A drama, in five acts...

Dionysus: "Let the play unfold"

Dionysus: "Let the play unfold"

  1. Dan Kahan does great research, and hosts a lively and informative blog! It's about lots of things, including sources of polarization on hot-button issues. Truly, a must read.
  2. PIT= Public Irrationality Thesis: Polarization results because large sectors of the populace aren't very good at thinking. If they were better at thinking, we'd all believe in evolution, climate change, and whatnot. Rationality will erase divides!
  3. ERT= Expressive Rationality Thesis: Hot button issues are identity badges. We use them to form our own little ideological clans. People who are the best at thinking are the best at supporting their clan's badges. Rationality will exaggerate divides!
  4. Kahan's blog features a fascinating recent post where he used some publicly available data to pit PIT against ERT on belief in evolution...spoiler alert: ERT wins!
  5. The blog post features Dan backing ERT and a fictional PIT-advocate scientist as the opponent. This is a nice literary hook. Inexplicably, however, the blog named this character "Will Gervais."

Act I

I'm a huge fan of Dan Kahan. He does a really lot of great research on the relationship between things like effortful thinking, rationality, and public disagreement on hot button political issues. My personal favorite paper of his is right here. Dan and his colleagues found that--contrary to a lot of liberal hot air about how climate change denialists are just scientifically illiterate dullards--scientific literacy doesn't eradicate partisan bickering over climate change...it exaggerates it! Accepting or denying climate change isn't just a factual belief, it's an identity badge...it tells others who you are. And people who are best able to sift scientific information are the best able to commit to their badges. Polarization on climate change isn't made worse by too little knowledge, but rather by too much. And this pattern pops up in different domains.

Acts II and III

Dan frequently pits two opposing theses against each other in these hot-button culture war issues. The Public Irrationality Thesis (PIT) states that sometimes people disagree on things like evolution or the climate because, essentially, a large segment of the population is irrational, feeble-minded, or gullible. The enlightened and rational among us can overcome public irrationality, and we SEE THE WORLD AS IT TRULY IS! If you want to give PIT a persona, think Richard Dawkins.

On the other hand, the Expressive Rationality Thesis (ERT) states essentially that people sift themselves into camps defined by identity badges derived from stances on issues. Want to be a good little liberal? Accept climate change and evolution, but be anti-GMO. Want to be a good hierarchical traditionalist? Down with climate change and evolution! Effortful, rational thinking helps people express their commitment to their badges (get it? rationality is expressed to prove you're one of the good guys).

Now, this is an admitted oversimplification, but you get the gist. For nuance and clarification, turn to Dan's research or blog, or just get in touch with Dan...there's no better way to find out about a researcher's views than directly asking that researcher about his or her views! These two theses make very different predictions about a lot of hot button issues. PIT says that global warming or evolution denial results from insufficient rational thinking by large parts of the populace. ERT says that first people sift into camps on issues (for whatever unspecified reasons, although Kahan usually calls the sifted groups "culture"), and then rational thinking can serve as a wedge to drive the camps further apart, as the people who are the best at thinking in general will be the best at supporting their camps' respective views.

It really is fascinating work. I bring it up in talks quite a lot. I've used Dan's examples to hundreds of students to point out the silliness of PIT-like approaches, especially to my own favored research topic (religion). Nothing bothers me more than smug emails from PIT-inspired atheists who want to tell me how much they dig a paper I published because, like, it proves that atheists are, like, so rational and have, like, risen above the stupidity of religion. PIT is obnoxious, and I often respond to these silly messages by pointing them to Dan's work, and encouraging them to actually read my research closely, where they'll find that I've never advocated PIT and usually take great pains to distance myself from PIT. And, wow, if you want to talk about being really annoyed by PIT, just imagine if some intrepid news editor decided to run this headline with coverage of one of your papers:

Thanks, ABC News! Yes, I do love being misrepresented, and the resulting hate e-mail is a real treat!

Thanks, ABC News! Yes, I do love being misrepresented, and the resulting hate e-mail is a real treat!

So, what does this have to do with the title of this post:

Will Gervais, and the people who play him on the Internet

Act IV

About a week ago, Dan launched a post on his excellent blog (if you don't follow it, you should). In this post, Dan downloaded some data that I made freely available to accompany a recent publication. In this publication (available over here, along with the data and my analysis code...you're welcome!) I looked essentially at how cultural learning, potentially innate intuitions (about agency, essentialism, and teleology), and individual differences in reliance on intuitions like these vs. more analytic thinking all play together to in part predict who says they believe in evolution.

I was really excited to see Dan's post, as I freely post my data in part so other researchers can use it to test their own ideas. And the post itself is fascinating. Dan crunches some numbers on the data and finds some suggestive (though I must say inconsistent) results supporting the role of ERT in evolution endorsement. Cool stuff! Basically, it looks like analytic thinking predicts greater endorsement of evolution primarily among participants who currently rate their religious beliefs low, rather than high. Neat! If Dan's post was merely framed like this, it would've been spot on:

A researcher exploring different questions than my own, derived from theories separate from the ones I tend to use, published a paper. He was nice enough to post his raw data. I downloaded the data he collected, and was delighted to see that there were some variables that enabled me to test my own favorite model of PIT vs. ERT. Stay tuned, here’s what I learned.

However, this isn't really how the post was framed. Perhaps as a useful dramatic gimmick, Dan's post is framed as an exciting encounter between an (often scientifically and statistically naive) PIT-advocate researcher and (the hero of the tale) Dan bringing some much needed ERT to the party. Ultimately the PIT advocate is vanquished, and ERT rules the day!

To be perfectly clear, I'm entirely okay with this dramatic gimmick...it does make for a lively read. I do have one slight reservation, however.

Act V

My Reservation: The fictional PIT-friendly researcher in the post is named "Will Gervais."

It's nice that "Will Gervais" is described as "a super smart psychologist at the University of Kentucky." That makes for compelling dialogue. But throughout the post, this "Will Gervais" character is described as believing things I don't believe, (mis)testing hypotheses I've never formulated, and holding opinions I consistently and consciously distance myself from. He's even quoted as saying things I never said!

So, as a result, I'm very confident I'm reading about a fictional character when I see things in the post such as

Gervais is offering up what he regards as strong evidence for PIT.


Gervais concludes that the “cultural” influence of religiosity, while not irrelevant, is “less robust” an explanation for “disbelief in” evolution than overreliance on heuristic reasoning.


I think Gervais missed this because he didn’t structure his analyeses to assess the relative support of his data for the most important rival hypothesis to his own.


I think Gervais should have displayed a bit more skepticism too before he concluded that his data supported PIT.

Oh, "Will Gervais," you scamp! Of course the data don't support PIT, and if you only knew how to do statistics properly, that'd be obvious to even a staunch PIT-advocate like you!

Why "Will Gervais" is fiction...

"Will Gervais", the confused PIT scientist

"Will Gervais", the confused PIT scientist

"Will Gervais" in these quotes and throughout the blog post, I can only surmise, is an entirely fictional creation. Or, perhaps there is a super smart (yet statistically naive) PIT-advocating psychologist at the University of Kentucky who coincidentally is also named Will Gervais. That would be wild.

Barring such a wacky coincidence, Will Gervais and "Will Gervais" are two very different researchers.

When designing the studies in question, I would never have offered up what I regard as strong evidence for PIT because I didn't even test PIT...I'd never claim that any study I've ever run is strong evidence for PIT. And I'm certainly not someone who has ever said (anywhere) that culture is irrelevant or unimportant (quite the opposite), or that I think analytic thinking-to-anything effects should be big according to any theory I've ever used. In my recent paper, I didn't run analyses pitting PIT against ERT because-being neither a PIT nor ERT researcher-that's not the most useful contrast for the research I do (even if it's great for the research Dan does). I study neither. They just aren't my scientific jam.

Will Gervais, the actual researcher. Not to be confused with "Will Gervais", although Will Gervais is also often confused.

Will Gervais, the actual researcher. Not to be confused with "Will Gervais", although Will Gervais is also often confused.

Instead, I'm a cultural and evolutionary psychologist who's trying to figure out how people come to believe what they believe about the world. And I think that probably the single biggest factor in play is cultural learning (check out this this this or this paper). Sometimes core cognitive faculties and intuitions can also play a role (this). And in some cases, cognitive style (relying on intuitions or analytic thinking) can also play a rather small role (this or this). But things get really interesting when we try to figure out how all of these separate processes fit together (that'd be this paper, and the backbone of my research program. It's also a recurring theme in this paper, which includes the data Dan used for his blog post). Note: PIT is conspicuously absent, contra ABC News, annoying Internet atheists, and Dan's post. And if you want to know what Will Gervais thinks about the implications of this new paper for evolution, check out this response Will Gervais made to a short canned question about evolution.

Back to Dan's blog post...

By all means, stop reading this and go read Dan's post! Here's the link again: LINKY LINKY. It's interesting, entertaining, and you can learn from it (I did!)! It's yet another fascinating example of ERT in action...sometimes rational thinking is the wedge that drives camps apart! That's equal parts cool and depressing!

But when you read the post, please keep in mind that at least one of the main characters is fiction. "Will Gervais" espouses many beliefs, offers many opinions, tests hypotheses, and makes many faulty statistical comparisons. But Will Gervais was not consulted in the preparation of the blog post to ensure that there was any correspondence between his views and those of "Will Gervais." Had Will Gervais been consulted, he would've recommended that the post acknowledge Will Gervais as the source of the raw data used for an informative blog post, but choose a name other than "Will Gervais" for the PIT-advocate character.

Coda: Clarifications and the parable of the hammer

Now, this post was meant to be light-hearted. I first met Dan a few years back when I was fortunate enough to serve as a discussant for a talk he gave here at UK during my first year. After the conference, a bunch of us had a tasty and entertaining dinner in town. And, since the blog post, we've had an engaging and lively email exchange where I think (hope?) we're both learning a lot about each others' research. I've thoroughly enjoyed it. Maybe we can pop the exchange up on one of our blogs for public perusal (I don't even know if that's a good idea...). But I wanted to be sure to state that I don't think Dan intentionally misrepresented me in his blog post. Rather, he spends a lot of time contrasting PIT and ERT. Perhaps when he saw that I didn't test ERT in my paper, he just assumed that I was instead advocating PIT. That's just my speculation.

And I'm certainly not trying to bash the blog post. It's great at what it ultimately aims to do: take some data I collected and use those data to look at PIT and ERT in terms of evolution. Cool! I also felt the need to clarify my own position on all of these issues, as I'd hate for anyone out there to get a false impression of me, my work, my opinions, my receding hairline (true!), etc.

Now, what about the hammer. I'm sure we've all heard about the perils of Handy Hammer Syndrome: when you have a hammer in your hand, everything in the world starts to look like a nail. I'm glad my freely posted data looked an inviting nail for Dan's hammer.

I wanted to drive home (pun semi-intended) the point that just because I have a hammer in my hand, I shouldn't assume that everyone else is out a-nail-drivin'. And if I'm strolling though the world and I see what appears to be someone who is working diligently at a task, but isn't driving nails into wood, I'm faced with two options:

The noble mattock...presumably more than just a defective hammer

The noble mattock...presumably more than just a defective hammer

  1. I can assume that the person lacks the skillset and hammer-knowledge to confidently drive nails like I surely would
  2. I can ask them if nail-driving is even their goal, and see if perhaps they have non-hammer tools in their hands.

I'd advocate #2. Not all cases of "nails-not-being-driven" result from faulty knowledge of hammers. Sometimes it's just the case that the other person is trying to use a shovel to dig a hole, a chisel to shave wood, or a mattock to do whatever the hell one does with a mattock!

Now, go read the actual paper that started all of this weirdness.

Once again, to be 100% clear: Dan's great, Dan's research is great, and Dan's blog is great. Even that post is great. It's an entirely great exposition of ERT vs. PIT in data that incidentally I collected. Beyond acknowledging the source of the data, there's (in my opinion) no need for my name to even be mentioned in the remainder of the post. The post could've just said: "I found some data here (Gervais) that enabled me to test PIT and ERT. You won't believe what happened next!"

The PIT-ERT contrast was great in the blog post. I just wasn't jazzed that the post consistently misrepresented me, my science, and my views. But all of that should be secondary to the cool stuff Dan found in the data.

Back in the day, I started this blog at the urging of a colleague who advised that a blog can be a great place for setting records straight when one feels misrepresented. I obliged, thinking primarily of nonsense like that horrid ABC headline. So it's infinitely more rewarding to use this blog to also point out more subtle theoretical confusions.

AuthorWill Gervais