Patrick Luciani: Why Steven Pinker’s defence of rationality is the only game in town

Only open and free debate based on reason will lead us closer to the truth
A bookshop owner repairs a book in Herat, Afghanistan, Monday, Nov. 22, 2021. Petros Giannakouris/AP Photo.

I pride myself on being more rational than most people who believe the same of themselves. Could we all be in the minority of highly rational people? Over the years, I have made rational thinking a hobby, accumulating a collection of books and articles about statistics, correlations, randomness, logical fallacies, risk measurement, and gambling. Am I then more rational than the herd? I confess the odds say not a chance. My problem is that wisdom stays on the shelf when I leave the room.

I review here new additions to my shelf that help to explain why in the real world I revert to trial and error and still make irrational decisions. I know it is a lousy investment to buy extended warranties, yet I blunder into paying more for computers because I believe that things break down sooner than they do. Professor Daniel Kahneman dissects errors of judgment in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, which shows what happens when you go from fast, intuitive thinking (system 1) to slow reasoned thinking (system 2). And that’s just the beginning of mistakes.

Many of us fall victim to sunk cost fallacy, loss aversion, and base rate illusions. We give too much weight to statements we agree with and too little to statements with which we disagree. We also suffer from availability bias by giving more credit to the way the world appears to our senses while downplaying distant sources of information. We ignore routine risks, such as texting while driving, while opposing nuclear power by pointing to rare events such as the Fukushima disaster. Despite our many contradictions, our goal is to be as rational as possible in the face of built-in biases like customs, traditions, and simple habits. Not all is lost; I have benefited from each book on my list. Together they made me keenly aware of ad hominem arguments, appeals to authority or emotion, and bandwagon fallacies. On this latter fallacy, I have immunized myself by following the iron-clad rule that once enough people believe something, it must be wrong.

I take comfort that I am not alone in making errors of judgment and logic. Another recent book co-authored by Daniel Kahneman finds that mistakes of logic and reasoning are endemic in even the highest levels of society. Judges hand down widely disparate sentences and bail requirements for the same crime. Doctors give different diagnoses of the same patient.

It’s been found that underwriters in the same firm assess wildly different evaluations and insurance policies for essentially equivalent properties. Inconsistencies abound in who receives a patent, which immigrant asylum application is accepted, and who gets hired. It has reached the point where most decisions seem random rather than rational. But none of this suggests we have given up on rationality or the pursuit of what is true.

In his latest book, Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters, Steven Pinker manages to cover all the tools for making us better and more rational thinkers. He delves into why we tend to make logical mistakes and hold beliefs that are counter to reason or rationality, from parapsychology and astrology to the belief that the U.S. government brought down the Twin Towers to justify a pre-planned Iraq war. He hopes that we can make better decisions if we only knew more about probabilities, randomness, and game theory. According to the economist Thomas Sowell, the first lesson learned in statistics is that correlation is not causation. It is also the first lesson we forget.

Pinker argues that despite our irrational beliefs, we cannot simply blame our pre-civilized ancestors for our irrationality. That is why he starts with a chapter on the San of the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa. The San used reason to track animals for food, logical inferences, and even sophisticated forms of intuition known as Bayesian thinking (multi-stage estimations of probability). In other words, we humans evolved early on to use our reasoning powers to accomplish goals. It’s how we can explain achievements in agriculture, AI, modern medicine, flight, computers, cell phones, and space travel that will eventually take us to Mars. The moment we trusted our rational mind to escape our superstitions and replace them with logic and science, human development and prosperity flourished. Yet, the part of the brain which refuses to let go of superstitions and bizarre conspiracy theories also has a long evolutionary history of continual war with our sober thoughts.

Rationality lays out the critical tools of logic and rational thinking that we can all benefit from by avoiding the traps of faulty thinking. We can minimize the consequences of lousy analysis with skills that can be taught and learned. Be warned, the journey of learning is not easy. It takes effort and patience to understand the logic of Bayesian thinking or the roles that randomness and probability play in our lives. (Try explaining the Monty Hall dilemma to a friend once you’ve grasped the notion in chapter 1).

Professor Pinker is playing a bigger game than simply showing us how to flex our analytical muscles; he is out to defeat those who challenge the very basis of human understanding by denying that the search for any verifiable truth is an illusion. In this post-truth world, Pinker is seen as someone who is—as one postmodern thinker puts it—an apologist for Enlightenment values, as if reason and science are simply diverse ways of knowing the world. To postmodernists, Pinker is an “essentialist,” someone who holds that there is an essence in immutable things and that we can get closer to their truth through reason and rationality. Postmodernists counter that reason is also a means to achieve evil ends if rationality is defined as a way to achieve our goals, as Pinker does. Then again, no good can come from believing that truth, objectivity, and reason are simply social constructs.

As soon as you push against reason, as Pinker makes clear, you have lost because you need reason to argue your case. Reason is not just a process of induction or deduction because it rests upon the premise and promise of empirical verifiability. The very act of interrogating the concept of reason by reason “presupposes the validity of reason.” There is no way around it. You can only persuade me rationality is unnecessary by being rational. If you are not rational, then I am free to deny your claim. A claim to a higher reason is just that—a claim. As to their skepticism about science, even postmodernists have their children vaccinated.

Why a book on rationality now? Despite the world’s steady advance towards verifiable rationality since the Enlightenment, we are now slipping back, resorting to our emotions and feelings rather than our capacity to reason. Using Google to analyze the use of language from 1850 to 2019, researchers found that the use of words associated with rationality such as “conclusion” and “determine” rose after 1850, while emotion-laden terms as “believe” and “feel” declined. That trend existed in both fiction and nonfiction books and the popular press. Since the 1980s and our so-called “post-truth era”, usage has started to change. Emotion-laden words have surged, paralleling a shift from collectivist language to individualistic words and from rationality to feeling.

Historian Yuval Noah Hariri, at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, makes the case that liberal humanism has shifted from the individual as the source of truth to one’s feelings as the centre of all truth. Postmodernists see truth and virtue as power structures exercised by the economic and social elite. Once individual sentiments take precedence over all other forms of knowing—expertise, science, rationality, and religious faith—then “my truth” becomes the font of all knowledge. All matters are to be decided through the lens of relativism and subjectivity; in other words, rationality declines and retreats to the library shelf.

Some humanists at elite universities argue that the Enlightenment has led us down the road to Facebook. Scholar Louis Menard recently argued in the pages of the New Yorker that humanists are wrong to think teachers of life-sciences and economics care little for their students’ souls and that only they, the humanists, can save the world.

Pinker would agree with Menard that science and rational thinking cannot magically bring us to the final truth. The idea that postmodern thinking will create better human behaviour is an illusion. Pinker believes that hard-fought logic and critical thinking insights have enriched our lives. On the question of making us better people, the rationalist position has been that it is foremost a personal and community struggle. Pinker’s defence of rationality is the only game in town. Only open and free debate based on reason will lead us closer to the truth. Any other way will never get us to Mars.

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