From something I'm working on (and related to "yesterday's" post) . . .
4.3. “Believing in” what one knows is known by science
People who use their reason to form identity-expressive beliefs can also use it to acquire and reveal knowledge of what science knows. A bright “evolution disbelieving” high school student intent on being admitted to an undergraduate veterinary program, for example, might readily get a perfect score on an Advanced Placement biology exam (Herman 2012).
It’s tempting, of course, to say that the “knowledge” one evinces in a standardized science test is analytically independent of one's “belief” in the propositions that one “knows.” This claim isn’t necessarily wrong, but it is highly likely to reflect confusion.
Imagine a test-taker who says, “I know science’s position on the natural history of human beings: that they evolved from an earlier species of animal. And I’ll tell you something else: I believe it, too.” What exactly is added by that person’s profession of belief?
The answer “his assent to a factual proposition about the origin of our species” reflects confusion. There is no plausible psychological picture of the contents of the human mind that sees it as containing a belief registry stocked with bare empirical propositions set to “on-off,” or even probabilistic “pr=0.x,” states. Minds consist of routines—clusters of affective orientations, conscious evaluations, desires, recollections, inferential abilities, and the like—suited for doing things. Beliefs are elements of such clusters. They are usefully understood as action-enabling states—affective stances toward factual propositions that reliably summon the mental routine geared toward acting in some way that depends on the truth of those propositions (Peirce 1877; Braithwaite 1933, 1946; Hetherington 2011).
In the case of our imagined test-taker, a mental state answering to exactly this description contributed to his supplying the correct response to the assessment item. If that’s the mental object the test-taker had in mind when he said, “and I believe it, too!,” then his profession of belief furnished no insight into the contents of his mind that we didn’t already have by virtue of his answering the question correctly. So “nothing” is one plausible answer to the question what did it add when he told us he “believed” in evolution.
It’s possible, though, that the statement did add something. But for the reasons just set forth, the added information would have to relate to some additional action that is enabled by his holding such a belief. One such thing enabled by belief in evolution is being a particular kind of person. Assent to science’s account of the natural history of human beings has a social meaning that marks a person out has holding certain sorts of attitudes and commitments; a belief in evolution reliably summons behavior evincing such assent on occasions in which a person has a stake in experiencing that identity or enabling others to discern that he does.
Indeed, for the overwhelming majority of people who believe in evolution, having that sort of identity is the only thing they are conveying to us when they profess their belief. They certainly aren’t revealing to us that they possess the mental capacities and motivations necessary to answer even a basic high-school biology exam question on evolution correctly: there is zero correlation between professions of belief and even a rudimentary understanding of random mutation, natural variance, and natural selection (Shtulman 2006; Demastes, Settlage & Good 1995; Bishop & Anderson 1990).
Precisely because one test-taker’s profession of “belief” adds nothing to any assessment of knowledge of what science knows, another's profession of “disbelief” doesn’t subtract anything. One who correctly answers the exam question has evinced not only knowledge but also her possession of the mental capacities and motivations necessary to convey such knowledge.
When a test-taker says “I know what science thinks about the natural history of human beings—but you better realize, I don’t believe it,” then it is pretty obvious what she is doing: expressing her identity as a member of a community for whom disbelief is a defining attribute. The very occasion for doing so might well be that she was put in a position where revealing of her knowledge of what science knows generated doubt about who she is.
But it remains the case that the mental states and motivations that she used to learn and convey what science knows, on the one hand, and the mental states and motivations she is using to experience a particular cultural identity, on the other, are entirely different things (Everhart & Hameed 2013; cf. DiSessa 1982). Neither tells us whether she will use what evolution knows to do other things that can be done only with such knowledge—like become a veterinarian, say, or enjoy a science documentary on evolution (CCP 2016). To figure out if she believes in evolution for those purposes—despite her not believing in it to be who she is—we’d have to observe what she does in the former settings.
All of these same points apply to the response that study subjects give when they respond to a valid measure of their comprehension of climate science. That is, their professions of “belief” and “disbelief” in the propositions that figure in the assessment items neither add to nor subtract from the inference that they have (or don’t have) the capacities and motivations necessary to answer the question correctly. Their respective professions tell us only who they are.
As expressions of their identities, moreover, their respective professions of “belief” and “disbelief” don’t tell us anything about whether they possess the “beliefs” in human-caused climate change requisite to action informed by what science knows. To figure out if a climate change “skeptic” possesses the action-enabling belief in climate change that figures, say, in using scientific knowledge to protect herself from the harm of human-caused climate change, or in voting for a member of Congress (Republican or Democrat) who will in fact expend even one ounce of political capital pursuing climate-change mitigation policies, we must observe what that skeptical individual does in those settings. Likewise, only by seeing what a self-proclaimed climate-change believer does in those same settings can we see if he possess the sort of action-enabling belief in human-caused climate change that using science knowledge for those purposes depends on.
Bishop, B.A. & Anderson, C.W. Student conceptions of natural selection and its role in evolution. Journal of Research in Science Teaching 27, 415-427 (1990).
Braithwaite, R.B. The Inaugural Address: Belief and Action. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supplementary Volumes 20, 1-19 (1946).
Demastes, S.S., Settlage, J. & Good, R. Students' conceptions of natural selection and its role in evolution: Cases of replication and comparison. Journal of Research in Science Teaching 32, 535-550 (1995).
Everhart, D. & Hameed, S. Muslims and evolution: a study of Pakistani physicians in the United States. Evo Edu Outreach 6, 1-8 (2013).
Hermann, R.S. Cognitive apartheid: On the manner in which high school students understand evolution without Believing in evolution. Evo Edu Outreach 5, 619-628 (2012).
Hetherington, S.C. How to know : a practicalist conception of knowledge (J. Wiley, Chichester, West Sussex, U.K. ; Malden, MA, 2011).
Peirce, C.S. The Fixaation of Belief. Popular Science Monthly 12, 1-15 (1877).