5 min read

Thinking is a complicated matter

Thinking is a complicated matter
Photo by Kenny Eliason / Unsplash

About a year ago, I tried to kick off a Substack. What I wanted to do was share my love for current research into reasoning, belief formation and critical thinking education. There is a lot going on in those corners of cognitive science and I was looking forward to reading and sharing new insights on these topics.

I was overly optimistic about the time I’d have on my hands, though. I’ve still been reading great papers on misinformation, conspiracy beliefs, debiasing and much more, but to actually sit down and evaluate and summarize that work — well, I didn’t pull it off! Yet I want to give it another go, using a different approach that’s easier for me.

I want to do interviews.

Interviews? You struggle to find time and so you move to interviews?

I know, I am probably underestimating the work right now. My reasoning is that I need or want to talk to a bunch of people anyway and that conversations lend themselves well to getting to important stuff quickly. That’s a little bit different from reading other people’s work and framing it or making it palatable to some imagined audience.

What’s that "important stuff" then?

There’s a current of anti-democratic sentiments that has been with us for… centuries, actually. It says that democracy is dangerous because human reasoning is fallible and most people can’t think straight anyway. This rather reactionary strand of thought was boosted last century by cognitive psychology and, perhaps mostly famously, by behavioral economics. Tversky and Kahneman captivated audiences by demonstrating cognitive biases and faulty heuristics. The book Thinking, Fast and Slow was a bestseller. Perhaps that was because people hoped the book would improve their thinking skills, but I think it mostly cemented the idea that we don't think that well, at all. I am not saying Kahneman has some reactionary agenda, but I think he rejuvenated an existing line of thinking that’s rather pessimistic about human cognition.

When Brexit and the Trump election happened, you saw this pessimism reaching new heights and then give way to alarmism. Pundits lamented how our poor, weak cognition had been manipulated by politicians and foreign interests creating fake news or weaponizing public discourse.

The important stuff is: that is not all there is to human reasoning. Sure, our bullshit alarms and reasoning capabilities can fail dramatically. We can be misinformed, we can be manipulated and more importantly, we can fool ourselves. Yet human rationality is not the fragile thing that the think pieces in newspapers and magazines are making it out to be. Cognitive science does not give us good reasons to give up on strong forms of democracy. That defeatist position takes very particular lab results at face value, while ignoring other findings.

This is also what Henry Farell, Hugo Mercier and Melissa Schwartzberg have claimed in their microfoundational approach to studying democracy, right?

Yes, I am on board with their overall reasoning. Psychology has added nuance to philosophical concepts like rationality, decision-making and agency – we now understand the mechanisms through which humans reach judgments and decisions much better than we did 100 years ago. Part of that understanding challenges the assumptions of democratic decision-making. But as Farell, Mercier and Schwartzberg show, a deeper look at human cognition also points to the strengths of collective decision-making. There's even the tempting theory that reasoning and argumentation evolved for such decision-making.

How can interviews tell that story? Will you only talk to people who share this belief?

I think it will be interesting to ask a wide range of scholars and scientists what they think about the strenghts and weaknesses of human reasoning. There is bound to be a lot of disagreement about how dangerous misinformation and disinformation are or whether direct or deliberative democracy can lead to better decision-making. What I hope the interviews will show is that a worldview that emphasizes cognitive fallibility is too simplistic. There are cracks in that story, brought about by numerous disciplines studying cognition.

And there's a practical aspect to the defense of human reasoning, too. It obviously fails sometimes, so it's important to see when this happens and whether we can avoid it more often. Whether we can educate people to become better reasoners or perhaps build institutions that are fallacy-proof.

Improving reasoning through education? Are you sure you've been keeping up?

There's a sad story to tell about the role of education in shaping our reasoning capabilities. A recent OECD study showed higher education fails to improve critical thinking skills. I am not sure whether the same holds for primary and middle school education, but I know Greg Ashman has expressed doubts about teaching critical thinking in a middle school setting. Yet there's also people sharpening minds through debate training or promoting substantive exchange through dialogues. I don't think we can discount their approaches just yet.

What I suspect is that we will find out that changing the particular cognitive makeup of individual students – whatever that may mean – is near impossible, but that there's a lot of to be won by teaching groups of students how to make the most of their cognitive differences and how to work with foundational world knowledge. Within the ivory towers of academia, cognitive science is taking an interactive turn, looking at psychological faculties as based in human interactions. I am excited by that movement and I think it will be entering education, too, for example by teaching critical thinking as conversational skills.

That's shifting the goal-posts, right? That's not what critical thinking skills test measure.

That's another – in my opinion exciting – point of discussion. What do these critical thinking tests measure? Some of them find their origins in Cold War forecasting attempts, others read more like MBA case studies. Is the thing these tests measure also what we mean when we talk about critical citizens? Do they measure what Google means if they seek critical knowledge workers? Perhaps so – I honestly don't know – but I would not be surprised if it's often better to have a group that can leverage its cognitive diversity, rather than one made up solely of individuals who did very well on a test battery.

Of course, if there are ways we can get students to score better individually, by practicing syllogisms and argumentation schemes or by educating them about cognitive biases and fallacies, that's great, too. There’s some evidence that this works and I think higher education has cut such traning short far too often.

What do you hope for the outcome of the interviews you're planning?

It's probably too much to hope for people to regain full faith in the power of human reasoning and imagination. So I would settle for people concluding that the notion that people are gullible or stupid or irrational is too simple. Thinking is a complicated matter. For myself, I also hope the perspectives will be applicable to teaching. I take that OECD report seriously — if universities can do more to improve critical thinking, they should. It’s an existential thing.

Thanks for your time, Vincent. Who will be next in this series?

Next up will be Sacha Altay, a postdoc at Oxford who works on the spread (or non-spread) of misinformation. He’s been looking at social motives for sharing and accepting information. If that sounds good, make sure to subscribe. You’ll get the monthly Reasoning Report in your inbox that way.