Paul Harris of Harvard University is interested in learning how children think about knowledge. He and his colleagues recently completed a study of 10-12 year olds who believe in God. The children were asked various questions about different kinds of entities to determine how their beliefs were established. They were asked about supernatural beings like “God,” as well as invisible entities like “germs.”
The answers were broken down into four broad categories:
- They had encountered the entity
- There was a written source or other authority that asserted the entity existed
- There was some feature of the entity that explained its existence in generalized terms (e.g. “Souls exist because everyone has their own way of being”, or “Germs are on the dirty things”)
- The existence of the entity is required because it fulfills some need or purpose (e.g. “God exists because he tells us the way).
The most interesting discovery was that children differentiate between religious and scientific entities. Their answers demonstrated it pretty conclusively. Nearly 100% of the answers for scientific entities were basically scientific. Only 17% of the answers for religious entities were scientific. What’s more, the scientific entities were usually “proven” to the children by causal relationships. “Germs are what make us sick.” “Air is what we breathe to stay alive.”
The implications of this study shouldn’t be overlooked. In broad strokes, it demonstrates that children are capable of scientific, critical thinking at very early ages. It also shows that they are quite vulnerable to accepting authority, anecdote, and other non-scientific explanations for non-existent things. There’s a gap in their “natural” scientific thinking.
This is something that I’ve been harping about for some time. Good critical thinking is not something that just naturally happens. In fact, we humans are evolutionarily designed to trust authority and popular opinion. Learning skepticism and independent thinking takes time, and it’s never too early to start.
In America, we’ve got some problems with this. The most obvious is that religious organizations demand cultural acceptance of their beliefs as beyond skepticism or scientific inquiry. In effect, they’re demanding that we not teach critical thinking. The whole point of critical thinking is to subject absolutely everything to inquiry. If anything is beyond inquiry then we have no way to say authoritatively that anything is subject to it.
But here’s everything we need to know: If children aren’t taught to be skeptical of authority, anecdote, and assertion, they will accept them and will develop a kind of dualist thinking. They will be vulnerable to faith.
If there was ever a mandate for freethinkers, this is it.