Nautilus

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.

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