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Welcome to the nexus of ethics, psychology, morality, technology, health care, and philosophy

Thursday, September 2, 2021

Reconciling scientific and commonsense values to improve reasoning

C. Cusimano & T. Lombrozo
Trends in Cognitive Sciences
Available online July 2021


Scientific reasoning is characterized by commitments to evidence and objectivity. New research suggests that under some conditions, people are prone to reject these commitments, and instead sanction motivated reasoning and bias. Moreover, people’s tendency to devalue scientific reasoning likely explains the emergence and persistence of many biased beliefs. However, recent work in epistemology has identified ways in which bias might be legitimately incorporated into belief formation. Researchers can leverage these insights to evaluate when commonsense affirmation of bias is justified and when it is unjustified and therefore a good target for intervention.

  • People espouse a ‘lay ethics of belief’ that defines standards for how beliefs should be evaluated and formed.
  • People vary in the extent to which they endorse scientific norms of reasoning, such as evidentialism and impartiality, in their own norms of belief. In some cases, people sanction motivated or biased thinking.
  • Variation in endorsement of scientific norms predicts belief accuracy, suggesting that interventions that target norms could lead to more accurate beliefs.
  • Normative theories in epistemology vary in whether, and how, they regard reasoning and belief formation as legitimately impacted by moral or pragmatic considerations.
  • Psychologists can leverage knowledge of people’s lay ethics of belief, and normative arguments about when and whether bias is appropriate, to develop interventions to improve reasoning that are both ethical and effective.

Concluding remarks

It is no secret that humans are biased reasoners. Recent work suggests that these departures from scientific reasoning are not simply the result of unconscious bias, but are also a consequence of endorsing norms for belief that place personal, moral, or social good above truth.  The link between devaluing the ‘scientific ethos’ and holding biased beliefs suggests that, in some cases, interventions on the perceived value of scientific reasoning could lead to better reasoning and to better outcomes. In this spirit, we have offered a strategy for value debiasing.