Believing as doing:
the cases of evolution and climate change
Dan Kahan, Yale University
February 22, 2016
About the seminar
Around 50% of the adults in the U.S. say that they believe in human evolution and about 50% say they don’t; the same for human-caused global warming. But what do these professions of belief or disbelief signify? I will argue that beliefs about evolution and climate change have no meaning aside from the things that they enable people to do. One of the most important things people do with such beliefs is be people whose cultural identities are signified by such stances; indeed, that is the only thing that most people do with “positions” on the natural history of human beings or the impact of human activity on the climate. But others, including many who “disbelieve” in evolution or climate change to experience a particular identity, believe in one or the other in order to do other things such as pass (or fail) examinations; make important practical decisions, personal and professional; or participate, either vocationally or avocationally, in apprehension of what human beings have discerned about the universe through science’s signature methods of disciplined observation and inference. Because “beliefs” in evolution and human climate change have no meaning apart from what people do with them, there is no contradiction in “dualistic” stances of “belief” and “disbelief” in one or the other unless the actions such stances enable are themselves in conflict. Drawing on a range of empirical evidence, I will examine the psychological underpinnings of this position. I will also reflect on its practical implications for empirical research; for education, and for the practice of liberal self-government.
About the speaker
Dan Kahan is the Elizabeth K. Dollard Professor of Law and Professor of Psychology at YaleLawSchool. He is a member of the Cultural Cognition Project, an interdisciplinary team of scholars who use empirical methods to examine the impact of group values on perceptions of risk and science communication. In studies funded by the National Science Foundation, Professor Kahan and his collaborators have investigated public dissensus over climate change, public reactions to emerging technologies, and public understandings of scientific consensus across disputed issues. Articles featuring the Project’s studies have appeared in a variety of peer-reviewed scholarly journals including the Journal of Risk Research, Judgment and Decision Making, Nature Climate Change, Science, and Nature. The Project’s current focus is on a field research to integrate insights from the science of science communication into the craft of professional science communicators in various domains, including democratic decisionmaking, education, and popular engagement with science.
Professor Kahan is a Senior Fellow at the National Center for Science and Civic Engagement, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and is currently a Visiting Scholar at the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.