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Why Doesn’t Rationality Seem To Matter?

Stephen Pinker
Harvard Gazette
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Unfortunately, in an era blessed with unprecedented resources for reasoning, the public sphere is infested with fake news, quack cures, conspiracy theories, and “post-truth” rhetoric.

Human Rationality

  • The cognitive wherewithal to understand the world and bend it to our advantage is the patrimony of our species.
  • For example, the San of the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa owes their survival to a scientific mindset. During a drought, they think ahead to what would happen if they killed the last plant or animal of its kind, and they spare members of the threatened species.
  • Rationality is a kit of cognitive tools that can attain particular goals in particular worlds.
  • When people’s judgments deviate from a normative model, it sometimes 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:
  • A problem may have been presented to them in a deceptive format, and when it is translated into a mind-friendlier guise, they ace it.
  • The normative model may itself be correct only in a particular environment.
  • The model may be designed to bring about a certain goal, however, people are after a different one.
  • Though explanations of irrationality may absolve people of the charge of outright stupidity, to understand is not to forgive.
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