You Are Not So Smart 009: The Psychology of Arguing


You are Not So Smart is a new addition to Boing Boing's line-up of terrific podcasts! It's hosted by David McRaney, a journalist and self-described psychology nerd. In each episode, David explores cognitive biases and delusions, and is often joined by a guest expert. David concludes each episode by eating a delicious cookie. Enjoy! -- Mark

Why do human beings get into arguments? What does science have to say about argumentation? Is there an evolutionary explanation? Is arguing adaptive? Is all our bickering in comments, forums, social media and elsewhere a good or a bad thing? Those are some of the questions posed in this episode of the You Are Not So Smart Podcast. We ask those questions of:

Jeremy Sherman is an evolutionary epistemologist. He says that means he researches how humans evolved to draw conclusions from inconclusive data. At 24, he was an elder in the world’s largest hippie commune, but now he lectures at the Expression College for Digital Arts in Emeryville California and is a chief researcher at Berkely’s Consortium for Emergent Dynamics where he and others research how minds emerge from matter. He is now working on a book, "Doubt: A Natural History; A User's Guide" and he blogs at Psychology Today.

Hugo Mercier is a researcher for the French National Center for Scientific Research who shook up both psychology and philosophy with a paper published in 2011 titled, “Why do humans reason? Arguments for an argumentative theory” (PDF) that proposed humans evolved reason to both produce and evaluate arguments. Respected and well-known names in psychology like Steven Pinker and Jonathan Haidt have both praised the paper as being one of the most important works in years on the science of rationality. You can find his website here.

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Notable Replies

  1. ee0r says:

    The problem with learning how to argue well is that unless your opponents are just plain stupid (in which case why are you even bothering?), they eventually realize that you are manipulating the very structure of the argument underneath them. This tends to make them feel "toyed with", and resentful.

  2. toyg says:

    Logical abilities are not binary.

  3. No, sometimes your opponent realised you just successfully argued black is white, but because they know black isn't white they realise you're just being a dick.

  4. In general I have a hard time listening to podcasts and usually wish there was a transcript. I would up giving up and looking for articles Mercier wrote since it was interesting content, but hard to get through the medium.

  5. I do that a lot. One of the reasons is, indubitably, that I am a bit of a dick, but it's also useful as it allows you to recognise those tricks and be aware of how they're being used. But mainly I'm just being a dick.

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