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By Scott Sullivan


Smart to be Dumb

In their new book “The Enigma of Reason,” cognitive scientists Dan Sperber and Hugo Mercier argue people’s capacity for reason might have more to do with winning arguments than thinking straight. Humans’ biggest advantage over other species, they contend, is our ability to cooperate, something hard to establish and sustain.

“For any individual,” writes Elizabeth Kolbert of the men’s suppositions in The New Yorker, “freeloading is always the best course of action. Reason developed not to enable us to solve abstract, logical problems or draw conclusions from unfamiliar data; rather, it developed to resolve the problems posed by living in collaborative groups.”

“Reason,” Sperber and Mercier write, “is an adaptation to the hypersocial niche humans have evolved for themselves.” Habits of mind that seem dumb or goofy intellectually prove shrewd when seen from a social “interactionist” perspective.

Take confirmation bias, our tendency to embrace information that supports our beliefs and reject data that contradicts them. If I’m in a group who believes the earth’s flat and I think it’s round, I may be right based on better evidence. I may also have reason to agree with them lest I be arrested for heresy.

That’s what happened to Galileo in 1613. Today’s equivalent may be politicians keeping PAC donors happy by agreeing global warning lacks scientific basis. What’s more important to survival in government: being re-elected or being right?

Mercer and Sperber prefer the term “my-side” to “confirmation” bias, noting humans aren’t randomly credulous. Presented someone else’s argument, we are able to spot the weaknesses. Almost invariably, the positions we are blind about are our own.

Reason, they say, developed to keep us from getting screwed by others in our groups. Living in small bands of hunter-gatherers, our ancestors were mostly concerned with their social standing, making sure they weren’t the ones risking their lives on the hunt while others loafed in the cave. There was less advantage in reasoning clearly than winning arguments.

Cognitive scientists Stephen Sloman and Phillip Fernbach also believe sociability is the key to how human minds function and malfunction. They begin their book “The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone” with a look at toilets.

We all know how those work, right? Flush, stuff vanishes down the sewer, out of sight and mind. But how detailed is our knowledge of how that works? Or of other daily functions we take for granted?

Sloman and Fernbach see what they call the “illusion of explanatory depth” all the time. We think we know more than we really do. This confirms a bias I have long had. We persist and survive in this delusion thanks to other people. Someone else designed my toilet so I can operate it easily. We rely on other people’s expertise so we ourselves needn’t sweat it.

As people invented new tools for new ways of living, they simultaneously created new realms of ignorance. “If everyone,” writes Kolbert,” had insisted on mastering principles of metalworking before picking up a knife, the Bronze Age wouldn’t have amounted to much. When it comes to new technologies, incomplete understanding is empowering.”

Where it gets us in trouble, Sloman and Fernbach argue, is in the political arena. It’s one thing for me to flush without knowing how toilets operate and another to favor (or oppose) an immigration ban without knowing what I’m talking about.

“As a rule,” they write, “strong feelings about issues do not emerge from deep understanding.” Here, our dependence on other minds makes things worse. If your position on, say, Birtherism is baseless and I rely on it, then my opinion is also baseless. Someone else agrees and we feel even more smug about our views. If we dismiss any information that contradicts our views as fake news we get, well, the Trump Administration.

In “Denying to the Grave: Why We Ignore the Facts That Will Save Us,” Jack and Sara Gorman concern themselves with persistent beliefs which are not only demonstrably false but also may be deadly, like the conviction vaccines are hazardous.

The Gormans, too, believe ways of thinking that now seem self-destructive must at some point have been adaptive. They cite research suggesting that people experience genuine pleasure—a rush of dopa-mine—when processing information that supports their beliefs. “It feels good to ‘stick to our guns’ even if we are wrong,” they say.

Remember the epitaph:

Here lies the body of William Jay

Who died maintaining his right of way.

He was right, dead right, as he sped along,

But he’s just as dead as if he were wrong.

I still hope a time may come when logical thinking becomes more popular than appealing to mass biases. But as long as survival is the bottom line in our culture, I have reason to think that’s a pipe dream too.