This question is posed in the title of Chapter 10 of Steven Pinker’s book, Rationality: What it is, Why it Seems Scarce, Why it Matters.
I enjoyed reading the previous 9 chapters but didn’t learn much from them. Those chapters were a painless way to refresh my memory about definitions of rationality, rules of logic, probability, Bayesian reasoning, rational choice, statistical decision theory, game theory, correlation, and regression analysis.
I particularly liked the approach Pinker took in discussing the research of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky which documents many ways in which people are prone to fall short of normative benchmarks of rationality. Pinker makes the point:
“When people’s judgments deviate from a normative model, as they so often do, we have a puzzle to solve. Sometimes the disparity reveals a genuine irrationality: the human brain cannot cope with the complexity of a problem, or it is saddled with a bug that cussedly drives it to the wrong answer time and again.
But in many cases there is a method to people’s madness.”
A prime example is loss aversion: “Our existence depends on a precarious bubble of improbabilities with pain and death just a misstep away”. In Freedom Progress and Human Flourishing, I argued similarly that loss aversion helped our ancestors to survive.
Pinker doesn’t seek to blame the propensity of humans to make logical and statistical fallacies for the prevalence of irrationality in the public sphere. He is not inclined to blame social media either, although he recognises its potential to accelerate the spread of florid fantasies.
The mythology mindset
Pinker argues that reasoning is largely tailored to winning arguments. People don’t like getting on to a train of reasoning if they don’t like where it takes them. That is less of a problem for small groups of people (families, research teams, businesses) who have a common interest in finding the truth than it is in the public sphere.
People tend to have a reality mindset when they are dealing with issues that affect their well-being directly – the world of their immediate experience – but are more inclined to adopt a mythology mindset when they are dealing with issues in the public sphere.
When economists discuss such matters, they may refer to the observation of Joseph Schumpeter that the typical citizen drops to a lower level of mental performance when discussion turns to politics. They reference the concept of rational ignorance attributed to Anthony Downs and Gordon Tulloch. They may also refer to Brian Caplan’s concept of rational irrationality. (For example, see Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing, pp 114-115).
Pinker doesn’t refer to those economists’ perspectives but offers interesting insights about factors that might lead people to adopt mythology mindsets. In summary, as a consequence of myside bias, attitudes to the findings of scientific studies often have less to do with scientific literacy than with political affiliation. The opposing “sides” are sometimes akin to “religious sects, which are held together by faith in their moral superiority and contempt for opposing sects”. Within those sects the function of beliefs is to bind the group together and give it moral purpose.
What can we do?
Pinker’s suggestions for combatting irrationality in the public sphere are summed up by his subheading “Re-affirming Rationality”. He advocates openness to evidence, noting the findings of a survey suggesting that most internet users claim to be open to evidence. He suggests that we valorize the norm of rationality by “smiling or frowning on rational and irrational habits”.
Pinker identifies institutions that specialize in creating and sharing knowledge as playing a major role in influencing the beliefs that people hold. Since “no-one can know everything”, we all rely on academia, public and private research units, and the news media for a great deal of the knowledge which forms the basis of our beliefs. Unfortunately, these institutions are often not trustworthy.
In the case of the universities, Pinker suggests that the problem stems from “a suffocating left-wing monoculture, with its punishment of students and professors who question dogmas on gender, race, culture, genetics, colonialism, and sexual identity and orientation”. News and opinion sites have been “played by disingenuous politicians and contribute to post-truth miasmas”.
It is easy to agree with Pinker that it would be wonderful if universities and the news media could become paragons of viewpoint diversity and critical thinking. However, movement toward that goal will require large numbers of individuals to enlist for a ‘long march’ to re-establish norms of rationality in institutions that specialize in creating and sharing knowledge.