Arguments for the right battle arguments for the reasonable

by Daniel Blomquist / Assistant Opinion Editor • April 30, 2015

From a young age, we’re taught to learn from our mistakes, and that we should see errors as educational opportunities that we can use to better ourselves for the future. Despite this, everyone hates being wrong. It’s such a terrible feeling that we often go to great lengths to avoid it. Instead of admitting fault, it can be easier to accept shoddy reasoning and emotionally biased arguments. Some will even go so far as to deny facts. This happens all the time—think of climate change deniers or Obama birthers, those who don’t believe he was born in the US. It seems to be a flaw in human instinct that we are so inherently drawn to being right, that we often choose to cling painfully tight to our false beliefs rather than accept being wrong.

These instinctual feelings of pride are widespread enough to warrant scientific investigation: there’s a history of research to support this, studies that identify this inherent tendency. In June 2011, the New York Times ran an article about the argumentative theory of reasoning, which states that humans did not learn to reason to discover the truth about the world around them. Rather, this capacity developed as a way to win arguments. 

This phenomenon can also be observed at a societal level. On Monday, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman wrote an article titled, “Nobody Said That,” in which he analyzes the backpedaling of Republicans who made erroneous claims about the negative impacts of the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare. In May 2013, the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, chaired by Michigan Republican Fred Upton, published a paper that detailed how the insurance industry would go into “rate shock” as a result of Obamacare, and that as a result, average premium prices would double and fewer would be enrolled. They didn’t. In reality, when enrollment opened last year, the average premium rate was 16 percent lower than the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services predicted. That “rate shock”? Nowhere to be found.

In theory, the lower premium rate should make people happy. Lower insurance rates mean more people can pay for their insurance. And that’s what happened: Last March, when enrollment opened, six million people enrolled in the program. But rather than admit that their expectation was wrong, the right-wing media instead accused the government of lying. Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, and the other usual suspects from the Republican media fear factory asked how millions of applicants could appear “out of thin air” and asserted that proponents were “cooking the books.”

Research about our propensity for not acknowledging our own “wrongness” was conducted by French cognitive social scientists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber. Mercier told the Times that “reasoning doesn’t have this function of helping us to get better beliefs and make better decisions…it was a purely social phenomenon. It evolved to help us convince others and to be careful when others try to convince us.” Logical fallacies and biases evolved, according to their research, because being “right” in society makes people powerful. Natural selection bred us to be fervently in favor of our own opinions and deeply suspicious of those that contradict ours. 

This could lead us to some bleak conclusions about human beings. Arguably our most distinctive attribute as a species—reason—is merely an evolutionary mechanism for survival that’s geared towards maintaining appearances rather than finding truth. Does this mean that our capacity for logic is necessarily limited by our inclination toward self-preservation? Not necessarily. Mercier’s research also concluded that if ideas are discussed in a group setting, they tend to be held to more equal and intelligent standards. “At least in some cultural contexts, this results in a kind of arms race towards greater sophistication in the production and evaluation of arguments,” Mercier and Sperber wrote. “When people are motivated to reason, they do a better job at accepting only sound arguments.”

This is information that should be taught to college students everywhere. At a time in our lives when we should be establishing the foundations of our worldviews, it’s important that we aren’t blinded by the instinctual prejudices we feel because of our upbringing. Consider being more open about discussing your personal ideology and having it criticized. It will make you a smarter, more socially conscious person. And right now, that’s just what the world needs.