Author: James Deane, December 13 2017 - Sometimes you read a book which - just short of literally - blows your mind.  The Enigma of Reason: a new theory of understanding by Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber did that to mine.  If their conclusions are right, the implications for human development – and the role of communication and media within it - are profound.

I’ve long puzzled why development d hasn’t focused more on the human mind.  We have development research institutes and think tanks on all forms of public policy - governance, science, economics and so on - but little on working out why humans think and act in the way that they do and how those things have affected how they have developed over millennia.  

There has been a shift in this direction in recent years, most admirably exemplified by the 2015 World Development Report on Mind, Society and Behaviour.  And Richard Thaler has just won the Nobel Prize for Economics for his work on nudge theory. But behavioural economics focuses on how our understanding of the way humans think and behave can be used to improve economic or development outcomes by practically applying specific policy measures.  And, of course, the development communication field have been learning for years the best way to engage people to shift norms or change behaviours.

Mercier and Sperber, however, ask a deeper question and in doing so come to a set of conclusions that seem even more relevant to development actors.  They ask why did reason – what the authors call our “flawed superpower” - evolve in humans in the first place.  

They argue that reason evolved to a) justify what we already think or believe and b) to construct arguments to convince others that we are right.   They reject what they call the “intellectualist” view that reason evolved to help individuals “draw better inferences, acquire greater knowledge, and make better decisions”.  Here they take issue of the highly influential work of the Nobel Prize winning Daniel Kahneman and others who have so heavily influenced the field of behavioural economics.  Rather than dividing thinking into the conscious and unconscious they argue that all reasoning is inferential.

In doing so, they favour what they call an “interactionist” approach to reason.  “Reason evolved as a response to problems encountered in social interactions rather than in solitary thinking”, they argue.  It fulfils two functions.  “One function helps solve a major problem of coordination by producing justifications.  The other function helps solve a major problem of communication by producing arguments [the argumentative theory of reasoning].”  

Their central conclusion is that what really matters in using reason to achieve good outcomes is the calibre of argument.  “We construct arguments when we are trying to convince others….we evaluate the arguments given by others as a means…of recognising good ideas and rejecting bad ones.  Being sometimes communicators, sometimes audience, we benefit both from producing arguments to present to others and from evaluating the arguments others present to us.”

If this is true - that humans have been successful (what is now called “development”) because they have evolved a capacity to reason, and that the successful application of reason depends on how well we argue with each other – then the implications for the development field seem immense.

And this is where the book blew some fuses in my head.  My problem is that this chimes so well with what I already believe that it is difficult to know whether I am coming to reasoned conclusions from reading it or whether my “reasoning module” is simply confirming what I already think.

More than three decades ago, under the leadership of a visionary called Jon Tinker, I helped to start the Panos Institute which was dedicated to providing platforms for informed public debate on the issues that were most relevant to the lives of people living in poverty.  Panos was named after the Nepali word for a lamp lit when difficult or important issues needed to be talked through.   It did not campaign or try to convince people that they should do something, it tried to create information and communication environments where people could work that out for themselves according to their own realities and needs.  And it tried to produce information that was both accurate and provided expert and grassroots perspectives on both sides of an argument (for example over the benefits and disadvantages of growing genetically modified organisms).

I later directed the Institute and worked with others to develop a model of communication practice which could be assessed on factors linked to the character and calibre of platforms for public debate and dialogue – such as, for example, the accuracy of the information available and accessible in that debate (especially to those most affected by it), the range of voices who were heard in it and so on.  This later helped inform the work of the Communication for Social Change Consortium supported by the Rockefeller Foundation.  

And now I work for BBC Media Action which supports independent media to provide trusted platforms for informed public debate in fragile states (I would argue that these coincidentally take to scale some of the principles used by deliberative democracy, one of the examples Mercier and Sperber highlight as how their analysis might be applied to improve human development).

It has always been very difficult to get some of these ideas integrated into the mainstream of development policy making.  “What is the outcome, what is the impact?”, donors and policy makers understandably ask.  I and many others have been increasingly focused of providing credible, evidence based answers to such questions focused on improving accountability, fostering social cohesion and so on.  

But sometimes I would reply by arguing that effective development requires a conducive environment through which humans can build their societies.  And, especially if development was to be democratically achieved, that environment depended on the quality of information people had access to and the character of the platforms for public and private discussion they had available to them.  Information and dialogue is to development what nutrient rich soil is to the farmer or gardener.  

This is not, in general, how the development world thinks, acts or spends.  It thinks in terms of inputs and outputs.  It believes that enabling economic environments should be nurtured.  It believes that physical environments are important.  But it pays little attention to information and communication environments and here, I wold argue, it has been consistently mistaken.

Mercier and Sperber’s arguments help explain why dictatorships so often fail but also why democracy is so debilitated when public debate is co-opted and manipulated in ways that ensure people cannot discuss and engage with others who think differently from each other.  This is a problem that is intensifying in an age increasingly characterised by misinformation, disinformation, echo chambers and political polarisation.  

Human development, it would seem if the authors are right, depends on our capacity to argue well.  There is no Sustainable Development Goal for that.  And yet perhaps it lies at the very root of how humans become successful.  All the signs are that humans are arguing decreasingly well with each other with, perhaps, alarming consequences for our future prospects.

But then again, my blown mind bent perhaps overly bent on self justification is not necessarily the most credible source of such a thesis.  And I am no psychologist.  Perhaps Mercier and Sperber are, however compelling I find their arguments, simply wrong.

So perhaps we should have an argument over it – just let’s make sure it is informed (I strongly encourage anyone to read the book) and that it presents a range of perspectives.  And, having had it, if the thesis has any legitimacy, let’s talk seriously about the huge but exciting implications it has for how the prospects for human development can be improved.

James Deane is Director of Policy and Research at BBC Media Action, the BBC’s international development charity.  He writes this blog in his personal capacity.

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