Q&A with Rationality Author Steven Pinker

This entry was posted on 30 September 2021.

Steven Pinker, the great defender of human progress, having documented how the world is not falling apart, now shows how we can enhance rationality in our lives and in the public sphere. Rationality  is the perfect toolkit to seize our own fates. In this Q&A with Pinker, he goes into more detail about the book, and rationality itself.


Q: You say in the book, "Rationality is uncool". We associate it with nerdiness, wonkiness, geekiness. Why is this and why do we need to follow reason?

SP: Yes, many people think that if you're rational, you must be joyless and drab. That you're not allowed to love your children, or appreciate beauty. But that’s irrational! Rationality is a means to an end. It's the attainment of goals via the use of knowledge – and those goals are human goals. There can’t be anything irrational about pursuing the goals of love and beauty and joy and dancing and art and all the rest – though some goals, like immediate pleasure, might be incompatible with others, like long-term satisfaction, or the respect of your fellows.


Q: So how is it that we're able to be so smart and so easily deluded? You talk about Tversky and Kahneman who were sceptical of the idea that inside every incoherent person there's a coherent person trying to get out. Why are our cognitive systems so good and so wrong at the same time?

SP: Partly it's the goal that we deploy rationality for. if the goal is one’s own self-enhancement, then of course an individual person could be perfectly rational at getting something that the person wants, but it may not be rational for everyone else.

But there are also cases where we genuinely are irrational. We evolved with deep-seated intuitions that were serviceable in a small-scale, low-tech, face-to-face society, but have been rendered obsolete by the powerful tools for reasoning we have developed over the centuries.

For example, we have intuitions about purity and essences that have always led people to be suspicious of vaccines because they are, after all, contaminants – a weakened form of the very germ we're trying to eliminate. It takes a leap to reject the intuition that if you're perfectly healthy, you shouldn’t inject yourself with a germ. We know better now because our best science tells us that vaccines really do work. Other examples are intuitions of a non-physical mind, which makes it easy to believe in souls and spirits, and intuitions of the design of complex artefacts, which make it easy to believe in creationism and the vague intuition that “everything happens for a reason”.

But perhaps the most pervasive explanation for public irrationality is “the tragedy of the rationality commons”. This is based on the parable of multiple shepherds, each of whom brings his sheep onto the town commons, but when all the shepherds do it, the grass is grazed faster than it will grow back and everyone suffers. But it doesn't pay any individual to be the one who sacrifices his own wellbeing and so, the collective suffers.

Likewise, when it comes to rationality, we can all be pretty rational when it comes to pursuing our own goals, including acceptance within our tribe. But it's best for all of us if we deploy our rationality towards some common, objective understanding of the world.

Rationality often depends on putting in place the rules of a game that everyone has to play: fact-checking, peer review, empirical testing, editing, the checks and balances of democratic government, freedom of the press, free speech, open debate. It also depends on norms like epistemic humility, namely being prepared to change your mind when the facts or arguments call for it, and a joint commitment to the truth above and beyond sectarian glory.

In other words, our challenge is to set up an arena that fosters the greater good, the objective reality, the ground truth, even if it does not sit comfortably with any individual. In such an arena, as we argue and debate and spot the flaws in each other’s arguments (even as we make them ourselves), the rules will push us toward an objective reality that transcends any one of us individually.


“The farther to the right, the more people deny the seriousness of COVID-19, the reality of human-made climate change, and evolution as an explanation for life on Earth.”


Q: I was interested in your reference to anti-vaxxers and COVID, and what you've just described as rationality being distorted according to group behaviour and group belief. But you also say, "It's funny that the further to the right you go politically, the more denial there is," and I wondered if you could elaborate on that?

SP: It’s common for people to attribute irrational beliefs to scientific illiteracy and innumeracy. But that explanation is probably wrong. When you probe people's understanding of scientific principles, the people who we like to say are on the right side of issues like climate change and evolution actually don't know any more science than the people on the wrong side. What predicts people's beliefs in these moralised and politicised issues is their politics: the farther to the right, the more people deny the seriousness of COVID-19, the reality of human-made climate change, and evolution as an explanation for life on Earth. People treat their beliefs more as affirmations of loyalty to their community than as indicators of objective reality.

This is another explanation for why we appear to be so rational and at the same time so irrational. When it comes to our everyday lives – to getting dressed, getting to work, paying the bills, keeping money in the bank – people are pretty rational. Society would not function if they weren't.

But then there's a whole other zone of beliefs that don't impinge on our everyday lives. There's nothing we can do about them, and in this zone we hold beliefs not because they are testable by reality but because they are part of a collective mythology.

Religious beliefs are like that. There's no way you can verify the existence or nature of God, but people still have convictions. Likewise with the origin of the universe, or the causes of misfortune. With these topics, there's no way to find out, and unless you’re one of a few movers and shakers, your individual opinions don't matter.

With beliefs in this zone, the criterion for holding a belief is not whether it is demonstrably true but whether it promotes the right moral values and the glory and honour of my sect or tribe.

Since the Enlightenment, intellectual elites have developed an eccentric, strange, weird idea that you should only hold beliefs that are true. Now, that might seem obvious, but it really is not. It's deeply counterintuitive to human psychology. People may hold it for beliefs about what's in the fridge and whether there’s enough petrol in the car, but when it comes to beliefs about the cosmos, or history, or remote corridors of power, the idea that you should only believe things for which you have good evidence, is unnatural. People believe things because they're uplifting, they promote solidarity.

It's only with the advent of modern history and science and journalism that we could even answer questions such as, What was the origin of the universe, or What's really happening behind closed doors in halls of power? So what we need to do to promote rationality is to affirm the idea that believing things that are true, in all spheres of life, is a really good thing to do. It's not intuitive, but that's what we ought to be promoting.


“How can we be so brilliant, but so crazy?”


Q: In the book you talk about rationality and reasoning being very effective as a collaborative process, that where people might make mistakes on their own, as a group they're far more likely to work out a rational answer to a problem. I wondered if you could talk a little bit more about that.

SP: It was another part of the answer to the paradox: How can we be so brilliant, but so crazy? A large part of the answer is that when rationality works – when we have institutions that we like to think are delivering truths and explaining the world – they never depend on the rationality of a single genius. They always involve mechanisms of feedback and correction and fact-checking, where one person's errors can be called out by someone else.

In science, we have peer-review. In effective democratic governments, we have checks and balances. In journalism, we have the ideal of press freedom and freedom of speech. In Wikipedia, there is a community of contributors, each of whom can correct the others within seconds. And it's only in leagues in which there are rules that prevent the delusions of any individual from taking over, where one person's ambition counters another, that we get some semblance of rationality. So, it all depends on the rules of the game, not on any individual being so rational that they can consistently deliver truths on their own.


Q: Despite our cultural tendency to emphasise the contributions of original geniuses rather than the group, I suppose?

SP: Yes, precisely. We retrospectively anoint people as geniuses because their ideas have survived in the crucible of evaluation by others, including a lot of sub-geniuses, who might be good at testing and spotting errors and unearthing flaws.


Q: If we can become more rational, can we make a better world? Can we transform the world through rationality? I guess that we already have done, as you've shown, but in terms of confronting these existential problems that face us today, is the answer rationality?

SP: Yes, it's the only way we can improve the world. It's not sufficient, because you can deploy rationality to make the world worse, to develop ever more effective weapons, or bring about the megalomaniacal goals of some despot. But with the right values, namely making people better off, rationality is the only way we can make a better world because the world itself has no pity on us. The cosmos does not act to make us better off. It acts to make us worse off: things fall apart, things decay, things dissipate. We get diseases: pathogens want to eat us from the inside. The only way that we can fight back, to make our lives better, is to figure out how the universe works and deploy that knowledge to bring about the things we want it to, assuming that the things we want are making people better off.

Another realisation I came to in this and my previous books is that in what we would all agree is human progress – the abolition of despotism and slavery and discrimination, the reduction of war and violence – very often the first domino in the process of improvements was an argument. Some philosopher or politician or polemicist or moralist actually laid reasons out why burning heretics at the stake wasn't such a great idea, or why slavery could not be defended, or women should not be kept in the house.

I wouldn't claim that these advances were only a process of persuasion – people aren't that rational – but these arguments mobilised people and increased the critical mass who supported a cause.


“And then there's the educational system – I suggest that Rationality should be the fourth R, together with reading, writing, and arithmetic.”


The importance of argument is even deeper. Looking back, which are the causes we're happy won the day, and which are the ones we're happy ended up in the dustbin of history? It was the ones with rational arguments behind them. I end the book with a number of quotes from activists of their day – Mary Wollstonecraft in the case of the emancipation of women; Frederick Douglass in the abolitionist movement in the United States; Cesare Beccaria in the abolition of cruel punishments. These people laid out logical arguments explaining why some practice that we now recognise as being barbaric was inconsistent with other values that people claimed to hold at the time.


Q: Has social media had a discernible impact on our rationality or lack of it?

SP: I resist the temptation to blame every social ill on social media, which is too tempting, particularly in journalism where social media are a rival for advertising dollars. A lot of the demonization of social media goes overboard. In the case of the political extremism that has become influential in the United States, probably cable news and talk radio have had a bigger impact.

Certainly, the effect of fake news has been exaggerated; it changes few minds. It excites partisans more than it persuades the undecided. This is not to deny that irrationality can be amplified by social media – conspiracy theories, rumours, shaming mobs. These have always been with us and social media are making them worse. But it's a mistake to blame everything on social media. Conspiracy theories and fake news are probably as old as our species.


Q: At times, looking at the media in the US under Trump, there seemed to be an uptick of irrationality. Do you think that individual governments are able to influence the rationality or otherwise, of their citizens or is this an illusion?

SP: I think they can, by example and by implementing policies that bring out cooler, more rational analysis, as opposed to demagoguery and mob sentiments. It may be that we have to rethink some democratic mechanisms that have been in place for centuries, an obvious one being first-past-the-post voting systems, which we know are irrational, because when the candidate or party with the largest number of votes is declared the winner in a three-way or higher race, the losing side could be divided between two coalitions that each represent a preference that is more popular than the winner, but the vote got divided between them. So, a government that works by that electoral rule will often be led by people who don't represent the majority. That's a simple example. We know that there are better voting systems, like ranked-choice voting.

At the level of individual policies, there are experiments that ought to be more widely adopted, like citizens councils, where a sample of the population is drafted to analyse an issue and come up with some recommendation, in small to medium-sized groups. When people deliberate in groups, they tend to come to more rational decisions than either when they reason in isolation or when they are part of an anonymous mob.

Also, having issues being married to parties and candidates fold matters of practical governance, like how to get the trains run on time, into battles about who is virtuous and who is evil? If we had mechanisms that aim for the policy that would make everyone better off, divorced from partisan identity, would have more collective rationality in our decision-making.

And then there's the educational system – I suggest that Rationality should be the fourth R, together with reading, writing, and arithmetic. Formal tools of rationality like logic, probability, rational choice, and distinguishing correlation from causation, are not intuitive and need to be explicitly taught. The middle chapters of Rationality  try to do that.


Q: Is there a practical message for individual readers that you'd like them to take away from the book?

SP: A few. First, don’t trust your intuitions. Sometimes they're right, but often they're wrong. We have better tools available now in datasets and the tools of reasoning I try to explain. Another is that rationality, and ultimately the betterment of society, depend on having rules in place that don't rely on the wisdom or virtue of any individual, but allow it to emerge by checks and balances, review, open debate, free expression of opinion. That's what makes us collectively more rational than any of us can hope to be individually.


Rationality is out now.





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