Reasoning from uncertain premises: Effects of expertise and conversational context

Thinking and Reasoning 7 (4):367 – 390 (2001)
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Four experiments investigated uncertainty about a premise in a deductive argument as a function of the expertise of the speaker and of the conversational context. The procedure mimicked everyday reasoning in that participants were not told that the premises were to be treated as certain. The results showed that the perceived likelihood of a conclusion was greater when the major or the minor premise was uttered by an expert rather than a novice (Experiment 1). The results also showed that uncertainty about the conclusion was higher when the major premise was uttered by a novice and an alternative premise by an expert, compared to when the major premise was uttered by an expert and the alternative by a novice (Experiment 2). Similarly, the believability of a conclusion was considerably lower when the minor premise was uttered by a novice and denied by an expert, as opposed to when an expert uttered the minor premise and a novice denied it (Experiment 3). Experiment 4 showed that the nature of the uncertainty induced by a denial of the minor premise depended on whether or not the context was a conversation. These results pose difficult problems for current theories of reasoning, as current theories are based on the results of experiments in which the premises are treated as certain. Our discussion of the results emphasises the importance of pragmatics in reasoning, namely, the role of general knowledge about the world in assessing the probability of a premise uttered by an expert or a novice and the role of interpretations of the premise based on pragmatic inferences in revising these initial probabilities.



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