Pakistani Dr & Kentucky Farmer cause uprising of agitated reflection at Annenberg Center!

Gave talk yesterday at Annenberg Public Policy Center (where I will be a fellow next spring) on “Science Communication Measurement Problem.”

Was a super great audience, brimming with knowledge, intelligence & curiosity.

Slides here.

I’ve given talks before on the Measurement Problem & its significance for science communication.

But in this one for the first time I gave a pretty central place to the “Pakistani Dr” paradox—the apparently simultaneous belief & disbelief in one or another scientific proposition (human evolution, human-caused climate change).

Indeed, Everhart & Hameed’s Pakistani Dr only arrived after the “Measurement Problem” study was done, to try to help me answer the question a perceptive audience member asked after I gave a lecture at RMIT University last summer. . . .  The Dr’s helped a lot, but for sure I remain perplexed.

The audience members yesterday were aroused and agitated by him, and particularly by his buddy the Kentucky Farmer.

There was the usual impulse to try to explain away the paradox—one’s involving either specifying the propositions believed/disbelieved in more fine-grained ways (“micro- vs. macro-evolution”; “scientists say that, but they are wrong”) or positing unrevealed attitudes (“he doesn’t really disbelieve evolution—he’s just saying that”; “FYATHYRIO” ; “hypocritical selfish bastard acting on basis of self-interest” etc.) that dissolve the apparent contradiction.

That’s understandable. It’s everyone’s first instinct, and isn’t necessarily the wrong answer!  But as I tried to explain, I think we should resist the impulse to accept those “solutions” too readily, lest they preempt valid empirical inquiry into the range of plausible hypotheses.

Actually, as far as I could tell, everyone readily agreed with me when I raised that point.

I, of course, found myself engaged in a kind of “cheerleading” for my favorite conjecture—the “pragmatic dualism” position, I guess I’d call it (not b/c that is a very good label but b/c it’s as good as anything else I can think of for now).

On this account, the appearance of contradiction reflects a mistaken model of how “beliefs” figure in reasoning.

The mistaken model is that “beliefs” are mental objects akin to factual or empirical propositions that can be identified exclusively with their states-of-affairs referents: “natural history of humans”  or “scientific theory of same originating in work of Darwin”; “global temperature  trends over last decade” and “impact of burning fossil fuels on the same.”

It makes sense to treat “facts” (essentially) that way for purposes of scientific inquiry, and “beliefs” about them as summaries of our assessment of the best available scientific evidence, I agree.

But “inside of people’s heads” it doesn’t make sense to think of “beliefs” being isolated proposition bits switched to either a “true” (“1”) or “false”(“0”) position.

Rather, “beliefs” in states of affairs are always parts of a bundles of intentional states that include not just assessments of such propositions but also affective reactions to them that reflect their significance and that incline one to particular courses of action (Damasio 2010; Lewandwosky 2000; Elga & Rayo 2014).

“Knowing that” is always part of a “knowing how”—for psychological purposes.

There is no way, on this account, to individuate a belief as a “mental object” abstracted from the action-enabling bundles of intentional states that they are part of.

Because beliefs can’t be individuated independently of the actions they enable, then there’s no necessary “contradiction” in both “believing” and “not believing” propositions about external states of affairs.  There would be a contradiction only if the kinds of things that a person is enabled to do by the bundles of intentional states that contain those opposing “beliefs” themselves interefered with one another.

Hameed’s Pakistani Dr is enabled to be a doctor—enabled to practice medicine and experience sense of identity as a part of a science-based profession—by believing in evolution.

He is also enabled to be a part of a certain religious community by disbelieving that particular account of the natural history of human beings.

What’s the problem, he keeps asking us?  I am both of those things—and there’s no tension, in the life I lead (in the society in which I live) in doing so.

Similarly for Kentucky Farmer.  He is enabled to be a certain kind of person—a “hierarchical individualist,” let’s say—by “disbelieving human-caused climate change.”  But he is also enabled to be a successful farmer by “believing in human-caused climate change”—by using, in fact, the best available information on how human activity is affecting the climate so that he can make sensible decisions about his farming practices (no-till farming, crop-rotation, use of genetically modified seeds, etc.) and about conducting his commercial operations (buying crop-failure insurance, etc.).

Big deal, he says. I do both of those things—and they fit together for me just fine.

I don’t know if this is right.  I’d like to figure out experiments for testing this & other plausible conjectures about “what’s going on in their heads.”

But one thing that I realized might be making people resist this account at the workshop wasn’t the implausibility of it.

On the contrary, it was the very likelihood that this might be exactly what is happening.

The objection, for some, I think, was less to the apparent “contradiction” in the Kentucky Farmer’s “beliefs” (he came in for the most critical attention at the workshop).  Rather it was to what he was being enabled to do by his particular “knowing that”/“knowing how” clusters on climate change.

People were distressed, in particular, by the absence in him of a bundle of action-enabling intentional states containing “belief in climate change” that was geared toward impelling him to demand a particular set of policies relating to the mitigation via putting restrictions on various sorts of commercial and market behavior in the US and other countries.

If Ky Farmer had “belief in human-caused climate change” within a cluster of intentional states that impelled him to demand that, I doubt these critics would have cared much if he, like the vast majority of people who have that bundle of intentional states, actually didn’t know even the most rudimentary aspects of climate change science.

In other words, at least some people weren’t really objecting to the “irrationality” of the Kentucky Farmer’s beliefs. They just didn’t like the person that his “beliefs” were rationally enabling him to be.

They are entitled to feel that way!

But I do think it is useful to recognize that that’s what the objection is.

Or in any case, it occurred to me that this might be one way to make sense of how others were making sense of the Kentucky Farmer and the Pakistani Dr.

I could be wrong about that.

As I said, I’m perplexed—and curious what others think (and of course for guidance to treatments of these issues by thoughtful people who have already investigatd them)!


Elga A & Rayo, A. Fragmentation and information access. Working paper (2014).

Damasio, A.R. Self comes to mind : constructing the conscious brain (Pantheon Books, New York, 2010).

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

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