Cognitive dualism as an adaptive resource in a polluted science communication environment ... a fragment
from something I'm working on. . . .
I. Overview: the “entanglement” problem
By no means the only threat to the science communication environment, the “entanglement problem” nonetheless comprises a recurring and especially damaging one. It occurs when positions on issues that admit of scientific investigation become suffused with antagonistic cultural meanings, transforming them into badges of membership in and loyalty to competing groups. At that point, to protect the standing of their groups and their status within them, individuals can be expected to conform their assessment of all manner of information to the position that predominates among those who share their defining commitments.
It’s almost certainly a mistake to attribute this form of identity-protective cognition (Kahan 2010) to the constraints on rationality responsible for “base rate neglect,” “the availability effect,” “confirmation bias” and like reasoning errors (Kahneman, Slovic & Tversky 1982). For one thing, unlike those biases, identity-protective cognition does not originate in overreliance on heuristic (“System 1”) information processing. On the contrary, the forms of conscious, effortful information (“System 2”) processing most essential to recognizing and giving proper effect to scientific evidence—including cognitive reflection, numeracy, and science comprehension—amplify the tendency of individuals to form and persist in identity-protective beliefs (Kahan 2013b; Kahan, Peters et al. 2013; Kahan, Peters et al. 2012). . . .
This problem—the entanglement problem—is not a consequence of stupid people but of a polluted science communication environment ("stupid!") (Kahan 2012). The antagonistic cultural meanings that transform positions on scientific issues into badges of cultural identity are a toxin that disables the normally reliable reasoning faculties that people use to align themselves with what’s known by science.
Protecting the science communication environment from this sort of contamination is a central mission of the science of science communication (Kahan in press). . . .
II. Entanglement and science communication environment protection
. . . . Once some scientific issue has become entangled in antagonistic cultural meanings, the process of detoxification is likely to be a slow one. In the interval it takes to quiet the dynamics that excite culturally polarizing forms of identity-protective cognition, society will stand in need of techniques for counteracting the debilitating impact of such a condition on its citizens’ capacity to reason (Hall Jamieson & Hardy 2014). . . .
B. Cognitive dualism
Observed in both religious students of science and in religious science-trained professionals, cognitive dualism involves the capacity of individuals to maintain apparently contradictory beliefs about some fact—such as the natural history of human beings—that admits of scientific investigation.
Cognitive dualism challenges the premise, however, that such beliefs are genuinely contradictory. According to this position, a “belief” cannot, as a psychological matter, be defined solely by the propositions they embody.
As mental objects, “beliefs” exist only within clusters or ensembles of mental states (including emotions, desires, and moral evaluations) distinctly suited for the performance of some action (Pierce 1877; Braithwaite 1933, 1946; Hetherington 2011). A highly religious doctor, for example, might explain that whether he “believes” in evolution depends on where he is: at “work,” where he uses knowledge of human evolution in his practice as an oncologist or as a medical researcher; or at “home,” where belief that humans were divinely created guides his behavior as a member of a particular religious community (Everhart & Hameed 2013). Because those opposing stances on the natural history of human beings exist only within the mental routines that enable him to do those activities, and because those activities do not contradict one another, the idea that the doctor harbors self-contradictory "beliefs" imposes a psychologically false criterion of identity on the constituents of his mind.
A similar account exists for religious science students who “don’t believe” in evolution. Research shows that it is possible to teach the modern synthesis to students who say they “don’t believe” in evolution just as readily as students who say they “do believe” in it. Afterwards, however, the former still profess not to “believe in” or accept evolution (Lawson & Worsnop 1992), a result that typically is understood by researchers to signify a limitation in the success of instruction for “nonbelieving” students.
Cognitive dualism, however, suggests that it is a mistake to infer that there is in fact any meaningful difference in the impact of the instruction on “believing” and “nonbelieving” students. If, as cognitive dualism supposes, beliefs as mental objects are “dispositions to action,” the science class has in fact generated the same belief in both: the sort that is linked to demonstrating the sort of knowledge of the modern synthesis certified by a high school biology exam (DiSessa 1982).
Such instruction has also left completely unaffected in both a completely distinct state of “belief” that exists for purposes of being a particular sort of person. The “disbelief in” evolution that the religious student has retained obviously performs that function. But so did the “belief in” evolution the nonreligious student held before he learned the modern synthesis. Believing in” evolution at that point enabled him to inhabit a particular cultural style notwithstanding that he almost certainly subscribed to the naive Lamarckian view of how it works that the vast majority of people—believers and nonbelievers—entertain (Bishop & Anderson Shtulman 2006). What is more, he will almost certainly retain that identity-enabling “belief in” evolution even if (as is again highly likely) he thereafter completely forgets the rudiments of the modern synthesis. Should the religious student, in contrast, grow up, say, to be a doctor, she is likely to remember what she learned about the modern synthesis and to use it when doing anything that requires that knowledge—even as she continues to “disbelieve in” evolution in her life as a person who finds meaning in holding a particular faith (Everhart & Hameed 2013; cf. Hermann 2012).
The course, in sum, imparted in both the “believer” and “nonbeliever” the sort of knowledge supportive of doing the things that one can do effectively only by accepting science’s understanding of the natural history of human beings (take exams, carry out responsibilities as a science-trained professional). But it left unaffected -- in both -- a state of “belief” the enables something completely orthogonal to what science actually knows: being a person who finds meaning in the world through the exercise of free reason in collaboration with others exercising the same.
Cognitive dualism supplies an adaptive resource in a polluted science communication environment. Where a person experiences as distinct opposing states of belief embedded in discrete and fully compatible clusters of action-enabling intentional states, she is freed from having to choose between being who she is and knowing what’s known by science. Understanding how to accommodate cognitive dualism, and to repel conditions that in fact can be shown to subvert it (Hameed 2015), is thus a form of scientific understanding integral to promoting the effective transmission of scientific knowledge—in classrooms, in businesses, in public meeting halls, and anywhere else—during the periods in which one or another scientific proposition has become enmeshed in antagonistic cultural meanings.
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