Midnight Thinking

This article got me started thinking. It’s about how people tend to shift their thinking towards what the majority believes because they want to be part of the norm.

Participants, all female, had to rate 222 faces based on physical beauty on a scale from 1 to 8. Afterwards, researchers told each participant either that the average score was higher or that it was lower than her rating. Some participants were told the average rating was equal to her rating. The researchers then chatted with the participant before suddenly asking the participant to do the rating again. Most subjects changed their opinion toward the average.

The two leading theories of conformity are that people look to the group because they’re unsure of what to do, and that people go along with the norm because they are afraid of being different, said Dr. Gregory Berns, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, Georgia.

Somewhere deep inside my cerebral cortex I began to worry that I’d have to be careful from now on about my reasons for believing something, but then a memory began to surface.

Earlier this week I had been in my Spanish class during a “study hall” period sitting with my friend. The boy he was talking to was discussing what he’d want his parents to get him if they were as rich as some of the other kids at school. I said that I’d want a library, or an observatory, or, better yet, a space telescope like Hubble.

Normal kids would want their parents to get them a yacht, or a private jet. Having a library or an observatory would be less likely to make you popular.”

I didn’t think much of that comment at the time, it didn’t minimize my desire to have my own backyard observatory, but I later had a strange feeling.

Earlier this year I had been talking to a girl from China and I asked her what her favourite scientific discipline was. She responded, in Chinese, “Chinese girls don’t like science.”

How many teenagers, and adults, would actually love science but pretend that they don’t like it because they feel like they have to conform? Perhaps the issue that we face is not anti-science, but the simple human urge to conform to the norm.

This leaves me with a thought on a lighter note. Does this mean that fighting anti-science could be as simple as having kids in schools being open about their nerdom and prideful of it just so that other potential scientists and critical thinkers know that they’re not the only one? Could it be as simple as having the Disney channel make a show with a teenager who excels at math and science but doesn’t fit the socially-inept, unfashionable, unpopular creep stereotype?

It could just be the caffeine in me talking, but the idea’s out there now. Begin constructive criticism, or implementation.

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  1. Joy Wang
    January 16, 2009 at 11:33 am —

    Hmm…that’s an interesting concept, but I don’t really know if that’s the root cause of anti-science. Does the conform-to-the-norm phenomenon exist? Absolutely. Is it contributing to the problem? Definitely. But I think the actual cause might be a bit more difficult to pin down.

    Showing kids that science is cool and being a nerd or a critical thinker isn’t a bad thing would likely combat anti-scientific sentiment quite effectively.

    As to the Disney idea: yes, it would be great, but the odds of that happening aren’t terribly good. Once we’ve been able to genetically manipulate the forelegs of pigs into wings, we might consider it.

  2. kayla_unkempt
    January 16, 2009 at 2:46 pm —

    I see people all the time freaking out about how they’re failing math, and then shrugging their shoulders when they fail science. When I have an A in science, they asked me how the heck I do it. “I actually like science” I tell them.

    I get incredulous looks from them because no, I do not wear glasses and nerdy clothes, and yes, I am a teenager (girl!) who also likes to hang out with my friends and go shopping and have a life outside of schoolwork. Stereotypes are strong – and everyone wants to fit in.

    For teens (and just most people in the world anyways) clothes, tv shows, etc. go in and out of style, but learning (especially science) is never cool. It’s a shame, really.

  3. MaggieMoo
    January 16, 2009 at 8:28 pm —

    I doubt that Disney could make anything appeal and factually correct. I think that liking the sciences is influenced both by what the normal kids do, and how one is taught the subject. To explain, everyone in my chemistry class said that they would NEVER take the AP Chem course that would get them college credits. Some kids had valid reasons, but one group of people said that they “didn’t want to hang out with the freaks and dorks”. I doubt if Disney could portray a fun and factual chemist (where’s Bill Nye the Science Guy when you need him??)

    Oh, and FYI, i fell in love with chemistry because my class is held in the chem lab and we got to do labs and had extra help when explain difficult concepts because we could show the concept with chemicals!

    there are a total of 9 people in my chemistry elective this year (its 2 years of chemistry!)

  4. January 16, 2009 at 8:53 pm —

    Yeah, sometimes, I get looks when I talk about science, and when I get everything while all the other people don’t. I remember last year chemistry, I was the only one to get over a hundred percent, and I broke test curves. It seems like the dislike of chemistry, though, comes from incompetent teachers. The one I had didn’t know how to teach well, and the one my brother has is incompetent. So, instructors matter.

  5. January 16, 2009 at 9:18 pm —

    I know what you mean by that strange feeling when others comment something on how I can like science. By the way, I like the observatory idea too. ^_^

  6. kayla_unkempt
    January 18, 2009 at 3:53 pm —

    Yeah, If my parents were rich they could pay for my college and an huge huge huuugggeee library that I’d probably never come out of. Who needs a yatch anyways? Plus, I hate airplanes – private jet or not.

  7. January 18, 2009 at 4:12 pm —

    Why do you hate planes? 🙁 It is cool seeing all those landscapes, ocean, and clouds from up high. Or maybe I am just a weirdo.

  8. Joy Wang
    January 18, 2009 at 6:38 pm —

    Planes are awesome. If I had a huuuuge library, I don’t think I’d ever see the light of day again.

  9. January 20, 2009 at 4:57 am —

    Ditto the comment about bad science teachers sometimes being the problem. It’s either a lack of enthusiasm, or a lack or knowledge, and sometimes both.

    When doing a bit on evolution for the evolutionary psychology approach for the Psych exam which I have on Friday (and should be revising for right now…) I had to explain to the teacher (who also teaches biology) about the theory of evolution 🙁

    She gave a description of a “Cone Head Man” suddenly appearing with the mutation, and the cone was “useful, so he decided to keep it”… Ahh! I mean, come onnnnn, it’s not enough to keep the mind alive.

    My chemistry teacher was a fundamentalist Christian who didn’t agree with many of the findings of his subject, or the age of the universe, etc. As a result, I dropped the subject a few years ago, thinking it was boring, and have only lately realised how fascinating it could have been.

    I’ve always loved biology though, because I think it’s more intuitive. Physics may have been taught well, but I just didn’t get it, despite being fascinated by some areas of it.

    I would love a huge library.

    From the UK, with love, and exam panic,

  10. kayla_unkempt
    January 20, 2009 at 9:30 pm —

    @IBY – It is cool seeing the landscapes, but I’m afraid I’m quite terrified of heights and my ears get all plugged up and the airlines always manage to seat me next to a crying, puking baby. No, if I wand lanscapes, I use Google Earth.

    Also, this really spiffy art exhibition by Yann Arthus-Bertrand = http://www.yannarthusbertrand.com/v2/yab_us.htm

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