The Problem with the Way Scientists Study Reason

Psychologists studying reasoning extensively rely on logic and philosophy, and neglect psychology’s more natural ally: biology. Portrait of Luca Pacioli (1445–1517) with a student (Guidobaldo da Montefeltro?) / Attributed to Jacopo de’ Barbari / Wikicommons

In March, I was in Paris for the International Convention of Psychological Science, one of the most prestigious gatherings in cognitive science. I listened to talks from my field, human reasoning, but I also enjoyed those on ethology, because I find studies on non-human animals, from turtles to parrots, fascinating. Despite their typically small sample sizes, I found the scientific reasoning in the animal-studies talks sounder, and their explanations richer, than the work I heard on human reasoning.

The reason is simple: Ethologists evaluate their experimental paradigm, or set-up, in light of its ecological validity, or how well it matches natural surroundings. An animal’s true habitat, and its evolutionary history, have always centered the discussion.

You're reading a preview, sign up to read more.

More from Nautilus

Nautilus8 min read
Why It Pays to Play Around: Play is so important that nature invented it long before it invented us.
The 19th-century physicist Hermann von Helmholtz compared his progress in solving a problem to that of a mountain climber “compelled to retrace his steps because his progress stopped.” A mountain climber, von Helmholtz said, “hits upon traces of a fr
Nautilus3 min readPsychology
Presenting the Scrabble Luck Calculator: Are you as good at Scrabble as you think?
Scrabble is a volatile game. It’s not uncommon for underdogs to make tournament upsets. Why? Luck. It plays a large role in Scrabble, and efforts to remove it, by changing tile values, for instance, have mostly been in vain. Still, Scrabble skills ma
Nautilus14 min read
WeChat Is Watching: Living in China with the app that knows everything about me.
It’s 9 a.m. on a typical morning in Chengdu and I’m awakened by the sound of my phone alarm. The phone is in my study, connected to my bedroom by sliding doors. I turn off the alarm, pick up my phone, and, like millions of people in China, the first