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Mike Oaksford


Today, it is my great honour to welcome Professor Michael Robert Oaksford to a College Fellowship at Birkbeck, University of London.

Mike Oaksford is a distinguished psychologist who has led the Department of Psychological Sciences at Birkbeck since 2005. In those eighteen years, he has transformed not only psychological thinking at Birkbeck and nation-wide but also internationally. He has fought tirelessly for the Department, leading it through the REF on several occasions, dramatically increasing external grant funds, nurturing research as well as teaching excellence, and building the department into oneof the most influential psychology hubs in the UK.

He grew up in Wellwyn, Herts and, in 1982, after a brief career in the Navy, joined the University of Durham as a mature student to do an undergraduate degree in Philosophy and Psychology. From 1985, he could be found studying for a PhD at the University of Edinburgh, where his thesis, entitled Cognition and Inquiry: The Pragmatics of Conditional Reasoning, was awarded in 1989.His supervisors were distinguished cognitive scientist Keith Stenning and linguist Robin Cooper. This thesis sets out his early thinking in ways that are intriguing and far-reaching. As he states in the first paragraph of his thesis,

This thesis is about human conditional reasoning. The conditional if… then construction is central to formal attempts to characterise inferential processes in logic. However, relative to normative logical theories the human data presents a problem. Human conditional reasoning appears beset by various nonlogical biases apparently reflecting the influence of content, memory, prior beliefs, resource limitations, and attentional processes. Thus, normative conceptions of rationality appear radically at odds with people's observed facility for logical thought. This state of affairs has been taken to license the paradoxical conclusion that the only organism apparently capable of formulating systems of pure deductive reasoning, may, after all, be an irrational animal.
It is an elegant statement that draws attention to his thinking.

This PhD and its foundational thinking in hand, he moved to the University of Wales, Bangor, as a lecturer; a senior lecturer at the University at Warwick, then, in 1996, was appointed to his Chair in Experimental Psychology at Cardiff University. From Cardiff, he moved to Birkbeck in 2005. Through all these moves, one can see his arguments grow and develop – important signposts include his collaborative work on Bayesian probabilistic models of data selection, conditional inference, the development of models of argumentative fallacies, and the way emotions interact with reasoning and decision-making processes.

He is curious about people’s reasoning and argumentation, including discovering ways to conduct experimental investigations and modelling. As he puts it,

From a logical point of view, people make many errors in reasoning but from a probabilistic point of view, these are not ‘errors’ but the result of people’s sensitivity to Bayesian argument strength rather than logical validity.

This means that Mike is interested in how argumentation operates in the ‘real world’, outside the laboratory.

Mike is also a brilliant communicator. There are many psychologists in this room, who will immediately grasp the significance of Mike’s research. But for the non-psychologist (like myself), the importance of his work can be instantly recognised by quoting from one of his papers. He writes:

According to Aristotle, humans are the rational animal. The borderline between rationality and irrationality is fundamental to many aspects of human life including the law, mental health, and language interpretation. But what is it to be rational? One answer, deeply embedded in the Western intellectual tradition since ancient Greece, is that rationality concerns reasoning according to the rules of logic.

But what if this intellectual tradition is not true? What if human thought is sensitive to other influences? What are those influences? Why do people behave as they do? How do people cope with uncertainty and the inevitability of incomplete information? Why do people routinely fail to reason logically? Might this ‘straying’ be ‘rationally justified’? These are just a few of the ‘big questions’ that Mike seeks to answer.

Mike’s research has been central to the ‘probabilistic revolution’ in the psychology of reasoning and other areas of psychology. He has one of the deepest understandings of foundational psychological questions, which he addresses in multiple ways, including experiments and computational and mathematical modelling. For his achievements, he has won many prizes and accolades. To name a few, these include being awarded the British Psychological Society Cognitive Section Award in 1995 (given for the best paper published that year), The British Psychological Society’s Spearman Medal in 1995 (for outstanding contributions to research in the first ten years post-PhD), a Fellow of the British Psychological Society by 2001, and then being made a Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science, an honour given for ‘sustained and outstanding distinguished contributions to psychological science’. He is known for providing a ‘radial and controversial reappraisal of conventional wisdom in the psychology of reasoning’, as he sets out to show that ‘the Western conception of the mind as a logical system is flawed’.

What about ‘the man’? He is a very private person. He has an abiding love of the coast and the sea, perhaps nurtured during his childhood when he would have seaside holidays in Rock (the coastal fishing village in north Cornwall). He enjoys walking in the Hertfordshire countryside with his wife. He used to be an enthusiastic rugby player and remains keen of water sports, such as wild water rafting. I have been told that he is ‘incredibly modest and self-deprecating’. He is a collaborator. Even when writing his PhD, he acknowledged that his colleagues at the Centre for Cognitive Sciences generally fell into ‘two categories, those who have agreed and those who have disagreed’. He contended that ‘Both are helpful, but the latter perhaps essential’. His colleagues also observe that ‘keeping up with Mike can be a challenge’.

Mike Oaksford’s contributions to the college have revolutionised our community. We are forever grateful to him and, by accepting this College Fellowship, are thrilled that he will continue to be a valued member of our community and supporter of our mission.