Scientists' Argumentative Reasoning

Mercier, Hugo ; Heintz, Christophe

In: Topoi, 2014, vol. 33, no. 2, p. 513-524

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    Reasoning, defined as the production and evaluation of reasons, is a central process in science. The dominant view of reasoning, both in the psychology of reasoning and in the psychology of science, is of a mechanism with an asocial function: bettering the beliefs of the lone reasoner. Many observations, however, are difficult to reconcile with this view of reasoning; in particular, reasoning systematically searches for reasons that support the reasoner's initial beliefs, and it only evaluates these reasons cursorily. By contrast, reasoners are well able to evaluate others' reasons: accepting strong arguments and rejecting weak ones. The argumentative theory of reasoning accounts for these traits of reasoning by postulating that the evolved function of reasoning is to argue: to find arguments to convince others and to change one's mind when confronted with good arguments. Scientific reasoning, however, is often described as being at odds with such an argumentative mechanisms: scientists are supposed to reason objectively on their own, and to be pigheaded when their theories are challenged, even by good arguments. In this article, we review evidence showing that scientists, when reasoning, are subject to the same biases as are lay people while being able to change their mind when confronted with good arguments. We conclude that the argumentative theory of reasoning explains well key features of scientists' reasoning and that differences in the way scientists and laypeople reason result from the institutional framework of science.