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Weekend update: Hard questions, incomplete answers, on the "disentanglement principle"

I have written a few times now about the “disentanglement principle”—that science communicators & educators must refrain from “making free, reasoning people choose between knowing what’s known by science and being who they are.”  The Measurement Problem paper uses empirical evidence to show how science educators and communicators have “disentangled” identity and knowledge on issues like evolution & climate change, and proposes a research program aimed at perfecting such techniques.

In a comment on a recent post, Asheley Landrum posed a set of penetrating and difficult questions about “disentanglement.”  I thought they warranted a separate blog, one that I hoped might, by highlighting the importance of the questions and the incompleteness of my own answers, motivate others to lend their efforts to expanding our understanding of, and ability to manage, the problem of identity-knowledge entanglement.

Asheley's comment:

I'm really interested in the idea of disentangling identity from knowledge. However, I wonder to what extent that really can be done. Take, for instance, the conflation of belief in evolution versus knowledge of evolution that you've described. Does it matter if multiple cultural identies recognize that the theory of evolution states humans evolved from earlier species of mammal if they do not accept (or believe) it to be extremely likely to be true? Is our goal as scientists (and science communicators) to make sure that people simply know what a theory is comprised of but not worry about whether the public buys it?

Also, once a topic becomes politicized, is it possible to truly disentangle that topic from people's cultural identies? I feel like new work is showing how we can potentially stop topics from becoming politicized in the first place, but once a topic becomes entangled with cultural identy, the mere mention of it may trigger motivated cognition. Is it something that will pass with time? For instance, we've seen public perception shift on a myriad of social issues (e.g. Interracial marriage, now gay marriage). Is this a result of time or a change in the narrative surrounding the topics? Does changing the narrative surrounding certain science topics change eventually change how entangles that topic is with regard to cultural identity?

My response:


Good questions. I certainly don't have complete answers.

But I'd start by sorting out 3 things.

1st, is "non-entanglement" possible?

2d, can entanglement be undone?

3d, is the goal of the science communicator/educator “belief” or “knowledge”?

1. Is non-entanglement possible?

I take this to mean, is it possible to create conditions where people don't have to choose between knowing what's known and being who they are?

Answer is, of course.

For one thing, the issue never arises for most issues -- ones for which it very well could have.

E.g., identity and knowledge were "entangled" on HPV vaccine but not the HBV vaccine.

The former—as a result of factors that were perfectly foreseeable and perfectly avoidable—traveled a path into public awareness that generated conditions, persisting to this day, that distort and disable the normally reliable faculties parents use to make informed decisions about their children’s health.

Likewise, there's no entanglement between identity and knowledge and GMO in US - - even though there is in Europe.

There's no entanglement on vaccine safety in US -- although there might well be if we don't stifle the evidence-unencumbered misrepresentations about the extent of vaccine risk perceptions and the relationship between them and cultural styles.

So the first thing is, there is nothing necessary about entanglement; it happens for reasons we can identify; and if we organize ourselves appropriately to use the science of science communication, we can certainly avoid this reason-eviscerating state of affairs.

Another pointeven when positions on risks and other facts become entangled in antagonistic cultural meanings--turning them into symbols of cultural identity--it still is possible to create conditions of science communication that free people from having to choose between knowing and being who they are!

You advert to this in raising evolution. We know from empirical evidence that it is possible to teach evolution in a manner that doesn't make religious students choose between knowing and being who they are and that when the right mode of teaching (one focusing on simply valid inference from observation), they can learn the modern synthesis just as readily as students who say they "do believe" in evolution (and who invariably don't know anything about natural selection, random mutation, and genetic variance).

We need similar pedagogical strategies for teaching evolutionary science—and able teachers and researchers are busy at work on this problem.

I think, too, we are seeing successful disentanglement strategies being used in local government to promote evidence-based climate policymaking aimed at adaptation.

We need to study these examples and learn the mechanisms they feature and how to harness and deploy them to promote knowledge.

2. Can entanglement be undone?

As I mentioned, in most cases, the entanglement problem never arises-- as in case of HBV vaccine or GMO foods.

But if entanglement occurs-- if antagonistic meanings become attached to issues turning positions on them into symbols of identity--can that condition itself be neutralized, vanquished

This is different, I think, from asking whether, in a polluted science communication environment, it is possible to "disentangle" in communicating or teaching climate science or evolution, etc.

The communication practices that make that possible are in the nature of "adaptation" strategies for getting by in a polluted science communication environment.

The question here is whether it possible to decontaminate a polluted science communication environment.

I think this is possible, certainly. I suppose, too, I could give you examples where this seems to have happened (e.g., on cigarette smoking in US).

But the truth is, we know a lot less about how risks and like facts become entangled in antagonistic meanings, and about how to “adapt” when that happens, than we do about how to clear the science communication environment of that sort of pollution once it becomes contaminated by it.

We need more information, more evidence.

But the practical lesson should be obvious: we must use all the knowledge at our disposal, and summon all the common will and attention we can, to prevent pollution of the science communication environment in the first place (a critical issue right now for childhood vaccines).

3.  Is the goal of the science communicator/educator “belief” or “knowledge”? 

Finally, you raise the issue of what the “goal” of science communication and education is—“knowledge” vs. “belief”?

My own sense is that the “knowledge”-“belief” dichotomy here reflects at least two forms of confusion

One is semantic. It’s the incoherent idea that there is some meaningful distinction between the objects of “belief” and the objects of “knowledge” and that “science” deals with the latter.

I’ve discussed this before. It’s not worth going into again, except to remark that those who think they are making an important point when they assert “it’s not a belief—it’s a fact!”need to seek guidance from the two patron saints of science’s theory of causal inference—the Rev. Thomas Bayes and Sir Karl Popper—to get some remedial instruction on how empirical proof expands our knowledge (by furnishing valid observational evidence on the basis of which we update our current beliefs about how the world works).

The other confusion is more complicated. It's certainly not a cause for embarrassment, but not grasping it is certainly a cause for concern.

The nature of the mistake (I'm still struggling, but am pretty sure at this point that this is the nub of the problem) is to believe that, as a psychological matter, it makes sense to individuate people's "beliefs" (or items of "knowledge") independently of what those people are doing.

Consider Hameed’s Pakistani Dr.  He says he doesn’t “believe in” evolution: “Allah created man! We did not descend from monkeys!”

Yet he tells you “of course” he depends on evolutionary science in his practice as an oncologist, where he uses insights from this field to screen patients for potential cancer risks. 

Of course” medical research relies on evolutionary science, too, he says—“consider stem cell research!”

If we say, “but isn’t that inconsistent—to say you ‘disbelieve’ in evolution but then make use of it in those ways as a Dr?,” he thinks we are being obtuse.

And he is right.

As Everhart & Hameed helps us see, there are two different “evolutions”: the one the Dr rejects in order to be a member of a religious community; and the one he accepts in order to be a doctor and a member of a scientific-knowledge profession.

The idea that there is a contradiction rests on a silly model that thinks individuals’ “beliefs” (or what is “known” by them) can be defined solely with reference to states of affairs or bodies of evidence in the world.

In the mind, “beliefs” are intentional states--often compound ones, consisting of assent to various factual propositions but also pro- or con- affective stances, and related propensities to action--that are yoked to role-specific actions

As a psychological matter, then, what people “believe” or “know” cannot a be divorced from what use they make of the same.

Being a member of a religious community and being as a member of the medical profession are integrated elements of the Pakistani Dr's identity. 

As a result, there’s no contradiction between the Pakistani Dr. saying he “disbelieves” in evolution when he is “at home” (or at the Mosque), where the set of intentional states that signifies allows him to be the former, and that he “believes in” it when he is “at work,” where the set of intentional states that signifies allows him to be a member of a science-informed profession.  

He knows that the evolution he accepts and the one he rejects both refer to the same account of the natural history of human beings that originates in work of Darwin; but the one he accepts and the one he rejects are "completely different things" b/c connected to completely different things that he does.  

It's confusing, I agree, but he's not the one who is confused-- we are if we can't get grasp the point knowing that can't be disconnected, psychologically, from knowing how!

Still, the Pakistani Dr is is lucky to live a life in which the two identities that harbor these competing beliefs have no reason to quarrel.

For members of certain religious communities in the US–and as Hameed notes, for more and more Islamic scientists and scientists in training in Europe—that's not so.

There is a social conflict, one foisted on them by illiberal cultural status competition, that makes it impossible to use their reason to be both members of cultural communities and science-trained professionals at the same time.

So what should the goal of the science communicator and teacher be?

It should be to make it possible for people to recognize and give effect to scientific knowledge in order to do the things the doing of which require such knowledge: like being scientists; like being successful members of other professions, including, say, agriculture, that depend on knowing what science knows; like being a good parent; like being a member of a self-governing community, the well-being of which turns on it making science-informed policy choices; and like being curious, reflective people who simply enjoy the awe and pleasure of being able to participate in comprehending the astonishing insights into the mysteries of nature that our species has gained by using the signature methods of scientific inquiry.

If a science teacher or communicator thinks that it his or her job “to “get people to say they ‘believe in’ ” evolution or climate change independently of enabling them to do things that depend on making use of the best available evidence, then he or she is making a mistake.

If that a science educator thinks that he or she is doing a good job because people say they “believe in” those things even though they couldn’t pass a high-school biology test on natural selection, and think that CO2 is poisonous to plants, then he or she is incompetent.

And if he or she is trying to get people who use scientific knowledge related to climate change or evolution or anything else to say they “believe in” it when the only purpose that would serve is to force them to denigrate who they are, then he or she has become a source, witting or unwitting, of the science communication pollution that entangles identity and knowledge and that disables free and reasoning democratic citizens from making use of all the scientific knowledge at their disposal.

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Reader Comments (15)


Given our exchange at the head of the last thread, I think that continuing to use the Kentucky farmer link as a platform for your knowing disbelief theory is inadvisable, given that the JAEE paper, your main piece of evidence, doesn't support the Kentucky farmer model. Yes there are ambiguities in that paper and yes you think the situation is less black and white than I do. But yes too you as you said, you need more evidence if you are going to resurrect Kentucky farmer. Don't forget his well-named cousin Jacob who helps invalidate the model. Your original confidence from that paper was overplayed, as I show at Feb 6th comment on that thread. Fine. But now you know there is more to it, surely you should not continue to deploy this model unless / until you revisit and rejuvenate it by some means.

February 22, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterAndy West


Take a trip to SE Fla. Not only allows one to espcape the snow (might not be a problem where you live) but allows one to meet many many many Pakistani Drs going about their lives as business people, property owners, democratic citizens etc.

February 22, 2015 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan


Pakistani Dr. fine. On cited evidence at Kentucky Farmer link, he's not fine. On other cited evidence, maybe; but you are still giving the same link and hence the now questionable evidence.

February 22, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterAndy West


We've discussed this.

I think there are plenty of Pakistani Drs farming in Kentucky, Mississippi, Wisconsin, S. Carolin & other states.

I also agree that it is reasonable for you to doubt that & to form a different view of the evidence.

Others should take a look at the various sources of data & our respective assessments & see what they think.

Meanwhile, we agree that more research is necessary. Until we have it, & can update appropriately, I think we are each just stuck w/ our respective current estimations of the probability (mine higher than yours) that there are legions of Pakistani Drs toiling to keep America's grocery shelves amply stocked with GMO foodstuffs

February 22, 2015 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan


I'm currently living in Kentucky. Let me know if you need me to interview any farmers. :-P

February 22, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterAsheley Landrum


Well, how serious are you?

Be great to to a project like this. contact me if want to discuss

February 23, 2015 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

I do wonder why you continue to post links to the video of the statements by the farmer. I don't understand how the comments recorded in this 90 second segment illustrate your point. The farmer accepts that globally warming is occurring and that - more to his concern - it may be warmer on his farm. The farmer sees conderation of this as a matter of wise planning.

Now the farmer does allow that the causes for the warming is another matter. But rather than expounding on causes he continues to expand on his thoughts about farming, business, and planning. Based on these comments the farmer appears to me to be interested in "evidence based farming" and somewhat of an empiricist.

February 24, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterCortlandt Wilson


Email sent. :)

February 24, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterAsheley Landrum

Neither the author nor the commentators know the first thing about the medical science of behavior. You are swapping literary, folklore and cultural conventions and beliefs that are not only a dangerous basis for any problem-solving approach but completely uninformed about behavior.

The basis of all magical thinking is "Mind over matter" and "Action at a distance." The models, theories and ideas in this post are all folklore and magical - at best.

February 24, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterBrain Molecule Marketing

@Brain Molecule Marketing

What are you talking about? I can't speak for everyone, but the blog owner is a well-respected researcher at Yale University. I have a PhD in psychological sciences and study human behavior at University of Louisville. Are you making some psychology vs. neuroscience statement?.

February 25, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterAsheley Landrum


The Kentucky Farmer believes in climate change -- in order to be a farmer.

No doubt about it.

February 25, 2015 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Are we assuming that identity is fixed? It seems that, of anything, identity is one of the more malleable aspects of one's beliefs or knowledge networks. On the question of "can it be done", it would seem that a variety of tactics that reframe identity would help. Shifting the context, using the inherent ambiguity of identity, symbolic gestures, respect, apologies, and provisionally prioritizing values. Seems that identities are most flexible when there are aspirational desires involved as well.

February 25, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterGabriel Harp

What the heck is a scientific definition of identity!? This is a literay concept and not one for discussing behavior, let alone problem-solving.

Building supposedly credible concepts on epiphenomenal, subjective and cultural notions is circular at best and deeply uninformed about the latest experimental evidence on behavior.

These ideas are nothing but the naive realism of everyday language, self-talk. No more useful than religious kinds of statements.

February 25, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterBrain Molecule Marketing


Interesting question -- and one an answer to which can actually help to focus on what it is that is puzzling here, at least to me!

Obviously, people have multiple identities -- multiple roles they occupy that supply them with goals, structure their relations with others & the like. One might be a dentist, and a catholic, and a David Bowie fan, e.g., just to pick a stereotype. The identities can be, usually are, happily integrated into one "self," which oversees & coordinate their interaction.

Obviously, anyone one of those identities could "change" -- although how formal changes in status might not be as readily accommodated by the self. Imagine the dentist is excommunicated; he is no longer a "catholic" in one sense but like in many of the ways he makes sense of the world & in which other make sense of him (what he is up to, how he should be regarded etc) still reflect many of the things that beign a "catholic" supplied him.

It might make sense, too, to think of someone as having an "identity" that consists in the goals, structuring relations, ways of interpreting the world etc that reflect a more diffuse cultural style. The sorts of orientations associated with the cultural cogntion worldview scales are like that, I'd say.

Can *those* change? I'm sure. But I bet they don't very often & w/o fairly dramatic consequences for the person involved (maybe no more so, than, then those for the excommunicated dentist).

Now what about the issue at hand?

For me, the question is what to make of what might be called (although this is likely not the best label) "knowing disbelief."

I understand the high-scoring OCSI climate skeptics who are identified in the Measurement Problem study that way--although maybe that is not the right interpretation of them; at least some commentators on the blog & elsewhere have usefully challenged that.

The Pakinstani Dr is like that, & the Kentuck Farmer too (again fine for others to challenge this intepretation too; it is the one that makes the most sense of the avaialble evidence, which for sure demands supplementation). I see peple like that all the time too SE Florida, where I do field studies.

There are lots of possibilities. I've provisionally cataloged a provisional taxonomy, one I ought to update, since I can thnk of more now.

I think we could say actors like thes are experieincing "changing identities"-- but I don't think that helps dispel the mystery.

Of course, they are changing identiies: the Pakistani Dr "disbeleives" when he is "at hom," occupying a religios identity, and believes when he is "at work," where he occupies his identity as a Dr; the Kentucky Farmer is disbelieving when he says "fuck All Gore!," as most farmers (in many many surveys!) do when asked if they "believe in" climate change (human caused or otherwise) in an opinion survey, or if they are watching a debate between Bill Nye the science guy and their local congresswoman, contexts in which they are occupying cultural style identities that feature hierachy & individualism; but then they "believe" in it when they go to "work" using no-till farming & the like.

But that doesn't get the at the mystery, for we change "identiteis" in that sense (dentist now, David Bowie fan in 15 mins, then off to ... whatever it is; sorry, I'm not a Catholic ... in the evening) w/o forming different orientations toward objects of belief or knowledge -- such as weather climate change is happening or whether evolution is part of the natural history of humans.

We could imagine someone changing an identity from, say, "devout religious fundamentalist proselytizer" to an identity of "aggressive atheist" & then experiencing a change in orientation of that sort on evolution.

But that's not what's happening here! That would be like the sort of beig seismic change in a self's collection of "identities" that I referred to above in connection with changes in cultural style. Few bounce that violently even once in a lifetime; no oine does it multiple times a day....

But changing identity is going on here, for sure.

The mystery, I think, is how the differeing orientation toward the object of knowledge or belief that corresonds to that shfting in identity can take place a *self* comprising integrated identities. How can someone not be experiencing dissonance or tension in occupying multiple identites that "believe" these different things...

Maybe there is tension. But I don't think so; I don't see it, anyay, in the Dr or the Farmer

February 25, 2015 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

"Obviously, people have multiple identities "!? If this is a biological, medical and physiological, fact how do we measure this -- in humans and other animals?

If the claim is for human exceptionalism - how can this kind of idea be biologically meaningful and cause behavior? How did this exceptional human capability evolved and "{descend" from earlier animals?

The notion of "identity" seems a trivial cultural construct = myth.

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