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Monday
Jun292015

On the provisionality & conjectural status of claims about Pakistani Drs & Kentucky Farmers

This is a response to a friend & scholar who wrote to me with some responses to "yesterday's" post on identity-protective reasoning & self-deception.  In the response, I found myself being clearer than I usually am in my posts about the tentative & conjectural status of the views I have been advancing about "cognitive dualism"--the state in which an actor appears to entertain opposing states of belief within bundles or ensembles of action-enabling mental routines that are summoned for discrete activities.  

So I'm posting this portion of my response, both to remedy the failure to be as consistently clear as I should be that "cognitive dualism" is a conjecture and to create a "location" for this qualification when I have occassion to discuss this concept in the future & wish to emphasize what my attitude actually is about its status as an explanation for certain intriguing phenomena.

* * *

Thanks for the feedback & by all means feel free to share any portions of the post with others who you think might find the ideas expressed & arguments advanced to be of value. 

On the "believe/disbelief" issue: I should start by saying that my views on this are certainly very provisional. This is always true, at least for anyone who knows how empirical proof works and is committed to treating it as his or her guide for enlarging knowledge.  But in this case, my intuitions are way out in front of my evidence; I am eager to lessen the gap.

I am drawn to this by two types of observations. The first the results of a study in which I tried to develop a climate-change knowledge assessment that unconfounded the "affective identity" measured by most questions about "belief in" climate change from genuine knowledge.  The results of that study suggested, not surprisingly, that there is essentially no correlation between understanding of the basic mechanisms of climate science (ones relating to causes or consequences) and "beliefs in" it (whether it is happening, human caused, etc.); the latter are simply indicators of identity of the same nature as response to political outlook questions.

The thing that disoriented me was what to make of the finding that the individuals who scored highest on the assessment (& who also scored highest on a general science knowledge assessment) were also the most polarized. They obviously "know" what the best evidence is & yet say they "believe" or "disbelieve" in a manner that indicates their political identity.  What is going on in their heads-- I asked myself this & was asked the question over & over again by many curious & reflective people.

So I tried to come up with a taxonomy of explanations, one of which was the "cognitive dualism" explanation.

On this account -- which is based on various general sources on the nature of belief & action but also specific investigations of "disbelief in" evolution among people use such knowledge professionally -- starts with a psychological conception of "beliefs" as "dispositions to action."  It then proceeds to the proposition that beliefs of opposing valences can be bundled into discrete complexes of intentional states suited for doing distinct things-- like being a good Muslim & a Dr; or being a good Hierarch individualist & a good farmer; or being a good cosmologist & a good mother.  Yes, the "beliefs" that are elements of the discrete bundles "conflict" as propositional assertions; but as mental objects, they don't exist independently of the action-enabling ensembles of mental states of which they are a part.  If those don't conflict, then there is no practical, experienced contradiction.  The criterion of identity that is used to individuate the "beliefs" & find contradiction in them is one that is alien to the psychology of the actor & likely to confuse us about how that person's reason works.

You ask about what happens when the actions that are enabled do conflict.  I want to say that is in fact an entirely different sort of phenomenon or set of mental dynamics.  In the taxonomy, it would be "compartmentalization," which refers to the conscious, effortful separation of contradictory action-enabling beliefs & associated mental states in the mind of the same actor.  Think of the closeted gay person who belongs to a religious group that persecutes gays, e.g.  This is a form of dissonance avoidance.  It is distinct from what happents with "cognitive dualism."  It is not what is going on, I think, in the case of the Pakistani Dr or the Kentucky Farmer (or his prospective veterinarian daughter).

It is also not what is going on, in my view, in South East Florida.  My experiences there in doing field-based science communication studies is the second source of my interest in this issue.

There I see people who "don't believe in" climate change when they are being who they are as members of cultural groups, but who do when they are deliberating as citizens about what to do in their local political communities to try to protect their way of life from impending climate impacts.  I think they are enabled to do this by cognitive dualism.  But I think they are enabled to pursue the cognitive dualism strategy only as a result of astute leaders who create an environment in which there isn't conflict in being who they are and using what they know in their local political life...  This is a very profound accomplishment in my view, one I discuss in the same paper that presents the results of the climate-science comprehension assessment instrument.

I am now in the course of designing studies that bear down more on this phenomenon, that try to conjure the observations that would give us more reason or less to credit one or another of the candidate accounts (which are not limited to "cognitive dualism" & "compartmentalization") of what is "going on in their heads."

And am eager for feedback-- even if quite critical, since I agree that there is more than one plausible account of what is going on & those who are drawn to accounts different from the one I find most consistent with what I've already seen can help me to identify what sorts of observations it would be helpful to make to decide the relative strength of the competing explanations.

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Reader Comments (1)

I'd encourage you to relax the connection between belief and action a bit more. IMO, what we call beliefs do not mentally serve primarily as generators of behavior or even constraints on behavior. A belief is something comprehensible that we can communicate. "Plants need water" or "Jesus died for your sins". They are primarily for social knowledge construction. Even if we act contrary to our beliefs, we often fail to notice this, and suffer no cognitive dissonance. This ties in with the considerable literature on "attitude behavior gap". It is completely true that only when we consider beliefs that would generate different actions is there any risk of significant dissonance. I'd argue that successful membership-badge beliefs undergo strong selection against practical interference with everyday life, so are particularly likely not to have short-term actionable requirements.

June 29, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterRob Maclachlan

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