A book review finds a terminal paradox at the heart of its argument.
Man was born intelligent, and everywhere he lacks a brain. So less The social contractgendered language of, could Steven Pinker have opened Rationality: what is it, why it seems rare, why it matters. Pinker, senior professor at Harvard, cognitive psychologist, bestselling author and alleged victim of culture cancellation, spends a lot of time these days fighting culture wars. Pick up where 2018 is Lights now Left aside, his latest book takes as a problem the contrast Pinker sees between humanity’s innate rationality and our observable taste for the irrational.
Where his last book argued for the “Enlightenment” as a source of values, however, Rationality introduces a specific set of logical and statistical tools, reasoned argument “references”, as weapons in the fight against “rumors, popular wisdom and conspiracy” which, Pinker thinks, poison our politics and put our world in danger. Adopt these tools, Rationality urges us, and defends the “state of mind of reality” against the forces of “mythology”!
In Rationality, Pinker takes an impossible trick. The contrast he will draw between our rational capacities and our current situation will resonate. We have effective COVID-19 vaccines, but many, despite reasoned arguments, refuse to take them. Climate change threatens us all, but despite mounting evidence, we are not taking action. Again and again, reason fails to control our motives or mobilize our power. But, given that people on both sides of these issues claim to be right on their side, it’s hard to see how simple advocacy for rationality, as Pinker promises, can get us out of this dilemma.
Tellingly, Pinker himself shows signs of doubt. Beyond offering tools for reflection, Rationality periodically alludes to more pointed interventions, even to a sort of what the author calls at one point “social contract”, as an additional step. In a world that distorts us, holds us back, or floods us with data, he writes, making rational choices difficult and bad rational choices, we reasoners sometimes have to be coaxed, pushed and coerced by friends, employers and others. governments law choices.
If that sounds pessimistic to the author of The best angels of our nature and insisting on the author of Lights now, Pinker writes that “we cannot impose top-down values any more than we can dictate cultural change.” Hell, we can’t even “implement a spurious tax” – a joke, with a strong whiff of wishful thinking behind it. However, the desire to give reason a social or political aid is ineluctable, because it is rooted in a paradox that Pinker immediately notes, then selectively ignores: rationality, as Rationality defines it, is an instrumental quality. He serves ends but cannot choose them. Nor can he justify himself. If we are going in the wrong direction, our mode of transportation may not be the only problem.
Rather than championing his own liberal and technocratic goals, however, Pinker lets their alleged superiority color his use of “rational” and “irrational” throughout. This creates a recurring dissonance, since what is irrational (or “coqamamie”, or “stupid”) from its point of view often turns out to be eminently rational by its initial definition: that is to say that it serves the objectives of those who really care about them. Solving the problem of “irrationality” then requires more than spreading the gospel of zweckrational. It means choosing values and imposing goals. (Pinker admits this when defending those in the “Rationality Community,” for which he refers readers, in a footnote, to a 2017 blog post on lesswrong.com.)
A casual reader might be forgiven for missing this paradox. Having introduced rationality as a universal trait in her opening vignette on how San hunters assess the likelihood that partial footprints belong to one animal rather than another, Pinker defines it as “a cognitive toolkit that can achieve particular goals in particular worlds ”. Everyone has rationality; everyone uses it. So what is the problem? Enter the skeptics and the enemies: “trendy academic movements like postmodernism and critical theory” which see reason as a simple social construct. For his part, the brave Pinker is not afraid of being old-fashioned: already legendary The line is apparently an attempt to speak the language of critical theory – again “we should to follow right. “Take that, cultural anthropologists!
But most of the book is less an overt culture war campaign than a May Day parade of the Arsenal of Rationality. We learn how propositional logic, formal and informal errors, probability, Bayesian reasoning, rational choice theory, decision theory, game theory, regression analysis, etc. . Pinker explains key concepts with real and fictional examples of their uses and abuses, while lamenting their absence or misapplication in public discourse and politics. It can be fun, even if part of it sounds familiar (the Monty Hall problem, the “tragedy of the commons”) or dated (at least three Dilbert cartoons as illustrations of its points).
Adjust your sample of Rationality as we go along, this is what we call “p-piracy”, by the way, you can find an informative and well-written book on types of reasoning and their applications. Trouble starts when you read all the words. Pinker can neither embrace the controversy straight away (because it is about rationality, not values) nor let it go (his values are, of course, rational values). So instead of facing its targets head-on, the middle chapters engage in some sort of indirect cultural warfare, dragging down enemies as seemingly accidental examples of irrationality or motivated reasoning. Where the shoe fits, fair enough. The fact that neither Democratic nor Republican voters, as he points out, grasp the science of climate change is embarrassing but important. It would be nice to think that we can do better.
But Pinker lets his own solidarities and enmities shape his concern for facts and argument. This results in large and unsupported claims, such as when a politic op-ed he co-wrote in defense of Bret Stephens is his only footnote source for the claim that logical errors are “the order of the day” in academia and journalism. It also produces mystifying claims, such as the murder of George Floyd in 2020 led to “the sudden adoption of a radical academic doctrine, the Critical Race Theory” – and that both CRT and Black Lives Matter are motivated. by an exaggerated sense of the statistical risk of being killed by the police. While Pinker soon returns to what he suggests as a “psychologically obtuse” account of BLM’s origins, the chronological nonsense of the claim and the characterization of CRT as “doctrine” is without evidence or argument. After all, could he say, they are just examples.
May be. But, as Pinker puts it in another context, “the content of a logical problem matters.” And as the examples pile up, one wonders what is being forbidden: the formal, rhetorical traps of logical argument, or the substance of thoughtful engagement? Pinker treats Mariame Kaba 2020 New York Times editorial in favor of abolishing the police as an example of the confusion between “less than perfect causation” and “no causation”, because it is based on the fact that, in the current system, few rapists are prosecuted. “The columnist did not think,” he writes, “that even fewer could be prosecuted without the police. In fact, Kaba’s argument is not based on rape at all; it begins by discussing the amount of time police spend on traffic violations and noise complaints, and reviews a history of more than a century of unsuccessful attempts at police “reform” (the aim of his article). What good is such a false statement used?
It is a treatise on rationality that decries and exploits both cynicism and gullibility, sometimes on the same wavelength. Blaming universities’ “suffocating left-wing monoculture” for popular mistrust of expertise, Pinker mentions two examples in the text: Prof. Greg Patton’s withdrawal from a course after using Chinese don’t ga, which may sound like the N word, and testimonials from anonymous personal “penpals”. (In a footnote, he invites readers to consult Heterodox Academy, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, and Quillette-all-for other examples.) The next paragraph warns against “the illusions instilled by the pursuit of sensationalist anecdotes.” Doctor, get well!
This paradox of defining reason as a universal means while invoking it as a specific norm, which Pinker specializes in, now has broader political implications, as in the Age of Enlightenment. Do you remember the San hunters? It was one thing to appreciate their fine calculations when it came to emphasizing the universality of reason as a human tool. But as the theme of reality versus mythology returns, at the end of the book, rationality has new heroes: the people Pinker identifies as “children of the Enlightenment” (Western, educated, industrialized, wealthy, democratic) . Unlike the San – in fact, unlike everyone else – these champions not only possess the tools of rationality but “to embrace the radical creed universal realism ”(emphasis added). To them belongs an “imperial mandate … to conquer the universe of belief and to push mythology to the margins”, so that a “technocratic state” can act on their rational beliefs. Welcome to Steven Pinker’s Kingdom of Ends.