Thursday, December 11, 2008


Thinking Design

Here’s an interesting article by Hania Köver for the Berkeley Science Review entitled “The psychology of teleology.” It is a brief report on a study by Berkeley psychologist Tania Lombrozo on why some people find teleological explanations, such as Intelligent Design Creationism, so compelling.

Lombrozo was motivated by the observation that young children often explain the existence of objects and phenomena with reference to their function, a kind of reasoning termed teleological. Ask a three-year old why it rains, for example, and you are likely to hear something like "so that plants have water to grow." ... This tendency of children to infer design suggests an explanatory default: In the absence of competing knowledge, the best explanation for an object with a plausible function is that it was designed to fulfill that function.

Unlike children, most educated adults know that clouds form because water condenses, and that mountains exist because of plate tectonics. However, Lombrozo was interested in whether adults would fall back on teleological reasoning in the absence of background knowledge.

In order to study the question, Lombrozo and her colleagues Deborah Kelemen and Deborah Zaitchik studied Alzheimer's patients, who:

“ ... have some characteristics of adults and some characteristics of children," says Lombrozo. "Like adults, they have undergone normal development and have presumably gotten rid of any reasoning strategies associated only with children. But like pre-school children, they might not have access to the kinds of rich causal beliefs that adults typically have access to."

The patients and a control group of healthy age-matched people were asked to choose the best explanation for a set of phenomena from a choice teleological and non-teleological explanations and the Alzheimer's patients chose the teleological explanations about twice as often as the healthy controls.

This part may be a bit controversial:

"The results support the idea that adults and children have the same sorts of cognitive mechanisms at work, and that adults are just overriding the explanatory default with background knowledge," says Lombrozo. They also fit in with findings from other studies that show more frequent use of teleological explanations in less educated adults, and in educated adults making speeded judgments.

Lombrozo believes this may explain why intelligent design and creationism are still so pervasive in today's society. But that doesn’t quite explain why it is much more prevalent in the US than in the rest of the developed world -- unless Americans are much less educated than most other people in the First World ... or much more childlike.

There are, of course, the just-so explanations for the origin of teleological thinking:

"One possibility is that if you look at our evolutionary past or at our experiences growing up, one of the things we did most often was explaining human behavior. And human behavior is generally goal-directed — it does involve intentions and functions. We may be taking the mode of explanation that we're best at and then applying it to other domains," she says. "Another possibility is that it's more effective. We're going to learn more about the world if we go around assuming that things have functions and then sometimes discovering we were wrong, rather than the reverse."

Whatever the value of those suggestions, I think Lombrozo is probably right about this:

[M]ost of the time, functional explanations don't do a lot of harm. In fact, they can sometimes help people understand concepts that might otherwise be too difficult. In chemistry, for example, it can be helpful to think about the electron wanting to go to where it's positive, or, when learning about evolution, that the moth doesn't want to be visible to its predator.

In fact, teleological language is rather common in science, which served as the basis for one of the more ingenious arguments for design.

Thanks to TomS for pointing out this other article, in Evolution: Education and Outreach, by Tania Lombrozo, along with Anastasia Thanukos and Michael Weisberg, on a study on how best to teach the nature of science and evolution:

Teaching science with the aim of changing students’ beliefs about evolution raises difficult questions about the proper role of teachers and science education ... But, applying the insights of evolution to medicine, public policy, environmental issues, and decisions about what to eat and how to live requires not only understanding evolution but accepting it as well. We suggest that if we want our students to understand and accept evolution, a more realistic picture of the nature and process of science is essential.

When searching the web for the author "Tania Lombrozo", I found another article which she co-authored which may be interesting:

Tania Lombrozo, Anastasia Thanukos and Michael Weisberg
The Importance of Understanding the Nature of Science for Accepting Evolution
Evolution: Education and Outread
Vol. 1 no. 3 (July 2008) pp. 290-298

Tom S.
Being interested in the evolution/ID controversy, and also having just taught a lot of Aristotle this semester, I wonder at the pervasiveness of teleological explanations.

It seems to me that we invoke teleological explanations not just in order to understand other humans, but in order to understand complex animal life generally -- and I would not be surprised if a grasp of intentional ascriptions is commonplace among hunters and fishers, though I don't know.

My sense of the matter is that Aristotle was correct in thinking of intentionality as pervasive in the animal world generally, and erred only in generalizing it to encompass "nature" as such. (And is it really so crazy to think of plants as 'wanting' sunlight and water?)
My sense of the matter is that Aristotle was correct in thinking of intentionality as pervasive in the animal world generally, and erred only in generalizing it to encompass "nature" as such.

I tend to agree but there may be finer distinctions to be made, perhaps between intention and intentional design. A lion certainly intends to hunt and kill but is the social structure of a pride, which clearly aids in fulfilling the individual lion's intention, itself the result of intention? Discovering what is intentional and what is not may be like peeling an infinite onion.
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