So you’re smart, but are you reasonable?

I was searching for this phantom post pointing to research on verbal reasoning scores and bias (I swear I saw it!) when I came across a fascinating a 1997 paper titled Reasoning Independently of Prior Belief and Individual Differences in Actively Open-Minded Thinking. It’s got some neat if perhaps not totally unsurprising conclusions.

First, a quick disclosure: I don’t know this research area at all. If this paper got trashed by all its peers or if its results haven’t held up over time, I wouldn’t know. I’ve looked at the authors’ faculty pages and it looks like they’ve done more recent work that I’ll dig into at some point soon.

OK so what’s the point of this research: (apologies for the screenshots; it’s non-searchable PDF)

I’ll skip how they did the experiment and go right to findings. Read for yourself if you’re interested.

From the discussion:

The first question this raises in my mind is the extent to which this sort of reasoning style is alterable, both in the short and the long terms. To the extent that it is able to change over the long-term, this will have implications both for education and beyond. (Perhaps it’s possible to teach someone to reason outside of priors, and we do so in high school and college, but they lapse over time? Just one potential example of an implication.) In the short-term this interests me because the priming of epistemic goals could be a central feature of better media design aimed at negating bias. I’m looking forward to reading more on this topic.

Overcoming bias means better social processes

I know I’ve already written twice about the Mercier/Sperber argumentation research, but this NYT piece brings to mind one more point to make. Mercier and Sperber argue that we evolved our capacity for reason largely to convince one another. They make the related point that reasoning is a social rather than an individual process. Regardless of whether they’re right about the evolutionary roots of reasoning, the latter point is critical to discussions of bias. The NYT piece talks about the research with regard to the peer review process:

Doesn’t the ideal of scientific reasoning call for pure, dispassionate curiosity? Doesn’t it positively shun the ego-driven desire to prevail over our critics and the prejudicial urge to support our social values (like opposition to the death penalty)?

Perhaps not. Some academics have recently suggested that a scientist’s pigheadedness and social prejudices can peacefully coexist with — and may even facilitate — the pursuit of scientific knowledge…

…It’s salvation of a kind: our apparently irrational quirks start to make sense when we think of reasoning as serving the purpose of persuading others to accept our point of view. And by way of positive side effect, these heated social interactions, when they occur within a scientific community, can lead to the discovery of the truth.

The point I want to make here is simple and perhaps even obvious. As science illuminates various shortcomings in our ability to reason, our best hope is to design better social processes to account for them. We already do this. From the courtroom to the newsroom, we structure our intellectual processes to help overcome our own individual shortcomings. But with increasingly sophisticated research into how we think, and with the digital public sphere providing both massive amounts of data on how we communicate and the opportunity to constantly redesign our media environment, we have the chance to design better processes that allow us to overcome our individual faults and reason better.