.

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