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What's to explain? Kulkarni on "knowing disbelief"

As always, the investment in asking others for help in dispelling my confusion is paying off.

As the 15.5 billion regular readers of this blog (we’re up 1.5 billion with migration of subscribers from the recent cessation of posts in Russell Johnson’s know, I’ve been trying to get a handle on a phenomenon that I’m calling—for now & for lack of a better term—“knowing disbelief” (KD).

I've gotten various helpful tips in comments to the the original blog post & on a follow up, which itself featured some reflections by Steve Lewandowsky.

This time the help comes from Prajwal Kulkarni, a physicist who authors the reflective and provocative blog, “Do I need evolution?” 

I’ll tell you what he said, and what I have to say about what he said.  But first a bit of background – which, if you have seen all the relevant previous episodes, you can efficiently skip by scrolling down to the bolded red text.

1. KD consists in (a) comprehension of and assent to a set of propositions that (b) appear to entail a proposition one professes not to “believe.”

“What is going on in their heads?” (WIGOITH) is the shorthand I’m using to refer to my interest in forming a working understanding (a cogent set of plausible mechanisms that are either supported by existing evidence or admit of empirical testing) for KD.

In that spirit, I formulated a provisional taxonomy consisting of four species of KD: 

  1. FYATHYRIO (“fuck you & the horse you rode in on”), in which the agent (the subject of KD) merely feigns belief in a proposition she knows is not true for the sake of expressing an attitude, perhaps contempt or hostility to members of an opposing cultural group, the recognition of which actually depends on others recognizing that the agent doesn’t really believe it (“Obama was born in Kenya!”);

  2. compartmentalization, in which a belief, or a cluster of beliefs and evaluations (“same-sex relationships enrich my life”), and denial of the same (“homosexuality is a sin”) are both affirmed by the agent, who effortfully cordons them off through behavioral and mental habits that confine their appearance in consciousness to the discrete occasions in which he occupies unintegrated, hostile identities—a form of dissonance avoidance;

  3. partitioning, in which knowledge and styles of reasoning appropriate to the use of it are effectively indexed with situational triggers that automatically summon them to consciousness, creating the risk of the agent will “disbelieve” what she “knows” if an occasion for making use of that knowledge is not accompanied by the triggering condition (think of the expert who doesn’t recognize a problem as being of the type that demands her technical or specialized understanding); and

  4. dualism, in which the agent simultaneously “rejects” and “accepts” some proposition or set of propositions that admittedly have the same state-of-affairs referent but that constitute distinct mental objects individuated by reference to the uses he makes of them in occupying integrated identities, a task he performs without the experience of either “mistake” or “error” (a signature of the kind of bias distinctive of partitioning) or dissonance (the occasion for compartmentalization).

click on me-- or I will cancel the Labor Day 3-day weekend 2. I am most interested in dualism for two reasons.  The first is that I think it is the most plausible candidate explanation for the sort of KD that I believe explains the results in the Measurement Problem (Kahan in press), which reports on a study that found that climate change “believers” and climate change “skeptics” achieve equivalent scores on a “climate science comprehension” assessment test and yet, as indicated, form opposing “beliefs” about the existence of human-caused global warming (indeed, about the existence of global warming regardless of cause).  Indeed, I believe I actually encounter dualism all the time when I observe how diverse citizens who are polarized in their "beliefs in" global warming  use climate science that presupposes human-caused global warming when they make practical decisions.

The second is that I feel it is the member of the taxonomy of the psychological mechanisms that I least understand. It doesn’t answer the WIGOITH question but rather puts it for me in emphatic terms.

3. Here is where Prajwal Kulkarni helps me out.

As I adverted to, Kulkarni’s interest is in public opinion on evolution.  He has insights on KD because that’s another area in which we see KD.

Indeed, KD with respect to evolution supplies the prototype for the “dualism” variant of KD.

click me! c'mon--don't be afraid!As I’ve discussed 439 separate times on this blog, there is zero correlation between “belief in” evolution and the most rudimentary comprehension of the mechanisms of it as represented in the dominant, “modern synthesis” account in evolutionary science.  “Disbelievers” are as likely to comprehend natural selection, random mutation, and genetic variance (and not comprehend them; most on both “sides” of the issue don’t) as “believers.” 

Nor is there any connection between “belief in” evolution and science comprehension generally.

What’s more, “disbelief” is no impediment to learning evolutionary theory. Good teachers can teach smart “disbelieving” kids as readily as they can smart “believing” ones—but doing so doesn’t transform the former into the latter (Lawson & Worsnop 2006).

Indeed, “knowing disbelievers” of evolution can use what they know about the natural history of human beings.  This is the insight (for all of those who, like me I suppose, would otherwise be too obtuse just to notice this in everyday life) of Everhart and Hameed (2014) and Hameed (2014), who document that medical doctors from Islamic cultures simultaneously “reject” evolution “at home,” when they are occupying their identity as members of a religious community, and “accept” it “at work,” when they are occupying their identity—doing their jobs—as professionals.

They are displaying the “dualism” variant of KD.

In response to my admission that they are the occasion for WIGOITH on my part, Kulkarni asks whether I and others who experience WIGOITH are just too hung up on consistency:

I wonder if the problem is that Kahan thinks such people need to be explained in the first place. But why should people be consistent? Why even have that expectation? As Kahan himself notes, even scientists sometimes exhibit cognitive dissonance.

Perhaps we should start from the premise that everyone is intellectually inconsistent at times. Knowing disbelievers should no more need a “satisfying understanding” than amazing basketball players who can’t shoot free-throws. In sports we accept that athletic ability is complicated and can manifest itself in all sorts of unpredictable ways. No one feels the need to explain it because that just the way it is. Why don’t we do the same for intellectual ability?

If we did, we might then conduct research to account for the handful of people who are consistent all the time. Because that’s the behavior that needs explaining.

This is a very fair question/criticism!

Or at least it is to the extent that it points out that what motivates WIGOITH generally—in all instances in which we encounter KD—is an expectation of consistency in beliefs and like intentional states. 

Descriptively, we assume that the agent who harbors inconsistent beliefs is experiencing a kind of cognitive misadventure.  If she refuses to recognize the inconsistency or consciously persists in it, we likely will view her as irrational, a characterization that is as much normative—a person ought to hold consistent beliefs—as descriptive.

Maybe that stance is unjustified (Foley 1979).  In any case, it is rarely openly interrogated and as a result might be blinding us to how living with contradiction coheres with actions and ways of life that we would recognize as perfectly sensible for someone to pursue (although I think if we came to that view, we’d definitely still not think that contradictory beliefs are the “norm”—on the contrary, we’d still likely view them as a recurring source of misadventure and error and possibly mental pathology).

Still, I don’t think any such expectation or demand for “consistency” is what’s puzzling me about dualism!

The reason is that I don’t think there necessarily is any contradiction in the beliefs and related intentional states of the dualist.  For the Pakistani Dr., “the theory of evolution” he “rejects” and the “theory of evolution” he “accepts” are “entirely different things.” 

They appear the same to us, as (obtuse?) observers, because we insist on defining his beliefs with reference solely to their state-of-affairs referents (here, the theory of human being’s natural history that originates in the work of Darwin and culminates in the modern synthesis).

But as objects in the Dr’s inventory of beliefs, attitudes, and appraisals—as objects of reasoning that figure in his competent negotiation of the situations that confront him in one or another sphere of life—they are distinct.

Perhaps, to borrow a bit form the partitioning view, the objects are “indexed” with reference to the situational triggers that correspond to his identity “at home” as an individual with a religious identity” and to his identity “at work” as a medical professional. 

But unlike the expert who as a result of partitioning fails to access the knowledge (or know how) that she herself understands to be requisite to some task (perhaps responding to a brush fire (Lewendowsky & Kirsner 2000), the Dr doesn’t feel he has “made a mistake” when it is brought to his attention that he has “rejected” a proposition that he also “accepts.”  He says, in effect, that you have made a serious mistake in thinking what he rejects and accepts are the same thing just because they have the same state-of-affairs referent. 

I am wondering if he is right. 

Is there a cogent account of the psychology of KD under which we can understand the mental objects of the “theory of evolution” that the Dr “rejects” and the "theory of evolution" that he “accepts” to be distinct because they are properly individuated with reference to the use they play in his negotiating of the integrated set of identities (integrated as opposed to segregated, as in the case of the dissonance-experiencing compartmentalizing, closeted gay man).

If so, what is it?

Once we understand it, we can then decide what to make of this way of organizing the contents of one’s mind—whether we think it is “rational” or “irrational,” a cognitive ability that contributes to being able to live a good life or a constraining form of self-delusion & so forth.

I am grateful to Kulkarni for helping me to get clearer on this in my own thinking.

But I wonder now if he doesn’t agree that there is something very much worth explaining here.


Everhart, D. & Hameed, S. Muslims and evolution: a study of Pakistani physicians in the United States. Evo. Edu. Outreach 6, 1-8 (2013).

Foley, R. Justified inconsistent beliefs. American Philosophical Quarterly, 247-257 (1979).

Hameed, S. Making sense of Islamic creationism in Europe. Unpublished manuscript (2014).

Kahan, D. M. Climate Science Communication and the Measurement Problem, Advances in Pol. Psych. (in press).

Lawson, A.E. & Worsnop, W.A. Learning about evolution and rejecting a belief in special creation: Effects of reflective reasoning skill, prior knowledge, prior belief and religious commitment.Journal of Research in Science Teaching 29, 143-166 (2006).

Lewandowsky, S., & Kirsner, Kim. Knowledge partitioning: Context-dependent use of expertise. Memory & Cognition 28, 295-305 (2000).

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Reader Comments (10)

Knowing Disbelief indeed -- 15.5 BILLION regular readers! - >2x that of the entire human population -- congratulations!!

Also, good post (otherwise)

August 27, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterBrian Robinson


Why limit subscription count to humans?

August 27, 2014 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan


Good point! -- and fodder for yet another fascinating post -- I (and the universe at large) look forward to it.

August 27, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterBrian Robinson

I'm hopping into this conversation late (and it's been a while since I engaged in related conversations), so I'll start naively and progress from there:
The obvious possibility in the climate change context is that people disagree with what they think "most climate scientists believe." They may not believe that there's a "scientific consensus" opposed to them, but that doesn't preclude the possibility that (a) they think a non-overwhelming majority of scientists are opposed to them and wrong (most HIs in that study said scientists were "divided"), or (b) they for some reason reject the category of "climate scientists" as the relevant expert category (Freeman Dyson is better equipped to answer these questions, etc.). I think if you asked most of the respondents, that's what they'd say, no?

(Apologies if I've missed relevant background/premise. Just let me know!)

August 27, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMW


Yes, it's possible that at some point along the identity predictor "belief" in what rspts "know climate scientists believe" (most don't know very much; they attribute to them all sorts of errors) switches from "on" to "off." I discuss in the paper why I don't thnk that's the answer, but it's certainly a possibility & warrants further investigation.

But the KD puzzle doesn't depend on how one interprets of the Measurement Problem study.

What about the Pakistani Dr? What about the students who learn the modern synthesis and become scientsits and who say "I don't believe in evolution."


August 27, 2014 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

I haven't found the unpublished Hameed manuscript, but looking at Everhart & Hameed, I'm not yet convinced that the paper shows much of a contradiction.

Three doctors said they "reject" the theory of evolution. Of these, two said that "microbial evolution is possible," but humans are not a product of evolution. So, by my read, they rejected evolution as a whole because it contains things -- human evolution -- that they disagree with, even though they do believe in microbial evolution. True, one of those two agreed that "Allah created humans and all other species in the form they exist today," but since that person also said that animals cannot evolve, and since she had a limited number of choices, that respondent seems to believe that microbes, but not animal species, can evolve. It's a weird position, but she's not the only one who thinks only relatively simple organisms can evolve in meaningful ways. Are you saying *that's* true KD? Believing in the theory part-way when the theory inherently encompasses the whole?

The third respondent who rejected evolution, Subject #22, answered "neither" to "is microbial evolution possible?" (great quote: "I'm not aware of anything. Maybe it has happened, you know, like in the jungle...who knows what is happening!") but ALSO answered "neither" to "do you think the theory of evolution plays a role in modern medicine?" That person was pretty consistent.

I don't think that study can be reduced to people rejecting evolution "at home" but accepting it "at work," although it does show people who believe in so-called microevolution but not macroevolution, in a sense. I haven't seen the other paper, though, and that may provide more.

I know I'm not offering anything satisfying with this, but I do think it's important to narrow the examples down to *actual* KD before figuring out what's going on.

August 27, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMW


You are right that the "actual" existence of KD should be pinned down before we "explain it," of course.

Everhart and Hameed interviewed a modest sample of Drs, whose views were not uniform. But I have in mind the discussion of the "participants who" they characterized as either "reject[ing] evolution" or "who had other views" but who

also considered the theory to be relevant to medicine. Several participants provided examples, including two participants who considered the theory of evolution to be essential to the study of stem cellseory that depended on interactions between a participant’s perception of religion, science, medicine, and a host of other cultural influences.

That there were so few participants who [rejected the relevance of evolution to medicine] hints that many participants held a professional evaluation of evolution distinct from their other evaluations of the theory. Even participants who felt religious discomfort with evolution nonetheless expressed the opinion that the theory was of medical value.

This professional evaluation of the instrumental value of evolution seemed to be divorced from those same participants’ religiously-inflected perspective. This capability to bracket one meaning of the theory of evolution from another was further substantiated by the remarks of those participants who did not agree that evolution was relevant to medicine. As described above, those participants continued to express their disapproval of the evolution of humans from prior species even when asked to consider the theory from a professional perspective. In so doing, those participants were in the clear minority among their peers. Most of the participants in this study considered the theory of evolution to have subtly different meanings when held up against religion, medicine, or different levels of biota.

Maybe if we are lucky we can entice Everhart &/or Hameed to do a guest post.

First-hand experience isn't a substatitute for valid data, but I am curious: do you find KD of this form -- w/ regard to "disbelief" in evolution by scientists who also clearly *use* knowldge that presupposes it -- completely unfamiliar? Never the experience of a science-interested friend saying, "Wow-- God does some amazing things in his workshop!"

August 27, 2014 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

A guest post by Everhart or Hameed would be great -- the paper relies on additional comments by the doctors but doesn't recount all of the relevant comments word for word. Again, I don't see an inherent contradiction within the people who, when asked if they accept or reject the theory of evolution, say "reject" or "neither," but then say they believe in microbial evolution and say that evolution is used in modern medicine. (The responses for belief in microbial evolution and agreement that evolution plays a role in modern medicine appear to have been identical.) They may believe that bacteria can evolve antibiotic resistance but fish can't evolve into lizards.

I am intrigued by the two who mentioned stem cell evolution, though. Is it clear they agree that stem cell science is good science? I'd want to know more about what they said. So please, invite the authors to guest post (or send me off to invite them)!

I'm not sure whether I've had the experience you mentioned -- I'm ashamed to say that I have a relatively limited group of friends who regularly or openly invoke God. And even so, I don't think that a belief in "guided evolution" (or similar "god makes the science happen" ideas) is knowing disbelief. If you're asking whether it rings true that people maintain knowing disbelief, yes, it does, but it's a ringing I'm particularly skeptical of. I hear constant accusations (usually by liberal associates) of (conservative) hypocrisy -- not the same thing, but related -- that turn out to be not truly hypocritical upon closer examination. I think I might agree with a lot of these people who seem to hold contradictory beliefs that the beliefs aren't true contradictions. They're not the most elegant integration of scientific ideas, but if you start with two strong fundamental principles -- God and reliance on microbial evolution, e.g. -- these beliefs might be the best possible reconciliation of the two.

August 28, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMW

I think that this discussion skips over what is really interesting here - and which actually can be connected to what Krugman was talking about when he was so derided on this blog.

Let's consider the yellow population on the right-hand side of this chart. As presented here, these are people who are of well-above-average scientific understanding. They are therefore presumably aware of the truly vast array of evidence that supports the proposition that the earth is not 10,000 years old and that today's living creatures are descended from ancestors that were of different species.

Despite this, many in this group answer false to the first question posed (and presumably many also to the question, "True or false, the age of the earth is about 4.5 billion years").

Now this raises the question "Is there any question on which the blue population displays a like disregard of the scientific evidence of which they're aware?"

This question cannot be answered by the sorts of experiments I've seen on this blog. Having read at this point a good number of the posts, what I have seen demonstrated here is that people's minds do work in the same way - and that nobody likes to hear evidence that contradicts their beliefs. However, the question being asked is different - how is this way-of-the-mind playing out in practice by yellow and blue groups on the right-hand side of the chart?

My belief (and evidenly Krugman's as well) is that *at the present moment in the US* there in fact is no symmetry. These two groups believe quite differently - one generally aligning with the scientific consensus and the other not.

I think this is a pretty reasonable question, not worthy of derision.

September 1, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMitch Golden


Good question. I decided to make my response a separate post.

September 1, 2014 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

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