Reason to Think 

 May 4, 2020

By  Peter Ellerton

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By Peter Ellerton
Queensland Studies Authority

The defining aspect of these secular times must surely be the call to base our behaviour as a species on evidence-based reasoning, and it’s certainly a call you’d expect from a magazine dedicated to examining sceptical issues. On the surface of it, this sounds like the best path to epistemological bedrock, to discovering whatever truths may be ultimately discoverable. [i]  For my money this is so, however I suggest it’s a road strewn with problems; not the problems of education and awareness you may think I mean, but problems that will ultimately undermine the sceptical message, because the harder we drive it home the more these problems dig in.

To best elucidate my point, I need only ask ‘how many people whose behaviour is demonstrably irrational think they are being perfectly reasonable?’.  That the number of people so categorised is large is not a hard proposition to justify.  People do not think of their behaviour as unreasonable regardless of the outcomes of their actions, indeed we question our reasoning about as often as we question our judgement (which in effect can be the same thing).  Imagine if we publically lamented our lapses in effective thinking as often as we did our lapses in memory.

This shows that the concept of reasonable thinking is neither clear nor common (despite the ubiquitous use of ‘common-sense’ to represent the ability to reason well).  It also shows that to urge people to reason is as necessary as urging them to breathe; and as purposeless as a call to dance the night away.  People already think they reason, and they believe all their decisions are reasonable ones.  Who do you know that celebrates their irrationality?[ii]

But, you might say, what about those who clearly eschew the rationality of the scientific worldview? Surely they cannot claim to be reasonable? Well, talk to them and see what they say.  There is nothing so powerful in the philosophy of such people as the belief in their own experiences as foundational to their reasoning.  In other words, given their experiences and how they choose to interpret them, they would be irrational to come to any other conclusion than there exists a personal god, spirit guardian, cosmic case worker or spiritual realm free from the constraints of the material world.  It’s not about whether or not you are reasoning; it’s about what you take as a premise (and how it is created) and how you move from there.

Here’s an analogy.  The reasoning process is like a building a house, and while not all houses are equal let’s assume that to call something one credits it with a minimum utility.  Without doubt some houses are better able to withstand heavy weather as better arguments withstand heavy criticism, and while the latter may be a good thing, remember that not all houses are built for the tropics.  The foundation of a bungalow is entirely inappropriate for an office block, but it will make someone very happy on the beach.  Just as the belief in a deity will not cure cancer but might provide other comfort (yes, I know that doesn’t mean it’s true). The use of thinner timber here and watery concrete there may indeed be suboptimal, but the house may stand as perfectly functional for its inhabitants.

In similar houses, you will get people who swear by the use of recycled timber and some who prefer bricks.  In this sense one may give more weight to a generalisation in a case where someone else prefers to use an analogy, and which is better may depend on other factors such as the intended purpose of the argument, or the audience at the time.

To continue the analogy, in terms of reasoning which is clearly illogical I could attempt to use a hinge that opens outwards and put it on a door against a jam that opens inwards.  In this case it simply does not function at all.  Similarly, the attempt to put a full spa over the bamboo structures holding up the second story will result in disaster as surely as presuming that 2 + 2 equals 5.  In other words, errors in formal logic or using the worst of the logical fallacies equates to the house not functioning at all.

Remember that I am not suggesting what is the best structure, but just pointing out that many people have built a reason-based edifice for their life, believing whole-heartedly in their own reasonableness; and that their continued existence and happiness in this mode (the longevity of their house) is evidence of their success in doing do.  The message of evidence-based reasoning is perfectly assimilated, but the intended meaning is lost.[iii]

We also have to acknowledge the interplay between reason and evidence – after all, determining what to accept as evidence is a function of the reasoning process.  Because of the variation in premise-based reasoning, which is mostly about a variation in premises, we tend to see different things as evidence: I’ll show you my graph if you show me yours, the tools of science are too unsubtle to detect this phenomenon, and so on.

Certain core beliefs will lend themselves to an acceptance of anecdotal evidence over peer reviewed science, others might lead to dismissal of evidence that may have credence, say as some working in the hard sciences feel about sociology or cultural anthropology.  There is a spectrum of this behaviour in evidence-acceptance, which is closely linked to belief-formation, and it is a rare person who will publically claim an absence of it.

While thinking is not synonymous with reasoning (I may just want a cheeseburger), reasoning is not synonymous with critical thinking, depending on your definitions. Some psychologists offer what is called System 1/System 2 categorisation, in which, very simply speaking, the former involves rapid unconscious conclusion-drawing (learned or unlearned) and the latter what we traditionally think of as critical thinking, a slower, more deliberate process.  As an example of a System 1 response, when our mobile phone rings we immediately assume someone wants to speak with us, not that the reception in the area must be OK.  A System 2 response would be to consider whether that was a good example of a System 1 response, or whether the reasoning/building analogy was effective.  Others save the term ‘reason’ for System 2 thinking alone.  It’s not really significant here that we define it, but let’s be clear about the fact that there are two process (at least) that we should consider, and that reason may be commonly taken as both, but critical thinking is generally not.

Reasoning, like building, can be done poorly or well.  It can make very broad and rapid inferences that can be used to justify positions, at least internally, and often without conscious input.  Here’s a good example.

Cognitive dissonance is a process whereby we minimise internal contradictions or tensions by rearranging or even changing our beliefs.  If we really want something (say a cheeseburger) and then find out that permission to have one is suddenly withdrawn, rather than coping with the tension of an unstable desire, and perhaps the smugness of the authority figure, we decide that we didn’t really want one anyway, so there.  Or, in wondering why you stay at your job when you really don’t get paid enough, you come to the conclusion that it must be because you love it – tension resolved.  This type of reasoning behaviour is not typically conscious.

Critical thinking is a higher order analysis of reasoning.  It is a metacognitive (thinking about thinking) process that evaluates the reasons others and we construct and helps create new ones.[iv]  Of course, this can also be done poorly or well, but we can proceduralise some aspects of critical thinking and hence represented it more manageably than a System 1 style process.  What is significant is that most people think the use of either system constitutes reasoning, and some that both constitute critical thinking.  Part of the problem is that no distinction is drawn between the two, and that neither really has a commonly understood definition.

So here’s the situation as I see it: there is no point just encouraging people to reason because we all think we do it anyway; and since whether or not we accept evidence is a function of our reasoning in the first place, appeals to the epistemic purity of ‘seek the evidence’, with the implied application of reason, are not enough – not wrong, just not enough.[v]

I offer a response in two parts, informed by some new research into argumentation, reasoning and education, which might sharpen the sceptical scalpel a little, or at least make the target clearer.  It is not a solution, but suggests a way of operating.  The first requires us to understand the purpose of reasoning, and the second how best to do it.  Both require something of a paradigm shift, and I’ll deal with them more or less at the same time, as they are complementary.

Traditionally, reason has been seen as a device for individual truth-seeking.  Plato maintained that the use of reason is the defining characteristic of the well-ordered soul. Aristotle developed syllogistic logic to demonstrate how the well-oiled mind should work.  Through the philosophic upheaval of the enlightenment into modern academia individual reasoning has been the measure of all things intellectual.  The extent to which the community benefits from the human ability to reason is mirrored by the extent to which individual insight can be shared; and the climb to stand on the shoulders of giants is still lauded as an individual intellectual achievement – despite the protestations of numerous Nobel laureates. The whole notion of the skeptic as an independent thinker and rugged individualist exemplifies the isolation of reasoning as an activity.

Recent work by Dan Sperber and Hugo Mercier, currently enjoying wide interest, has suggested we have this backwards.[vi] They offer a theory of reasoning based on supposed evolutionary pressure for the development of ‘epistemic vigilance’, in effect a way to scan language for veracity.  As humans are somewhat unique among animals in that most of our information about our world comes to us from other humans via language, we need a way to ensure we are not being taken advantage of in this conversational flow while at the same time not cutting ourselves off from potentially invaluable information – we need to be vigilant.  Also, and critically, we need to argue our own case as fully as possible to appeal to the epistemic vigilance of others. Reasoning, they suggest, is inherently associated with language and communication both ways.  They are not the first to claim a reason-language dependence (the list of possible citations here is long), but they are the first to propose that the reasoning process has evolved to have a social function before all others, including that of isolated reasoning as a kind of DIY truth-seeking.  In other words social reasoning, the engagement in argumentation and the promotion of our own positions, is the primary function of this mental ability.  This is not to deny the obvious individualistic application of reason, but simply to say it is a by-product, not the primary function, of whatever mental module(s) might exist.[vii]

Further to this, they offer evidence drawn from a range of studies showing that humans, to a disturbingly large extent, do not use reason to correct initial errors in thinking, but rather to search for evidence supporting initial inferences, correct or not.  Worse, it is demonstrably true that humans are in fact rather bad at using individual reason as truth-seeking: not even improving significantly in performance when given time to arrive at a reasoned conclusion.[viii] This is exactly what you would expect if the function of reason was not to discover the truth, but to enhance your position among others.  Thus, a whole suite of cognitive biases, not the least of which is the confirmation bias, can be seen not as a flaw in how we reason but as an inevitable consequence of why we reason.  If reasoning really was all about each of us finding a correspondence with reality, would we not all be converging on the truth by now?  I encourage you to explore the very wide and deep treatment of these ideas, with useful examples, trials and peer responses, in the papers suggested.

If true, this theory of reasoning has implications for how we operate in a number of areas. [ix]  The message of those of us who promote a reasoned, scientific worldview, and the method by which it is delivered, needs to be honed (it also helps explain why our foreheads constantly ache from pounding them against brick walls). Courses teaching critical thinking are very often constructed on the premise that if the logical structures of arguments are made clear, and students are taught to recognise and name a range of fallacies, then clear thinking unencumbered by bias and error will be the result.  Unfortunately research does not support such a utopian outcome, and while no one is suggesting such courses are without merit (they have a measurable effect if done in certain ways), there may be opportunities to achieve significant improvements.  From the level of political debate to the pedagogies of the classroom there is scope to develop more effective programmes and institutions if we think different.

The impressive explanatory power of this theory also reaches into the failures and success of group reasoning.  If we are designed to seek justification for our views as a priority, then surrounding ourselves with those of like mind will serve only to reinforce our stance. Each instance of someone agreeing with us is a confirming case for our belief.  Our arguments are their arguments, and our epistemic vigilance is relaxed.  Without strong resistance, ideas atrophy into assertions.  Hence cults and such groups either close their membership to keep their message pure, or else congregate regularly to strengthen and confirm their views.  Such groups are not necessarily geared to truth seeking, any more than individuals.  Remember that this is not to say that people are incapable of truth-seeking, but that this is not the primary function of reasoning (although there is evidence that this is impossible without significant socialisation anyway).

Skeptics may feel comfortable with this unflattering depiction of the operation of cults, but remember that we have our monthly meetings too.  We are subject to the same sets of impulses in terms of confirming our beliefs.  But does this imply parity of purpose? Or effectiveness? Well, as it turns out, this depends entirely on some very clear characteristics of the group.

Research (and a fair bit of anecdotal political observation) indicates that group reasoning has three basic outcomes: that the group will converge on a belief held by all individuals regardless of its intended outcome, that the group will become highly polarised, or that members of the group will change their individual beliefs to a collaboratively developed one.  So what determines which it is?

Unsurprisingly, groups whose prime function is to aggregate people that share the same point of view, without a willingness to change, coalesce into a homogeneous and even more definite congregation.  Those grouping without an initial common desire, or who contain homogeneous subgroups, polarise into camps, and those whose clear goals are to truth-seek and to change as required to meet that end, end up with a level of reasoning verifiably better than any individual performance.  This latter group demonstrates the effective evolutionary function of reason as it was selected for and is the group than best exemplifies reasoning skills and best educates its members to reason individually.

To instantiate some of these, consider in the first case some religious or some political groups whose premises are unshakable and not subject to review.  What is missing from these is the willingness to follow where the community of open inquiry will lead.  Rather than a path of discovery, we find well-trodden paths of dogma.  Argumentation consists of setting up strawmen for public demolishing as entertainment for all.  One of the most obvious cases in this category is Young Earth Creationism.  Mantras such as ‘there are no transition’ fossils are never tested, but ceased upon to confirm and strengthen existing beliefs.

In the second, this is a fair reflection of much of what goes on in public debate, with the response to climate science a classic case.  If you think the argument is about science, you’re off the mark.  Were it just about that, your religious or political persuasion would not be an issue.  Neither would your wealth, age or occupation.  That fact that all of these are hugely influential in determining the likelihood of your stance on the issue speaks volumes: they all set up inferences that strongly seek confirmation in whatever interpretation of the evidence works to do so.

On this point, consider how often we seek out and read material that does not agree with our existing views.  I would argue that the opinion pages of newspapers and their websites are among the most widely read sections of the publications, but who do we chose to read? – in most cases, those who agree with us.  I realise that some people are socially or politically active and do seek out contrary opinions, but this is not the norm.  Even when opposing views are read, the reader has often already determined why they must be wrong – check the comments at the end of online postings to see this in action. We don’t see comments like ‘you know, I started off not agreeing with you but you have raised so many interesting points that I think I now agree’. In the same way, there are not many people in the climate debate who started on one side and moved to the other, they are pretty much ideological homeboys.

In the third case, there are two methodologies that stand out for me:  science for one, and education as collaborative philosophical inquiry (sometimes called ‘community of inquiry’ or simply ‘philosophy for children’) as another.[x]

These last two have some interesting things in common.  In both cases the group will commit to truth-seeking as its highest purpose (remember I’m taking collectively here), the members will respect and engage meaningfully with other members, the paradigms and methodologies by which the group operates (for there must be some) are subject to continual review and are created and endorsed by the group, and there is a commitment that evaluation and justification is grounded in common reason and experience accessible to, and verifiable by, all members.[xi]

Interestingly, this type of collaboration can be successful without having to overcome a slew of cognitive biases, i.e. it is not necessary to make all members perfect reasoners to make the group work.  To be sure, some training in formal logic is nice, but in many cases this comes out of the group dynamic as part of the methodology by which the group operates.  Sperber and Mercier suggest that a confirmation bias can even be a highly efficient mechanism for dividing the cognitive load amongst a group, as each person need only propose their point of view and look for flaws in others, as is their natural tendency.  If the intention to truth-seek is maintained, and the willingness to change acknowledged, then the outcome can still be satisfactory.

Let me reiterate that this type of effective group reasoning is not about summing the parts.  Traditionally we think that if one person knows A, another knows B and a third knows C, then together they will all know A, B and C.  This may be true, but effective group reasoning is also about more than this.  It is about overcoming the inherent unwillingness each of us has to look for reasons beyond those that support our own views, and using the willingness and creativity of others to support their own positions to test and try ours. [xii]s

There are cases in which groups operate more reasonably than individuals, and in which errors in reasoning are systematically identified and corrected by collective wisdom.  Far from members sheepishly submitting to the  ‘orthodox’ view, they actively contribute to create an entity of greater rationality than any individual can claim – and receive more than they give to boot (in science writ large, we know this can take time but the pressure is relentless). It is significant that while this is based on a theory of social reasoning, it offers testable and accessible mechanisms to show how individual reasoning can be improved.

So then to the question: what does this mean for groups and individuals who promote evidence-based reasoning? Well, there is certainly no reason not to keep doing what we’ve been doing – of course public education, pointed messages and direct confrontation of dangerous ideologies and practices are important, and the Australian Skeptics is a fine example of making a difference by doing these things.

But there is room based on the evidence sketched out here for making even greater inroads, by figuring out ways to work more collaboratively. Not with the hard core anti-vacs and their ilk – there are times, as I say, when the hammer needs to fall – but with the public in shifting the focus from informing to collaborating.

The delineation of good and poor practice is important, but it does not have to mean the exclusion of the individual with the practice. In fact, the more such exclusion occurs, the greater the polarisation of the population – for all the reasons outlined above.  While I know many people are inclusive and do not equate the rejection of the idea with rejection of the individual, many do. As an educator I find one of the most paradigm shifting moments for students is the realisation that if all views are equal all views are worthless, and the necessary next step that one can respect the person while rejecting the idea. I do not think this is overtly stated often enough, nor does it appear as a theme in conferences or debate.

We must also be careful with language, as it can be inherently exclusive or inclusive.  Some time ago I was engaging a woman who maintained that it was true for her that ghosts exist. Now, this is not just a claim about opinions, but about the actual existence of ghosts.  We could have had a great clash of ideas here, but as it turned out, I asked her if she really meant it was true that she believed that ghosts exist. She was initially resistant to this, but when I asked her if it could be true for someone that gravity was repulsive, she relented.  As it turned out, there was no conflict.

I am not naïve about this.  I realise that we often need to act through the media, and that this demands a succinct position and pointed commentary.  I also know that sometimes we need to act reactively and in direct opposition, and let’s keep doing that. But I am also saying that if we want to maximise our effectiveness we need to be more inclusive as a broad principle of engagement.  Interactions that are exclusively, or even strongly, confrontational lead to polarisation. Quite simply, and to appeal to common ground, this is what some very good evidence is saying.

Another driver for change is this: I know of no one who is satisfied with the standard of public debate in Australia.  The extreme polarisation of our political views and the process by which it occurs is both breathtaking and disheartening. The role of the media in this, be it a plastic, amoeboid response to public opinion or as a producer of headlines, or both, is absolutely central.[xiii] When this permeates our lives, it significantly shapes our views and methodologies; in fact this becomes a sort of community of inquiry itself by which people learn to interact by assertion.  Let me be explicit, if the media does not devote time and patience to reasoned argument, be it because of the politicians on which they are reporting or as a function of their own style, or if people do not see it function otherwise in other environments, then it is harder for individuals to do so.  The same can be said for education programs and pedagogies.  It is not controversial that we develop internal habits that mirror what we experience externally. Obviously we are not all simply puppets on a sociological string, but the extent to which it happens is dangerously deceptive.

We need therefore to encourage active engagement and a much higher standard of public debate.  This means something very specific.  It means that public utterances should be clear, justified, open to review and delivered with an honest intent and a belief that the position declared is the best possible one.  This is not to say that there is no such thing as a principled stance, but rather that the principles that underpin the comments are as well articulated as possible using commonly accessible rules of evaluation and justification that go beyond simple assertion.  We must demand this of our leaders and policy makers and be prepared to point out when this is not done well, and how it could be improved.  Not just over significant issues, but as a matter of habit.

How these things are achieved is something we all need to work on (in the spirit of collaborate inquiry), but we can imagine many more outcomes that would seem a consequence of such work, or at least a lack of outcomes that would show a need for it.  It is recognition of the need to be proactive and not just reactive.

The purpose of this piece is to raise some questions about our methodology, and to review our practices in the light of recent thinking. Recall that reasons mean different things to different people, and getting the best critical thinking happening takes more than just laying out the skills.  The best performing critical thinking courses also articulate in detail the reasoning process.  In this we fight cognitive biases of all sorts that are not broken, ill-formed handicaps to thinking but inevitable consequences of how and why we reason.  They can be most effectively overcome by treating them as the latter, and this requires the type of reasoning that we evolved to do, an inclusive, social and engaging process of collaborate inquiry.  There is nothing wrong with being the shock troops, but we can do things strategically to give better help to those on the front lines.

[i] Epistemology as the study of how we know something to be true.

[ii] Show me a shock jock that doesn’t hold their ability to reason above that of others.

[iii] Again, this does not mean all reasoning is equal, just that the process can be pliable enough to allow a construction to stand.

[iv] Confusingly, critical thinking when done properly can also become an unconscious process, or ‘habit of mind’.

[v] In know some do emphasis scientific reasoning, but this is not always well defined.

[vi] Meredith Doig, the Chairman of Reason Australia, recently shared a car trip with Dan Dennett.  When she asked him about the theory as a favour to me, she found he was familiar with and supportive of this work.  My own appeal to authority.

[vii] After all, when framing an argument in isolation we still do so with an intended audience or pretend opponent in mind.

[viii] The Wason selection test is the classic example, but the references contain many others.

[ix] They call it the ‘Argumentative Theory of Reasoning’

[x] This is a well established and growing movement, most common in primary schools, in which intellectual processes (not content) are developed collaboratively and with full engagement of students.  The evidence is strong that this produces highly effective learners and thinkers.

[xi] While we can’t individually verify all the science reported in journals, for example, the method by which it was obtained and the nature of the peer review process is open and verifiable.

[xii] Even experts with many facts at their fingertips are in danger of individual error, simple by virtue of the fact that they can so readily call up a raft of reasons why they are right and satisfy their own need to validate their initial judgements.  I am not saying experts are more prone to error than others (though in same areas, particularly those outside their strengths, they have been shown to be so), but simply that their expertise can be a double edge sword.

[xiii] I am currently working on a Masters level course in critical thinking for journalism students – in terms of resources, the world is my oyster.

Bibliography and Recommended reading

  • Danziger, S., Levav, J., & Avnaim-Pesso, L. (2011). Extraneous factors in judicial decisions. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(17), 6889 -6892.
  • doi:10.1073/pnas.1018033108
  • Mercier, H. (2011). When Experts Argue: Explaining the Best and the Worst of Reasoning. Argumentation, 25, 313-327. doi:10.1007/s10503-011-9222-y
  • Mercier, H., & Sperber, D. (2011). Why Do Humans Reason? Arguments for an Argumentative Theory. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 34(02), 57-74. doi:10.1017/S0140525X10000968
  • Millett, S., & Tapper, A. (2011). Benefits of Collaborative Philosophical Inquiry in Schools. Educational Philosophy and Theory, no. doi:10.1111/j.1469-5812.2010.00727.x
  • Mulnix, J. W. (n.d.). Thinking Critically about Critical Thinking. Educational Philosophy and Theory. doi:10.1111/j.1469-5812.2010.00673.x
  • SPERBER, D., CLÉMENT, F., HEINTZ, C., MASCARO, O., MERCIER, H., ORIGGI, G., & WILSON, D. (2010). Epistemic Vigilance. Mind & Language, 25(4), 359-393. doi:10.1111/j.1468-0017.2010.01394.x
  • Van Gelder, T. (2005). TEACHING CRITICAL THINKING: SOME LESSONS FROM COGNITIVE SCIENCE. College Teaching, 53(1), 41-46.


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