Rationality & Why It Matters

In his book Rationality, Steven Pinker writes:

“And as excellent as our cognitive systems are, in the modern world we must know when to discount them and turn our reasoning over to instruments—the tools of logic, probability, and critical thinking that extend our powers of reason beyond what nature gave us. Because in the twenty-first century, when we think by the seat of our pants, every correction can make things worse, and can send our democracy into a graveyard spiral.”

At first I wondered whether the tools of logic, probability, and critical thinking were actually under steady attack in the United States, or whether it was just an illusion of media hype screaming the loudest.

The data suggests that rational thinking is actually on the decline, and that media (of all sorts) is a key cause. The Boston Globe reported on Oct 29, 2020 that between one-third* and one-half** of Republicans believed in the irrational conspiracy theories, compared to about one-quarter during the Obama era. If left to its own devices, this irrational mania will continue to propagate and shape new generations of Americans. How do we reverse this trend? The tricky part is that irrationality thrives on attention-grabbing and thus sustains itself selling ads, but rational fact-based reporting while in demand, may stand a smaller chance in the arena of edutainment-news. If large swaths of Americans are not clicking on rational stories, who will fund logic, probability, and critical thinking in America?

A really timely topic given the upcoming presidential elections.

2 quick responses:

  1. In his discussion of his book here 32:15 Steven Pinker discusses that for many conspiracy theories that people “believe in” are (a) things that don’t affect them directly and so there is little cost to them of reasoning poorly and (b) so they use their “belief” in this theory as a way of signaling identity. Understanding this when people describe these beliefs in things which don’t directly affect them helps me to understand this statement a little more.

  2. This interview with Tortoise News was refreshing to see a lot of news journalists think carefully and deeply about how journalists can play a role in promoting rationality despite the incentives of the news/edu-tainment services.