A couple of years ago a couple of cognitive scientists – Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber – published a provocative book called The Enigma of Reason which seeks to both engage with puzzles regarding human reason and theorise the cognitive mechanism(s) involved.
In my PhD thesis I suggested that their findings regarding human reason are relevant to knowledge practices and especially to prospective knowledge practices. In suggesting this, I was aided by Mercier and Sperber because they suggested that the advancement of scientific knowledge can be both hindered and enabled by human reason and, furthermore, they pointed to some important knowledge practice dimensions.
This blog post is not the place to define or defend their theory of reason in great detail (read their book!), however the basic view they articulate is that what we call ‘reason’ is actually an intuitive inferential mechanism which performs best under certain social conditions. Such a mechanism producing “intuitive inferences about reasons” is further argued to be one “in which logic plays at best a marginal role”. They critique a competing intellectualist view of reason, arguing that individual reason is rarely as objective and impartial as it ought to be (if the intellectual view is correct), and propose an interactionist alternative which emphasises being in dialogue with others and proposes that reason is a social competence.
Chapters in the book address key questions like “Why is reasoning biased?” and discuss the ways in which even brilliant scientists are not paragons of objectivity and can review evidence in a partisan manner. For example, they discuss the case of Linus Pauling who won two Nobel Prizes (chemistry and peace), and narrowly missed another regarding the discovery of the structure of DNA. Pauling believed in the efficacy of vitamin C for treating cancer even in the face of studies contradicting his claims and he maintained this belief even when he was himself diagnosed with cancer despite taking a high dose of vitamin C daily (he claimed the cancer “would have struck earlier without it”).
Their chapter on scientists entitled “Solitary Geniuses?” is especially interesting. This chapter reviews a number of studies and famous cases to propose that:
- Scientists (and researchers) are biased too and often don’t reason impartially;
- Scientists are, nonetheless, sensitive to good arguments;
- Science is a collective enterprise (i.e. it isn’t advanced by solitary geniuses); and
- The social context of science drives improvements in solitary reasoning, i.e. certain social conditions can alleviate (or limit) problems caused by flawed individual reasoning
Mercier and Sperber suggest that when we look at individual scientists (or researchers), their behaviour, and their outputs or intellectual productivity, we should ask different questions like the following ones: Who are their interlocutors? What level of pressure does their social context place on them to produce high quality arguments and address counter-arguments? How is their reasoning influenced by their colleagues? Such questions probe their social context and explore how this influences their reasoning activities.
Additionally, I think we can use such theory and the questions it suggests as an interpretive lens when looking at actors’ knowledge practices. For example, we can not only probe the ways in which actors attend to evidence (or don’t) but we can also examine whether their practices (or ‘routines’) bring them into regular contact with serious interlocutors – including others those who might critique or challenge their arguments – and provide potential means of addressing the biases and laziness frequently exhibited by human reason.
We can also perhaps consider research findings about the conditions under which reason tends to perform best – such as the dialogic conditions emphasised by Mercier & Sperber – and use this as design knowledge when crafting knowledge practices or interventions.
Mercier, H. & Sperber, D. (2017), The Enigma of Reason, Harvard University Press.