I have much to learn

Not really an excuse, but I’ve had a brutal work week. Which is why I’ve been remiss in highlighting Dan Kahan’s fantastic response to my recent post. To recap, Kahan has been trying to understand how people can understand something while not believing it–what he calls “knowing disbelief” (KD). I suggested that there’s nothing to worry about because that’s just how we–as human beings–operate. People are inconsistent…what’s the big deal?

And Kahan explained:

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”… 


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.

To which I answer…yes there is something worth explaining here! I was too glib when I argued that there’s nothing to understand because, well, this is just how we do. As I read and re-read Kahan’s KD taxonomy, I realized that I didn’t initially appreciate how different the four types of KD are. The cognitive processes of closeted gay men, of people who “believe” Obama was born in Kenya, and of doctors who reject evolution are not in fact identical. It is worth cataloging, analyzing and understanding these differences. Lumping them all together is scientifically careless and doesn’t do justice to how individuals experience KD on their own terms. Given how much of my writing focuses on actual people, I should have been more careful. As happens so often here, my interlocutors have reminded me I still have much to learn.

I suspect that at the end of the day Kahan and I will disagree on whether dualism and its variants are “rational” or “irrational.” We may also disagree how much of a “problem” it is with respect to evolution and what, if anything, we should do about it. But we no longer disagree that it’s a question that should be studied.


  1. Ok, you’ve convinced me as well. There is something interesting in the different ways people can understand something while not believing it. There is a difference between dualism (which I’m not sure I entirely understand) and the thought processes of people who “believe” Obama was born in Kenya (actually I know some people who believe that. Also, a different set of friends and relatives who “believe” that Bush stole the election from Gore in 2000.) There’s a difference in those thought processes, and it’s interesting, at the very least.

    Regarding the dualism of the Pakistani doctor, is it possible that the evolution that he accepts and the evolution he rejects really are two different things? Perhaps the “evolution” that he accepts is an understanding of how mutations occur in his patients and how deleterious mutations in the human genome can accumulate if they were not selected against, and how micro-organisms mutate and adapt to their environment, and the specific problems with over-prescribing particular anti-biotics. Whereas the “evolution” he rejects is the assertion that modern humans and modern chimps are both descendents of a common hominid ancestor. The modern synthesis proposes that the same process that produces superbugs today also produced modern humans over the past 6MY. But the evidences for human evolution (fossils, for example) are different than the evidences for superbug evolution and less accessible to a dr. in daily life than the evidences for superbug evolution. And though these two things are both “evolution,” they are conceptually distinct. In other words, I’m wondering whether it’s possible that the evolution the Pakistani Dr. accepts and the evolution he rejects are actually two different ideas in his mind, rather than the same idea accepted in one context and rejected in another. I just don’t know if that hypothesis has been explored.

    A further thought I had about this, given the role that authority plays in our beliefs, is this: I’ve often heard it wondered why creationists easily accept the pronouncements of scientific authority on topics like the melting point of steel, how far away Andromeda is, how closely cell towers should be placed to get good reception, or how far an English swallow can carry a coconut, but then when it comes to how old the earth is, they are suddenly skeptical. It’s sometimes stated as, “they implicitly accept evolution everytime they use their satellite TV or drive over a bridge, but then they turn around and say men and dinosaurs lived at the same time!” But it seems to me that there is a difference in accepting an expert’s best guess as to what is going on in the present, and accepting his explanation about what happened in the past, or what he thinks is going to happen in the future. You bring your car to a mechanic and he says, “I can see your transmission is about to go out.” and you believe him. But when he tells you how he thinks it happened, or what he thinks is going to happen next, you think well, he might be right, but there’s also a chance that he might be wrong.

    Creationists (or those who doubt global warming, to pick another topic Professor Kaplan Kahan has studied) don’t necessarily doubt the ability of credentialed experts to make careful measurements and report their observations and explanations with reasonble integrity. But isn’t it natural to have a different standard of what it takes to be convinced regarding an explanation of what happened in the past or a prediction of what’s going to happen in the future? We’re used to relying on authority, but we’re also used to the idea that even a pretty reliable authority is probably not infallible, and might be more reliable in one area than another. So the inconsistency of believing someone on one topic but not another isn’t really an example of KD or at its core really inconsistent or irrational, is it? [Changed from Kaplan to Kahan by PK]

    1. Thanks for the great comment Tim. You articulated something that had been bothering me for a while. Namely, what does it mean to “use” evolution anyway? I really like how you distinguished that micro evolution really is different than macro-evolution.

      As for distinguishing among different types of expertise…that’s very true. It’s something I’ve wrestled with myself and I’m not sure how quite to resolve it. I agree with you that it’s reasonable for untrained citizens to question experts in some cases but not others. But I think it’s more complicated than that. Not sure how at this point. Just a feeling I have that I’ll have to try figure out.

      But in general I agree with your closing sentence. It’s not necessarily true that believing someone on one topic but not another is a sign of KD or irrationality. It could simply mean that they’re thinking!

      Thanks again.

  2. I agree with Tim. I know lots of people like the Muslim doctor and I don’t think it’s the same thing. The two “evolutions” aren’t even both at the same level of closeness or even the same level of directness (one’s more indirect).

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