Can It Work?

Is it possible for conservative religious people to know and understand evolution without believing it? And, if it is possible, what does it look like? What does it mean? At the ever-challenging Cultural Cognition blog, Dan Kahan challenges the notion of “cognitive apartheid.” Do Professor Kahan’s ideas match real experience?

As the sophisticated and good-looking regular readers of I Love You but You’re Going to Hell (SAGLRROILYBYGTH) are aware, I’ve written a new book with philosopher Harvey Siegel suggesting a different approach for evolution education. 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?

Studies of real students have shown that it is not only possible, but a relatively common practice. In 1996, W.W. Cobern suggested that resistant students commonly practice what he called “cognitive apartheid.”[1] Students who don’t want to believe the philosophical or religious implications of evolutionary theory, Cobern thought, could segregate out those ideas for use only in specific situations. When they needed to pass a science test, for example, students could pull up their knowledge of evolutionary theory, but in other contexts, they could keep those ideas separate from the rest of their thinking.

In a 2012 study, Ronald S. Hermann looked at the ways this apartheid worked in practice. Hermann located students who did well on tests of evolutionary ideas. Then he talked to two of them who knew and understood evolutionary theory very well, yet refused to believe it. “Krista” and “Aidan” both described the ways this process worked for them.

For those of us from secular or liberal religious backgrounds, these interviews provide fascinating insights into the ways conservative religious people justify their seemingly conflicted knowledge and belief. Hermann argues that the mental processes involved are “unclear and ambiguous in nature.”

For Aidan, his thorough knowledge of evolutionary science jostled along uncomfortably with his religious beliefs. As he tried to explain to Hermann,

I don’t know enough to make a real good judgment. I just try and take the Bible as its literal interpretation, and kind of leave the science stuff alone.

Krista had an even more complex relationship to evolutionary knowledge. As Dan Kahan points out, she did not simply wall off her knowledge in one segregated part of her brain. That is, she did not simply memorize a list of facts for use on rare occasions such as tests. Rather, she served as a tutor in Hermann’s class and planned a career as a veterinarian. She was able to teach evolutionary concepts to other people. And she planned to use basic evolutionary ideas in her future career. Yet she says she does not believe them.

From the snippets of her interview provided by Hermann, Krista does not seem to wall off evolutionary knowledge in her mind. Rather, she seems to be able to switch back and forth from knowing it and using it in some situations, to disbelieving it in others. Or, more precisely, she seems to know evolution in a different way. She tells the interviewer at one point, “I don’t think I, like, put my emotion into it.”

Professor Kahan wants to call this something other than “cognitive apartheid.” A better description, he suggests, is “cognitive dualism.” Some people, from Pakistan to Kentucky, seem to believe mainstream science at work, but disbelieve it at home.

In K-12 public schools, too, I think we see similar effects. Students tend to believe all sorts of things at school, then switch to a different set of beliefs at home. This is not only about controversial ideas in science, literature, or history. Rather, students do this constantly with their social identities. They might be one kind of person at school, with peers and teachers, then present a very different persona to their families at home.

As usual, I don’t have much personal experience with this kind of cognitive struggle, whether it be “apartheid” or “dualism.” Have you experienced such struggles in your life? Do you remember maintaining a dual belief system in your youth, only to move more firmly in one or another direction as you grew older?

[1] Cobern, W.W. Worldview theory and conceptual change in science education. Science Education 80, 579-610 (1996).

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  1. Agellius

     /  April 28, 2015

    I only maintain one belief at a time. Sometimes I will suspend judgment, which I did for a long time with regard to evolution. I was inclined to be skeptical of it, but also realized that I didn’t understand it very well, so on a basic level I left it an open question. What pushed me over the edge to accepting evolution was, of all things, an astronomy class that I took just last year. Once I understood how the universe developed, through natural processes, the development of life through natural processes seemed more likely. Why would God create the inanimate universe through natural processes, and not use the same processes to create living beings out of the very inanimate things that had developed through natural processes? The very idea of “nature” (upon which natural law is based) is that a thing has the principle of its being within itself, and not imposed from outside as in the case of an artifact or artificially manufactured product. So I was able to reconcile the idea of God’s creating life with the idea of life arising from natural processes.

  2. willbell123

     /  April 28, 2015

    Everyone is naturally inclined to such dualisms, I have noticed them before in myself, and what I do is I if find them, I try to eradicate them. I can’t say I’ve managed to destroy every contradiction in my head as that would imply that I know what contradictions I still maintain to be true, but every one I find I deal with. Usually I’m left with a greater understanding of the world as a consequence.

  3. Interesting points. Just curious…why not apply this analysis to *scientists* who insist that creationists can’t think scientifically? We ‘know’ that creationists can think scientifically. Yet many scientists don’t ‘believe’ it. What’s up with that?

    I’ve expanded a bit more here:

    • True, and we also know that people who “believe” evolution often don’t know much about it.

    • Praj, I think we can make it even more challenging. Historically, we saw a similar cognitive conundrum for leftist intellectuals. When news of Stalin’s purges and genocidal policies leaked out in the late 1930s, left-wing intellectuals tended to split. Some of them “knew” that Stalin had gone off the Marxist-Leninist rails, but they managed not to “believe” it in a variety of ways.
      There would be many ways to suggest similar cognitive dilemmas for progressives. Any time a bedrock belief is challenged by evidence, as we know, people of all intellectual backgrounds tend to “know” it and “believe” it in weird ways…

  4. dmk38

     /  April 29, 2015

    The 2+2=5 analogy — or doublethink, 1984– is inapt, in my view.

    First, Orwell was addressing a totalitarian state’s attempt to destroy individuals’ capacity for using free reason. The citizens who are enabled simultaneously to *know* what is known by science & *be* who they are as members of diverse cultural communities are *using their reason freely* to enjoy the two principal benefits of a liberal democratic society.

    Second, the idea that what Krista is *doing* with cognitive dualism is believing “2+2 =5″ actually is inconsistent with the premise of “cognitive dualism”: that a belief is what it *does*. Krista *believes* in evolution insofar as she *does* with the relevant form of scientific evidence the things — like being a good veterinarian — that depend on the use of such evidence. Her “disbelief in” evolution is part of a bundle of mental states (desires, emotions, moral appraisals, etc) that are integral to her being a member of a religious community; science has nothing to say about how she should do that!

    Things can be determined to be “inconsistent” only with reference to a valid criterion of identity. If cognitive dualism is right, then Krista’s “belief in evolution” and her “disbelief” in it are “inconsistent” only if the *things she is doing* with the complexes of mental states to which each belong are themselves inconsistent. They don’t seem to be!

    Now, whose mindset do you think George Orwell would find to more hostile to liberalism?Krista’s or those who would make it their business to create conditions of cultural conflict that needlessly force her to *choose* between using her reason to know what science knows or to use it to be who she is as a member of a particular moral community?

    • Fair enough. Now that you mention it, I agree that the Orwell analogy is a bad one. But I’m struggling to think of a better one. One of the parallels Harvey Siegel uses is that of “closet Aristotelians.” That is, many students articulate a Newtonian understanding when pressed. They can explain that an object in motion will stay in motion until it is acted upon. They “believe” that it is true, even. But when they are questioned in a different forum, they seem to believe a very different, Aristotelian type of physics. They “believe” that objects have a natural affinity for the ground and that objects will desire to remain in place unless acted upon. I don’t know if they use these beliefs to DO anything, but in different circumstances they seem to know, understand, AND believe very different things. [See Andrea A. diSessa, “Unlearning Aristotelian Physics: A Study of Knowledge-Based Learning,” Cognitive Science 2 (1982): 37–75. Or, more recently, A. A. diSessa, “A Bird’s Eye View of the ‘Pieces’ vs. ‘Coherence’ Controversy (From the ‘Pieces’ Side of the Fence),” In International Handbook of Research on Conceptual Change, ed. S. Vosniadou (New York: Routledge, 2008), 35–60.]
      What I’ve been wrestling with lately is another analogy or example that will help illustrate the ways people might divide the things they know, understand, and even appreciate from things they believe. You use examples of people in Kentucky or Pakistan that are very powerful, but I think there have to be examples of things that lots of people do in everyday life that everyone could relate to more easily. Any ideas?

      • dmk38

         /  April 30, 2015

        1. I will read the sources, but my guess is that the Siegel example is not “cognitive dualism” but something slightly different. Precisely because “knowing that” is yolked to “knowing how,” when we aren’t *doing* what knowing something enables, what we know will often be inaccessible to us. I doubt the students in question have the commitment to Aristotle’s physics that Krista has to creationism; I think they are just drawing a blank.

        2. On another example of cognitive dualism … Well, there’s another kid at Krista’s school named Manny. Like Krista & Aidan he “Ace’d” the AP physics course. I asked him how *he* reconciled what he learned about the “Big Bang” with his religious conviction that God created human beings & he said, “What the hell are you talking about, dude? I’m an atheist!”

        “Oh, sorry,” I said, “I just assumed from what I read in Hermann’s paper that pretty much everyone at this school was Christian…” “Well, you shouldn’t make such assumptions,” he replied. “In any case, I not only believe everything I learned in the course but also believe that the course explains everything there is to know.” “I don’t mean to be demonic,” he said with a grin, “but I think the Big Bang made this very conversation inevitable.”

        “I see,” I said. “So I guess you are going to be a scientist when you grow up then?,” I asked. “Nope. A moral philosopher,” Manny answered.

        “A moral philosopher– how can that be?,” I asked. “If human behavior, along with everything else, is strictly determined by natural forces that have been unfolding since the Big Bang, isn’t it silly to reflect on questions about how we ought to live? The very idea that we have a choice in the matter is misguided, right?”

        “No!,” he exclaimed. “Human beings certainly have the power to choose their own actions.”

        “Isn’t that a contradiction?,” I asked.”Aren’t you saying you both do and don’t believe that human beings are ’caused’ by natural laws?”

        “Yes, I’m saying both of those things, but if you think that’s a ‘contradiction,’ you really are dense,” Manny said. “What sort of sorry ass excuse for an education did you get? Didn’t you ever read Kant’s Groundwork for the Metaphysic of Morals?”

        “Ummm … Sure, but remind me– it’s been a while — what did he say that’s relevant here?”

        Manny sighed. “The Groundwork posits that that human rationality involves a fundamentally dualistic self-perspective: as a member of the sensible world, we perceive our actions, like everything else, as caused by external forces of nature; but as a member of the world of understanding, we perceive our actions as the product of a our autonomous or self-determining will.”

        “Oh, right,” I said.

        “You sound like you don’t get it,” Manny observed. “But if you want ’empirical proof,’ just look at how every *scientist* lives his or her life: *at work* he or she uses the ‘sensible world’ perspective to advance knowledge; but *at home*, he or she uses the ‘world of understanding’ perspective to enjoy the experience of living a meaningful life. *Doing* these two things don’t contradict each other, do they? So there’s no contradiction in the dualist perspectives that they reflect.”

        “Or if you prefer,” he continued after a pause, “every scientist, because he or she is also a person who is using his or her reason to find meaning in life, is necessarily a Pakistani Dr. It’s just so damn engrained in them, as it is in all of us, that they never even notice! Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m supposed to meet Krista & Aidan so we can watch the latest episode of Mythbusters.”

        Boy, those teenagers! Such know it alls!

  5. dmk38

     /  May 3, 2015

    Okay, I’ve only read the diSessa’s 1982 article at this point. But what is being described, I’d say, is the “practicalist” (Hetherington) position that “knowing that” is necessarily a “knowing how.” The “praticalist” view is integral to cognitive dualism. But I think we’ll risk making a false turn if we try to assimilate “Krista” to the subjects in the diSessa study.

    The elementary students learned the relevant Newtonian dyanics, which were otherwise remote from their expeirencing in making things happen in the physical world, over the course of *doing* things that the were enabled to do successfully by learning the Newtonian mechanical principles. Could they give a cogent *account* of Newtonian physics? Probably not. But to say they didn’t “know” it is to make the mistake (in Heterhington’s view) of equating being able to give a disembodied account of some phenomeon–abstracted from *doing* something with it– as “knowing” it.

    The college students in fact had the “explication” sort of competence that is often mistakenly treated as the sin qua non of “knowing” something. But as their inability to control the turtle showed, their understanding of Newtonian physics remained unintegrated into anyting they were doing aside, likely, from giving good exam answers.

    This is very much connected to fragmentaion & partitioning literature in psychology (and epistemology) that treat pieces of “knowledge” as indexed, essentially, by mental routines that are summoned to fore by the *doing* of things that the knoweldge depends on. W/o the cues supplied by the “doing” context, the knowledge remains inaccessible; it doesn’t occur to the subjects to look for it; they seem *not* to know what they *know*.

    Very much tied to a practicalist conception. But *not* what is happening w/ Krista or otehr students or adults who both “deny” evolution and “accept” it. They aren’t confused — they aren’t “forgetting” or failing to put their mental hands on the knowledge in question. They are *doing* distinct things that are in fact very appropriately, effectively enabled w/ “disbelief” and “belief,” respectively: *being* a person who has a certain cultural (or religiou) identity; and *performing* tasks, like being a scientist or science-trained professional, that depend on making use of the best available scientific evidence. If we think they are somehow “forgetting” or not “accessing” knowledge in the former context tha is avaialble to them in the latter, we will be failing to make sense of their psychology –in obvious ways that I tried to illustrate by showing how “cognitive apartheid” is *not* a good account of Krista! It makes more sense, I think, to question the premise that the mental objects in question — “disbelieve” in evolution & “belief” in it — can be individuated independently of what the actor is *doing* with those intentional states. There’s no contradiction at all — the intentional states are incommensurable, essentially. Or at least that ought to be a possibility we are open to and incorporate into our empirical research in this area.

    That it is so hard for researchers to adopt any conceptual/theoreticla framework that doesn’t treat “disbelieve in evolution” as some sort of cogntive deficiency (clearly “compartmentalization” envisioned by “cognitive apartheid” is in that class) reflects the conspiratorial influence of a flawed epsistemology (the one Heterington’s “know-that as knowing-how” tries to remedy) with a sort of cultural chauvinism that insists that those who are succeeding in *doing* things w/ beliefs that we find alien or noxious are not just being stupid or evil.

    Consider my example w/ Manny. It is parallel. That people can’t see the parallel btw what Krista is doing w/ cognitive dualism & what they themselves are doing by exhibiting the Kantian self-perception dualism pervasively influences the mental-active life of people of all cultural outlooks, including nonreligious ones, is the signature of the “cultural chauvinism” that I see at work here.

    Cognitive dualism just *is* the political psychology of liberalism. We use our reason to know how the world works — in which case, we *use* science’s understanding of how to know. But we also use it too to avail ourselves of the freedom to answer the question “what is the meaning of life? how should I live”– a project we usually pursue concert with others. As Kant recognized with his dualism — between the perspectives of the “phenomenological” (subject to natural necessity) and noumenal (autonomous, self-determining) selves– these uses of our reason will involve us in myriad, incommensurable stances toward the objects of reason…

    Or so it seems to me for now, pending whatever enlightenment my own or others’ investigations can furnish me!

    • dmk38

       /  May 8, 2015

      Now have read the diSessesa bird’s eye view. Definitely addressing a mater completely unconnected to Krista — and not as clearly as in the earlier paper. Basically, she is addressing how “knowing” gets connected to “using” as a cognitive process– although then making contrived, in my view, connection to debates over “Kuhnian” paradigm shifts in science … former is issue about cognition, latter one about sociology/history of science. But that’s not what’s going on for students/people who “disbelieve” evolution in order to *be* members of religious community but “believe” it in order to *be* science-trained professionals. They aren’t “misplacing” the knowledge or failing to “integrate” in relevant activtities. That we are so intent on trying to force fit Krista into this schemes like this says more about our cognitive limitations than those of students who we are supposedly trying to explain!

  6. Cognitive apartheid sounds like being deeply closeted. If this happens due to the pressure of fear of rejection or punitive reactions by people close to you it is distinctly unhealthy. What Agellius describes is a much healthier and hopefully more common expression of knowing something that has implications for the larger metanarrative you live within, but you have not yet worked through all those implications and the changes they will bring. It does take time.


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