Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Learning how to reason

with 2 comments

This is a revised and extended version of an earlier post. I keep mulling over the topic, and realized I had cut short the full story.

Practical knowledge consists of skills acquired only with practice. Certainly one must pay attention to the results of each effort, and judicious experimentation helps advance one’s knowledge/skill (for in practical knowledge, the two are much the same), but an essential component is practice/experience. Repeated efforts, as in learning to shoot a basket, pitch a ball, play a tune, or write a paragraph, is the sine qua non.

I went to a liberal arts college as an undergraduate. The goal of the “liberal arts” is to “free” (liberate) a person from the bonds and traps of current circumstances and provide a broader and more informed vision of human possibilities and the essentials of a good life—in a word, to free a person to participate in a free society. (The liberal arts are thus a primary target in an authoritarian or totalitarian society: the last thing such societies want is a citizenry that thinks for itself and asks probing questions and can readily spot fallacious reasoning. Cf. the dismantling of liberal arts programs in this country and the push to train people only on narrow commercial and technical skills: much more suited to the kind of government we are building with the corporate takeover and the dismantling of civil and human rights.)

This freedom is achieved not so much by theoretical as practical knowledge: learning through practice how to reason, how to choose, how to act, how to question, how to listen, how to read, how to write, and how to act: those are the liberal arts to be mastered. The liberated mind can then hew its own path.

Having a liberal arts curriculum meant, among other things, four years of study of mathematics and four years of laboratory science: essential liberal arts, and exercises in asking and answering particular sorts of questions.

As I reflected on this, I realized that, as Steve of Kareneio has pointed out to me, we all are prone to “motivated reasoning“: reasoning distorted by a determination (conscious or unconscious) to arrive at a certain result. It’s a natural weakness that one can see most plainly in children and certain politicians. Their focus is on achieving the goal (the result/outcome they desire) and little attention is paid to the process by which the goal is achieved—and processes that do not arrive at the goal they want are dismissed out of hand, rather than dealt with thoughtfully.

It’s a natural tendency, like being in the company of others and (say) chewing with your mouth open or scratching vigorously at an itch—or, for that matter, throwing a rock at something and missing. And just as we learn to modify those behaviors, we can also learn to detach ourselves from motivated reasoning and learn how to reason rightly. It’s a matter of practical knowledge.

I was reflecting on the freshman mathematics program at my college in which we read Euclid’s Elements: going through the definitions, axioms, postulates, and theorems, retracing the building of that magnificent logical edifice. The classes were small—ten to twelve students and one tutor. The tutor acted as a coach, not as a lecturer: the students were responsible for discussing the meanings of the definitions, axioms, and postulates, and the students individually demonstrated the theorems to the class, being corrected as needed by their classmates. The tutor’s main role was to ask questions, not answer them.

This morning I realized that we were learning correct reasoning, in contrast to motivated reasoning. Because the results were not something to which we had a pre-existing emotional attachment, we could reason without distortion, and quickly spot errors in reasoning in ourselves or (more often) in others, errors from which we could learn: developing habits of correct reasoning and a sensitivity to common errors.

That is, no one really has an emotional attachment to whether the squares on the sides of a right triangle are equal to the square on the hypotenuse, or not. We have no emotional investment in a particular outcome, so we can more easily focus on the reasoning process itself. In contrast, on the issue of the ownership of high-capacity magazines or a woman’s right to an abortion, attachment to a particular outcome is often strong and it’s harder to pay attention to the reasoning process. If the result of an analysis is not what one wants, the reasoning may be dismissed without examination; if the analysis produces the “right” result (in the eyes of the person witnessing the argument), the reasoning is accepted as sound without investigating it. Almost all the focus is on the outcome to be achieved, so little attention is paid to the arguments that achieve it. To reason well on that sort of topic requires experience with (i.e., practical knowledge of) the skills of sound reasoning and a developed sensitivity to errors in reasoning: i.e., it requires being educated in the liberal arts.

In the laboratory science courses, the same path was taken in a different context. Once again small classes read seminal works by scientists, ancient and modern, and retraced the development of the experimental method in different contexts (biology, mechanics, optics, and the like). We learned a different sort of “proof”, and a different way of posing questions and finding answers: by constructed experience and a reasoned analysis of observed outcomes. It is not mathematics, and the reasoning methods take new paths, but again much practice developed practical knowledge of how to pose questions in the world of experience (rather than the world of mathematical ideas) and how to structure experiments to provide answers to the questions. And again, the activity was “pure” in the sense that there was not (for us) any emotional attachment to particular outcomes, so we could more easily learn the right methods and know how to reach sound answers. (This was certainly not true in the original situations of course: cf. Galileo and the Catholic church, a notable example of motivated reasoning riding roughshod over correct analysis.)

After four years of such activity, most of us developed a sense of correct argument and, I believe, were less likely to fall into the trap of motivated reasoning than those who had not practiced so much. At the very least, we were better able to listen to criticisms of our reasoning and see errors when they were pointed out. And, I think, we developed a kind of loyalty to correct reasoning: we admired it, and we tried to achieve it.

UPDATE: Two relevant articles from

Texas GOP Declares: “No More Teaching of ‘Critical Thinking Skills’ in Texas Public Schools”

Why Teaching People to Think for Themselves Is Repugnant to Religious Zealots and Rick Santorum

The systematic defunding of liberal arts programs is deliberate and a high priority for the Right Wing and corporations, for obvious reasons.

UPDATE 2: A classmate emailed me to point out that right reasoning often proceeds from premises to which we have a strong emotional attachment. Reasoning does not mean to put emotion and feelings aside: it means not to let those influence the path of reasoning. But premises are beyond reason, in a sense: they are the elemental values from which the reasoning proceeds. One certainly wants to check that the premises are consistent—indeed, there was much discussion of Euclid’s postulates and common notions on exactly that point—and, ideally, that they are independent—that is, one is not derived from another, for then it becomes a theorem (or conclusion) rather than a premise.

But given the premises, the reason should proceed without bending or breaking rules or hiding parts of the argument.

An example of motivated reasoning is the strong opposition the beef industry has to testing cattle for mad-cow disease—in particular, testing every animal slaughtered. The reason for the opposition is that the beef industry very much does not want instances of mad-cow disease found, but of course they cannot say this. So their reasoning becomes odd. For example, they protest that it would cost too much, when in fact it would increase the cost of a pound of beef by 10¢. (Indeed, Japan follows the procedure of testing all animals.) They try to say that it would (somehow) endanger public health. They will say anything to prevent such testing. They had to persuaded simply to test cows that keel over in line (“downers”).

Creekstone Farms, which exports to Japan, wanted to test all animals and built a testing operation inside its plant. It would pay all costs. The USDA, the agency responsible for the beef industry and firmly under beef industry control, did not allow it.

Creekstone Farms is known for its attempt to test all of its beef for bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, or “mad cow disease”). At a cost of about half a million dollars, Creekstone built a testing lab, the first inside a U. S. meat packing plant, and hired the necessary personnel. In 2004, however, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which controls the sale of testing kits, refused to sell Creekstone enough to test all of its cows.

The USDA’s stated position was that allowing any meatpacking company to test every cow would undermine the agency’s official position that random testing was scientifically adequate to assure safety. The USDA also claims that testing does not ensure food safety because the disease is difficult to detect in younger animals. An alternative position is that the USDA’s objection is the result of pressure from larger meatpacking operations. The president of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association told the Washington Post that “If testing is allowed at Creekstone, we think it would become the international standard and the domestic standard, too.” Creekstone Farms says tests cost about $20 per animal, increasing the cost of beef by about 10 cents per pound. The USDA currently tests about 1 percent of cattle slaughtered in the U.S.

Google “Creekstone Farms” for more information.

Written by LeisureGuy

26 January 2013 at 9:20 am

Posted in Daily life, Education

2 Responses

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  1. I sigh daily with exasperation (not a good thing for someone in the “mind” business) at just how powerful motivated reasoning is and how intimately it is connected to the structure of the personality. Unfortunately, personality is pretty much hard-wired by around 14 years old and is extremely resistant to change through education and experience. Think of the personality as a scaffolding on which we climb the psyche. If the basic dimensions of high self-awareness, low narcissism, low defensiveness, and high tolerance for ambiguity aren’t there, no amount of training is going to overcome motivated reasoning in closely held, emotionally based issues.


    28 January 2013 at 7:33 am

  2. You may be right. I’ve been thinking about motivated reasoning, prompted in part by my classmate’s reminder of Pascal’s observation that the adaptive unconscious has its reasons that the reason does not know (only Pascal used “heart” in place of “adaptive unconscious,” French at the time not having a word for the adaptive unconscious). It is obviously not the case that we are governed totally by reason: habit, impulse, and thoughtless responses are frequent and obvious. The question is whether we can ascend to reason when the situation requires it. The answer clearly is “sometimes.” But the ability to do that is similar to “can we bowl a strike when the situation requires it” and it has the same answer. In both cases, the likelihood depends heavily on what we have previously learned and how much we’ve practiced it.

    But even with good practical knowledge, it seems to depend on the starting point. If someone points to an earlier disreputable action we’ve take, position we’ve adopted, or statement we’ve made, the immediate impulse is to reason to support the action, position, or statement: to find a way that it was right/correct/proper: motivated reasoning for sure. But if we have trained our facility of reason, I think it’s possible to draw back, think, “wait a minute,” and look at the thing in a reasonable manner and see where we went wrong.

    Much motivated reasoning seems to stem from treating a (desired) conclusion as a kind of premise, and working backwards to find the argument(s) that will lead to that, rather than looking at our true premises, and reasoning forward to find the right answer for the current situation.

    Anyway: we do know that we can aspire to reason rightly, and that it is possible, but that it requires practice and an (emotional?) commitment to do it. Much like losing weight.


    28 January 2013 at 9:37 am

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