On Valuing “Logical” Thinking at the Expense of Narrative Thinking

The skeptic community prides itself on logical, rational thinking. It’s a community that seems to have more than the average share of science, logic, and math-minded folks. In many ways, this is a strength. Testing assertions about the universe often requires a healthy dose of science and math-related skills. Evaluating the validity of assertions others have made and tests others have done tends to require those skills as well.

That having been said, I wonder if all the enthusiasm for math, science, and logical thinking that comes with having a community full of STEM-type people hasn’t bred certain weaknesses and blind spots into the skeptic movement. The “hard” sciences are incredibly valuable, and a strong emphasis on collecting and analyzing data about the universe is valuable as well, but at times it seems that a focus on hard science and data comes at the expense of respect for the value and power of soft sciences and narrative.

Certainly, in my experience, there is no shortage of people in the hard sciences who harbor active disdain toward those in the liberal arts.

I don’t begrudge anyone their enthusiasm for hard science and data. It’s an enthusiasm I share. I do, however, begrudge anyone who feels that there is little or no value to the knowledge and skills that come with studying soft sciences and narrative.

Magicians sometimes talk about how scientists are often easier to fool with magic tricks:

I’ve observed that scientists tend to think and perceive logically by using their training and observational skills — of course — and are thus often psychologically insulated from the possibility that there might be chicanery at work. This is where magicians can come in. No matter how well educated, or how basically intelligent, trained, or observant a scientist may be, s/he may be a poor judge of a methodology employed in deliberate deception.

I particularly like the way our associate, magician and skeptic Jamy Ian Swiss, has expressed this point:

Any magician worth his salt will tell you that the smarter an audience, the more easily fooled they are. That’s a very counterintuitive idea. But it’s why scientists, for example, get in trouble with psychics and such types. Scientists aren’t trained to study something that’s deceptive. Did you ever hear of a sneaky amoeba? I don’t think so. You know, they don’t get together on the slide and go, “Hey, let’s fool the big guy.”

The particular types of skills that tend to be most valued in the scientific community are not necessarily the most useful in all contexts, or for all problems. In the same way that scientific training may actually be disadvantageous to someone trying to decipher magic tricks, the valuation of any particular type of thinking over another can cripple the ability to tackle certain types of problems.

I wonder if the seeming inability of large portions of the skeptic community to process social justice issues like misogyny is related to the fact that many of the ways misogyny manifests are implicit, and have to do with cultural narratives and undertones. While it is entirely possible to gather scientific data on the impact of narrative, metaphor, implicit communication, etc., and many researchers have done just that, becoming conversant in these things is not one of the skill sets commonly included in STEM educational tracks.

I wonder if part of the reason the skeptic community seems to be having such trouble processing these issues is that our enthusiasm and focus on hard sciences and data has come at the expense of a healthy respect for the other side of the coin. Narratives are powerful. Narratives, metaphor, implicit messages, etc., are powerful, and they color every aspect of our lives, up to and including our assessments of research data and logical arguments. We, as a community, fail to acknowledge this at our peril.

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One comment on “On Valuing “Logical” Thinking at the Expense of Narrative Thinking

  1. You would doubtless like William James and his phrase “snarling logicality” To describe part of the spectrum of behaviors you discuss. To me, science should not be just about thinking logically — as someone trained to be an analyst — I do a lot of that myself and I am a sceptic. Science should be about repeat performance and predictable results! But I also pursue ideas like magic and divinity like a mad scientist of a metaphysical sort….so yes, narratives ARE important, as are hard to describe barely perceptible “variables” in the process.

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