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In defense of endless arguments

A couple months ago (that is, yesterday; remember our 2-month delay) some commenters expressed exhaustion and irritation at the Kahneman-Gigerenzer catfight, or more generally the endless debate between those who emphasize irrationality in human decision making and those who emphasize the adaptive and functional qualities of our shortcuts.

I would like to respond to this attitude in two ways:

1. You don’t have to be George W. Hegel to believe that science often proceeds through back-and-forth arguments: what seems picayune from the outside can make a difference on the inside, and we as scholars can make progress by pushing hard and examining small but persistent anomalies in our theories.

2. Regarding the post in question, MacGillivray and Pidgeon were addressing not just scholarship but also decision making. Their point was that research results from the people-are-irrational school (what they call the “deficit model”) are used to motivate specific policies and, more generally, attitudes toward policy-making. So if they think the research in question has holes, then, yeah, that could be important.

This does not mean you have to agree with MacGillivray and Pidgeon—indeed, I don’t know how much I agree with them. But if you disagree, or want to disagree, it’s not just enough to plead exhaustion. Like it or not, you have to engage with the specifics.


  1. Spotted Toad says:

    I think the Kahneman-Gigerenzer catfight is pretty important, both for how we think about the unidimensionality (or not) of human skill at decision-making ( ) and for how much paternalism we accept ( )

  2. Rahul says:

    Isn’t a lot of the fight about semantics and definitions?

    i.e. Is there any specific empirical prediction or potential experiment that K vs G would disagree about? Which one?

    To me that’s one sign of a non-productive argument.

    • Daniel Gotthardt says:

      You’re highly underestimating the relevance of “semantics” and “definitions”. Especially in the Social Sciences those are often too vague and arguments which provide an incentive to be more explicit and clear about the specifics are important. You can’t as easily derive predictions or think of experiments which differentiate these approaches. Further discussions might be able to shed a light on differences in empirical predictions and that would be one potential benefit but even if not, there’s a lot of merit to it.

      • Rahul says:


        On the contrary, I agree with you that preciseness & definitions are extremely important. And I think that’s exactly what’s lacking here: I don’t think Gigerenzer is articulating in what precise, testable ways his model differs from Kahneman’s.

        And till that is done, the argument becomes not-very-productive hand-waving plagued with vagueness. Neither resolvable by hard logic nor empiricism.

  3. James says:

    I thought this might be going to be in response to . But I guess I forgot about the 2-month delay….

  4. Dave says:

    I think this is vital as well and I have very much appreciated your commentary, especially the post on “Cognitive vs. Behavioral in Psychology, Economics, and Political Science.” The difference may seem like mostly one of emphasis, and thus non-empirical, but even if that’s the case it is politically important.

    • Rahul says:

      Yes, I think the argument is about points inaccessible to empiricism.

      • Christian Hennig says:

        Rahul: I have nothing to say about Kahneman vs. Gigerenzer in particular but regarding different “systems of understanding” of facts, even though it may be hard or impossible to tell them apart based on the facts they are interpreting, it may be able to tell them apart empirically based on different behaviour to which the different positions in such a dispute might lead.

        • Rahul says:


          I agree. Hence in this specific case we need some predictive component of the different empirical conclusions the G vs K models may lead to.

          I don’t think that has been offered. And hence the endless verbiage.

  5. psyoskeptic says:

    At some point though the rational middle has to be yielded to, as in this case. How long was too long with nature v. nurture debates? We now know both are usually involved and it’s a matter of how much of each… which is harder so less studied. With Gigerenzer and Kahneman we know a simple heuristic is going to work well when it works and fail when it doesn’t while other more rational models will overall succeed but not as quickly and easily if a successful simpler heuristic is in used. Maybe that had to be debated but for how long?

    I think it’s a mistake to believe the endless debate will result in fruitful progress. Not until someone buckles down and starts modelling the optimal weight of each will there be real advancement in the field.

    • Martha (smith) says:

      I agree with the analogy with nature vs nurture debates — that is, up to the point of realizing that both are in play. But I have a quibble with “it’s a matter of how much of each” — I’d improve that to, “it’s a matter of how much of each under what circumstances,” and interpret “circumstances” to include “which person under what circumstances. In summary, the “debate” seems to ignore the important issue of variability — variability between people and between circumstances.

      • Rahul says:

        Which brings up the point that some things may be practically un-measurable at least as of today.

        i.e. A useful model would have to measure the attributes of heterogeneity of people to evaluate how much nature & nurture contribute conditioned on a mix of attributes.

        Many social science studies try to study some phenomenon that’s complex on a small, not-carefully-controlled sample from which extrapolation to the actual heterogeneous population is impossible.

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