Hidden Gems II: Reason is Greatly Overrated

The next gem concerns another cognitive bias of great significance to scientists and especially philosophers.

People overestimate their ability to form coherent explanations. This paper investigates the overconfidence through 12 experiments.

The misunderstood limits of folk science: an illusion of explanatory depth (Rozenblit & Keil, 2002, Cognitive Science)

The upshot of this phenomenon is that we should be extremely cautious of verbal explanations which, in their nature, tend to obscure explanatory gaps, hidden assumptions, false premises and reasoning errors.

Read on for a hubristic rant about the implications for Philosophy and Science…

Science, I think, usually gets it right in the long run by insisting on empirically testable predictions. At the level of individual papers, the interpretational argument (usually found in introduction and discussion sections) is likely to contain holes. Authors, reviewers, editors and readers may not spot these, which is why everyone involved has a duty to think critically about the methods and data; just because an idea has been published and reviewed doesn’t mean it can be taken as read (that includes my gems, of course).

Philosophy (in my untrained and rather naive view) sometimes seems to be getting it wrong by building “houses of cards” founded on potentially flawed and untested arguments. I know that Philosophy is a very varied and diverse discipline and there a plenty of examples of Philosophers working constructively with scientists, but very often Science and Philosophy seem to be working at cross purposes on related questions, and scientists are often wary or even hostile to Philosophy.

I don’t know if my experience is typical. I am happy and indeed proud to identify myself as a scientist, and I also know that philosophy (small ‘p’) is very important. For me, science is all about using evidence to develop and refine a body of useful, well-founded, testable beliefs about the natural world. Understanding what “well-founded” means is a philosophical question which is critical to the whole enterprise. However, when occasionally I get into discussion with Philosophers (big ‘P’), the conversation, if it turns to work, it tends to go in one of two ways –

i) polite and shallow
ii) intense discussion bordering on a row

I really prefer the second kind of conversation, but still it tends to get a little more heated than either party would like, and so I don’t seek out opportunities to talk to Philosophers, despite my interest and respect for subject.

I think it’s at least half my fault. At the root of the tension is my unwillingness to accept a Philosophical argument unless it’s testable and preferably supported by evidence, and a complementary unwillingness on the part of my opponent to consider that this might be a valid perspective.

Research on cognitive biases supports the scientific intuition that other people’s apparently rational arguments can be flawed. If they know about cognitive biases Philosophers may argue that their training gives them a unique capacity to avoid such flaws, but I think that this is essentially an appeal to authority, so to be persuasive they need to demonstrate (i.e., with evidence) that their case is valid in each specific case.

Maybe I just have “issues”, but if my experience is typical then it could explain why so many scientists are less than enthusiastic about Philosophy; we don’t accept that what passes for reason trumps experimental observation and prediction. The growing schism is problematic, because Philosophy has contributed hugely to scientific thought and clearly still has a lot to contribute. Perhaps Scientists need to become more philosophical and Philosophers need to become more scientific.


Author: tomhartley

Neuroscientist and University Lecturer in Psychology

6 thoughts on “Hidden Gems II: Reason is Greatly Overrated”

  1. I always just think of philosophy as a way to be a disciplined thinker. I’m a scientist because I recognise there usually comes a time when data can sort between contending answers to problems; but I don’t object to philosophy’s help in identifying the candidates nor helping to think about them rigorously. I wouldn’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

  2. I’m not sure of your distinction here. I’m sure if you provided a definition of what you believe constitutes each field, I’d agree. That said, the problem is that objectively defining philosophy and science as distinct concepts is nigh on impossible.

    Historically speaking, philosophy has been the sum of efforts made to create thinking tools that can address all manner of problems. Science, on the other hand, is a little trickier to pin down. You can try to confine it by empiricism, however this has been attempted before with no luck. Every time somebody attempts to make clear distinctions, there are reasons found demonstrating why science and philosophy can’t be pulled apart without committing one or more logical fallacies.

  3. Thanks for the link, Tom.

    I’d probably quibble over your use of the word evidence, however. It’s a point I’ve found has become a firm part of the definition of science, yet I find it circular.

    To me, evidence is defined primarily as any observation which increases or decreases your confidence in an idea. As such, even theology is evidence based. Of course, this raises the hackles of most science advocates. Of course observing intuition and cherry picking anomalous events isn’t evidence! It’s not logical, there’s no rigour, no blinding…no anything we prize in science!

    So, evidence is defined by science…which is defined by evidence. A bit circular for my liking.

    To me, science isn’t distinguished by evidence, but by its fundamental premises in symmetry and parsimony, plus a range of evolving philosophical tools that focus on predictability. This results in evidence that is, in my opinion, informs reliable and increasingly robust ideas. In my more cynical moments, I’d go so far as to say that science is a culture of authority – one that produces ideas that authorities will invest in.

    Nonetheless, food for thought. Thanks.

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