Lewandowsky on “knowing disbelief”

So my obsession with the WIGOITH (“What is going on in their heads”) question hasn’t abated since last week.

The question is put, essentially, by the phenomenon of “knowing disbelief.” This, anyway, is one short-hand I can think of for describing the situation of someone who, on the one hand, displays a working comprehension of and assent to some body of evidence-based propositions about how the world works but who simultaneously, on the other, expresses– and indeed demonstrates in consequential and meaningful social engagements– disbelief in that same body of propositions.

One can imagine a number of recognizable but discreet orientations that meet this basic description.

I offered a provisional taxonomy in an earlier post:

  • “Fuck you & the horse you rode in on” (FYATHRIO), in which disbelief is feigned & expressed only for the sake of evincing an attitude of hostility or antagonism (“Obama was born in Kenya!”);
  • compartmentalization, which involves a kind of mental and behavioral cordoning off of recognized contradictory beliefs or attitudes as a dissonance-avoidance strategy (think of the passing or closeted gay person inside of an anti-gay religious community);
  • partitioning, which describes the mental indexing of a distinctive form of knowledge or mode of reasoning (typically associated with expertise) via a set of situational cues, the absence of which blocks an agent’s reliable apprehension of what she “knows” in that sense; and
  • dualism, in which the propositions that the agent simultaneously “accepts” and “rejects” comprise distinct mental objects, ones that are identified not by the single body of knowledge that is their common referent but by the distinct uses the agent makes of them in inhabiting social roles that are not themselves antagonistic but simply distinct.

The last of these is the one that intrigues me most. The paradigm is the Muslim physician described by Everhart & Hameed (2013): the “theory of evolution” he rejects  “at home” to express his religious identity is “an entirely different thing” from the “theory of evolution” he accepts and indeed makes use of “at work” in performing his medical specialty and in being a doctor.

But the motivation for trying to make sense of the broader phenomenon—of “knowing disbelief,” let’s call it—comes from the results  of the “climate science literacy” test—the “Ordinary climate science intelligence” assessment—described in the Measurement Problem (Kahan, in press).

Administered to a representative national sample, the OCSI assessment showed, unsurprisingly, that the vast majority of global-warming “believers” and “skeptics” alike have a painfully weak grasp of the mechanisms and consequences of human-caused climate change.

But the jolting (to me) part was the finding that the respondents who scored the highest on OCSI—the ones who had the highest degree of climate-science comprehension (and of general science comprehension, too)—were still culturally polarized in their “belief in” climate change.  Indeed, they were more polarized on whether human activity is causing global warming than were the (still very divided) low-scoring OCSI respondents.

What to make of this?

I asked this question in my previous blog post.  There were definitely a few interesting responses but, as in previous instances in which I’ve asked for help in trying to make sense of something that ought to be as intriguing and puzzling to “skeptics” as it is to “believers,” discussion in the comment section for the most part reflected the inability of those who think a lot about the “merits” of the evidence on climate change to think about anything else (or even see when it is that someone is talking about something else).

But here is something responsive. It came via email correspondence from Stephen Lewandowsky, who has done interesting work on “partitioning” (e.g., Lewandowsky & Kirsner 2000), not to mention public opinion on climate change:

1. FYATHYRIO. I think this may well apply to some people. I enclose an article [Wood, M.J., Douglas, K.M. & Sutton, R.M. Dead and Alive Beliefs in Contradictory Conspiracy Theories. Social Psychological and Personality Science 3, 767-773 (2012)] that sort of speaks to this issue, namely that people can hold mutually contradictory beliefs that are integrated only at some higher level of abstraction—in this instance, that higher level of abstraction is “fuck you” and nothing below that matters in isolation or with respect to the facts.

2. Compartmentalization. What I like about this idea is that it provides at least a tacit link to the toxic emotions that any kind of challenge will elicit from those people.

3. Partitioning. I think as a cognitive mechanism, it probably explains a lot of what’s going on, but it doesn’t provide a handle on the emotions.

4. Dualism. Neat idea, I think there may be something to that. The analogy of the Muslim physician works well, and those people clearly exist. Where it falls down is because the people engaging in dualism usually have some tacit understanding of that and can even articulate the duality. Indeed, the duality allows you to accept the scientific evidence (as your Muslim Dr hypothetically-speaking does) because it doesn’t impinge on the other belief system (religion) that one holds dear.

So what do I think? I am not sure but I can offer a few suggestions: First, I am not surprised by any sort of apparent contradiction because my work on partitioning shows that people are quite capable of some fairly deep contradictory behaviors—and that they are oblivious to it. Second, I think that different things go on inside different heads, so that some people engage in FYATHYRIO whereas others engage in duality and so on. Third, I consider people’s response to being challenged a key ingredient of trying to figure out what’s going on inside their heads. And I think that’s where the toxic emotion and frothing-at-the-mouth of people like Limbaugh and his ilk come in. I find those responses highly diagnostic and I can only explain them in two ways: Either they feel so threatened by [the mitigation of] climate change that nothing else matters to them, or they know that they are wrong and hate being called out on it—which fits right in with what we know about compartmentalization. I would love to get at this using something like an IAT

Anyhow, just my 2c worth for now..

I do find this interesting and helpful.

But as I responded to Steve, I don’t think “partitioning,” which descirbes a kind of cognitive bias or misfire related to accessing expert knowledge, is a very likely explanation for the psychology of the “knowing disbelievers” I am interested in.

The experts who display the sort of conflict between “knowing” and “disbelieving” that Steve observes in his partitioning studies would, when the result is pointed out to them, likely view themselves as having made a mistake. I don’t think that’s how the high-scoring OCSI “knowing disbelievers” would see their own sets of beliefs.

And for sure, Steve’s picture of the “frothing-at-the-mouth” zealot is not capturing what I’m interested in either.

He or she is a real type–and has a counterpart, too, on the “believer” side: contempt-fillled and reason-free expressive zealotry is as ideologically symmetric as any other aspect of motivated reasoning.

But the “knowing disbeliever” I have in mind isn’t particularly agitated by any apparent conflict or contradiction in his or her states of belief about the science on climate change, and feels no particular compulsion to get in a fight with anyone about it.

This individual just wants to be who he or she is and make use of what is collectively known to live and live well as a free and reasoning person.

Not having a satisfying understanding of how this person thinks makes me anxious that I’m missing something very important.


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).

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