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How the ignorant idiots win, explained. Maybe.

According to a New York Times article, cognitive scientists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber have a new theory about rational argument: humans didn’t develop it in order to learn about the world, we developed it in order to win arguments with other people. “It was a purely social phenomenon. It evolved to help us convince others and to be careful when others try to convince us.”

Based on the NYT article, it seems that Mercier and Sperber are basically flipping around the traditional argument, which is that humans learned to reason about the world, albeit imperfectly, and learned to use language to convey that reasoning to others. These guys would suggest that it’s the other way around: we learned to argue with others, and this has gradually led to the ability to actually make (and recognize) sound arguments, but only indirectly. The article says “”At least in some cultural contexts, this results in a kind of arms race towards greater sophistication in the production and evaluation of arguments,” they write. “When people are motivated to reason, they do a better job at accepting only sound arguments, which is quite generally to their advantage.”

Of course I have no idea if any of this is true, or even how to test it. But it’s definitely true that people are often convinced by wrong or even crazy arguments, and they (we) are subject to confirmation bias and availability bias and all sorts of other systematic biases. One thing that bothers me especially is that a lot of people are simply indifferent to facts and rationality when making decisions. Mercier and Sperber have at least made a decent attempt to explain why people are like this.


  1. fraac says:

    We're wild animals with lies on top, nothing more or less.

  2. Jerzy says:

    Reminds me of that quote (from a Bush aide?) about the "reality-based community" — who take reason and research seriously — vs "history's actors" who apparently see reason (or, rather, a facade of research and reason) as just one more tool in their argument-winning arsenal. I've known consultants who use this same approach.

    Perhaps the fact that reason actually *works* in math and science is a pure fluke and we're lucky to have stumbled upon it :P

  3. K? O'Rourke says:

    Un-intelligent design would seem apt.

    Also the journal in the link seemed familiar and I found this

    Think Don once mentioned he helped set up this journal …
    (I obviously needed a distraction.)


  4. Åse says:

    I'm working my way through the actual Behavioral and Brain sciences paper right now, and they are marshalling up a lot of evidence from both the persuasion and reasoning litterature which is quite interesting, and the sense I get (so far, I'm just on my first rather lazy read through) that you can reason well, if you do it the way it was designed – in arguments. But, I may change my mind as I get further through it ;)

    Interesting idea, though.

  5. John says:

    Does being rational help you win arguments? I'm not sure… it depends upon the judge, doesn't it? Also, so what if you do, if the argument isn't about an action that will / will not confer an evolutionary advantage? Unless winning the argument itself confers the advantage? In which case, "thrice armed is he whose cause is just – and four times he who gets his fist in first" as the saying goes.

  6. Bob Carpenter says:

    This sounds like trying to resolve the chicken-and-egg problem introduced by the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

    My own speculation is that the two facilities, language and reasoning, co-evolved, each reinforcing the other. Linguistics as a field has a vested interest in language being "special" among all the cognitive facilities.

    Ironically, logical positivism, the 20th century quest for an empirical grounding for the notion of "truth", was also hoisted by its own petard — turns out whether truth is empirical or not is not itself an empirical question (at least in the positivist's own terms of what "empirical" meant).

  7. K? O'Rourke says:

    Bob: Well put, but Hacking this a bit ;-)

    For Hacking's realism in Representing and Intervening see

    for reference to his book
    Representing and Intervening, Introductory Topics in the Philosophy of Natural Science, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, 1983.

    which I found one of the few "nice" introductions to Philosophy of Science at a serious level.

    p.s. one of my first undergrad papers was on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis – a bit of a distraction perhaps but what first got me to critical re-interpret published studies.

  8. Bob Carpenter says:

    Was there something in Hacking's book relevant to this particular theory, or just to philosophy of science in general?

  9. K? O'Rourke says:

    Bob: Both I believe.
    "we learned to argue with others [intervene], and this has gradually led to the ability to actually make (and recognize) sound arguments [represent]"

    Recall there is chapter specifically on this, the whole book though is on philosophy of science in general

    I am biased, I sat in on one of Hacking's courses and he inspired my Two Cheers for Bayes letter that at least one Bayesian found useful.

    But I am not underwriting the risk of reading him and getting a different take ;-)


  10. Bob Carpenter says:

    Trying to resolve chicken-and-egg problems is a philosophical game I'm just as happy to leave to the philosophers.

    Hacking may be talking about "sound argument" in the logical sense of using a chain of symbols, like a syllogism A implies B, B implies C, so A implies C. That's less surprising than using the standard English meaning of "argument" in this context.

    It's all just playing with semantics in the end — if there were experimentation, it'd be science, not philosophy.

  11. nnyhav says:

    I think Mercier & Camier got there first.