Unreasonable reasoning

Despite spending most of my life observing politics, I am still surprised that intelligent people can excuse almost any kind of incompetence, inconsistency or impropriety, as long as the wrongful acts are performed by political allies.

Why Facts don’t Change Our Minds by Elizabeth Kolbert published in 2017 by New Yorker magazine helps explain the puzzle.

Researchers had presented shifting scenarios to volunteers and concluded:

Once formed, impressions are remarkably perseverant. Even after the evidence for their beliefs has been totally refuted, people fail to make appropriate revisions in those beliefs.

Ms. Kolbert adds:

Thousands of subsequent experiments have confirmed (and elaborated on) this finding. As everyone who’s followed the research—or even occasionally picked up a copy of Psychology Today—knows, any graduate student with a clipboard can demonstrate that reasonable-seeming people are often totally irrational. 

She refers to The Enigma of Reason from Harvard University Press by European researchers.

If reason is that reliable, why do we produce so much thoroughly reasoned nonsense? In their groundbreaking account of the evolution and workings of reason, Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber set out to solve this double enigma. Reason, they argue is not geared to arriving at better beliefs and decisions. What reason does is help us justify our beliefs... Reason is biased in favor of what we already believe…

Mercier told The Washington Post that people mostly reason to find arguments that whatever they were already thinking is a good idea.

Objectively, a reasoning mechanism that aims at sounder knowledge and better decisions should focus on reasons why we might be wrong and reasons why other options than our initial hunch might be correct. Such a mechanism should also critically evaluate whether the reasons supporting our initial hunch are strong. But reasoning does the opposite. It mostly looks for reasons that support our initial hunches and deems even weak, superficial reasons to be sufficient.

Of course Mercier is not against reasoning; he wants it to be more effective. However, he proposes that discussions involving numerous people are likely to be less beneficial.

Larger groups are less conducive to efficient argumentation because the normal back and forth of discussion breaks down when you have more than about five people talking together. 

This may explain why conversations on social media and in Legislatures and Parliaments have so little value. Many people talk, few listen, and almost no one alters their thinking.

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Categories: Education

3 replies »

  1. We are probably all guilty of this kind of self confirming bias to some extent. There are differences in impact though. When I make a reasoning error around home it affects me, and maybe the farm. When a PM or Premier or cabinet minister behaves like this it can affect whole ecosystems, entire water sheds. Our governments seem to have taken the minimization of discussion points to heart though, keeping the reasoning options to a minimum. To the extent of not providing reasons to voters, and not defending decisions based on the reasons for making the decisions. A lose, lose situation.


  2. After a few years of absorbing news I have come to the point where biases stand out in neon colours. Just the way a sentence is constructed can legitimize an otherwise absurd point of view.

    I have also noticed that mainstream news is a near monopoly and seems to all say the same thing and all supports directly or in a round about way the accumulation of more money by the largest players. This often comes at the price denigrating an opposite position and that leads exactly where it should for the big players – a division of society such as I have never seen before.

    I am sufficiently old fashioned enough to think that the man made world should spin for humans, not the money making machinery we call multinationals. I am for education, social medicine and raising the quality of life for all. As another human being I think you should be too. Trickle down does not work.


  3. Love the last line of the post and it is so true.

    Most of what is said in the Leg. or Parliament is staged to provide a Gotcha moment for the party on their pins. It has been a very, very long time since some one got up and said something really meaningful and explained things. Its probably why we have a lot of blogs which explain things quite well.


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