Tuesday 9 February 2021

Motivated Reasoning in Science

Today's post is by Josh May (University of Alabama, Birmingham). In this post, he talks about one of his papers published in Synthese and entitled "Bias in Science".

Josh May

Much discussion of the replication crisis in science has focused on the social sciences, particularly psychology. A common narrative is that the social sciences are particularly susceptible to powerful biases, such as moral and political ideology. I argue instead for a parity thesis: all areas of science are subject to bias, through the general psychological mechanism of motivated reasoning. This provides a unified framework for understanding how values influence the entire scientific enterprise.

The scientific process involves numerous decisions that can be influenced by one's values--including moral, political, and prudential values--which manifest as goals or motivations. A researcher wants badly, say, to publish in a prestigious journal in order to either advance her career or maintain her status and recognition among colleagues. Or she wants badly to maintain her industry funding, or to promote a pet theory, etc. 

These motivations can then influence her reasoning about which hypotheses to test, how to operationalize variables, how to interpret the data, whether to report certain measures, and so on. Commonly this involves wishful thinking and confirmation bias, but these are just instances of the general phenomenon of one's reasoning being influenced by one's motivations---typically ante hoc, not post hoc (see May 2018: Ch 7).

So what motivates most scientists? Drawing on case studies and surveys of scientists, I highlight four ultimate goals: knowledge, ideology, credit, and profit. Of course many scientists are motivated to produce knowledge and to acquire or maintain a job ("profit"). Researchers are also motivated to promote favored ideologies---such as libertarianism, theism, and environmentalism---for which the natural sciences also have implications (think e.g. of climate change, intelligent design, vaccines). 

What is less often recognized is that, as humans, scientists are deeply social and hierarchical creatures and thus powerfully motivated to acquire, maintain, and improve their status among peers by earning "credit" for scientific advances and achievements. Thus, even when researchers are unmoved by ideology or profit, there is always the concern to impress one's peers and move up the social ladder, even if that requires questionable research practices that conflict with the knowledge motive.

Philosophers of science have long emphasized that values influence scientific practice, in both pernicious and productive ways. I similarly do not assume that motivated reasoning is always problematic. Sometimes it produces knowledge by, say, opening up neglected avenues of inquiry (e.g. Anderson 2004) or leading to an invisible hand that guides the marketplace of ideas toward knowledge (e.g. Solomon 2001; Bright 2017).

My analysis within the motivated reasoning framework argues that the natural and social sciences are more alike than different. All domains of science are subject to motivated reasoning and often the more powerful "non-epistemic" motive is social credit, not ideology, which might seem more prevalent in the social sciences. I hope this illuminates how pervasively values influence all areas of science, whether in pernicious, productive, or even benign ways. 

Motivated reasoning is a fact of human life and thus (all) of science.


  1. A very commendable step; criticizing scientists and their motivations is not a simple act.
    It seems, besides the motivational factors you listed, scientists are also motivated by being part of or IDENTITY holders of the prestige that science enjoys today.

    Love to share a more elaborate study/ critical view on the scientific method: http://argumentsagainstscientificpositivism.blogspot.com/2018/12/a-rational-sensible-review-of.html?m=1

  2. Instead of 'credit' I think in terms of 'belonging.' Perhaps the deepest human instinct is to belong to a community, so any action that would threaten one's status as belonging will surely be immediately sensed and perhaps just as immediately discounted.

  3. I opt for "credit" as the label only because it's already used in a growing literature on the topic in philosophy of science. But I think it's right that a desire to belong does better capture the more prominent form of motivation in this category. Still, belonging doesn't quite highlight how hierarchical---indeed, competitive---the social aspects of science are (discussed a bit in Section 4.2 of the paper). That is, many scientists don't just want to belong in the scientific community but to have a high (or higher) status in it, or to maintain that status. That's not necessarily to disparage that sort of motivation. It's natural!

    1. Ah, I see what you are getting at. You can definitely look at one's group standing in both ways, as dichotomously in or out, and also in terms of one's standing within the group. A person with low credit will naturally be more prone to anxiety about their dichotomous status as in or out, while a mid-pack or high-pack member will be more and more concerned with their relative amount of credit. (I think of football and the desire of the very top players to be paid the most - despite the fact they will be paid enormous sums compared to most people in the league and in the world in any case.)

      Perhaps because I'm a person not deeply enmeshed in any one community I tend to imagine others in the dichotomous fashion rather than the ascending credit one.


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