How to teach reason properly

To defend the values of reason from political attack we need to be more discriminating about the claims made in its name, says John Hendry

June 15, 2017
Reflection of man in cracked mirror
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A well-remarked feature of both the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump was an explicit rejection of the values of reason and reasonableness. Of course, politicians have always played on people’s emotions, whether driven by their own passionate convictions or in more cynical attempts at manipulation. There’s nothing new there, and the more recent election campaigns in France and the UK have also been dominated by appeals to the emotions. But in the cases of Brexit and Trump, the victors were not only inflammatory and unreasonable in their arguments – disregarding the evidence, parading opinions as facts, peddling lies as truths – but positively anti-reason. They rejected the views of experts because they were experts, of the experienced because they were experienced, of those who put forward reasoned arguments because their arguments were reasoned. And it worked.

The causes have been much debated and are no doubt complex, but some aspects are clear enough. People evidently feel let down by the political, financial and public service elites that got us into an economic mess and seem unable to get us out of it. They feel threatened both by economic insecurity and by mounting immigration and social change, which the elites have seemingly failed to control. They feel suspicious that their political and public sector representatives are not in fact representing their interests at all but feathering their own nests. And they have noted that what characterises these elites, whether in business or the public sector, whether liberals or conservatives, is a recourse to reason in justifying their actions and inactions.

At the end of the day, the lessons for politicians seem fairly clear. Outcomes are more important than arguments and you can’t ignore the wishes of a large sector of the population, however irrational those wishes may be. But what are the lessons for educators: for those of us who teach people how to reason: who legitimate the claims of experts and who, let’s not forget, discriminate routinely against those who are less able intellectually, less attentive and lacking the willpower to overcome these disabilities through hard work. Like the societies in which they operate, our schools and universities are based on an ethic of equality of opportunity and make allowance – or at least try to – for the inequalities of gender, class, race, physical disability and so on. But this fairness towards the disabled or socially disadvantaged (the very poor, immigrant communities and so on) carries with it a prejudice against the arguably no less real disabilities of lassitude, inattention and low intelligence.

It seems to me that there are at least two responsibilities that we are not exercising here, and should be. The first is to teach people, to the level of their ability, how reason works. Not so much how to reason, which most of us try to do already, but how reason works in practice, in different subjects and different contexts, and how to spot when it’s not working. The second is to accept among ourselves that not all subjects and discourses that claim the authority of reason do so on equally strong grounds, and some do so on very weak grounds indeed, to the point of corrupting the reasoning process rather than applying it. That is not to say that such subjects should be condemned as worthless or excluded from the academy. Their aims may be well worth pursuing, and we know from experience that it can take centuries for reason to get a hold on even the most tractable subjects. But we need to be open and honest about what they can achieve and what, at present, they can’t. And we need to distinguish, both for our own benefit and for the benefit of society at large, between the consequences of reason and the consequences of its misuse or abuse.

As long as we restrict it to purely academic matters, this prejudice is probably innate to our purpose. We do have a duty, however, to encourage those who are favoured by our meritocracy not to further disadvantage, in other ways, those who are not. We also have a duty, when teaching people how to reason, to teach them to do it responsibly.

Protester holds up sign

There is a general presumption within the university sector that the subjects we teach and research are of equal merit in two respects: that they are equally worthy of the resources we commit to them, and that their claims to knowledge are equally valid. The humanities are sometimes challenged on the first criterion, from outside the sector, as being useless or ornamental, and are recognised as different on the second. Concerned with exploring the human condition, they trade in subjective meanings and interpretations as much as in objective facts. The sciences and the quantitative social sciences, however, are treated as equals, varying in their methods but alike in the legitimacy of those methods and in the legitimacy of the knowledge claims that result.

People don’t always believe this, of course. In private, among themselves, they may condemn this discipline or that as lacking in rigour or relevance. But they don’t generally say that in public, and for good reasons. One is a need for solidarity. Whatever the political context, our universities and colleges are rarely so comfortably placed that they can afford to display their weaknesses. Many scientists are conscious, too, of the charge that all knowledge is socially and politically constructed. More prosaically, critique of a discipline is easily read as critique of its practitioners, and in collegiate settings people have to rub along together.

However, respect for our colleagues – for the worthiness of their investigations and the integrity of their efforts – is not a good excuse for uncritically accepting their knowledge claims. Some subjects are inherently much less tractable than others. Molecules behave in predictable ways: microbes less so. Move from the simplest to the most complex organisms and our knowledge soon becomes riddled with holes. We have only the haziest idea of how the human body works, let alone the human brain. In the social sciences, we are faced not only with even greater complexity, but with all the uncertainties created by motivations and moods, meanings and mistakes.

As we intellectually zoom out from the atomic level, our subject matter becomes progressively less controllable and our findings more contingent. Physicists deal in general mathematical laws with great predictive power. Biologists have to content themselves with partial causes and much more limited, statistical predictions. Medics can sometimes identify bodily responses to pathogens and pharmaceuticals, but they can rarely model the underlying processes, or understand why one person reacts differently from another. Doctors still rely as much on experience, common sense and professional judgement as on medical science. Social scientists can establish statistical relationships between different observational variables, but they can only very rarely hope to relate their simplistic models to the complexities of real world behaviours. They can explore what outcomes would arise if the world were like it isn’t, but – like doctors but on an even less sure footing – they have to rely on practical experience and professional judgement to generate practically relevant conclusions – and, unlike for doctors, that is rarely their forte.

Pro-Brexit demonstrators

Faced with these varying contingencies, scientists and social scientists adapt their methods to the context, but those methods themselves inevitably become less rigorous. Psychiatry, which is dominated by pharmaceuticals companies more interested in promoting their products than in scientific rigour, employs statistical methods that would embarrass an undergraduate. Economists are statistically much more scrupulous, and develop rigorous mathematical models, but to achieve that rigour they have to work with assumptions that bear little relation to the real world. The best economists are well aware of this, but too often interpretive insights are confused with objective knowledge claims. Absent the maths and economists’ methods are closer to those of Marxist sociology or Freudian analysis than to those of the natural sciences. Applied social sciences, like business and management studies, employ strict methodological rules, but they are rules designed to cater for a democratic mass market of hundreds of thousands of would-be researchers in need of more and more publications rather than to achieve anything in the way of epistemic rigour.

All this matters for two reasons. First, while the less tractable disciplines need to make methodological compromises, their practitioners need to be much more aware of those compromises than they generally are. Otherwise there is a real risk that what starts out as a short-term necessity becomes a long-term habit, uncritically accepted. In teaching social scientists, for example, we need to teach not only the methods used in their disciplines (as we do now) but also how those methods can be criticised from outside and how they stand up, or not, to that critique. Second, as users of the findings generated by academics in different disciplines – whether as medical patients or as the beneficiaries or victims of a range of social and economic policies – we need to know how much trust we can reasonably place in them in different contexts.

That is partly a collective challenge. It makes no sense for us all as individuals to second guess the experts in fields in which we have no competence ourselves. But it makes no sense either to just take what they say for granted. There is surely, to return to where I began, a strong case for a society with a much higher level of understanding of how reason works. Every undergraduate, whatever their subject, should learn something of epistemology and scientific method, together perhaps with ethical reasoning and the practical reasoning that underpins our political system. That way, they would be much better placed to ensure that the system works as intended and is not captured, either by those seeking to exploit it for their own advantage or by those innocently foisting upon us their own defective reason. 

John Hendry is a life fellow of Girton College Cambridge and is professor emeritus of management at the University of Reading. His most recent book is Reason: Its Power and Limitations, Uses and Abuses in Science, the Humanities, Ethics and Religion.

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Reader's comments (3)

This article by the professor begins "A well-remarked feature of both the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump was an explicit rejection of the values of reason and reasonableness." Implying that "reason" trumps democracy. The only thing not mentioned is the "great unwashed masses". It assumes the electorate is stupid or worse and the solution is "teaching" - higher education teaching no doubt. The alternate solutions to the "problem" that the professor identifies - of not allowing "unreasonable" people to vote, or only having "reasonable" choices - is not mentioned. Why? Effectively the professor is against democracy - giving the people the vote - because according to him they get it wrong, using Brexit and Donald Trump as examples.
Ps - adding the smiling woman to reflect the reasonable pro-EU voter, and the angry pointy finger man to represent the unreasonable Euro-sceptic / Brexit voter - was a "nice" touch. Demonstrating how the "reasonable" use appeals to emotion in their arguments too.
"A well-remarked feature [sic.] of both the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump was an explicit rejection of the values of reason and reasonableness." Yes, this has been well-remarked upon. But is it true? A lover of reason would be careful to check if there was any proof of this oft-repeated claim, rather than just repeating it.

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