October 20, 2021

At the close of his new book Rationality, after 30 pages of references, the psychologist, psycholinguist and champion of Enlightenment liberalism Steven Pinker offers an alphabetical check-list of the “biases and fallacies” he has spent 10 chapters dissecting and despatching. More than 90 items long, this rogues’ gallery of conceptual crooks ranges from familiar rascals like the “ad hominem fallacy” to our ubiquitous social-media chum “tu quoque” — who now goes by the trendier name of “whataboutery”. 

Along the way his identity parade (all guilty, m’lud) takes in hardened malefactors such as “false dichotomy”, “guilt by association” and “straw man”, in addition to more exotic wrong’uns like the “motte-and-bailey tactic” (a kind of medieval cousin to that old lag “moving the goalposts”) and — a new favourite of mine — the “Texas sharpshooter fallacy”. First you fire a bullet into the barn door. Then you paint a bull’s-eye neatly round the hole. Ta-da! Much investment “advice” comes right out of that Texan barn.

Almost any arena of opinion and argument offers the prospect of a full card at Pinker Bingo. Political knockabout of the sort you hear weekly either in Westminster or on Question Time gives you the chance to shout “House!” within minutes. Even public debate that should bow readily to evidence-based reasoning, such as the international response to climate change, will throw up fogs of rhetorical pollution. Look at the preliminary positions, from both drastic-action radicals and kick-the-can gradualists, staked out in advance of the imminent COP 26 conference in Glasgow. With the planet’s future at stake, advocacy groups still tend to smother the clear light of reason in a dense cloud of confirmation bias, special pleading, guilt-by-association — and so on. You could argue that the comforting litany of targets and initiatives intoned by governments and agencies also deepen the sleep of reason. 

Trust in technocratic fixes may also function as a kind of mind-numbing cult. A century ago, the pioneering sociologist Max Weber — whom Pinker cites much less than he should — saw that the “iron cage” of bureaucratic rationality that defined modern life would become an official religion, prone to heretical pushbacks in the form of mystic, charismatic or ecstatic movements. The stand-off between top-down climate-change bureaucracy and the gestural militancy of the radicals proves him correct.

As in eco-politics, so in media, education, culture and even (arguably) the social superstructures of science itself. Within modern institutions, and modern selves, the sphere of rationality Pinker toils to expand cohabits with what he calls the “mythology mindset”, immune to reason’s charms and claims. Behind the Pinker project lies a teleology of his own, the a priori conviction he permits himself. That is the belief in long-term human progress — measured in indices such as declining violence, improving health and longevity, expanding empathy and solidarity — set out in The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011) and reinforced by Enlightenment Now (2018). 

Critics dismiss this principle of incremental betterment as groundless optimism. He treats it as simple historical factuality. “Progressives don’t like progress,” he has quipped about his radical detractors. “Our picture of the future,” he insists in Rationality, “need not be a bot tweeting fake news forever. The arc of knowledge is a long one, and it bends towards rationality.” 

Pinker’s steadily advancing reason is no alien, Mr Spock-like logic machine or unfeeling calculus of personal advantage. He often cites David Hume, who claimed in his Treatise on Human Nature that “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them”. Take “slave” here to mean something like “operating system” and you approach the Pinker ambition to subject our goals and drives — some selfish, many others not — to a more reflective scrutiny of the mental processes that underlie our choices.

Pinker’s wide appeal rests partly on the self-help, how-to character of his arguments. Wherever your will and desire (those driving passions) make you want to travel, rationality’s toolkit will help you reach your destination. Thus rational-choice theory, which he expounds in the new book with typical brio and lucidity, may serve idealistic as much as self-interested ends even though it sounds “about as lovable as Ebenezer Scrooge”. It powers, for instance, the results-oriented philanthropy of the “effective altruism” movement ­— to the dismay of puritans who expect guilt and lamentation, sackcloth-and-ashes, from would-be social reformers . 

Pinker, though, also wants to uphold truth and morality according to his own liberal-secular lights. So he inflects his value-neutral account of the pitfalls on the road to reason with warnings against the dangers of populist irrationality in power. Enjoyably, he does point out the logical flaw in saying that “we’re living in a post-truth era” (if it’s true, it’s false, like that ancient Cretan liar). Still, the Trump years and their perceived assaults on reason have shaped this new work and — together with glancing allusions to the pandemic — given it a topical edge. He deplores the “myside bias” and skewed “motivated reasoning” of a polarised, them-against-us culture. And he rightly dislikes most forms of binary reasoning. 

In the end, however, Pinker himself reverts to a simple dualism between the “reality mindset” he endorses and the “mythology mindset” that underpins supernatural faith, elects frauds who tell 30,000 lies to the US presidency and — most recently — has killed thousands of conspiracy-prone anti-vaxxers. Near the end of Rationality, he reinvents the oldest wheel on the cart of sociology and anthropology when he states: “The function of these [mythological] beliefs is to construct a social reality that binds the tribe or sect and gives it a moral purpose.” Of course, but what then? How should we try to connect myth and reality? 

The pandemic has shown us that, even in the best-informed societies, the spread of evidence-free “mythological” beliefs and the willingness of millions to act on them can cost lives on a battlefield scale. The task of building bridges between the magical thinker and the reasoning creature — both of whom coexist in every human mind — feels more urgent than ever. Can Pinker’s mental toolkit span the gap?  

Pinker has little sense of dialectic. His clean-cut antithesis between “reality” and “mythology” in human thinking belongs in the lab, or the lecture-room, rather than in the messier interpersonal spaces where we live most of the time. Even Nietzsche — whom, again, he could have profitably consulted more than he does — saw the eternal wrangle between the reason, order and control of Apollo and the frenzy, fury and bliss of Dionysus as a perpetual to-and fro rather than a winner-takes-all struggle. With Pinker, the cause of reason tends to look like a zero-sum game: the light advances and the darkness diminishes, or vice versa.

Pinker is above all a teacher — a professor of psychology at Harvard since 2003. And teachers — unless, perhaps, they teach literature, philosophy or even quantum physics – need truth to vanquish falsity. His career-defining mission to advocate and communicate the tools of reason draws its strength from a pedagogic model rooted in his home-ground disciplines of experimental psychology and psycholinguistics. He may have written an entire book to disprove the tabula rasa picture of the human mind — The Blank Slate in 2002 — but he does believe that sustained effort can help rewrite our pre-existing scripts.

Like any caring teacher, Pinker sometimes has to make us suffer — but it’s all for our own good. “Submitting all of one’s beliefs to the trials of reason and evidence,” he warns, “is an unnatural skill, like literacy and numeracy, and must be instilled and cultivated.”  

It’s not all pain in the Pinker classroom, though. Much of the fun of Rationality comes in the counter-intuitive exercises that our keep-fit instructor sets his cerebrally flabby pupils. If these don’t make your brain (pleasurably) ache as dormant muscles flex into action, then they should. Few readers will forget in a hurry his probability work-outs, especially this one: “Suppose that the prevalence of breast cancer in the population of women is 1%.” A breast-cancer diagnostic test has a true-positive rate of 90% and a false-positive rate of 9%. A woman takes it and tests positive. What are the percentage chances she has the disease? Between 80 and 90%, a sample of doctors estimated. The correct answer is around 9%.

“Bayesian reasoning” — a key component of Pinker’s procedure in Rationality — will direct our attention to the “base rate” of any phenomenon (that 1% prevalence) and avoid distraction by the surface noise of the foreground figures. Base-rate neglect, as he demonstrates, plagues much policy-making, as does the cognate vice of the “availability heuristic”. Rare plane crashes sway behaviour more than frequent car crashes, a blue-moon terror outrage outranks the long-haul attrition of air pollution, and so on. Our judgments, individual and collective, repeatedly succumb to “psychological amplifiers such as recency, vividness, or emotional poignancy”. Hard, or lurid, cases make bad laws — and bad decisions. 

And so on, as the skittles of error fall to reason’s conquering ball. Pinker disentangles our confusions of correlation and causation. He guides us through the moves of formal logic that let us unpick the assertions of advertisers and pundits (some of them deeply intuitive, as when we sceptically say “that’s a big if…”). He outlines game theory and the Prisoner’s Dilemma that asks us to choose between potential gains, or losses, with no knowledge of the other players’ actions.

As a primer for cognitive hygiene, and a booster pack for your powers of critical reflection, Rationality does what it says on the box — and lots more. Yet in Pinker’s pay-off chapter, cheekily titled “What’s wrong with people?”, his grasp falters. His recommendations for improving rationality in public affairs sound either self-evident or anodyne: those rule-governed contracts; scientific peer review; media fact-checking; “statistical and critical thinking” in education; “evidence-based evaluation” in health and social policy. Lamely, he suggests that “It would be nice to see people earn brownie points for acknowledging uncertainty in their beliefs”, or “questioning the dogmas of their political sect”. And who would bestow those coveted points on repentant zealots? Party activists rewarded for loyalty? Social-media corporations that profit from traffic-driving division? Although he throws harsh words against the blowhard simplifications of media commentators, Pinker’s own nostrums often hover around the op-ed level. The “mythology mindset” that flourishes both in party politics and social activism would find little advantage in his forms of deliberative doubt. Just now, polarisation pays.

A teacher to the last, Pinker knows, supremely well, how to lead willing students towards a greater light. What’s missing is a robust model of the “impartial” agencies – communal and political – that might enable people to learn, cherish and deploy the tools of rationality as citizens, not just as pupils or professionals. Correctly, Pinker regrets “the decline of class-crossing civil-society organisations”, like churches and clubs, where people meet for a shared, connective purpose – rather than gather virtually in “sociocultural tribes” made up of uniform but atomised opinion-consumers. But he can’t say much about how super-charged rationality alone would heal the rifts between “myside” and your side.

Curiously, just across the Harvard campus, a solution of sorts might await. The great Bengali-born philosopher-economist Amartya Sen fails to rate a single mention in Rationality. Yet Sen – a Harvard professor since 2004 – began his career as an analyst of “social choice theory”. He has devoted more than half a century of original work to the role of public reasoning in entrenching and enhancing democratic norms.

Sen grew up in Rabindranath Tagore’s utopian community at Santiniketan: the Bengali polymath’s visionary scheme to ground practical reasoning in peaceful and productive daily life. From famine prevention to women’s empowerment and the codification of the UN’s human development index (which he co-created), Sen has argued that the collective pursuit of rationality can serve common goods and deepen the bonds of belonging and community. 

Sen, an admirer of the Adam Smith, believes that strong institutions of collective reasoning can mitigate self-seeking and that “It is the power of reason that allows us to consider our obligations and ideals as well as our interests and advantages” (Development as Freedom). From village councils in India to the building (however incomplete) of accountable global agencies, he has done a lifetime’s best to make democratic rationality work in the public square. Think of it as a project to make Pinker’s “reality mindset” yield the same sort of collective pleasures and rewards as his “mythology mindset”. 

Pinker notes that, on a private level, people to tend to make pretty good sense, and good choices, about their lives. Sen asks how co-operative politics may do that too. For now, Pinker’s Rationality can tell us with forensic verve and agility how to catch out those faith-driven diehards as they blunder through their faulty premises, false syllogisms, illusory correlations and so on. So far, he can’t show convincingly how — or why — they should play a better game.  

Rationality: What it is, why it seems scarce, why it matters by Steven Pinker (Allen Lane, £25)