We live in unreasonable times. This much seems clear. It’s not just that people are easily wounded, indignant on a dime, or chronically resentful, though we see plenty of that. But people also seem to be unreasonable in the more literal sense of just plain being unresponsive to reasoning. The ideas that people are hopelessly mired in their biases, trapped by the filters of their positions, or more swayed by identity or group loyalty than evidence and argument are widespread. Of course these ideas do nothing to make people more reasonable, so we might worry about a self-reinforcing cycle of disregard for reason.
Some of us grudgingly accept our doxastic dysfunction as an incurable facet of crookedness in the timber of humanity. Others set straight to work on unreasonable modes of persuasion. And where behavioral science, and propaganda fueled by data analytics and AI take off, our unreasonableness is not just confirmed, but more deeply ingrained.
So are we incurably biased or just too intellectually lazy to straighten ourselves out? First let’s avoid false dichotomy. We suffer both ills to varying degrees. We all sometimes rationalize rather than reason. We rationalize when we apply our reasoning ability not towards getting at what is true, but just to certify what we already believe and would like to continue believing. But all of us also, sometimes, reason about things, overcome our pre-conceptions to some degree, and thereby get at least incrementally closer to the truth. While most of us rarely see our more cherished convictions overturned, we all reason our way out of erroneous ways of thinking now and then. Sometimes it even happens that others present us with reasons that help us correct false beliefs, even though we may be reluctant to show our appreciation.
Psychologists have engaged this issue and the attention getting headlines tend to be those that shock us with how unreasonable we might be. News that we are incurably unreasonable may be perversely appealing since we’d rather hear about flaws we can’t help than those we should take steps to remedy. But the debate in psychology is hardly settled and there is a strong case to be made for the view that intellectually, we are more often lazy than incurably inept. It’s worth emphasizing here that psychology is not in a position to render ultimate verdicts about human nature on this matter. Psychologists may find that we are in fact pretty unreasonable, but this would not tell us much about how more reasonable we could be if we opted for different information environments and educational experiences. None of us should be surprised to find that 21st century Americans are not very reasonable when our education system allots precious little dedicated time and attention to how to reason well and our digital habits have us more attuned to 250 characters than 2500 words.
There is significant risk of confirmation bias in thinking that people are hopelessly unreasonable. In politics especially, we routinely see people unswayed by what seem to us strong arguments. But there are a number of things that might be at play here other than people being unresponsive to reason.
First we should note that the arguments we find persuasive might not be high quality arguments. The climate scientist that is unimpressed with talk of natural cycles of heating and cooling isn’t being dogmatically unresponsive to reason. She knows full well that this just isn’t what’s at issue in the case of global warming. It’s the CO2. And it’s clear up front to the climate scientist that the skeptic that persists in talking about benign natural cycles is ignoring what’s really at issue. So, sometimes at least, when someone is unswayed by our arguments, that’s just because they aren’t very good arguments. This is not evidence for unreasonableness, except perhaps on our own part.
Next, people really don’t like to be pushed around. In the case of issues we care deeply about especially, arguments contrary to our preferred view often feel more like coercion than rational persuasion. Pushing back against feeling pushed is often enough among the ways we are unreasonable. But many of us are likely to appear more unreasonable than we are when we feel pushed. Once we have taken a stand on an issue we care about, we are much less likely to admit defeat than to accept it, eventually anyway.
Which leads to one further point. Good reasoning is often complex and it can take some time to do its work. When people aren’t persuaded by a good argument right away, this is sometimes just because it needs to be mulled over some before its force can be appreciated. Can’t people just ignore good arguments and thereby prevent the germination of new insight? Yes, and they often do, but this isn’t simply a matter of choice. It can be hard to ignore a good idea. The temptation of novel insight isn’t necessarily less effective than the tug at the emotional heartstrings, it’s just less immediate.
A fallacy is just a mistake in reasoning. There are dozens that we know by name. But we only bother to name a fallacy when it is the sort of mistake that people are highly vulnerable to making. We can learn to commit and fall for far fewer fallacies. When it comes to appreciating good reasoning, we have straightforward methods for evaluating the quality of reasons and these constitute the central kernel of the curriculum in critical thinking and logic. Learning to reason well and avoid common mistakes is hard. Fallacious rhetoric offers the quick thrill of a roller coaster ride where critical thinking is more like hiking up a mountain. This helps to explain why Twitter flourishes as newspapers fold. The only cure may be to develop a taste for hiking. It would help if there were fewer roller coasters around.
Psychology has established that reasoning well is not part of our natural human endowment. In these unreasonable times, everyday experience certifies this much. So let us abandon the presumption of reasonableness. Instead let’s recognize being reasonable as a skill. Like most skills, it’s a skill that anyone can develop though maybe rather few can perfect. Clearly, getting along well with one another requires doing a much better job at cultivating the skill of reasonableness than our current educational and social practices manage. I’m not sure what to do about Twitter. But in the realm of education, policy solutions are an option. Critical thinking skills can be taught.