Monday, February 20, 2017

Hmm …

… Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds - The New Yorker. (Hat tip, Dave Lull.)

"… reason is an evolved trait, like bipedalism or three-color vision. It emerged on the savannas of Africa, and has to be understood in that context."
Really? What exactly is the evidence for that?

"Reason developed not to enable us to solve abstract, logical problems or even to help us draw conclusions from unfamiliar data; rather, it developed to resolve the problems posed by living in collaborative groups."
Says who? What we seem to have here are two just-so stories. I think most of us know that some people are really good at reasoning and lots of other people aren't. There's nothing surprising about that. Some people play the violin really well. Most can't play it at all. Reasoning is a talent. Even if you are blessed with  an abundance of it, you still have to work at it.

The students were asked to respond to two studies. One provided data in support of the deterrence argument, and the other provided data that called it into question. Both studies—you guessed it—were made up, and had been designed to present what were, objectively speaking, equally compelling statistics. The students who had originally supported capital punishment rated the pro-deterrence data highly credible and the anti-deterrence data unconvincing; the students who’d originally opposed capital punishment did the reverse. At the end of the experiment, the students were asked once again about their views. Those who’d started out pro-capital punishment were now even more in favor of it; those who’d opposed it were even more hostile.
A student with a real talent for reasoning might have pointed out that, first, capital punishment deters only one person for sure: the person who is executed. He will not be killing anyone else ever again. Said student might then point out that establishing for sure that capital punishment deters anyone else is not so easy. And he might point out as well that, even if you could, there is at least one very good reason to oppose capital punishment: It is wrong to kill people.

This is a pretty dim-witted piece from first to last. Naturally, the moral has to do with the recent presidential election. I should have guessed.


  1. Frank, most peple can be taught to play the violin -- or any musical instrument, for that matter -- surprisingly well, assuming they have the time, motivation, discipline,and right teacher. Genius? No. But certainly well. And I suspect the same is probably true about reasoning. It can be be rigorously trained (unless you equate reasoning with inborn intelligence, I suppose).

    And if you assume it's a talent i.e. inborn, then it must have in some measure evolved. And most likely evolved for a reason, though chance mutations are always possible.

    As to whether this is a dim-witted piece from first to last, it makes some good points about confirmation bias and the division of cognitive labour, for example.

  2. 'A student with a real talent for reasoning might have pointed out that, first, capital punishment deters only one person for sure: the person who is executed.'

    I think you've misunderstood the point of the experiment, which was to test for confirmation bias, not to establish whether capital punishment actually deters killing.

  3. I wasn't suggesting that most of us are not capable of learning how to reason reasonably well, merely suggesting that most of us not naturally exceptional at it. And as I said, even if you are exceptional, you still have to work at it.
    As for the confirmation bias study, it was the conclusion drawn about its adaptive function that I question They use it as evidence to support their hypothesis, but there is no real evidence that it actually does. The adaptive explanation is another just-so story.

  4. Thanks for clarifying your point about adaptive function. However, I'm not sure I agree. Remember, Gormans also cite a physiological component -- a rush of dopamine. (I'm assuming, perhaps wrongly, that they have evidence for this, and have correctly evaluated it.) And most psychosociological behaviours generally have an adaptive function for them to have persisted throughout the ages. Think of the tulipomania in the 17th century: why do people rush to embrace such fads? There has to be a reason. Similarly, there has to be a reason why people have difficulty changing their minds, even when presented with convincing facts or evidence.

    I would be be interested in how you explain such behaviour--and I mean genuinely interested, not just trying to prove a political point.

  5. BTW, if as you seem to suggest, reasoning ability (which is generally considered a good part of intelligence) is not high in most people, and it is essentially inborn (though can be trained), then the conclusion is that most people are not particularly intelligent. Careful, Frank: you're soundling like an elitist liberal!