The War on Reason

Paul Bloom
Paul Bloom

Psychologist Paul Bloom has a fantastic article in The Atlantic exploring the fields of neuroscience and social psychology and how the general public tends to draw the wrong conclusions from them. Bloom explains,

Everybody loves nonintuitive findings, so researchers are motivated to explore the strange and nonrational ways in which the mind works. It’s striking to discover that when assigning punishment to criminals, people are influenced by factors they consciously believe to be irrelevant, such as how the attractive criminals are, and the color of their skin. This finding will get published in the top journals, and might make its way into the Science section of The New York Times. But nobody will care if you discover that people’s feelings about punishments are influenced by the severity of the crimes or the criminals’ past record. This is just common sense.

Whether this bias in what people find interesting is reasonable is a topic for another day. What’s important to remember is that some scholars and journalists fall into the trap of thinking that what they see in journals provides a representative picture of how we think and act.

Or, put another way,

Statistically significant…doesn’t mean actually significant. Just because something has an effect in a controlled situation doesn’t mean that it’s important in real life. Your impression of a résumé might be subtly affected by its being presented to you on a heavy clipboard, and this tells us something about how we draw inferences from physical experience when making social evaluations. Very interesting stuff. But this doesn’t imply that your real-world judgments of job candidates have much to do with what you’re holding when you make those judgments. What will probably matter much more are such boringly relevant considerations as the candidate’s experience and qualifications.

Bloom concludes, “Yes, we are physical beings, and yes, we are continually swayed by factors beyond our control. But as Aristotle recognized long ago, what’s so interesting about us is our capacity for reason, which reigns over all. If you miss this, you miss almost everything that matters.”

Worth the read.