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So You Think You Can Think? Think Again!

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A paper in this week's Nature Climate Change reinforces a really important insight about the limits of our ability to reason and think rationally. It's another blow to the crumbling ramparts of the belief that the Enlightenment, as Kant put it, was "Mankind's final coming of age, the emancipation of the human consciousness from an immature state of ignorance and error." Sorry, Emmanuel but we have a long way to go.

In "The Polarizing Impact of Science Literacy and Numeracy on Perceived Climate Change Risks," Dan Kahan and colleagues demonstrate how greater science literacy leads those who deny climate change to deny it even more. And the more educated the deniers of were, the more polarizing the facts -- neutral, spin-free facts -- became! What's revealing here is not that the deniers didn't become believers. It's not even about climate change. It's how information that overwhelming shows one thing reinforces and strengthens denial of that evidence in those predisposed to see things that way. "Ignorance and error" are not resolved with more facts and knowledge.

Kahan's paper reinforces several current bodies of research that try to understand human cognition more holistically. First, it supports Kahan's own work on cultural cognition theory, which finds that though we employ facts as weapons in our battles over issues and ideas, the real war is about tribal identity and cohesion. We interpret the facts -- no matter how many of them we have at our disposal -- so that our views agree with the groups with which we most closely identify. And we fiercely defend the views of our group because our own identity, and even our personal safety, rely, to a great degree, on being in good standing with the tribe of which we are a member.

Kahan's paper also reinforces the case made by Dan Sperber and Hugo Mercier to explain why our ability to reason developed in the first place. Sorry again, Enlightenment fans, but it wasn't to figure things out and get them "right." Sperber and Mercier posit that reasoning was a tool by which social animals could win arguments and persuade others to see the facts in some particular way, what Sperber and Mercier call argumentative reasoning. No, this was not so we'd all be great lawyers. Sperber and Mercier argue it was adaptive, good for our survival.

As the tribe tried to figure out some new plant or animal or way of hunting and various interpretations and ideas were offered, the most effective reasoning produced the most persuasive interpretation, which produced general agreement on the "truth." Argumentative reasoning helped bounce various interpretations off each other until one became the consensus view, and persuading everybody to get on board with that view was socially cohesive and protective, regardless of whether the consensus view matched all the evidence.

This would explain what Kahan found, that if you provide a climate denier with more facts in the Enlightenment expectation that the evidence will change their minds, it's more likely that they'll apply their powers of reasoning to reinforce and defend their tribal consensus and identity. Cultural cognition and argumentative reasoning also help explain why the stronger people feel about an issue and the more their identity is connected with those views, the more the facts only reinforce how they feel, even if those facts conflict with their views. In Kahan's study, after being provided with neutral information, the denial of climate change grew most among those who denied it the most in the first place.

This is frustrating news for Enlightenment rationalists, but perhaps there is hope in what psychologists have learned about human cognition, that there are two major components of the overall system, System One and Two. While System One subconsciously applies all sorts of instinctive mental shortcuts and emotional cues to quickly come up with how we feel, System Two uses slower, conscious, purposeful reasoning to methodically figure things out. Yes, we can think, and reason, but only so much. Paraphrasing Ambrose Bierce's Devil's Dictionary, the brain is only the organ with which we think we think.

Kahan's paper reinforces the dangerous naïveté of placing too much faith in System Two. The problem is that the two systems aren't separate. They interact, and as they do, System One usually has the upper hand, or, as pioneering psychologist Daniel Kahneman recently put it, "[M]ost of the time System Two acts as a spokesperson for System One. System One makes suggestions and System Two explains them, or rationalizes them." The reasoning system often only serves to argue the case. Something much deeper is figuring out how we feel about the case to begin with.

This is not good news in our post-industrial/technological/information age, as we face complex issues like climate change or nuclear power or genetically modified food, issues fraught with important details and long-term tradeoffs that demand more careful evidence-based analysis and conscious reasoning. We seem condemned to the perils of what Andy Revkin has called an "inconvenient mind," which evolved to handle less complicated threats and challenges. But maybe in all this seemingly depressing evidence lies the answer, an answer that would please the pioneers of the Enlightenment ideals themselves.

The Enlightenment project believed that we could apply the new institution of science to answer difficult questions and make more intelligent choices, as individuals and as society. This new work on cognition is just a part of the science that can help us move toward those choices. We can use our System Two powers of reason to apply that knowledge to the challenge of thinking about things more carefully. We just have let go of the hubris of thinking that the sort of rational thinking the Enlightenment pioneers had in mind is the kind of thinking we actually do.