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The making of a Pakistani Veterinarian in Kentucky: cognitive apartheid vs. cognitive dualism 

Krista is a high school senior who lives in a Southern U.S. state. As one might guess, the vast majority of her classmates identify themselves as religious and regularly attend church.

She excels in the study of science. She is one of a handful of students in her school who is enrolled in an Advanced Placement biology course. She also volunteers as a “peer tutor” for students in a basic science course that covers the origin of the universe and the natural history of living organisms on earth.

Her goal is to become a veterinarian.

But she "rejects" evolution as contrary to her faith: God made “man” in “his own image”; to believe “that apes and humans have a common ancestor,” she states, “would be wrong.”

Krista was one of the subjects interviewed in the qualitative component of a study conducted by Ronald Hermann (2012), a researcher interested in the attitudes of students who learn evolutionary science but don’t “believe in” or “accept it.” 

Hermann selected Krista for the interview, in fact, because she obtained a near-perfect score on an evolutionary-science test.  

The test was the principal element of the quantitative component of Hermann’s study.  His results in this respect corroborated what numerous previous studies have established: that there is no correlation between students’ “beliefs” about evolution and their comprehension of concepts such as natural selection, random mutation, and genetic variance.

Hermann’s motivating hypothesis was that students in Krista’s situation would display a form of intellectual resistance dubbed “cognitive apartheid” (Cobern 1996).

The “cognitive apartheid” thesis is an alternative to another position—“cognitive assimilation” let’s call it—that imagines that teaching non-believing students evolutionary science will “change their minds” about the role of divine agency in the creation of our species.

According to the “cognitive apartheid” view, religious students consciously and effortfully segregate evolutionary-science insights. They reliably summon them from some walled off mental “compartment” to pass their examinations but otherwise block integration of them into their mental lives and ultimately expel them altogether upon completion of their educations (Cobern 1996).

This account arguably fit the perspective of one of the students featured in the qualitative component of Hermann’s study.

“The science stuff we learn about evolution and stuff like that all the time,” explained Aidan, a star athlete with a 4.0 grade point average, “I understand it, but I definitely don’t believe in it.” “I just block it out and do it because, I mean, otherwise I fail or something like that, and I’m not going to sacrifice that.” 

But “cognitive apartheid” clearly didn’t capture the complexity of Krista’s thinking.

To be sure, she had elected, very self-consciously, to persist in her state of “disbelief” as a matter of religious conviction.

She recounted, for example,  her abortive attempt to reconcile evolutionary science with her faith by positing the applicability of evolution to animals but not human beings.  On reflection, she concluded that approach just “doesn’t work”—either for making sense of evolution or for preserving her “relationship with God” (“or whatever,” she adds; she is an honest-to-god teenager).

But at the same time, it was clear there was nothing about Krista’s adoption of this stance that entailed quarantining evolutionary science in some “exam use only” mental chamber or barring integration of it into her life goals generally.

Her willingness to tutor less advanced students, for example, hardly evinced the begrudging, “under protest” mindset that the “cognitive apartheid” model envisions.

Like Aidan, Krista did explain—in terms that showed she regarded the point as stunningly obvious—that she saw learning evolutionary science as essential to academic success: “For the AP bio test . . . you can’t write on there, God created humans and all the things cause they’ll just be, like, zero [score].”

But asked whether she therefore planned to put evolutionary science out of her mind once she had finished the course, her reply revealed that she viewed the answer to that question to be stunningly obvious, too: No, of course not, “cause I like animals” too much to “forget” evolution, and besides “I like learning about that stuff anyway.”

Both the “cognitive assimilation” and “cognitive apartheid” accounts envision "beliefs" as stand-alone mental objects that reflect simple “on/off,” “accept/reject” states in relation to states of affairs.

This picture makes little sense, though, as a psychological matter.

People's minds are not proposition registries.  

Rather they comprise multi-faceted ensembles of mental states—desires, emotions, moral appraisals, and the like—distinctly suited for enabling people to do things.  When embedded in such complexes, beliefs cannot be identified with reference solely to their objects; they can be individuated only in relation to the actions they enable  (cf. Hetherington 2011).

Krista’s life plan involves two goals: to be a person who has a particular religious identity; and to be a certain type of science-trained professional—a veterinarian.

A state of “disbelief in” evolution will be integral to the mental routines that enable her to achieve the former end: treating it as “wrong” to view apes and humans as having descended from a common ancestor will help her to maintain her “relationship with God” and, no doubt, a  larger community of people who share a sense of the best way to live.

At the same time, a “belief” that animals evolved—that it “makes sense” to view “cats and dogs” as having “share[d] a common ancestor at some point,” and that it “doesn’t work” to think of human beings as being uniquely exempted from the same dynamics of speciation—will reside in the cluster of intentional states that enable her to be a science-trained professional. 

In other words, like Everhart & Hameed's Pakistani Dr (2013), she will, disbelieve evolution “at home,” and believe it “at work.”  But she will experience these states as “entirely different things” because they cannot in fact be individuated independently of the action-enabling aggregations of mental states in which they are embedded.  

The "cognitive apartheid" framework misleadingly suggests that the "knowledge" of evolution that a "nonbelieving" student like Krista acquires reflects a less genuine and lasting engagement than does the form of "belief" to which the "cognitive assimilation" view aspires.  

The truth is that most of Krista's classmates who profess “belief” in evolution will indeed quickly forget what they learned about the modern synthesis in high school--assuming they learned anything to begin with.  Nor will they ever use that "belief" to do anything meaningful in their lives.

Krista, in contrast, will reliably use her retained comprehension of evolutionary science as necessary to be a good veterinarian.

Just as important, her genuine comprehension of the theory of evolution will inform her understanding of herself as a member of a profession whose expertise originates in the distinctive, scientific way of knowing that generated that theory, including its account of the natural history of human beings.

Kentucky Farmer sure is excited about the development of this climate-change resistant chicken!She'll carry on a conversation in the morning with the scholarly researcher about her disbelief in evolution while making use of evolutionary insights to determine whether to tolerate or suppress the fever of the researcher's ailing dog  (LeGrand & Brown 2002).

Later in the day, she'll nod agreeably as Kentucky Farmer explains why there's no evidence for climate change as she treats his climate-change resilient genetically engineered chickens.

And because she really does love animals and  “like[s] learning about that stuff anyway,” she'll prop herself up comfortably in her study to read Bolhuis & Girladeau's The Behavior of Animals: Mechanisms, Function and Evolution after returning home from church on Sunday.

This cognitive dualist stance toward evolution will not involve any contradiction in Krista's “beliefs” so long as the practical ends enabled by the mental routines in which those beliefs reside do not themselves interfere with one another.

They obviously don't have to. But they might.

To her immense disappointment, Krista might discover that she can’t both enjoy a religious identity in which denying evolution expresses her “relationship with God or whatever” and a professional one in which affirmation of evolution expresses her “love of animals” and her pleasure in “learning about stuff like” the “big bang” and natural selection.

If so, she tells the interviewer, she’ll “be upset.”

The source of this upsetting incompatibility, however, will not be any sort of logical or psychological contradiction.

Rather it will be an imperfection in the constitution of an aspiring Liberal Republic of Science that hasn’t yet acquired the knowledge, created the institutions, and cultivated the public mores necessary to quiet the forms of cultural status competition that force diverse citizens to choose between using their reason to know what is known by science and using it to express their defining moral commitments (Elsdon-Baker 2015; Hameed 2015; Kahan 2015; Long 2011; Kahan in press).


Bolhuis, J.J. & Giraldeau, L.-A. The behavior of animals: mechanisms, function, and evolution (Blackwell Malden MA, 2005).

Cobern, W.W. Worldview theory and conceptual change in science education. Science Education 80, 579-610 (1996).

Elsdon-Baker, F. Creating creationists: The influence of ‘issues framing’ on our understanding of public perceptions of clash narratives between evolutionary science and belief. Public Understanding of Science  (2015).

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

Hameed, S. Making sense of Islamic creationism in Europe. Public Understanding of Science 24, 388-399 (2015).

Hermann, R.S. Cognitive apartheid: On the manner in which high school students understand evolution without Believing in evolution. Evo Edu Outreach 5, 619-628 (2012).

Hetherington, S.C. How to know : a practicalist conception of knowledge (J. Wiley, Chichester, West Sussex, U.K. ; Malden, MA, 2011).

Kahan, D.M. Climate-Science Communication and the Measurement Problem. Advances in Political Psychology 36, 1-43 (2015).

Kahan, D.M. What is the "science of science communication?" J. Sci. Comm (in press).

LeGrand, E.K. & Brown, C.C. Darwinian medicine: applications of evolutionary biology for veterinarians. The Canadian Veterinary Journal 43, 556-559 (2002).

Long, D.E. Evolution and religion in American eduation : an ethnography (Springer, Dordrecht, 2011).

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Reader Comments (6)

Coming from a conservative and religious community, I have met dozens and dozens of bright, highly-educated people like Krista, so of course I love this and I think it very much supports cognitive dualism. I'd be interested in hearing thoughts about how this example fits in to that structure:

Moshe is a 23 year-old male, identifies as an ultra-Orthodox Jew who keeps Kosher, observes the Sabbath and is participating in an arranged marriage by his family. He is also a lawyer at a top NYC firm. When asked about his religious beliefs, Moshe responds that he is an atheist and actively does not believe in God. When asked why he continues to participate in all of the trappings of his religion, he shrugs and says, "It's cultural. It's how I was raised. It has nothing to do with what I actually believe."

Is this apples and oranges to your examples? There seems to be a relevant irrationality present here, but maybe not.

April 28, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterKate



good question about Moshe.

My 1st instinct was to say tahat his is a different case: the signature of cognitive dualism, as I envision it (and what I envision is more in the nature of a conjecture than an explanation; this account strikes me as the most plausible of several candidate mechanisms) is the apparent simultaneous states of "belief" & "disbelief" in some empirically derived fact. It's not clear Moshe's case fits that. Indeed, he tells us he doesn't "really" believe in what's he's doing; it's "cultural."

But I think probably the case shouldn't be so sharply distinguished.

Cognitive dualism assumes a "practicalist" view that denies that beliefs (or items of knowledge) can be reduced to a person's (honest) expression of assent to various propositions but can be instead only in connection with the actions that such affirmations, as parts of clusters of action-supporting intentional states, enable someone to *do.*

This position supplies a more satisfying account (but one still very much in need of empirical exploration) of "kowing disbelievers" like Krista, the Pakistani Dr, and the Kentucky Farmer: if "knowing that" is always part of "knowing how," then at least some cases of apparently contradictory states of "belief" & "disbelief" need not be understood as involving contradictions at all -- much less cognitive biases or defects of some kind (that's the usual account): if the "beliefs" in question reside in distinct and (practically) consistent ensembles of action-enabling mental states, it's a mistake (from the point of view of accounting for the actor's mental life) to believe they are the "same" thing (or "about the same thing").

Well, Moshe might not be expressing contradictory beliefs. But he is still *doing* things that one might -- as you do! -- find puzzling or inconsistent. His "cultural" actions evince commitments that seem out keeping with his secular professional life; professing to be "an atheist," apart from repesenting a disbelief about the existence of a deity, can be seen as conveying a sort of "disbelief" in the signifiance or meaning of what he is doing (something almost in the nature of an apology) that clearly would be inconsistent with what he is doing.

Maybe is he *being* enabled to be something -- to occupy an identity -- by "disbelieving' things we should see him as "believing in" too (what he says is not decisive) to enable him to occupy his cultural identity.

But I'm not sure. If Moshe owned, say, a climate-change resistant chicken or even a synbio ipad," it might be easier to sort this out.

April 28, 2015 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan


Could we compare cognitive dualism to people who study literature or even people who study multiple religions? In the case of the first, it is clear that the material they study is fiction, yet they use it in a practical matter--for their careers--and no one would expect these individuals to accept the information as true--it is fiction after all. In a somewhat different case, a religious scholar is likely to subscribe to one (or no) religion, yet studies multiple religions. Again, these scholars would not be expected to accept the information they study, but would still use the information for job-related purposes. So what makes study of STEM sciences different? Why does it seem to be an expectation that the Pakistani doctor or southern pre-vet high schooler accept evolution? Could we equate these to the examples of literature and religious scholars? Or is there something intrinsically different about science?

April 30, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterAsheley Landrum


My sense is that these e.g's are not "cognitive dualism," but explaining why shows (as some of @MW's queries did) the need for more conceptual precision in what CD is.

The individuals in your examples are "using" information relating to other religoius or works of fictiojn but wouldn't say they "believe" any particular proposition relating to them that they would say they "don't believe" in doing something else (or vice versa). The "practicalist" conception of knowledge (Hetherington) that seems to fit "cognitive dualism" asserts that a "belief" or other intentional state associated with knowledge can't be specified independently of what one does with it -- but doesn't imply that every time someone does something with information they "know" or "believe" in something.

But that does put the question how, in addition to that they enable actions, we identify the sort of acting-enablig intentional states that count as "believing." I suppose we could ask the individual involved "do you believe ...." That works, I think to distinguish your caess from Krista's or the Pakistani Dr & Kentucky Farmer's, ibut I think there might be cases where we wouldn't treat the answer as decisive.

Anyway, imagine a cosmologist named Manny. He is an atheist, if that matters.

All of his studies reflect the assumption that every state of affairs in the universe since the Big Bang can be uniquely and conclusively derived from knowing the state of affairs immediately before that one *plus* the laws of nature. Obviously, he doesn't have enough information about the state of affairs in the entire universe at any one moment, much less the next, and so can't test this proposition conclusively. But he proceeds on this assumption in arranging observations of as many elements of a state of affairs as possible and showing how in fact the correspnding elements of the observed state of the affairs in the next can be derived from (and predicted in advance on the basis of) mechanistic laws of nature. HIs experiments -- and those of all his colleagues -- always vindicate the assumptions (they confine thmselves to macro objects; they know all about the probabilitist world of very small things described by quantum mechanics, which they accept as true but just don't worry about as they do their own studies). For sure, if you ask him, he'll say he believes that the existing state of affairs in the universe is a consequence of the operation of the laws of nature on the state of affairs in the immediately prior state of affairs plus the law of nature-- all the way back to the Big Bang.

Manny has a daughter named Lise. She recently won a prestigious award given to a young scholar for a theoretical physics paper. Manny is, understandably, filled with pride. "She worked so hard on that paper--up every morning at dawn, scribbling away until 3 am, for yrs & yrs; she just would't be deterred by all the setbacks she encountered! So many people in her position would have given up, but not her!" We say, "This is confusing; are you saying the award had something to do with choices she made about how to behave?" "Of course that's what I'm saying," he says, looking at us as if perhaps we are a bit dense. "The award is a fitting testament to her will and determination."

Here's another thing we know about Manny: as filled with pride as he is about Lise, he is filled with a sense of deep self-disappointment in himself as a father. He had another child: Richard. Richard told Manny when he as 16 that he was gay--and Manny reacted with shock and anger and told him to "leave the house" and not come back until he had "gotten over this deprvity." Shortly thereafter, Richard took his own life. Manny is now haunted by this incident. "What's the problem, why so glum?," we ask him. "Surely you don't think there was any other way you could have responded, do you?" "Are you crazy?," he asks. "The way I reacted was the stupidest thing I ever did; I will never forgive myself."

"Oh, okay, Manny," we say. "So do you think, at least in principle, everything in the world right now, as it is, reflected the influence of laws of nature acting on success states of affairs in the universe?" "Yes; you know I believe that-- I'm a cosmologist!"

"But then why are you so proud of Lise for her determination and so mad at yourself for your treatment of Richard?"

"What?," he says, looking at us with utter confusion.

"Don't you see the contradiction?! You see both to believe that everything in the world, including human beings, are determined by forces of nature and to disbelieve that -- insofar as you are making moral appraisals of the behavior of people based on what you think 'their' choices or decisions convey about their values and character!"

"I am a physcist; I am a father," he answers. "You, apparently, are just a very confused person."

He turns to his bookshelf and picks up an worn copy of Kant's the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. " Read part 3-- on the dualistic perspective inherent in human reason by which we see ourselves *both* as subject to laws of nature, operating outside ourselvesm and the as sovereigns of our own, autonomous wills."

"I don't know how much it will help you if you can't see this already," he says, "but those perspectives characterize the things we *do* with our reason -- we use one to understand the workings of the universe, and the other to find significance in life. There's no contradiction in doing those things."

He turns and leaves us to ponder this.

April 30, 2015 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

"Don't you see the contradiction?! You see both to believe that everything in the world, including human beings, are determined by forces of nature and to disbelieve that -- insofar as you are making moral appraisals of the behavior of people based on what you think 'their' choices or decisions convey about their values and character!"

It's questionable whether there's any contradiction, but I would agree that many people see one, or at least, don't understand the details of how the apparent conflict might be resolved. And I agree most people ignore it.

However, I suspect any cosmologist would be well aware of the issue. It's a standard topic in scientific philosophy, and is usually discussed alongside any exposition on determinism.

Personally, I'd argue again for my 'beliefs as models' hypothesis. Both determinism and free will are models of the behaviour of things in the world that make different trade-offs on the accuracy-versus-calculability axis. Free will is a model that works well for extremely complicated and complex systems in which large networks of neuron interconnections and potentials can be reliably represented by a much simpler entities like aims and intentions and preferences. The deterministic model is in principle more accurate, if you could ever apply it, but in practice it is a scientific fact that when it comes to people, the free will model gives useful predictions and the deterministic 'clockwork universe' model doesn't.

And certainly concepts like pride in your children's achievements will only work in the same sort of model as free will does. (Of what sort of atoms is "pride" made?) If you accept that one exists, why not the other?

Physicists are well-aware that free will and determinism are incompatible, and well-aware of the dictum that "all models are wrong, but some are useful". But they also understand that you'll never make any progress if you think about it like that, so they don't.

It's the same sort of incompatibility I mentioned regarding Newtonian mechanics, or concepts like point particles, continuous fluids, rigid bodies, frictionless planes, simultaneously well-defined position and momentum, and so on. People compartmentalise beliefs, and switch from one compartment to another as required. It's normal, and very powerful too.

May 1, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

@Niv no contrdiction of consequence. Nor any for Krista. But plenty for thoae who dont see the parallel!

May 1, 2015 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

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