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

Commentary

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.

Lynn Hu: No, China is not a high-functioning democracy, despite what propagandists may say

Commentary

Over the years, Zhang Weiwei has emerged, both domestically and internationally, as one of the most vocal and faithful advocates of the “China Model”. Notorious for his debate with Francis Fukuyama back in 2011, Zhang has written numerous books and hosts his own political talk show produced by Chinese state media. He was even invited to address top leaders in the Politburo earlier this year on how to “improve the Chinese narrative”, a euphemism for its ideological propaganda. The party’s approval meant that his views are unchallengeable in China (in academia or beyond), and Western media often falsely equate the monopolized party perspective Zhang presents as truly representative, despite the diversity of Chinese perspectives that actually exist.

While his political agenda is clear, Zhang’s polemical arguments and tactics do warrant a closer examination. In a recent interview, Zhang grounded the superiority of the Chinese system of governance in three key areas: 1) China as a unique “civilizational state” with historical and cultural traditions which are incompatible with Western political and economic models; 2) the Chinese political system as a meritocracy in its leadership selection that is also a distinct form of democracy more advanced than that of the West; and 3) China’s unprecedented economic growth as a peaceful nation tolerant of religious and cultural differences. Rebuttals to each of these assertions are easily made.

Describing China as a civilizational state is common among defenders of the China Model. In his bookThe China Wave: Rise of a Civilizational State”, Zhang justifies the Chinese Communist Party’s autocratic rule as a continuation of China’s historical tradition of a unified ruling entity. He asserts that China is the only state in the world with a continuous civilization, and by virtue of its long history and unique culture the country will follow its own historical logic and develop its unique path to modernity—one that is distinctively different from the Western model.

However, civilizational exceptionalism is often an artificial construct that flattens the complexities of history to a singular narrative. It was used extensively by conservative literati in China and Japan in the late 19th century to resist political reform. The use of civilizational rhetoric is not limited to non-Western countries either. Some proponents of American exceptionalism like to invoke what they refer to as the country’s distinctive cultural traits to justify claims of superiority. In that sense, Zhang’s insistence on calling China a civilizational state is best understood as a veiled attempt to boost Chinese nationalism. Despite a nominal rejection of the nation-state, his definition of a civilizational state, including “unique language, politics, society and economy” is taken straight out of a nationalist’s toolbox.

Even if we take the concept at face value, we will soon encounter difficulties. Invoking China as a civilizational state has been used repeatedly to reject universal human rights and democratic values, but Taiwan, which shares similar civilizational traditions with China, has successfully transitioned to a thriving democracy.

Zhang himself likens Rome to a civilizational state, but the Roman Republic degenerated into an empire and eventually fell apart. ISIS can be regarded as a contemporary attempt to revive the Caliphate, the Islamic civilizational state, but it has proven to be a disaster for humanity. At the end of the day, apart from stating the obvious fact that every country is different, the civilizational state excuse cannot explain how and why a country chooses a particular path, nor can it offer the basis for justifying a country’s political system. In fact, it cannot really explain anything.

Nevertheless, Zhang extends from this argument of cultural distinctiveness and makes a second set of bold assertions labeling the Chinese model as better governed, more meritocratic, and more advanced than what he calls the “U.S. model of democracy from the pre-industrial era”. Not only did Zhang reject the term “authoritarianism” used by political scientists, but he goes further in claiming that it is a high-functioning form of democracy called “democratic centralism”. While it sounds ludicrous to most Westerners, it is in fact echoed by the CCP as the official position in its latest white paper entitled “China: Democracy That Works”.

There are three common tactics used by CCP apologists to defend the impossible, and Zhang has used combinations of all three. Firstly, they can define democracy narrowly as “one person one vote”, rather than the whole package of civil liberties and constitutional institutions such as the separation of powers and the rule of law. This line of reasoning is also used by others like Eric Li, making it easy to discredit electoral democracy as outdated and ineffective. Alternatively, they can also use Orwellian doublespeak to obscure and subvert the meaning of democracy by performing various definitional sleight of hands and providing alternative definitions. Lastly, if all fails, they can always reject the term altogether, in favor of other standards such as popular support, economic achievements, or political meritocracy.

Even by these alternative standards, the Chinese model’s superiority over liberal democracies remains highly contested. Popular support in China is largely a product of “manufactured consent” through decades of propaganda and censorship. Imagine if every single person in America grew up with only Fox News and pro-Trump messages permeated throughout society with no alternative voices allowed to exist. It wouldn’t come as a surprise that the vast majority of Americans would be supportive of Trump, regardless of his actual performance.

Likewise, the economic progress China has made in the past 40 years since Deng’s market reform was undoubtedly remarkable, but it is not as “miraculous” as Zhang would like us to believe. China’s GDP per capita remains only one-sixth that of the U.S., and, far from poverty elimination, more than 40 percent of Chinese people (roughly 600 million people) still live on a monthly income of merely 1,000 yuan ($140 USD). Other countries, such as South Korea, have achieved similar feats within a generation while also transitioning to a democratic system.

Attributing all economic gains to China’s political arrangement is a gross over-simplification. For every “miracle” that Zhang claims, we can find an equally disastrous episode in modern Chinese history: is the Great Famine or the decade-long chaos of the Cultural Revolution also part of the great success story of China’s authoritarian system?

The conflation of the Chinese political system with meritocracy is not new either. Other proponents of the China Model like Daniel Bell and Kishore Mahbubani also claim that China enjoys meritocratic leadership. But this is a false dichotomy. Western democracies also have strong elements of meritocracy, as most politicians need proven track records to be electorally successful. The fact that Chinese national leaders must first serve as county and provincial chiefs is no proof of meritocracy either. It is merely a prerequisite to the top position and barely reflects competence. Most China specialists would agree that a variety of factors such as patronage, factional in-fighting, corruption, and ideological alliance play critical roles in leadership selection, and the domination of the so-called “princelings” in Chinese politics is well-documented.

Finally, Zhang assures us that China intends a peaceful rise focused on economic development. Did he forget to update his talking points from 10 years ago? China has pushed for an aggressive foreign policy under Xi’s leadership since 2013, abandoning Deng’s guiding philosophy of “hide your strength, bide your time”. Having engaged in over a dozen border disputes on land and sea, its neighbours certainly don’t view China’s rise as very peaceful. Furthermore, China has repeatedly used its political and economic power to bully other nations and international companies to fall in line with its political directives, Canada itself being a victim of CCP’s hostage diplomacy with the arrest of the two Michaels.

Confronted with questions on China’s domestic human rights or issues relating to Hong Kong, Xinjiang, or Tibet, the classic rhetoric is to deny or to deflect by engaging in whataboutism (U.S. bashing being Zhang’s favourite hobby). While some of his criticisms of the U.S. are apt, his blatant double standard is telling.

Zhang can shamelessly tell these half-truths and lies with a calm smile because he knows the real audience for his message is not Western viewers, but the nationalistic crowds at home and his top priority is to win brownie points with the CCP. If he fails to convince the foreign audience, he can always blame it on anti-China bias and Western arrogance.