Why we argue vs. why we should

An EPP member celebrates political victory.Cognitive biases are difficult, some might even say impossible, to conquer. The best that most of us can do is to attempt to remain conscious of them in order to be able to reject irrational assumptions and find the truth. Now, there may be a twist. The NYT reported on “the argumentative theory of reasoning” being promoted by some behavioral science researchers, which holds that our irrationalities actually serve an evolutionary purpose. It’s got quite a snappy title, too: “People Argue Just to Win, Scholars Assert.”*

I can’t quite tell whether there is a problem on the journalism side, or on the research side. Probably there is a little bit of both. Evolutionary psychology is a pretty problematic field even on its best days, inferring “ought” from “is” left and right. And reporters are keen to extrapolate from “scientists suggest that something might have happened” to “scientists declare that this is the way things ought to be.” You don’t need a PhD in cognitive science to figure out that people often argue just to win arguments. But this article and the quotations it uses suggest that reason should be rejected altogether as a method of finding truth, because it just wasn’t built for that purpose!

“Reasoning doesn’t have this function of helping us to get better beliefs and make better decisions,” said Hugo Mercier, who is a co-author of the journal article, with Dan Sperber. “It was a purely social phenomenon. It evolved to help us convince others and to be careful when others try to convince us.” Truth and accuracy were beside the point.

… “People have been trying to reform something that works perfectly well,” he said, “as if they had decided that hands were made for walking and that everybody should be taught that.”

Really? Biased reasoning “works perfectly well”? I don’t think so, unless your definitions of “work,” “perfect,” and “well” are drastically different from my own. Even if you begin from the seemingly-unwarranted premise that the evolutionary purpose of reason is “to help us convince others and to be careful when others try to convince us,” it’s not at all clear that disregarding truth would help. What could be more convincing to others than an incontrovertible truth? And what are we to be careful of, if not being convinced of a falsehood and making poor choices as a result? In a population of individuals prone to biased reasoning, an unbiased thinker would almost certainly have a survival advantage, all other things being equal.

In the first part of the article it really does look like Mercier and Sperber think winning is fundamentally more important than truth. As the article progresses, though, it seems that they do acknowledge some merit in being right; they just think it comes about via winning.

But Mr. Sperber and Mr. Mercier contend that as people became better at producing and picking apart arguments, their assessment skills evolved as well.

“At least in some cultural contexts, this results in a kind of arms race towards greater sophistication in the production and evaluation of arguments,” they write. “When people are motivated to reason, they do a better job at accepting only sound arguments, which is quite generally to their advantage.” Groups are more likely than individuals to come up with better results, they say, because they will be exposed to the best arguments.

Mr. Mercier is enthusiastic about the theory’s potential applications. He suggests, for example, that children may have an easier time learning abstract topics in mathematics or physics if they are put into a group and allowed to reason through a problem together.

Um, thanks, genius. And what does this have to do with the evolution of cognitive biases? Aren’t you now saying that winning an argument is just a tool that we use to determine what’s correct? “Bias, lack of logic and other supposed flaws that pollute the stream of reason” aren’t helpful “social adaptations” in that scenario — they’re liabilities!

By the end of the article, advocates of argumentative theory are promoting deliberative democracy over “America’s high-decibel adversarial system.” What happened to winning? What happened to manipulative certitude “enabl[ing] one group to persuade (and defeat) another”? Are we just giving up on the whole “reasoning skills are to truth-finding as hands are to walking” premise? I don’t even know anymore. Maybe we should set aside this tangle of sloppy journalism and overzealous pseudoscience for now.

The title of this NYT article got me excited about writing a blog post. Surely all my readers are well-acquainted with the phenomenon of people who argue just to win, irrespective of the truth. The thing is, it’s virtually universally acknowledged that that’s a less-than-ideal way to go about it. We want to win because we are right, not be considered right merely because we won (by shouting louder, outlasting our opponent, or emotionally manipulating our audience).

Evolutionary biologists must constantly point out that, just because we may have evolved particular traits due to particular pressures, we don’t have to (and it might even be bad to) defer to those pressures or those traits. Reason, the consideration of evidence and logical arguments in order to make inferences about reality, is the only tool we have for finding truth, and as far as we can tell it’s a pretty good tool. It’s possible that humans developed the ability to reason in order to defeat others, but that doesn’t mean we should relinquish our capacity to reason in all other contexts. When (not if) I catch myself arguing solely because I want to win, I take a step back and remind myself that it’s okay to admit I was wrong, that the real purpose of my discussion is to discern truth, whatever it may be. And it’s possible that common errors in reasoning had some evolutionary benefit in the past, but that doesn’t make those errors good. If we want truth — and I certainly do — we have to check against those errors, not simply shrug them off as part of the way our thinking process is supposed to be.

* The title of the article seems to have been changed since it was first published. The title tag and URL of the page reflect the title I mentioned above, but the headline is now “Reason Seen More as Weapon Than Path to Truth.” Not sure it’s an improvement.

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  1. Aristarchus

     /  June 17, 2011 at 9:17 am

    I saw this article, and the theory (as explained in the article, at least) didn’t make a lot of sense to me. Reason can only help you win an argument if the people you’re trying to convince have enough reason to value reasoned arguments over others. I’m sure it was part of the pressure, but there must have been some other force (actually making good decisions) pushing reason also.

    Plus, most of these cognitive shortcomings have their own obvious explanations. Prejudice comes from a natural tendency to group like things and make generalizations, and that usually is a perfectly reasonable way of analyzing things. They’re shortcuts to what are usually correct decisions, but they’re not perfect and the failures cause big problems.

  2. Although I think Mercier and Sperber’s argument is intriguing, I’m ultimately forced to reject it, because we now know that finding out the truth isn’t their purpose; they’re just following their evolutionary instincts to argue with people in order to achieve higher social status.

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