Science loses to law – Why rhetoric is often more important than facts

[Crossposted at A Man with A PhD]

thinkerby Brian Hillegas

Is Reasoning Built for Winning Arguments, Rather Than Finding Truth?
[Via The Intersection]

How is this for timing? Just as my Mother Jones piece on motivated reasoning came out, the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences devoted an entire issue to the case for an “argumentative theory” of reason, advanced by Hugo Mercier of the University of Pennsylvania and Dan Sperber of the Jean Nicod Institute in Paris. You can’t get the article over there without a subscription, but it’s also available at SSRN, and here is the abstract:

Reasoning is generally seen as a means to improve knowledge and make better decisions. However, much evidence shows that reasoning often leads to epistemic distortions and poor decisions. This suggests that the function of reasoning should be rethought. Our hypothesis is that the function of reasoning is argumentative. It is to devise and evaluate arguments intended to persuade. Reasoning so conceived is adaptive given the exceptional dependence of humans on communication and their vulnerability to misinformation. A wide range of evidence in the psychology of reasoning and decision making can be reinterpreted and better explained in the light of this hypothesis. Poor performance in standard reasoning tasks is explained by the lack of argumentative context. When the same problems are placed in a proper argumentative setting, people turn out to be skilled arguers. Skilled arguers, however, are not after the truth but after arguments supporting their views. This explains the notorious confirmation bias. This bias is apparent not only when people are actually arguing, but also when they are reasoning proactively from the perspective of having to defend their opinions. Reasoning so motivated can distort evaluations and attitudes and allow erroneous beliefs to persist. Proactively used reasoning also favors decisions that are easy to justify but not necessarily better. In all these instances traditionally described as failures or flaws, reasoning does exactly what can be expected of an argumentative device: Look for arguments that support a given conclusion, and, ceteris paribus, favor conclusions for which arguments can be found.

Behavioral and Brain Sciences contains not only the paper by Mercier and Sperber, but also a flurry of expert responses and then a response from the authors. SSRN does too, and there is a site devoted to this idea as well.


Anyone who has seen a debate between a scientist and a creationist knows of this dynamic. Most creationist’s arguments take the form of legal rhetorical debates while scientists argue from a very different perspective. They usually present information and try to enhance the knowledge of the those around so they can make their own decision. Creationists argue to support their views using the same sorts of techniques used to validate a guilty verdict. The goal is not to impart information but to drive a decision using the best argumentative tools.

Science does not work that way. At least it tries not to. Thus is often loses in these reasoning sessions.

I would argue that the idea of reasoning used in this report is a very different one than a scientist would use when saying reasoning. Not that I disagree with its point and the idea that these sorts of reasoning arguments in a social setting could be very important for human survival.

But science – our tool for understanding the world around us – has spent the last 400 years moving away from these sorts of arguments and approach to reasoning. Science is not decided by who has the best argumentative personality or knows the best tricks of rhetoric. It is decided by facts that represent the natural world, not just our logical arguments.

Some of the most dramatic debates in science history actually rely on these sorts of reasoning arguments. The debate between Huxley and Wilberforce is one of them. Or Darrow and Bryan.

But these great debates are only remembered because the science was right, not that the argument was.

A large part of the modern scientific enterprise is to reduce this sort of reasoning to a minimum. Not that it is gone in the least. Scientists often use every single aspect of reasoning when discussing their work. But there have to be facts and a real connection to reality.

No matter how forcefully Pons and Fleischmann ‘reasoned’ about cold fusion, it did not make it real. That is why virtually every scientist will lose in a reasoned debate with a lawyer on a topic. We recognize that no matter how strong our arguments are, nor as data-filled, they will always be provisional at same level. That weakens them in a debate with someone having a hardened argument

There will always be a segment of grey, no matter how well defined the rest is. Reasoning from that viewpoint will almost always lose in a debate with someone who can argue from only a single shade.

When framed as a black and white debate, having shades of gray make you look weak along with your argument.

To win such a reasoning argument, a researcher often has to take a rhetorical position that is somewhat anathema to their viewpoint.

They have to remove the shades of grey that all researchers know exist. They must argue from a black and white view. But this often alienates other researchers while not really providing a satisfying argument.

I think this is why so many scientists are poor communicators – not when it comes to talking about the science but when it comes to arguing about decisions.

Science takes data and creates information. Transformation of information by the sorts of reasoning mentioned above results in knowledge. Knowledge allows us to make decisions. Wisdom is about making the right decision. Science can helps us with knowledge by providing information but it cannot always prevail in a purely rhetorical setting. It is good at creating information but not well prepared for the transformation of information into the knowledge needed to make a decision.

Perhaps what researchers need is not better communication skills but better training in how to present their scientific arguments in this sort of arena of reasoning – helping transfer the information they create into the knowledge needed to make the decisions in society.

I think this is where Mooney and Nisbet’s ideas of framing come from. Not to deny the science or to ignore the facts. But to find a way to permit scientific arguments to get a fair hearing in these sorts of argumentative settings that determine just what decisions get made.

We are working on getting researchers to be better presenters and speakers of their science. We need to actually be training them how to enter these reasoning arguments in a way that can benefit us all. Because their attempts at the moment are ham-handed and not helping move us forward.

They need to be given a rhetorical arsenal that allows them to enter these reasoning sessions that will be crticial for our survival.

BioScience on the Brink (Updated 5-3-2011)

Register for BioScience on the Brink in Seattle, WA  on Eventbrite

Check out the news section of the registration page to see why the Early Bird tickets are $3 off for a limited time.

What happens when the brightest researchers in Seattle get together to talk, eat, drink and listen to each other?

Join us May 24 for the organizational meeting of BioScience on the Brink. Science exchange overlooking Lake Union.

Seattle has a tremendous number of researchers working on a wide variety of projects covering biosciences. Meet some of them.

In both for-profit and non-profit research settings they are exploring problems in  global health, biotechnology, bioinformatics and much more. Discuss their work.

Science on the Brink will be an informal space for them to talk with peers and to hear presentations from this vast array of scientists. Exchange knowledge.

Science on the Brink will provide  a place where young researchers, working hard at the bench, can connect with other scientists who are perhaps developing novel drugs, designing clinical trials or perhaps even selling pharmaceuticals.They will be working at non-profit institutions or for-profit corporations. There might even be some interested laypeople in the mix.

The plan is to have an opportunity for networking with some good food and drink, along with a couple of short (20 minute) presentations by working researchers. This will generally not  be a place for CEOs and department heads to present. They have many opportunities to do that. These presentations will be for the younger scientists – the scientific leaders of tomorrow.

This organizational meeting is to gauge the enthusiasm for such an event and to discuss future ideas. We are asking for a nominal fee in order to cover some of the costs for food and for the venue. However, the ticket price will be discounted – and SpreadingScience will pay all service fees – until May 10.

The Eastlake Bar and Grill  is centrally located to the greatest concentration of researchers. It has a great deck overlooking Lake Union which should be fabulous in May.

This should be an invigorating meeting in a wonderful location. If you would like to have some critical input into the future of these meetings, be sure to attend.

Hurry. Space is limited.

Supporting Partners:


Founding Sponsors:

The management style of Steve Jobs

mac os xby bizmac

How Mac OS X Came To Be [Exclusive 10th Anniversary Story] | Cult of Mac
[Via Cult of Mac]

Mac OS X celebrates its tenth birthday today. The groundbreaking operating system was introduced to the public on March 24, 2001. Mac OS X helped reverse Apple’s fortunes in the desktop PC market, and has underpinned a lot of Apple’s subsequent success. Most importantly, it spawned iOS, which runs today’s iPads and iPhones.

Below is the story of how OS X’s game-changing interface came about. The story gives some insight into corporate creativity at Apple. OS X’s interface started as a side project. But as soon as Steve Jobs got wind of it, it was fast-tracked. Jobs became intimately involved in its development — a scary prospect for the programmers working on it.


There are some great insights throughout the article. One is his abrasive manner, something like a drill sergeant. It seems that he is  interested in how people respond to really withering criticism. In one, the interface designer had provided some mockups for a new Mac interface at a retreat where he was pretty much laughed at because the work would be too hard.

Two weeks later [after a presentation on some of his interface ideas] Ratzlaff got a call from Steve Jobs’s assistant. Jobs hadn’t seen the mockups at the off-site—he hadn’t attended—but now he wanted a peek. At the time, Jobs was still conducting his survey of all the product groups. Ratzlaff and his designers were sitting in a conference room waiting for Jobs, when he walked in and immediately called them “a bunch of amateurs.”

“You’re the guys who designed Mac OS, right?” he asked them. They sheepishly nodded yes. “Well, you’re a bunch of idiots.”

Think about that. The head of the company calls a meeting with your group, walks in and calls you names. How would you you respond?

Jobs reeled off all the things he did not like in the about the interface, mostly things that he did not like about Ratzlaff’s area. But Ratzlaff had a key insight: “I figure he’s not going to fire us, because that would’ve happened already,.”

They picked themselves up and began to figure out how to succeed. They stood their ground and fought for their ideas. Jobs had seen the mockups so he knew that these guys could come up with interesting ideas. But he had to know if they would be capable of actually implementing them. How hard would they fight for them, especially if he provided his support? If he gave them a lead, would they fight to get these ideas implemented – which would take a huge amount of work – or fall back into the safety of committees, as so often happens. That is what this meeting was about.

And Jobs was satisfied. For the moment. All the guys knew that they now needed to implement these ideas. They worked for three weeks, at all hours, to make mockups of what they could do. When Jobs looked at the work, he gave them the whole afternoon with him. That is simply a huge amount of time for a head of a company to give to a project that was so young. Jobs’ insight was to realize the huge importance for the company if they got the interface right. This is what people would actually see, not all the great stuff under the hood. Instead of grafting on the old interface – which is what Apple had been doing – he wanted a whole new one.

After an afternoon, he knew it could be done. During this meeting, he told Ratzlaff, “This is the first evidence of three-digit intelligence at Apple I’ve seen yet.”

From idiots to geniuses in 3 short weeks. That is how you respond to the demands of a leader like Jobs.

Not all leadership styles could be the same as Jobs’, nor should they be. But the underlying point for really creative people is this: Nothing less than the very best should be acceptable. How you motivated creative talent to do that may differ but that motivation needs to be there.

I wrote about this when I discussed Edward Tufte. He was talking about the Macintosh and Windows interfaces. He revealed why the design of the Mac was so much better than Windows. I wrote:

Tufte was discussing the different interfaces between the Mac OS and Windows. After going through a lot of the pluses he saw in the Mac and a lot of the minuses in Windows, he stated that the Mac looked like it had been created by one or a small group of people with a single purpose, a single view of how the information should be presented, while Windows looked like it had been done by a committee.

He then said that all the best presentations were this way – a single point of view forcefully pushed onto everyone. Someone in the audience then asked but what happens if your single point of view turns out to be wrong, to not work.

Tufte replied, simply, “You should be fired.” You could almost audibly hear the intake of everyone’s breath. That is exactly what they feared and why they would always want to retreat into committee decisions – they can’t be fired if the committee made the decision.

The creative, the innovative do not really fear failure, often because they are adaptable enough to ‘route around the damage’ quickly enough. They do not usually doubt the mission they are on and are certainly not uncertain about the effects. Read about the development of the Mac. They were going to change the world, no doubt about it. While you can see that there really was a focus of vision, there are also lots of ‘failures’ that had to be fixed. The key was to fail quickly, leaving time to find success.

And permitting committed individuals to find their own way to success rather than rely on committees to fix them.

Jobs’ methods may be abrasive but there is a point. The types of individuals that Jobs is looking for – those who can creatively connected to the single vision needed for success and who are adaptable enough to make that vision a reality –  do not respond to his manner by trying to hide in committees. They stand right up, against all outside pressure, and try to find a solution.

And that is why they succeed.