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Three points about "believing in" evolution ... a travel report

the colored bars are 0.95 CIs!!0. I was ambushed!

Emlen Metz and Michael Weisberg, my fellow panelists at the International Society for the Hisotry of Philosophy and Social Studies of Biology, were lying in wait and bombarded me with a fussilade of counter-proofs and thoughtful alternative explanations! 

For such treachery, they should, at a minimum, compensate me by sharing summaries of their own presentations with the 14 billion readers of this blog, so that subscribers can see for themselves the avalanche of critical reason that crashed down on me.  I am working to exact this settlement.

For my part, I made three points about “believing in” evolution:  one empirical, one political, and one philosophical. (Slides here.)

1. The empirical point was that what people "believe" about evolution doesn’t measure what they know about science but rather expresses who they are, culturally speaking. 

Not a new point for me, I relied primarily on data from The Measurement Problem study to illustrate.

Whipping out my bewildering array of multi-colored item response profiles, I showed that the probability of correctly responding to the NSF Science Indicators Evolution item—“human beings evolved from an earlier species of animals—true or false?”—doesn’t vary in in relation to people’s scores on the Ordinary Science Intelligence (OSI) assessment. Instead the probability of responding correctly depends on the religiosity of the test taker.

Indeed, using factor analysis, one can see that the Evolution item doesn’t share the covariance structure of the items that indicate OSI but instead shares that of the items that indicate religiosity.

Finally, I showed how it’s possible to unconfound the Evolution item’s measurement of identity from its measurement of “science literacy” by introducing it with the phrase, “According to the theory of evolution . . . .”

At that point, religious test takers don’t have to give a response that misrepresents who they are in order to demonstrate that they know science’s understanding of the natural history of human beings.  As a result, the gap between responses to the item and the OSI scores of non-religious and religious respondents, respectively, essentially disappears.

Unconfounding identity and knowledge, I noted, is essential not only to assessing understanding of evolutionary science but also to imparting it. The classic work of Lawson and Worsnop (1992; see also Lawson 1999), I told the audience, demonstrates that kids who say they “don’t believe in” evolution can learn the essential elements of the modern synthesis just as readily as kids who say they “do believe it” (and who  are otherwise are not any more likely be able to give a cogent account of natural selection, genetic variance and random mutation).

But because what one says one “believes” about evolution  is in fact not an indicator of knowledge but an indicator of identity, teaching religiously inclined students how the theory of evolution actually works doesn’t make them any more likely to profess “acceptance” of it.

Indeed, Lawson stresses that the one way to assure that more religiously inclined students won’t learn the essential elements of evolutionary science is to make them perceive that the point of the instruction is to change their “beliefs”: when people are put in the position of having to choose between being who they are and knowing what’s known by science, they will predictably choose being who they are, and will devote all of their formidable reasoning proficiencies to that.

The solution to the measurement problem posed by people's "beliefs in" evolution, then, is the  science communication disentanglement principle: “Don’t  make reasoning, free people choose between knowing what’s known & being who they are.”

2.  The political point I made was the imperative to enforce the science communication disentanglement principle in every domain in which citizens acquire and make use of scientific information.

Liberal market democracies are the form of society distinctively suited both to the generation of scientific knowledge and to the protection of free and reasoning individuals' formation of their own understandings of the best way to live.

In my view, the citizens of such states have the individual right to enjoy both of these benefits without having to trade off one for the other.   To secure that right, liberal democratic societies must use the science of science communication to repel the dynamics that conspire to make what science knows a focal point for cultural status competition (Kahan in press).

Here  I focused on the public controversy over climate change.

Drawing on Measurement Problem and other CCP studies (Kahan, Peters, et al. 2012), I showed that what “belief in” human-caused climate change measures is not what people know but who they are as well.

The typical opinion poll item on “belief in” climate change, these evidence suggest, are is also not a valid indicator of the sort of latent cultural identity indicated by variously by cultural cognition worldview items and conventional “right-left” political outlook ones.

People with those identities don’t converge but rather polarize as their OSI scores increase.

Using techniques derived from unconfounding identity and knowledge in the assessment of what people understand about evolution, one can fashion an assessment instrument—the “Ordinary Climate Science Intelligence” (OCSI) test—that confounds identity from what they understand about the causes and consequences of climate change.

They don’t understand very much, it turns out, but they get the basic message that climate scientists are conveying: human activity is causing climate change and putting all of us at immense risk.

Nevertheless those who score the highest on the OCSI still are the most politically polarized on whether they “believe in” human climate change—because the question they are answering when they respond to a survey item on that is “who are you, whose side are you on?”

To enable people to acquire and make use of the knowledge that climate scientists are generating, science communication researchers are going to have to do the same sort of hard & honest work that education researchers did to figure out how to disentangle knowledge of evolutionary science from identity.

But they're going to need to figure out how to to do that not only in the classroom but also in the democratic political realm.  The science communication environment is now filled with toxic meanings that force people in their capacity as democratic citizens to choose between knowing what’s known about climate and being who they are.

Because individuals forced to make that choice will predictably--rationally-- use their reasoning proficiencies to express their identities, culturally diverse citizens will be unable to make collective decisions informed by what science knows about climate change until the disentanglement project is extended to our public discourse.

Indeed, conflict entrepreneurs (posing as each other's enemy as they symbiotically feed off one another's noxious efforts to stimulate a self-reinforcing atmosphere of contempt among rival groups) continue to pollute our science communication environment with antagonistic cultural meanings on evolution as well. 

Those who actually care about making it possible for diverse citizens to be able to know what’s known by science without having to pay the tax of acquiescing in others' denigration of their cultural identities are obliged to oppose these tapeworms of cognitive illiberalism no matter “whose side” they purport to be on in the dignity-annihilating, reason-enervating cultural status competition in which positions on climate change & evolution have been rendered into tribal totems.

3. The philosophical point was the significance of cognitive dualism.

Actually, cognitive dualism is not, as I see it, a philosophical concept or doctrine. 

It is a conjecture, to be investigated by empirical means, on what is “going on in heads” of those who—like the Pakistani Dr and the Kentucky Farmer—both “believe” and “disbelieve” in facts like human evolution and human-caused climate change.

But what the tentative and still very formative nature of the conjecture shows us, in my view, is just how much in need  the disentanglement project is of philosophers' help.

In the study of “beliefs” in evolution, cases like these are typically assumed to involve a profound cognitive misfire. 

The strategies skillful science teachers use to disentangle knowledge from identity in the classroom, far from being treated as a solution to a practical science communication dilemma, are understood to present us with another “problem”—that of the student who “understands” what he or she is taught but who will not “accept” it as true.

In my view, the work that reflects this stance is failing to engage meaningfully with the question of what it means to "believe in" evolution, climate change etc.

The work I have in mind simply assumes that “beliefs” are atomistic propositional stances identified by reference to the states of affairs (“natural history of humans,” “rising temperature of the globe”) that are their objects.

In this literature there is no cognizance of an alternative view—one with a rich tradition in philosophy (Pierce 1877; Braithwaite 1933, 1946; Hetherington 2011)—of “beliefs” as dispositions to action.  

Haven't figured out yet what to get Kentucky Farmer for X-mas? Here's a hint!

On this account, beliefs as mental objects always inhere in clusters of intentional states  (emotions, values, desires, and the like) that are distinctively suited for doing particular things.

The Pakistani Dr’s belief in evolution is integral to the mental routines that enable him to be (and take pride in being) a Dr; his disbelief in it is part of a discrete set of mental routines that he uses to be a member of a particular religious community (Everhart & Hameed 2013).  The Kentucky Farmer disbelieves in “human caused climate change” in order to be  a hierarchical individualist but believes in it—indeed, excitedly downloads onto his IPad custom-tailored predictions based on the same "major climate-change models ... under constant assault by doubters" in order to be a successful farmer.

If as mental objects “beliefs” exist only as components of more elaborate ensembles of action-enabling mental states, then explanations of the self-contradiction or "self-deception" of the Pakistani Dr, Kentucky Farmer--or of the creationist high school student who wants to be a veterinarian but "loves animals too much" to simply "forget" what she has learned about natural selction in her AP biology course-- are imposing a psychologically false criterion of identity on the contents of their minds.

So long as there is no conflict in the things that these actors are enabled to do with the clusters of mental states in which their opposing stances toward evolution or toward climate change inhere, there is no "inconsistency" to explain.

There is also no “problem” to "solve" when actors who use their acceptance of what science knows to do what scientific knowledge is uniquely suited for don't "accept" it in order to do something on which science has nothing to say.  

Unless the "problem" is really that what they are doing with nonacceptance is being the kind of person whose behavior or politics or understandings of the best way to live bother or offend us.  But if so, say that -- & don't confuse matters by suggesting that one's goals have anything to do with effecitvely communciating science.

Or at least that is what the upshot of cogntive dualism would be if in fact it is the right account of the Pakistani Dr, and the Kentucky Farmer, and the many many many other people in whose mental lives such "antinomies" coexist.

Of course,  it doesn’t bother me that cognitive dualism is not now the dominant explanation of “who believes what” about evolution or climate change and “why.”

But what does is the innocence of those who are studying these phenomena of the very possibility that the account of "belief" of which cognitive dualism is a part might account for what they are investigating, a state of inattention that assures that they will fail to conduct valid empirical research-- and fail to reflect consciously on the moral significance of their prescriptions.

This is exactly the sort of misadventure that philosophers ought to protect empirical researchers from experiencing, I told the roomful of curious and reflective people who paid us the privilege of attending our session and sharing their views on our research.

And for the first time in all my experiences introducing people to the Pakistani Dr and the Kentucky Farmer, no one seemed to disagree with me . . . .


Braithwaite, R.B. The nature of believing. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 33, 129-146 (1932).

Braithwaite, R.B. The Inaugural Address: Belief and Action. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supplementary Volumes 20, 1-19 (1946).

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

Hetherington, S.C. How to know : a practicalist conception of knowledge (J. Wiley, Chichester, West Sussex, U.K. ; Malden, MA, 2011).

Kahan, D.M. Climate-Science Communication and the Measurement Problem. Advances in Political Psychology 36, 1-43 (2015).

Kahan, D.M. What is the science of science communication?” J. Sci. Comm. (in press).

Kahan, D.M., Peters, E., Wittlin, M., Slovic, P., Ouellette, L.L., Braman, D. & Mandel, G. The polarizing impact of science literacy and numeracy on perceived climate change risks. Nature Climate Change 2, 732-735 (2012).

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 (1992).

Lawson, A.E. A scientific approach to teaching about evolution & special creation. The American Biology Teacher, 266-274 (1999).

Pierce, C.S. Philosophical Writings of Peirce, The Fixation of Belief. Popular Science Monthly  (1877).

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Reader Comments (5)

A question:

==> "Finally, I showed how it’s possible to unconfound the Evolution item’s measurement of identity from its measurement of “science literacy” by introducing it with the phrase, “According to the theory of evolution . . . .”"

It's interesting to speculate how that dynamic might play out differently w/r/t the polarization related to climate change.

I would presume that although asking "according to the theory of AGW are X,Y,Z true/false?" or "according to expert scientists, is X, Y, Z true/false?" might show a different battery of responses than if you asked "do you believe that X,Y,Z are true/false?)....

However, I'd guess that the different category of responses would be not as strongly distinct as w/r/t evolution. IOW, many "skeptics" and realists would be more likely to align their views of "according to theory," or "according to experts" to fit with their own views.


July 8, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua


OCSI was patterned on the strategy used to unconfound identity & knowledge that worked in assessing knowledge of evoutioanry science.

For sure OCSI does not involve such a confound, or not in any material degree.

Indeed, I'd say that OCSI's value consists in nothing much more than showing that it is *possible" to disentangle knowledge & id in assessing climate change knowledge. For sure it is not an assessment measure that would be of great use in any particular setting -- e.g., high school classes, "civic science literacy" etc. More attention would be needed on content -- so it fits what it makes sense for those actors to know -- & most importantly of all in improving discrimination across the range of the latent "comprehension" disposition; OCSI is a good instrument for people very high in OCSI, but otherwise has a hard time distinghuishing how much people know (perhaps there really isn't much range in how much people know between "lots" & "nothing," but I am not willing just to assume that).

You are right, though, that it would be very interesting to test OCSI items in a form that relaxes the deliberate efforts to achieving "unconfounding." E.g., as you propose, by making item "what do you believe" rather than what do "climate scientists" think. I woyuld make same prediction as you. But it's somethign that I'd really like to test, yes

July 8, 2015 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

On Dualism:

The Pakistani Doctor research seems to be about a minority and how they function in a majority society. I’ve only read the abstract to this paper:, but it appears that only 3 out of 23 physicians studied said they rejected evolution outright. And a majority thought that a belief in evolution was compatible with a belief in Allah. I don’t know much about the practice of Islam, but certainly within Christianity there is a spectrum as to what it means to be a believer, from those who think that the Bible should be taken literally, to those who view it as a historical document that can offer some inspiration and guidance, but taken along with input from a progression of ideas since the time was written. Some of our ancestors left Europe because their personal religious views were incompatible with that of the existing power structure, which might imply a resistance to dogma, but given the example of the Puritans, probably just makes for a wider variety in the dogmas that exist here. I would presume that the same would be true of Moslem Americans of Pakistani ancestry.

What happens if a non-evolution believing religious group controls science and medical education? I presume we could find that in Pakistan. But we also have an example, of sorts, in the US. The Seventh Day Adventists have a theology that is Creationist. They function as a minority in our society, but with their own educational institutions. Sometimes there is leakage around the edges, but corrections are made, by those with authority. That is demonstrated by this item regarding actions taken against teachings of evolutionary theory as an explanation of origins at La Sierra University 92010): The Seventh Day Adventists also run Loma Linda University, which has an accredited Medical School. My familiarity with this is not recent. But it still exists as if on its own private island, a Seventh Day Adventist town: As far as I can tell from their website, they studiously avoid discussion of evolution. That means that a med school admitted graduate of now properly sanitized La Sierra would find nothing jarring or incompatible here. And could likely graduate without being confronted with the need to think of evolution as relevant to their medical education In my experience with Seventh Day Adventist MDs, (3 to be exact, which is still anecdotal, but in my opinion, not all that much less so than 23), explanations are given that involve things like “viruses can change their coats, but species do not change from one to another”. Or “there is a vast pool of bacteria, and ones that sweep through periodically as epidemics are simply from that existing reservoir”. And the SF Gate article (2006) linked to above quotes a Loma Linda physician, who preformed a baboon heart transplant thusly: “Although Adventists reject evolution in favor of creationism, "variation within species -- microevolution, if you would -- is probably all part of the original design," Bailey said of Baby Fae's baboon heart.”. "Adventism and the church's holistic devotion to people's health and spiritual well-being dominate daily life in Loma Linda, a place where biblical creationism and cutting-edge medicine exist side by side. " I would assert that this would mean that no dualism would be involved, from their perspective.

This world view affects research in interesting ways. Take cancer for example. One of my Colorado acquaintances in science and evolution education, Dr James DeGregori, does cancer research in which evolution is central. He is also part of a group called the Colorado Evolution Response Team, concerned with the teaching of evolution in schools.

DeGregori, or work like his would be highly unlikely to be done at Loma Linda, where cancer and other disease research seems to center on diet and lifestyle: Actually, from the perspective of routine medical care, there is much about the lifestyle approach that works well. Most of us need more of this. Similarly, one could successfully treat major medical emergencies without invoking evolution at all. I would imagine, as at La Sierra University, there are those Biology educators at Seventh Day Adventist institutions who come to see that evolution is central to their disciplines, but are willing to keep their mouths shut to keep their jobs.

There are plenty of scientific avenues to travel down, and all scientists have roads not taken. In viewing those areas that are beyond our expertise, we might be expected to accept the opinions of those scientists who are experts. But mostly, we chose to ignore vast areas of knowledge unless something about them impinges on our immediate needs. It is fairly easy to structure life so that a lot of science is of no particular immediate concern. I’m not convinced there is a need to invoke the concept of dualism.

July 9, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterGaythia Weis

I must say that although I haven't agreed with much on this website since discovering it yesterday, I do find it refreshingly balanced and extremely interesting. This was actually the first post where I found myself agreeing with the underlying principle, but also the first one where I really started to pick up on a strong bias being in play, which I feel was reinforced by the previous commentator. So I was wondering if Gaythia would answer a question related to an assertion he made, but I'll first ask that y'all grant me just a few minutes of your time to provide some context for my question by sharing a couple of personal antidotes.

Gaythia stated that he "would imagine, as at La Sierra University, there are those Biology educators at Seventh Day Adventist institutions who come to see that evolution is central to their disciplines, but are willing to keep their mouths shut to keep their jobs."

Even as a hard-core creationist, I would absolutely agree that such biologists do indeed exist. In fact, I even know of one who comes close to fitting the bill. I happened to attend a very conservative Evangelical Christian college located right in the heart of the Bible Belt (it was nonetheless highly ranked by USN&WR on an academic basis--third overall small college or university in the region, if memory serves). I actually had a biology professor who was officially/publicly anti-macro evolution/creationist, yet I always strongly suspected that he was just "towing the company line". I was a philosophy major. The good professor would often show up at our events and engage in discussions where he would express philosophical positions that just weren't compatible with the YEC creationism he was professing to his classes (while also being very careful to never directly dispute YEC). This encounter leaves me with very little doubt that the situation Gayina imagines is indeed a fairly regular occurrence at Evangelical colleges all around this nation.

Before you pop open the campaign bottles because you've finally found a conservative Evangelical creationist willing to publicly admitting this fact, I'll ask that you hold on for just a moment and allow me to present the other side of this coin. I also happen to be from Wisconsin, so over the course of two summers while I was enrolled at this conservative, southern, Evangelical hot bed, I also happened to take some core classes at the University of Wisconsin (talk about "duality" of a different nature -- for those unfamiliar with UW, I would rank it as one of the three or four most liberal major universities in this nation).

In a 100-level Econ class (I believe macro economics) at UW, I had a professor who I know to be a free-market/libertarian economist and fire breathing conservative of the Ron/Rand Paul mold. This knowledge is based upon private conversations I've had with him after he discovered that I was also attending a college that is very well-known in conservative circles for its support of free market economics. Now like my biology professor, despite his very, very conservative economic beliefs, he presented Keynes and Marx to the class as if they devised perfectly valid economic systems, which regardless of your opinion on the matter, the professor absolutely did not believe to be true. He was also -- in effect -- "towing the company line".

So with this in mind, I'm curious if Gaythia and/or the author of the OP would grant that there are numerous climatologists all throughout academia, who exactly like these two professors, also choose to "tow the company line", thus helping to create an illusion of a greater consensus on climate change than what actually exists. I would personally think that with all the vitriol that massively hauled at so-called "deniers" (even someone like Freeman Dyson), that professors are likely to conceal their actual positions on climate change more so than on any other issue, and instead just choose to tow the company line. Would anyone else agree with me that this is likely the case? Why or why not?

October 18, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJoseph W. Egan


I admire that you can be engaged despite disagreeing!

am curious about this:

This was actually the first post where I found myself agreeing with the underlying principle, but also the first one where I really started to pick up on a strong bias being in play,

I should wait, I suppose, for more explanation, but I'm confused about why a "biased" view would be something you agree w/ more .... Is that what you meant? If so, maybe you meant "bias" just in sense of "having a direction" as opposed to "systematically inaccurate"?

I have lots of positions. I don't think I disguise them! I don't doubt that I am biased -- in "measurement" sense -- , too, by positions along w/ other things; but anyone who helps me to figure out when that's likely what's happening is doing a good me a good turn.

You & @Gaythia (who I think is opinionated for sure but at least 2 SDs less biased than population mean) are having a conversation that has gone in a perfectly sensible direction. But I would say that there's nothing about "towing party lines" -- nothing duplicitous or disingenous-- about the stance embodied in "cognitive dualism" as I understand it.

Of course, I could be misunderstanding. Or worse, describing something that isn't really a good representation of anything that we see going on around us. I anticipat3e I'll find out if so

October 18, 2015 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

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