As we look at the history of humanity, we often focus on the individuals who made fundamental discoveries and enabled us to advance our knowledge, by challenging directly the system of beliefs they lived in.
A remarkable example of that, is represented by the Italian scientist, Galileo Galilei (Pisa 1564 – 1642), who championed the Copernican heliocentric model in opposition to the geocentric and geoheliocentric models officially supported by the Church and most of educated people at the time.
To date, despite living in the twenty-first century, lots of people still distrust scientific truths deemed controversial, the likes of biological evolution and climate change. That tells us once more how, centuries and millennials go by, but human psychology stays the same.
Gale Sinatra, professor of Education and Psychology at University of Southern California (USC), in Los Angeles, has shared with us the way emotional and motivational resistance comes into play.
Please introduce yourself. How did your upbringing in an Italian-American household inform your education?
I am a professor of Education and Psychology at USC. I currently teach doctoral students and enjoy fostering a love for research in them and helping them to become scholars in their own right.
I grew up in the Boston area and my grandparents, on my father’s side, emigrated from Agrigento (on the southern coast of Sicily) to Ellis Island, NY, around 1908.
Initially, my grandfather worked as a tailor in the New York area, before relocating with his family around Boston, where I was raised.
My Italian heritage certainly played a significant part in my upbringing. Humanity and care for others were highly valued in my household. To date, the centrality of family remains one of my main values, along with a love for food and cooking.
Gale Sinatra, professor of Education and Psychology at University of Southern California (USC)
What captivated you about the role played by psychology in the process of learning scientific subjects?
I believe it’s very important to consider the psychology of learning. I’ve always been drawn to science. I’ve been to the University of Padua and have seen Galileo’s chair.
In early seventeenth century, this Italian astronomer had such a controversial notion about the role of the Earth in the Solar System, thus contrasting the common beliefs endorsed by the majority of educated people and the Church.
We all know how this story ended, but that’s also the kind of challenge I am inspired with. How do people understand the natural world and reconcile that scientific understanding with their own personal and religious beliefs?
Your recent research has focused on the role of motivation and emotion in teaching and learning about controversial topics, such as biological evolution and climate change. Please, elaborate.
I’ve been investigating how people’s motivations and emotions interact with scientific information and how conscience process the latter. In the US, there is a great deal of resistance to science, particularly in the areas of biological evolution and climate change.
The reasons are mainly psychological and related to how people feel about their identities and the communities they belong to, including the political parties they are affiliated with.
Time ago, Pope Francis himself wrote about evolution, stating that it doesn’t contradict matters of faith. The current pope also invited to take action on climate change, with the promulgation of the encyclical, Laudato si’.
Lots of people do understand that religious issues are different and separate from issues of science. Aside from groups who believe in the Bible literally, and some fringes of extremists, most of the world religions, including Catholicism, has no significant problem recognizing the scientific impact of the evolutionary views.
You recently served as Co-Principal Investigator (Co-PI) on National Science Foundation grant, which resulted in a co-edited volume, Evolution Challenges: Integrating research and practice in teaching and learning about evolution (Oxford University Press). What could you tell us about this experience?
This grant, funded by the National Science Foundation, put together a number of scholars in different areas, such as mind psychology, right education and evolutionary biology.
We examined what those “evolution challenges” are. For example, on the one hand, the complexity for people who don’t study the subject directly, in understanding scientific concepts, that involve genetics, anthropology and so many other components.
On the other, the above-mentioned emotional issues related to people’s sense of identity, were thoroughly investigated.
Looking at both biological evolution and climate change, it looks like one of the main challenges in the acceptance of the two phenomena is the dilated times and slow pace by which changes occur. Is that a cognitive factor in play?
Certainly, they play their part in people’s cognitive/conceptual acceptance of the two phenomena, but, in addition, there is the motivational and emotional resistance, along with prior and contradictory beliefs.
Sometimes, people may even be mistaken about the positions held by the religious groups they belong to. They think there is a conflict with their articles of faith, when there is not any in fact.
In the US, there is a big issue of identity as far as climate change. In the current divisive political situation, people feel, more than ever, they must align themselves to their political parties’ perspectives. Thus, politics extends over a matter that should remain a dominion of science.
It’s difficult for people to have direct access to scientific data and grapple with that information. So, it’s not surprising they use other parameters to decide what to believe in, often adopting their communities’, religious and political groups’ perspectives.
Do you have professional and/or emotional bonds with Italy?
I have a collaborator, Italian psychologist Lucia Mason, professor of Developmental and Educational Psychology at the University of Padua. We conducted research and published together and I’ve had the opportunity to visit her in a number of occasions.
Despite several trips to Italy, I’ve never been to Sicily and I wish one day to go to Agrigento, and see the place where my grandparents grew up, before migrating to the US.