Emlen Metz and Michael Weisberg, my fellow panelists at the International Society for the Hisotry of Philosophy and Social Studies of Biology, were lying in wait and bombarded me with a fussilade of counter-proofs and thoughtful alternative explanations!
For such treachery, they should, at a minimum, compensate me by sharing summaries of their own presentations with the 14 billion readers of this blog, so that subscribers can see for themselves the avalanche of critical reason that crashed down on me. I am working to exact this settlement.
For my part, I made three points about “believing in” evolution: one empirical, one political, and one philosophical. (Slides here.)
1. The empirical point was that what people "believe" about evolution doesn’t measure what they know about science but rather expresses who they are, culturally speaking.
Not a new point for me, I relied primarily on data from The Measurement Problem study to illustrate.
Whipping out my bewildering array of multi-colored item response profiles, I showed that the probability of correctly responding to the NSF Science Indicators Evolution item—“human beings evolved from an earlier species of animals—true or false?”—doesn’t vary in in relation to people’s scores on the Ordinary Science Intelligence (OSI) assessment. Instead the probability of responding correctly depends on the religiosity of the test taker.
Indeed, using factor analysis, one can see that the Evolution item doesn’t share the covariance structure of the items that indicate OSI but instead shares that of the items that indicate religiosity.
Finally, I showed how it’s possible to unconfound the Evolution item’s measurement of identity from its measurement of “science literacy” by introducing it with the phrase, “According to the theory of evolution . . . .”
At that point, religious test takers don’t have to give a response that misrepresents who they are in order to demonstrate that they know science’s understanding of the natural history of human beings. As a result, the gap between responses to the item and the OSI scores of non-religious and religious respondents, respectively, essentially disappears.
Unconfounding identity and knowledge, I noted, is essential not only to assessing understanding of evolutionary science but also to imparting it. The classic work of Lawson and Worsnop (1992; see also Lawson 1999), I told the audience, demonstrates that kids who say they “don’t believe in” evolution can learn the essential elements of the modern synthesis just as readily as kids who say they “do believe it” (and who are otherwise are not any more likely be able to give a cogent account of natural selection, genetic variance and random mutation).
But because what one says one “believes” about evolution is in fact not an indicator of knowledge but an indicator of identity, teaching religiously inclined students how the theory of evolution actually works doesn’t make them any more likely to profess “acceptance” of it.
Indeed, Lawson stresses that the one way to assure that more religiously inclined students won’t learn the essential elements of evolutionary science is to make them perceive that the point of the instruction is to change their “beliefs”: when people are put in the position of having to choose between being who they are and knowing what’s known by science, they will predictably choose being who they are, and will devote all of their formidable reasoning proficiencies to that.
The solution to the measurement problem posed by people's "beliefs in" evolution, then, is the science communication disentanglement principle: “Don’t make reasoning, free people choose between knowing what’s known & being who they are.”
2. The political point I made was the imperative to enforce the science communication disentanglement principle in every domain in which citizens acquire and make use of scientific information.
Liberal market democracies are the form of society distinctively suited both to the generation of scientific knowledge and to the protection of free and reasoning individuals' formation of their own understandings of the best way to live.
In my view, the citizens of such states have the individual right to enjoy both of these benefits without having to trade off one for the other. To secure that right, liberal democratic societies must use the science of science communication to repel the dynamics that conspire to make what science knows a focal point for cultural status competition (Kahan in press).
Here I focused on the public controversy over climate change.
Drawing on Measurement Problem and other CCP studies (Kahan, Peters, et al. 2012), I showed that what “belief in” human-caused climate change measures is not what people know but who they are as well.
The typical opinion poll item on “belief in” climate change, these evidence suggest, are is also not a valid indicator of the sort of latent cultural identity indicated by variously by cultural cognition worldview items and conventional “right-left” political outlook ones.
People with those identities don’t converge but rather polarize as their OSI scores increase.
Using techniques derived from unconfounding identity and knowledge in the assessment of what people understand about evolution, one can fashion an assessment instrument—the “Ordinary Climate Science Intelligence” (OCSI) test—that confounds identity from what they understand about the causes and consequences of climate change.
They don’t understand very much, it turns out, but they get the basic message that climate scientists are conveying: human activity is causing climate change and putting all of us at immense risk.
Nevertheless those who score the highest on the OCSI still are the most politically polarized on whether they “believe in” human climate change—because the question they are answering when they respond to a survey item on that is “who are you, whose side are you on?”
To enable people to acquire and make use of the knowledge that climate scientists are generating, science communication researchers are going to have to do the same sort of hard & honest work that education researchers did to figure out how to disentangle knowledge of evolutionary science from identity.
But they're going to need to figure out how to to do that not only in the classroom but also in the democratic political realm. The science communication environment is now filled with toxic meanings that force people in their capacity as democratic citizens to choose between knowing what’s known about climate and being who they are.
Because individuals forced to make that choice will predictably--rationally-- use their reasoning proficiencies to express their identities, culturally diverse citizens will be unable to make collective decisions informed by what science knows about climate change until the disentanglement project is extended to our public discourse.
Indeed, conflict entrepreneurs (posing as each other's enemy as they symbiotically feed off one another's noxious efforts to stimulate a self-reinforcing atmosphere of contempt among rival groups) continue to pollute our science communication environment with antagonistic cultural meanings on evolution as well.
Those who actually care about making it possible for diverse citizens to be able to know what’s known by science without having to pay the tax of acquiescing in others' denigration of their cultural identities are obliged to oppose these tapeworms of cognitive illiberalism no matter “whose side” they purport to be on in the dignity-annihilating, reason-enervating cultural status competition in which positions on climate change & evolution have been rendered into tribal totems.
3. The philosophical point was the significance of cognitive dualism.
Actually, cognitive dualism is not, as I see it, a philosophical concept or doctrine.
It is a conjecture, to be investigated by empirical means, on what is “going on in heads” of those who—like the Pakistani Dr and the Kentucky Farmer—both “believe” and “disbelieve” in facts like human evolution and human-caused climate change.
But what the tentative and still very formative nature of the conjecture shows us, in my view, is just how much in need the disentanglement project is of philosophers' help.
In the study of “beliefs” in evolution, cases like these are typically assumed to involve a profound cognitive misfire.
The strategies skillful science teachers use to disentangle knowledge from identity in the classroom, far from being treated as a solution to a practical science communication dilemma, are understood to present us with another “problem”—that of the student who “understands” what he or she is taught but who will not “accept” it as true.
In my view, the work that reflects this stance is failing to engage meaningfully with the question of what it means to "believe in" evolution, climate change etc.
The work I have in mind simply assumes that “beliefs” are atomistic propositional stances identified by reference to the states of affairs (“natural history of humans,” “rising temperature of the globe”) that are their objects.
In this literature there is no cognizance of an alternative view—one with a rich tradition in philosophy (Pierce 1877; Braithwaite 1933, 1946; Hetherington 2011)—of “beliefs” as dispositions to action.
On this account, beliefs as mental objects always inhere in clusters of intentional states (emotions, values, desires, and the like) that are distinctively suited for doing particular things.
If as mental objects “beliefs” exist only as components of more elaborate ensembles of action-enabling mental states, then explanations of the self-contradiction or "self-deception" of the Pakistani Dr, Kentucky Farmer--or of the creationist high school student who wants to be a veterinarian but "loves animals too much" to simply "forget" what she has learned about natural selction in her AP biology course-- are imposing a psychologically false criterion of identity on the contents of their minds.
So long as there is no conflict in the things that these actors are enabled to do with the clusters of mental states in which their opposing stances toward evolution or toward climate change inhere, there is no "inconsistency" to explain.
There is also no “problem” to "solve" when actors who use their acceptance of what science knows to do what scientific knowledge is uniquely suited for don't "accept" it in order to do something on which science has nothing to say.
Unless the "problem" is really that what they are doing with nonacceptance is being the kind of person whose behavior or politics or understandings of the best way to live bother or offend us. But if so, say that -- & don't confuse matters by suggesting that one's goals have anything to do with effecitvely communciating science.
Or at least that is what the upshot of cogntive dualism would be if in fact it is the right account of the Pakistani Dr, and the Kentucky Farmer, and the many many many other people in whose mental lives such "antinomies" coexist.
But what does is the innocence of those who are studying these phenomena of the very possibility that the account of "belief" of which cognitive dualism is a part might account for what they are investigating, a state of inattention that assures that they will fail to conduct valid empirical research-- and fail to reflect consciously on the moral significance of their prescriptions.
This is exactly the sort of misadventure that philosophers ought to protect empirical researchers from experiencing, I told the roomful of curious and reflective people who paid us the privilege of attending our session and sharing their views on our research.
And for the first time in all my experiences introducing people to the Pakistani Dr and the Kentucky Farmer, no one seemed to disagree with me . . . .
Braithwaite, R.B. The Inaugural Address: Belief and Action. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supplementary Volumes 20, 1-19 (1946).
Everhart, D. & Hameed, S. Muslims and evolution: a study of Pakistani physicians in the United States. Evo Edu Outreach 6, 1-8 (2013).
Hetherington, S.C. How to know : a practicalist conception of knowledge (J. Wiley, Chichester, West Sussex, U.K. ; Malden, MA, 2011).
Kahan, D.M., Peters, E., Wittlin, M., Slovic, P., Ouellette, L.L., Braman, D. & Mandel, G. The polarizing impact of science literacy and numeracy on perceived climate change risks. Nature Climate Change 2, 732-735 (2012).
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 (1992).
Lawson, A.E. A scientific approach to teaching about evolution & special creation. The American Biology Teacher, 266-274 (1999).
Pierce, C.S. Philosophical Writings of Peirce, The Fixation of Belief. Popular Science Monthly (1877).