Kognitywistyka - Uniwersytet Jagielloński
Ulica Grodzka, 31-044 Kraków
Prof Francesca Ervas
University of Cagliari
Why we fail to argue in natural language.
In his book, “Predictably irrational” (2008), Dan Ariely criticises the conventional, standard economic theory and its view of human beings as rational agents, arguing that humans are not just irrational in decision making, but are rather predictably irrational. In light of theories of bounded rationality (Simon 1983; Kahneman 2003), it has been pointed out that there is a widened “prescriptivity gap” between the rational norms of logic and how humans fail to follow them (Godden 2015). Reasoning errors might shed light on explaining how argumentative rationality moves away from a standpoint where human beings rightly respond to reasons (Van Eemeren & Grootendorst 2004; Tindale 2006).
In relevant life contexts, natural language use might lead people to incur fallacies of reasoning: lexical ambiguity fallacies are just an example of why people could fail to argue in natural language. In addition to ambiguity, non-literal uses of words, such as metaphors, are omnipresent in natural language. Metaphors not only provide arguments with economy of language, greater vividness, interestingness, forcefulness, but also entail the communication of emotional attitudes and value judgments (Entman 1993; Lakoff 2014). Indeed, metaphors are never “neutral” because they entail a framing effect that implicitly provides a specific perspective to interpret the world (Black 1954). Different metaphorical views on something can therefore seriously affect one’s reasoning and evaluation of arguments (Thibodeau & Borodisky 2011, 2013; Semino et al. 2016).
The aim of my research is threefold: 1) to empirically investigate how and why laypeople incur fallacies of reasoning featuring metaphors; 2) to understand whether experts are as (predictably) vulnerable to lexical ambiguity fallacies as laypeople; 3) to study the influence of metaphors based on “emotive words” on the detection of the fallacies. To achieve these aims, three experimental studies on the detection of lexical ambiguity fallacies will be presented. The first empirical study (Ervas, Ledda & Pierro 2016) investigates whether and to what extent the detection of the fallacies presents relevant differences between a group of adult (N=40) non-experts and a group of adult (N=40) experts (scholars with an in-depth training in philosophical logic). The experimental results show that not only laypeople but also experts tend to assess sound instances of fallacies with conventional metaphors as middle terms, when the conclusion of the argument is far from being patently false. The second experimental study (Ervas & Ojha 2017) investigates why participants fall into the fallacy, especially when the conclusion of the argument is plausible. The third experimental study (Ervas, Rossi & Ojha 2018) investigates whether and to what extent the detection of the fallacy is influenced by the presence of a (conventional/live) metaphors based on an “emotive” (positive/negative) words used as middle terms.
The results suggest that even experts judge fallacious arguments, featuring conventional metaphors, as sound, thus departing from the normative expectations of argumentative rationality. Such a departure is predictable, because it is justified by other beliefs, unrelated to the argument itself: the most prominent one, as shown in the literature (Evans, Baston & Pollard 1983; Ball et al. 2006; Correia 2011), is the belief of the participants in the conclusion of the argument. These prior beliefs systematically interfere with the evaluation of the arguments with plausible conclusions, and the participants creatively look for other reasons to make sense of the argument. The participants’ departure from normative expectations of rationality in arguments evaluation is therefore creative to the extent that they make sense of the lexical ambiguity fallacies under the lenses of alternative beliefs.