What’s to explain? Kulkarni on “knowing disbelief”

As always, the investment in asking others for help in dispelling my confusion is paying off.

As the 15.5 billion regular readers of this blog (we’re up 1.5 billion with migration of subscribers from the recent cessation of posts in Russell Johnson’s theprofessor.com) know, I’ve been trying to get a handle on a phenomenon that I’m calling—for now & for lack of a better term—“knowing disbelief” (KD).

I’ve gotten various helpful tips in comments to the the original blog post & on a follow up, which itself featured some reflections by Steve Lewandowsky.

This time the help comes from Prajwal Kulkarni, a physicist who authors the reflective and provocative blog, “Do I need evolution?”

I’ll tell you what he said, and what I have to say about what he said.  But first a bit of background – which, if you have seen all the relevant previous episodes, you can efficiently skip by scrolling down to the bolded red text.

1. KD consists in (a) comprehension of and assent to a set of propositions that (b) appear to entail a proposition one professes not to “believe.”

“What is going on in their heads?” (WIGOITH) is the shorthand I’m using to refer to my interest in forming a working understanding (a cogent set of plausible mechanisms that are either supported by existing evidence or admit of empirical testing) for KD.

In that spirit, I formulated a provisional taxonomy consisting of four species of KD:

  1. FYATHYRIO (“fuck you & the horse you rode in on”), in which the agent (the subject of KD) merely feigns belief in a proposition she knows is not true for the sake of expressing an attitude, perhaps contempt or hostility to members of an opposing cultural group, the recognition of which actually depends on others recognizing that the agent doesn’t really believe it (“Obama was born in Kenya!”);
  2. compartmentalization, in which a belief, or a cluster of beliefs and evaluations (“same-sex relationships enrich my life”), and denial of the same (“homosexuality is a sin”) are both affirmed by the agent, who effortfully cordons them off through behavioral and mental habits that confine their appearance in consciousness to the discrete occasions in which he occupies unintegrated, hostile identities—a form of dissonance avoidance;
  3. partitioning, in which knowledge and styles of reasoning appropriate to the use of it are effectively indexed with situational triggers that automatically summon them to consciousness, creating the risk of the agent will “disbelieve” what she “knows” if an occasion for making use of that knowledge is not accompanied by the triggering condition (think of the expert who doesn’t recognize a problem as being of the type that demands her technical or specialized understanding); and
  4. dualism, in which the agent simultaneously “rejects” and “accepts” some proposition or set of propositions that admittedly have the same state-of-affairs referent but that constitute distinct mental objects individuated by reference to the uses he makes of them in occupying integrated identities, a task he performs without the experience of either “mistake” or “error” (a signature of the kind of bias distinctive of partitioning) or dissonance (the occasion for compartmentalization).

2. I am most interested in dualism for two reasons.  The first is that I think it is the most plausible candidate explanation for the sort of KD that I believe explains the results in the Measurement Problem (Kahan in press), which reports on a study that found that climate change “believers” and climate change “skeptics” achieve equivalent scores on a “climate science comprehension” assessment test and yet, as indicated, form opposing “beliefs” about the existence of human-caused global warming (indeed, about the existence of global warming regardless of cause).  Indeed, I believe I actually encounter dualism all the time when I observe how diverse citizens who are polarized in their “beliefs in” global warming  use climate science that presupposes human-caused global warming when they make practical decisions.

The second is that I feel it is the member of the taxonomy of the psychological mechanisms that I least understand. It doesn’t answer the WIGOITH question but rather puts it for me in emphatic terms.

3. Here is where Prajwal Kulkarni helps me out.

As I adverted to, Kulkarni’s interest is in public opinion on evolution.  He has insights on KD because that’s another area in which we see KD.

Indeed, KD with respect to evolution supplies the prototype for the “dualism” variant of KD.

As I’ve discussed 439 separate times on this blog, there is zero correlation between “belief in” evolution and the most rudimentary comprehension of the mechanisms of it as represented in the dominant, “modern synthesis” account in evolutionary science.  “Disbelievers” are as likely to comprehend natural selection, random mutation, and genetic variance (and not comprehend them; most on both “sides” of the issue don’t) as “believers.”

Nor is there any connection between “belief in” evolution and science comprehension generally.

What’s more, “disbelief” is no impediment to learning evolutionary theory. Good teachers can teach smart “disbelieving” kids as readily as they can smart “believing” ones—but doing so doesn’t transform the former into the latter (Lawson & Worsnop 2006).

Indeed, “knowing disbelievers” of evolution can use what they know about the natural history of human beings.  This is the insight (for all of those who, like me I suppose, would otherwise be too obtuse just to notice this in everyday life) of Everhart and Hameed (2014) and Hameed (2014), who document that medical doctors from Islamic cultures simultaneously “reject” evolution “at home,” when they are occupying their identity as members of a religious community, and “accept” it “at work,” when they are occupying their identity—doing their jobs—as professionals.

They are displaying the “dualism” variant of KD.

In response to my admission that they are the occasion for WIGOITH on my part, Kulkarni asks whether I and others who experience WIGOITH are just too hung up on consistency:

I wonder if the problem is that Kahan thinks such people need to be explained in the first place. But why should people be consistent? Why even have that expectation? As Kahan himself notes, even scientists sometimes exhibit cognitive dissonance.

Perhaps we should start from the premise that everyone is intellectually inconsistent at times. Knowing disbelievers should no more need a “satisfying understanding” than amazing basketball players who can’t shoot free-throws. In sports we accept that athletic ability is complicated and can manifest itself in all sorts of unpredictable ways. No one feels the need to explain it because that just the way it is. Why don’t we do the same for intellectual ability?

If we did, we might then conduct research to account for the handful of people who are consistent all the time. Because that’s the behavior that needs explaining.

This is a very fair question/criticism!

Or at least it is to the extent that it points out that what motivates WIGOITH generally—in all instances in which we encounter KD—is an expectation of consistency in beliefs and like intentional states.

Descriptively, we assume that the agent who harbors inconsistent beliefs is experiencing a kind of cognitive misadventure.  If she refuses to recognize the inconsistency or consciously persists in it, we likely will view her as irrational, a characterization that is as much normative—a person ought to hold consistent beliefs—as descriptive.

Maybe that stance is unjustified (Foley 1979).  In any case, it is rarely openly interrogated and as a result might be blinding us to how living with contradiction coheres with actions and ways of life that we would recognize as perfectly sensible for someone to pursue (although I think if we came to that view, we’d definitely still not think that contradictory beliefs are the “norm”—on the contrary, we’d still likely view them as a recurring source of misadventure and error and possibly mental pathology).

Still, I don’t think any such expectation or demand for “consistency” is what’s puzzling me about dualism!

The reason is that I don’t think there necessarily is any contradiction in the beliefs and related intentional states of the dualist.  For the Pakistani Dr., “the theory of evolution” he “rejects” and the “theory of evolution” he “accepts” are “entirely different things.”

They appear the same to us, as (obtuse?) observers, because we insist on defining his beliefs with reference solely to their state-of-affairs referents (here, the theory of human being’s natural history that originates in the work of Darwin and culminates in the modern synthesis).

But as objects in the Dr’s inventory of beliefs, attitudes, and appraisals—as objects of reasoning that figure in his competent negotiation of the situations that confront him in one or another sphere of life—they are distinct.

Perhaps, to borrow a bit form the partitioning view, the objects are “indexed” with reference to the situational triggers that correspond to his identity “at home” as an individual with a religious identity” and to his identity “at work” as a medical professional.

But unlike the expert who as a result of partitioning fails to access the knowledge (or know how) that she herself understands to be requisite to some task (perhaps responding to a brush fire (Lewendowsky & Kirsner 2000), the Dr doesn’t feel he has “made a mistake” when it is brought to his attention that he has “rejected” a proposition that he also “accepts.”  He says, in effect, that you have made a serious mistake in thinking what he rejects and accepts are the same thing just because they have the same state-of-affairs referent.

I am wondering if he is right.

Is there a cogent account of the psychology of KD under which we can understand the mental objects of the “theory of evolution” that the Dr “rejects” and the “theory of evolution” that he “accepts” to be distinct because they are properly individuated with reference to the use they play in his negotiating of the integrated set of identities (integrated as opposed to segregated, as in the case of the dissonance-experiencing compartmentalizing, closeted gay man).

If so, what is it?

Once we understand it, we can then decide what to make of this way of organizing the contents of one’s mind—whether we think it is “rational” or “irrational,” a cognitive ability that contributes to being able to live a good life or a constraining form of self-delusion & so forth.

I am grateful to Kulkarni for helping me to get clearer on this in my own thinking.

But I wonder now if he doesn’t agree that there is something very much worth explaining here.


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

Foley, R. Justified inconsistent beliefs. American Philosophical Quarterly, 247-257 (1979).

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

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

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 (2006).

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

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