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"Smart people (like smart lawyers) can come up with very good explanations for mistaken points of view."

- Richard P. Feynman, Physicist

"There is a danger in clarity, the danger of over looking the subtleties of truth."

-Alfred North Whitehead

July 4, 2011

To Win an Argument or to Find the Truth

A recent theory of argumentation that has been generating considerable discussion states that the human reason has so many cognitive biases and other flaws because reason evolved for the purpose of winning arguments through persuasion and not as a means of discovering knowledge and making better decisions.[i] These researchers argue that the existence of such cognitive biases, most powerfully represented by confirmation bias, the tendency to view evidence in way that confirms one’s prior views, makes sense only if one views the evolution of human reason for the purpose of winning arguments rather than discovering knowledge. If discovering knowledge was the primary purpose, our reasoning ability would not be as flawed as it is.

The paper is worth the read for anyone interested in the process of reasoning. As for confirmation bias, unfortunately it appears that this error in thought has been elevated to a creed within our political system. One only has to ask a devout Republican and a Democrat (or those associated with each party) to explain their perspective on an issue to see confirmation bias in full action. To allow even the potential correctness of the other side’s position is considered weakness and rejection for being an apostate—a logical result of a system driven by a hypercompetitive desire to prevail at a ballot box rather than to solve problems.

The authors explain that all hope for an actual conversation leading to knowledge is not lost. These researchers state that “people are quite capable of reasoning in an unbiased manner, or at least when they are evaluating arguments rather than producing them, and when they are after the truth rather than trying to win a debate.”[ii] Those of us in decision making positions that affect others would better serve our society by really listening to others, and not only to find the errors in other’s arguments, but to also find any potential truths that expose the errors in our perceptions and thoughts.

[i] Mercier, Hugo, and Dan Sperber, BEHAVIORAL AND BRAIN SCIENCES (2011) 34, 57 –111;

[ii] Ibid. p. 72.

The views expressed in this blog are solely the views of the author(s) and do not represent the views of any other public official or organization.

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