Is it possible for scientists know but not believe?

Dan Kahan and Adam Laats continue to study people who ‘know-but-don’t-believe’ in evolution. Adam asks his readers:

Too often, the implicit goal of evolution education is to encourage student belief in evolution. Students from families who dissent are sometimes made to feel unwelcome in public schools, as if their dissent disqualifies them as science students. Instead, we argue, the goal of evolution education must be to foster knowledge and understanding of evolution. If students choose not to believe it, that is their right.

But is it possible? It seems difficult to know something and not believe it. Do I really know that 2 + 2 = 4 if I don’t believe it, like some sort of Orwellian thought-victim?

I’m starting to wonder why we don’t ask such questions to scientists about creationists. After all we ‘know’ that creationists are just as rational and scientific as anyone else. We ‘know’ belief in evolution tells you nothing about someone’s intellect. We especially ‘know’ that people can reject evolution and still become scientists. And yet, scientists–and many journalists–don’t seem to ‘believe’ these facts. How is that possible? Are us scientists victims like some sort of Orwellian though-victim? IMHO, fairness demands we apply this analysis to scientists as much as creationists.



  1. Not dualism, I don’t think; just misunderstanding. Unless they both “know” it in order to do one thing (be, e.g., people who actually get how the world works &, if they are educators, help people to learn) and “don’t know” or “don’t believe” it in order to do another thing (be, e.g., someone wants to affirm membership in a cultural community whose members insist those who subscribe to a different understanding of the good life are stupid, unscientific, etc), then.

    Also, I’m not sure that the question is or should be whether “creationists are as rational and scientific as everyone else.”

    I think “who is more rational, pro-science–us or them” etc is generally a stupid playground game– as I’m sure you do. And actually, most people — believers and nonbelievers — are pretty clueless about evolution and, sadly, not so good at forms of critical reasoning (such as numeracy and cognitive reflection) that are essential to recognizing and making use of valid science.

    But if someone wanted to figure out what correlation was between, say, professing creationist or anti-evolution position generally & one or another form of critical reasoning disposition, they might likely discover that there is one. Many researchers have reported a negative correlation between religiosity and cognitive reflection; same for valid measures of science comprehension; The effect tends to be quite small– and in my view not plausibly viewed as being practically significant as an explanation of anything. But it’s there– and I don’t find it particularly surprising: for all we know, it is a consequence of cultural forces that needlessly discourage more religious people like Krista from pursuing their interest in learning about science or becoming science-trained professionals.

    For me the interesting question is simply whether “not believing” evolution is any sort of barrier to a person’s acquiring the sorts of science comprehension that I do in fact believe it is important for her to have–both to be a liberally educated person and to be able to make decisions in various spheres of life–personal, professional, and civic.

    The dynamic of “cognitive dualism” (one that certainly merits the sort of critical assessment that valid empirical study involves) suggests that the answer is “no”: “not believing” enables being a person w/ religious identity that one can occupy consistently with *doing* all the things that using valid science enables, *including* being a scientist or science-trained professional whose activities as such required *believing in* (or accepting the validity of) evolutionary science.

    1. Great points, and I think I agree with them all. The one I feel most strongly about is this: “it is a consequence of cultural forces that needlessly discourage more religious people like Krista from pursuing their interest in learning about science or becoming science-trained professionals.”

      Thanks again for engaging. I always appreciate it greatly.

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