The Sciences

Education, Biased Reasoning, and Enlightenment

The IntersectionBy Chris MooneyMay 30, 2011 4:44 PM

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In the last thread about my upcoming show with Michael Shermer, Sean McCorkle asks a really deep question, or set of questions. Let's take them in sequence:

What about science education at an age level before undesirable beliefs “set in”? Can something positive be said about early intervention? And what about the quality of education (not just the level)? I’m sure there are a lot of studies that back up #10, but do they treat education as a binary value: yes, person has it, or no they haven’t, tacitly assuming that all individuals have been exposed to the same level of instruction on average? If so, I think that’s a problem. Somewhere on Panda’s Thumb or someplace there was a survey that revealed a high percentage of HS biology teachers who didn’t believe in evolution themselves. So how can we expect their students to receive proper exposure to evolution? I know education quality questions are hard to deal with quantitatively, but I feel they are important, especially before we dismiss science education as a possible cure. Maybe its the disparity of quality of education that really needs to be addressed.

Educational disparities certainly do exist--and they should be addressed. But educational improvement (especially K-12) will not serve the goal that Sean seems to hope for. The evidence simply doesn't suggest that as we get more educated or acquire more intellectual abilities, we get better at detecting reasoning fallacies and false beliefs, and fall for them less. There is actually research on reasoning biases and youth development. For instance, Klaczynski, "Bias in Adolescents' Everyday Reasoning and Its Relationship With Intellectual Ability, Personal Theories, and Self-Serving Motivation," Developmental Psychology, 1997, Vol. 33, No 2., pp. 273-283:

The author presented 60 9th- and 12th-graders with hypothetical arguments that contained logical fallacies. Arguments were either consistent or inconsistent with participants' theories. Participants rated the quality and truth of each argument, identified perceived strengths and weaknesses in the arguments, and verbally described hypothetical experiments that could lead to evidence falsifying the claims made in the arguments. Results indicated that intellectual ability, particularly verbal ability, was the best predictor of each index of everyday reasoning. However, neither the ability measures nor age were related to biases in everyday reasoning. Hierarchical multiple regression analyses showed that, for each reasoning variable, adolescents' personal theories accounted for the most variance in reasoning biases. These findings are discussed in terms of the roles that intellectual ability and theory-driven motivation play in everyday reasoning and self-serving adolescent reasoning.

Meanwhile, there is a whole different chain of evidence showing that those who know more about contentious political issues (like global warming) are more biased and more polarized about them--rather than more calm and rational and unified. These groups don't converge as they know more, they diverge as they know more. I've been blogging about this research, for example here. The point is that education serves many important goals, but it does not appear to check biased reasoning about issues where we have deep emotional investments. And why would it: We respond emotionally on such issues, and then we rationalized our deep set views. In this context, more intellectual ability will only aid in rationalization. So what does this mean for Enlightenment? Sean continues:

I ask this in the larger context of a point that you have raised previously, that we need to reexamine the Enlightenment. That’s something that I find profoundly disturbing for many reasons, not least of which is that I fear you are correct. Among other worries I have about potentially abandoning principles that lifted the west out of the dark ages centuries ago, the issue for me here is the potential for institutionalizing a perception that some—maybe most—people will never reach a level where they can be counted on to make an objective evaluation of reality, and so will have to be treated differently, thus perpetuating a social subclass by an education process of low expectations (oh, we won’t bother teaching them that because they can’t really comprehend it anyway) rather than one which challenges the students to become more than they are.

There are a lot of principles associated with the Enlightenment. I certainly do not propose discarding the Enlightenment's political philosophy principles which underlie the Declaration of Independence and Constitution--equality, human rights, etc. Rather I want to get rid of the Enlightenment's naivete about humans being rational and dispassionate, whereas we really are, as Shermer puts it, "belief engines." It seems to me that these two things are highly separable. We're all still equal, we all have equal rights--and indeed, we share the same human nature. It's just that that nature is not nearly so rational as some once believed, or hoped....

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