“A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”
Scientific truth, according to this view, is established less by the noble use of reason than by the stubborn exertion of will. One hopes that the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Max Planck, the author of the quotation above, was writing in an unusually dark moment.
Scientists are not immune. In another experiment, psychologists were asked to review a paper submitted for journal publication in their field. They rated the paper’s methodology, data presentation and scientific contribution significantly more favorably when the paper happened to offer results consistent with their own theoretical stance. Identical research methods prompted a very different response in those whose scientific opinion was challenged.
Instead, Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber suggest that we stop thinking of the primary function of reasoning as being to improve knowledge and make better decisions. Reasoning, they claim, is for winning arguments.
Simplifying motivation to winning argument is part of the reasons. Real ones are more complicated and always a mix: winning, confirming, learning…