“What exactly is going on in their heads?” (And in mine?) Explaining “knowing disbelief” of climate change

During my trip to Australia, I presented The Measurement Problem twice in one day, first at Monash University and then at RMIT University (slides here). I should have presented two separate lectures but I’m obsessed—disturbed even—by the results of the MP study so I couldn’t resist the opportunity to collect two sets of reactions.

In fact, I spent the several hours between the lectures discussing the challenges of measuring popular climate-science comprehension with University of Melbourne psychologist Yoshi Kashima, co-author of the very interesting study Guy, S., Kashima, Y., Walker, I. & O’Neill, S. Investigating the effects of knowledge and ideology on climate change beliefs. European Journal of Social Psychology 44, 421-429 (2014).

The challenges, we agreed, are two.

The first is just to do it.

If you want to figure out what people know about the mechanisms of climate change, asking them whether they “believe in” human-caused global warming definitely doesn’t work.  The answer they give you to that question tells you who they are: it is an indicator of their cultural identity uninformed by and uncorrelated with any meaningful understanding of evidence or facts.

Same for pretty much any question that people recognize as asking them to “take a position” on climate change.

To find out what people actually know, you have to design questions that make it possible for them to reveal what they understand without having to declare whose side they are on in the pointless and demeaning cultural status competition that the “climate change question” has become in the US—and Australia, the UK, and many other liberal democracies.

This is a hard thing to do!

But once accomplished, the second challenge emerges: to make sense of the surprising picture that one can see after disentangling people’s comprehension of climate change from their cultural identities.

As I explained in my Monash and RMIT lectures, ordinary members of the public—no matter “whose side” they are on—don’t know very much about the basic mechanisms of climate change.  That’s hardly a surprise given the polluted state of the science communication environment they inhabit.

What’s genuinely difficult to sort out, though, is how diverse citizens can actually be on different sides given how uniform their (mis)understandings are.

Regardless of whether they say they “believe in” climate change, most citizens’ responses to the “Ordinary Climate Science Intelligence” (OCSI) assessment suggest they are disposed to blame human activity for all manner of adverse climate impacts, including ones wholly at odds with the mechanisms of global warming.

This result suggests that what’s being measured when one disentangles knowledge from identity is a general affective orientation, one that in fact reflects a widespread apprehension of danger.

The only individuals whose responses don’t display this generic affective orientation are ones who score highest on a general science comprehension assessment—the “Ordinary science intelligence” scale (OSI_2.0).  These respondents can successfully distinguish the climate impacts that scientists attribute to human activity from ones they don’t.

This discriminating pattern, moreover, characterizes the responses of the most science-comprehending members of the sample regardless of their cultural or political outlooks.

Yet even those individuals still don’t uniformly agree that human activity is causing global warming.

On the contrary, these citizens—the ones, again, who display the highest degree of science comprehension generally & of the mechanisms of climate change in particular—are also the most politically polarized on whether global warming is occurring at all.

Maybe not so surprising: what people “believe” about climate change, after all, doesn’t reflect what they know; it expresses who they are.

But stillwhat is going on inside their heads?

This is what one curious and perceptive member of the audience asked me at RMIT.  How, he asked, can someone simultaneously display comprehension of human-caused global warming and say he or she doesn’t “believe in” it?

In fact, this was exactly what Yoshi and I had been struggling with in the hours before the RMIT talk.

Because I thought the questioner and other members of the audience deserved to get the benefit of Yoshi’s expansive knowledge and reflective mind, too, I asked Yoshi to come to the front and respond, which he kindly—and articulately—did.

Now, however, I’ll try my hand.

In fact, I don’t have an answer that I’d expect the questioner to be satisfied with. That’s because I still don’t have an answer that satisfies me.

But here is something in the nature of a report on the state of my ongoing effort to develop a set of candidate accounts suitable for further exploration and testing.

Consider these four general cases of simultaneously “knowing” and “disbelieving”:

1. “Fuck you & the horse you rode in on!” (FYATHYRIO).  Imagine someone with an “Obama was born in Kenya!” bumper sticker. He in fact doesn’t believe that assertion but is nonetheless making it to convey his antagonism toward a segment of society. Displaying the sticker is a way to participate in denigration of that group’s status. Indeed, his expectation that others (those whom he is denigrating and others who wish to denigrate them) will recognize that he knows the proposition is false is integral to the attitude he intends to convey.  There is no genuine contradiction, in this case, between any sets of beliefs in the person’s mind.

2. Compartmentalization.  In this case, there is a genuine contradiction, but it is suppressed through effortful dissonance-avoiding routines.  The paradigmatic case would be the closeted gay man (or the “passing” Jew) who belongs to a homophobic (or anti-Semitic) group.  He participates in condemnation and even persecution of gays (or Jews) in contexts in which he understands and presents himself to be a member of the persecuting group, yet in other contexts, out of the viewing of that group’s members, he inhabits the identity, and engages in the behavior, he condemns.  The individual recognizes the contradiction but avoids conscious engagement with it through habits of behavior and mind that rigidly separate his experience of the identities that harbor the contradictory assessments.  He might be successful in maintaining the separation or he might not, and for longer or or shorter periods of time, but the effort of sustaining it will take a toll on his psychic wellbeing (Roccas & Brewer 2002).

3. Partitioning. In this case, too, the contradiction is real and a consequence, effectively, of a failure of information access or retrieval.  Think of the expert who possesses specialized knowledge and reasoning proficiencies appropriate to solving a particular type of problem.  Her expertise consists in large part in recognizing or assenting to propositions that evade the comprehension of the nonexpert.  The accessing of such knowledge, however, is associated with certain recurring situational cues; in the absence of those, the cognitive processes necessary to activate the expert’s consciousness and appropriate use of her specialized knowledge will fail. The expert will effectively believe in or assent to some proposition that is contrary to the one that she can accurately be understood to “know.”  The contradiction is thus in the nature of a cognitive bias. The expert will herself, when made aware of the contradiction, regard it as an error (Lewandowsky & Kirsner 2000).

4. Dualism. The contradiction here is once again only apparent—except that it is likely not even to appear to be one to the person holding the views in question.

Everhart & Hameed (2013) describe the Muslim medical doctor who when asked states that he “rejects Darwinian evolution”: “Man was made by Allah—he did not descend from monkeys!” Nevertheless, the Dr. can readily identify applications of evolutionary science in his own specialty (say, oncology).  He also is familiar with and genuinely excited by medical science innovations, such as stem-cell therapies, that presuppose and build on the insights of evolutionary science.

With prodding, he might see that he is both “rejecting” and “accepting” a single set of propositions about the natural history of human beings.  But the identity of the propositions in this sense does not correspond to any identity of propositions within the inventory of beliefs, assessments, and attitudes that he makes use of in his everyday life.

Within that inventory, the “theory of evolution” he “rejects” and the “theory of evolution” he “accepts” are distinct mental objects (Hameed 2014).  He accesses them as appropriate to enable him to inhabit the respective identities to which they relate (D’Andrade 1981).

Integral to the “theory of evolution” he “rejects” is a secular cultural meaning that denigrates his religious identity. His “rejection” of that object expresses—in his own consciousness, and in the perception of others—who he is as a Muslim.

The “theory of evolution” he “accepts” is an element of the expert understandings he uses as a professional. It is also a symbol of the special mastery of his craft, a power that entitles those who practice it to esteem.  “Accepting” that object enables him to be a doctor.

The “accepted” and “rejected” theories of evolution are understandings he accesses “at home” and “at work,” respectively.

But the context-specificity of his engagement with these understandings is not compartmentalization: there is no antagonism between the two distinct mental objects; no experience of dissonance in holding the sets of beliefs and appraisals that correspond to them; no need effortfully to cordon these sets off from one another. They are “entirely different things!,” (he explains with exasperation to the still puzzled interviewer).

It’s actually unusual for the two mental objects to come within sight of one another. “Home” and “work” are distinct locations, not only physically but socially: negotiating them demands knowledge of, and facility with, sets of facts, appraisals, and the like suited to the activities distinctive of each.

But if the distinct mental objects that are both called “theories of evolution” are summoned to appear at once, as they might be during the interview with the researcher, there is no drama or crisis of any sort. “What in the world is the problem,” the Dr. wonders, as the seemlingly obtuse interviewer continues to press him for an explanation.

So what should we make of the highly science comprehending individual who gets a perfect score on the OCSI but who, consistent with his cultural identity, states, “There is no credible evidence that human activity is causing climate change”?

I feel fairly confident that what’s “going on” in his or her head is neither FYATHYRIO nor “compartmentalization.”

I doubt, too, that this is an instance of “partitioning.”

“Dualism” seems like a better fit to me.  I think something like this occurs in Florida and other states, where citizens who are polarized on “climate change” make use of climate science in local decisionmaking.

But I do not feel particularly confident about this account—in part because even after constructing it, I still myself am left wondering, “But what exactly is going on in their heads?”

It’s not unusual—indeed, it is motivating and exhilarating—to discover that one’s understanding of some phenomenon that one is studying involves some imperfection or puzzle.

Nevertheless, in this case, I am also a bit unsettled. The thing to be explained took me by surprise, and I don’t feel that I actually have figured out the significance of it for other things that I do feel I know.

But after my talk at RMIT, I put all of this behind me, and proceeded to my next stop, where I delivered a lecture on “cultural cognition” and “the tragedy of the science communications commons.”

You see, I am able to compartmentalize . . . .


D’Andrade, R.G. The cultural part of cognition. Cognitive science 5, 179-195 (1981).

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

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

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

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

Roccas, S. & Brewer, M.B. Social identity complexity. Pers Soc Psychol Rev 6, 88-106 (2002).

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