by UnHerd Staff
Wednesday, 27
October 2021
Event
15:46

Steven Pinker: how rational are you really?

The professor spoke about his new book at an UnHerd members event
by UnHerd Staff


Do we live in a rational world? For all the advances humanity has made over the years and centuries, it is difficult to escape the feeling that we live in irrational times. Or so leading psychologist Steven Pinker argues in his new book ‘Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters’. From cancel culture to online conspiracy theories, the Harvard Professor argues that we are forgetting how to reason and think clearly — two vital tools for the flourishing of mankind.

But is being irrational necessarily a bad thing? Are there certain scenarios in which it might be permissible? Speaking at the Art Workers’ Guild in London, Prof Pinker joined Freddie Sayers to discuss rationality and its limits. Our thanks to Professor Pinker for an enlightening discussion.

What is rationality?

I define it as ‘the use of knowledge to attain a goal’, where knowledge, according to the philosopher’s standard definition, is justified true belief. That means that rationality is always relative to a goal, and what might seem irrational with respect to one goal might, in fact, be the rational pursuit of some other goal.
- Steven Pinker, UnHerdTV

Is irrationality prevailing?

That’d be an understatement. One blatant example is that the habit of punishing people for their opinions is a way of disabling our most powerful means of implementing rationality in the world. This is important because humans, as rational as they are, really do have biases and flaws. If you try out a hypothesis, you see if it withstands scrutiny, criticism, evaluation. If you’re not allowed to broach a hypothesis in the first place, then there are possible solutions that you could never discover, because even considering it might be criminalised. So cancel culture, abrogations of academic freedom and free speech are irrational because they disable mechanisms of rationality. 
- Steven Pinker, UnHerdTV

On social justice ideologues:

The assumption that every difference between groups must be attributed to bigotry is a kind of irrationality, in that it rules out a whole set of alternatives rather than testing them. And among the people who use racism as the explanation for all ethnic outcomes or sexism, there is a rather explicit disavowal of the possibility that these ought to be treated as empirical questions. It’s, you know, ‘your data can go to Hell’…This is not about data.’ But of course it is. Ultimately, if there’s a factual assumption, then it ought to be supported.
- Steven Pinker, UnHerdTV

On trusting the science:

Policy should be driven by the best data on the state of the country, and better still by outcome studies of what works and what doesn’t. But the idea that we should trust the scientists, or trust the public health officials because they’re a kind priesthood, an oracle, should be rejected. Because scientists are necessarily fallible, and if they are treated as infallible oracles, then as soon as they make a wrong recommendation, which is inevitable (because we start out ignorant of everything) then they’ll be dismissed across the board as an unreliable oracle. The only reason we should trust scientists and the only extent to which we should trust scientists, is that they deploy the methods that will get to the bottom of the truth of something.
- Steven Pinker, UnHerdTV

On humility in public health:

Public health officials, what we have not seen enough of is, instead of making paternalistic pronouncements, ‘this is what’s best for you’, to open up the cost benefit analysis. Sadly, there may sometimes not be a cost benefit analysis, especially as there’s a built-in tendency of bureaucracies to be irrationally risk-averse, because they get blamed for the failure but not credited for the success. But nonetheless, we’d be better off if their incentives were more aligned with the benefit of the country.
- Steven Pinker, UnHerdTV

On ‘gut feelings’:

What we probably call intuition might be the accumulation of experience of many probabilistic cues, which we might intuitively add up, or aggregate, that can lead to an impression whose logic we can’t articulate, but that is not based on your gut. But we’ve used the word gut — what we might refer to is the aggregation of a lot of probabilistic cues.
- Steven Pinker, UnHerdTV

On ‘rational’ emotional decision-making:

There’s nothing irrational about factoring in your own emotions. In fact, quite the contrary, rationality always is in pursuit of some goal, and that goal depends on what you want, and how you feel.
- Steven Pinker, UnHerdTV

On the correlation between IQ and rationality:

Although it correlates with IQ, it’s an imperfect correlation. So there are plenty of smart people in the sense of powerful brains, they can recite strings of digits backwards from memory. But they are suckers for some of these fallacies. And conversely, there are some people who may not be the sharpest knife in the drawer, but they’ve got enough sense to avoid fallacies.
- Steven Pinker, UnHerdTV

On men vs. women:

There is the sexist stereotype of women as more emotional and flighty. If anything, if you’re going to go by stereotypes, it’s the men that are the less rational of the species, because most of the classical fallacies of critical thinking are things like appeals to authority, the use of debating tactics like interrupting, like a loud, low voice, like the cold stare. The primate dominance tactics of intimidation that can lead someone to appear to win an argument not based on their merits, but just because they are so overbearing.
- Steven Pinker, UnHerdTV

Why do people believe in conspiracies?

There are whacky beliefs out there but the people who believe them are not psychotic…So the question for people who believe in these conspiracies are: in what sense do they really believe it? Is it that they believe it in the same sense that they believe that there’s milk in the fridge, or there isn’t? Or is it the kind of thing that ‘it’s well, whether or not the Democrats are doing it, it’s the kind of thing that they would be capable of doing, that’s how evil they are. And so I think they’re doing it, who’s to say they aren’t’. It’s almost a way of saying ‘boo liberals’, but stated as a factual belief, so it’s interesting. 
- Steven Pinker, UnHerdTV

Do we want a world without mythology?

Well, not if it’s consumed as fiction. And not if we maintain the distinction between fact and fiction. If it’s, ‘I don’t care, this fact or fiction, if you want to think that it actually happened, that’s fine with me’, then I think that is bad.
- Steven Pinker, UnHerdTV

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Norman Powers
Norman Powers
11 months ago

Interesting but I’m not sure I agree with his definitions or examples.
To me, rationality means clear thinking and correct use of logic regardless of your motivations/goals. Defining rationality as always relative to some goal feels wrong. Either a position is rational, in which case it was reached via some robust chain of reasoning from its premises, or it’s irrational and should be called out as such. If the exact same argument is rational or not depending on your wider goals, then it becomes impossible to determine if an argument or person is rational or not, or it becomes impossible to argue against a position because the speaker will simply assert that it’s a “rational” argument within the context of their goals.
Indeed, it feels like you’d very quickly get into some sort of loop trying to argue about this. Are public health measures against COVID rational? I’d say no because the goals themselves are often irrational, but by Pinker’s setup, you can’t even claim that? The rationality of a goal often depends on the rationality of the means or arguments used to reach that goal, but in this framing goals are ‘outside’ of the question of rationality. You literally cannot even claim a goal is irrational.
This part really rams the point home:

There’s nothing irrational about factoring in your own emotions. In fact, quite the contrary, rationality always is in pursuit of some goal, and that goal depends on what you want, and how you feel.

If arbitrary self-centred emotional reasoning is allowed to be rational then basically anything is. “I killed the man at the bus stop because he smiled at me oddly” would be rational in this framing because they were simply trying to rationally meet the goal of feeling better.
Another wobbly bit:

There is the sexist stereotype of women as more emotional and flighty. If you’re going to go by stereotypes, it’s the men that are the less rational of the species, because most of the classical fallacies of critical thinking are things like appeals to authority, the use of debating tactics like interrupting, like a loud, low voice, like the cold stare

I’ve read lists of logical fallacies and a particular type of voice never appears because that’s illogical – for something to be a fallacy of argumentation it must also be a fallacy in written form. I don’t think anyone would ever claim they won a debate because they spoke louder or interrupted more often.
It’s a pity because I agree with him on some stuff, and rationality is something we need to all talk and think about more. But if you’re going to position yourself as an expert on it then you need to speak very precisely and avoid using fallacious reasoning yourself. Pop psychology is in a particularly poor place to do this because so much psychological research ends up being a form of rational-looking irrationality, which is why so much fails to replicate. Like, for example, loss aversion, which Pinker cites as a form of irrationality.
For that reason I don’t feel like academic psychology has much to contribute to the topic of rationality 🙁

Last edited 11 months ago by Norman Powers
Marcia McGrail
Marcia McGrail
11 months ago
Reply to  Norman Powers

Thank you for your clear sighted rebuttal of ‘pop culture’ professorial obfuscation. I have perfectly rational belief (aka faith) in a practical application of absolute truth and resent the fallacious mockery such ‘expert’ opinors cast abroad.
Unfortunately, those entrusted with providing rationality at this point in human history lean on sand foundations and the edifice is becoming top heavy.
Just as unfortunately those less clear sighted will fall for his double talk.

Lee Jones
Lee Jones
11 months ago
Reply to  Norman Powers

I do find your comment interesting (my own mind tends to that way of thinking), but it seems to confuse philosophical logic with mathematical logic, and furthermore to confuse what is logical with what is rational.

ralph bell
ralph bell
11 months ago

At last a series of simples explanations of the concepts that I can understand described in his book.
Its so refreshing and heartening to hear a learned academic have the courage to share his own original thoughts, without bowing to dogma or mob mentality.

Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
11 months ago

If I may dare to dissgree: It is part of the male style, if you like, to gain status by winning arguments, and so use also unfair means of doing it. But it is part of the corresponding female style to avoid the arguments in the first place, because arguments are a threat to harmony, and even openly expressed disagreements makes it harder to end up with a harmonious consensus (see, the work of Deborah Tannen for a reference). Of the two, I would argue the male style is closer to rationality, because it gives more space and priority to dealing with the disagrements, rather than avoiding them.

Last edited 11 months ago by Rasmus Fogh
Jane Watson
Jane Watson
11 months ago

“rationality is always relative to a goal, and what might seem irrational with respect to one goal might, in fact, be the rational pursuit of some other goal”.

By this ‘rationale’, almost any behaviour, however appalling, could be deemed ‘rational’? Some very worrying trends, including the termination of imperfect babies and murder of the infirm elderly, are not entirely ‘irrational’. But they may well be inhuman. Learned scientists and medics conspired to enact ‘the final solution’; very rational, if your goal is evil.

I suspect that people with high IQ believe themselves to be more rational (as in ‘making more rational/sensible decisions’) than the average person, but I am not so sure. Some can be human libraries of information but somehow not see the wood for the trees. Someone should devise a test for common sense/gumption and see if it correlates with IQ; I’d hazard a guess that, at both extremes of IQ, common sense can be in short supply.

I love some of Pinker’s books, Blank Slate and How the Mind Works are excellent primers in evolutionary psychology, so I should read this. But I don’t fear, as seems to be implied, that people are less rational now than in the past. Pinker’s own assertion, that humanity has never lived in more privileged circumstances, would seem to contradict this pessimism.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
11 months ago

I could not watch much of it because of my strong biases against Pinker’s world reality.

Atheist, Secular-Humanist, Post Modernism done from a position of total confidence. (Although I suspect Pinker was once mugged by reality, so is more a Post-Modernist-Conservative). as PostModernism is of the Left, being from the Frankfurt school, so a blend of Freud, Marxism, existential and Nihilism. They developed ‘Critical Theory’, and thus Facoult and Derrida tweaked it, and thus Post Modernism, that dark and pernicious philosophy which has captured all the education systems, and Left thinkers.

Postmodernism is the rejection of the model of reality the rational thinkers and science created; the concept of 500 years of Modern Thinking (Renaissance, Reformation, and modern-modern), ‘thus ‘Post-Modernism’ is the name of those who have moved on from Western conventional Reality and Truth.

As physics studying sub atomic particles must not just use Newtonian Maths and physics because at that level the sub atomic particles no longer behave in a way which those real world measurements work. So the post modernists believe all the old rational thinking is totally flawed – and thus nothing can be true but the dialectic, the discussion between intellects – as our senses are utterly untrustworthy, and reality is subjective. That reality is just what we can rationally demonstrate from our position intellectually by discussion – he says it above:

What is rationality?
I define it as ‘the use of knowledge to attain a goal’, where knowledge, according to the philosopher’s standard definition, is justified true belief. That means that rationality is always relative to a goal, and what might seem irrational with respect to one goal might, in fact, be the rational pursuit of some other goal.”

Thus all society is identity politics. One is not Fred Jones in Post modernism, one is (say) a strait, white, male, low income, under-educated, American…. and on, one is all a blend of ‘IDENTITIES’.

Then – because all which can be known is the dialectic, and dialogue between intelligence Must be competitive, to attempt to dominate, and so ALL human interaction is Oppressor and Oppressed. Thus all identities are oppressor and oppressed. And thus Intersectionality – and from that the only justice is ‘Equity’, but this guy is not that far down the rabbit hole… “Intersectionality is an analytical framework for understanding how aspects of a person’s social and political identities combine to create different modes of discrimination and privilege”

Anyway – the Pinker intellectuals totally dismiss any ultimate, that there is something beyond the mundane, and so morality and ethics are merely human inventions. Life is the march to death, and then Nilos, nothing. The Philosophy of Atheist, Secular-Humanism intellectual maste*bat*on. No good and evil, no 10 Commandments, No divinely given ethics and Morality – just a philosophy of

“Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.”

All clever, all involved in every aspect of everything thinking, but in the end, nilos..a hopeless philosophy. I could not read Dawkins for the same reason. You do not have to have religion, but to dismiss it out of hand says you believe the coin on the table is heads up, but there is nothing else to know of it, like the other side….You do not believe in Good and evil – and as I have seen good and evil I cannot accept anything someone who refutes that. They see half of reality – and deny the other. Thus all they say is meaningless.

This kind of philosophy always leads to Totalitarianism in the end, as there is no inherent good and evil….

Jane Watson
Jane Watson
11 months ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

I have the same aversion to Dawkins, but not so far to Pinker. I think he holds his atheism less self-righteously than Dawkins, and does show respect for beliefs, myths and tradition. If these rarified ‘thinkers’ have helped deliver the current identity politics nonsense, it goes some way to prove that their world view is lacking – and perhaps explains the surge of conspiracy theories and distrust of ‘experts’. Joe Public trusts his instincts (poor unenlightened fool) and smells a rat.

robert stowells
robert stowells
11 months ago

I totally disagree with Pinker’s views or explanation of conspiracy theories. I believe that I am far from being a conspiracy theorist but I believe that this is because critically the balance of my perception of what was taking place in the world was not fundamentally challenged in the past. That balance became seriously challenged during the Anti-Brexit era in UK which I regarded as anti-democratic madness. It is when your balance of what you expect as normal standards in the world is challenged or undermined such that your mind is struggling to find a foothold in sanity that the grounds for so called “conspiracy theory” emerge. The “conspiracy theory” is arrived at as a more reasonable explanation of the madness in the world than what is being offered and can be almost a subconscious struggle akin to the effort and work done by our bodies in achieving balance in the physical world when we stand and walk around. Pinker acknowledges none of this but prefers to focus on whacky examples claiming that people effectively dream up or launch conspiracy theories with no motive for doing so other than that they “might” be true. He also suggests that we should accept the scientists and their models provided they are adequately explained. The subconscious puzzling or registering in the back of my mind in relation to the COVID phenomenon first emerged, for instance, when Italy made double headlines in early 2020. Firstly, there was the Italian national debt and secondly, there was Italy as a centre for the outbreak of COVID. Particularly as the world reaction to COVID developed in the following days I wondered whether there was a connection between Italian debt and Italy being at the forefront of COVID breakout. Later again after reading Ian Birrell’s article on the Wuhan lab I got to wondering further who benefitted from COVID.

Last edited 11 months ago by robert stowells
Jane Watson
Jane Watson
11 months ago

I suspect a huge number of us felt we had entered a parallel universe in the ‘Anti-Brexit era’. And Covid hysteria, BLM riots, eco mania, gender ideology et al have done nothing to reassure us the world has not gone mad. Little wonder people look for theories to explain the nonsensical when they see and hear apparently sane authority figures spout gibberish. I’ve occasionally wondered if Covid’s greatest impact is on the grey matter.

Marcia McGrail
Marcia McGrail
11 months ago

Does Prof Pinker believe Einsteinian et al work on relativity deploy methods that will get to the bottom of the truth? Does Prof Pinker believe in the science showing the existence of possibly 10 dimensions? Does Prof Pinker have experience of any other than the traditional 4? His ilk remind me of Thomas – unless personally affected, refuse to believe. Nay, worse in that he mocks those of us who actually see through the ‘glass’ between dimensions, albeit darkly at present. There is a health promotion concept of deferred gratification – those of us who understand ultimate truth and Jesus Christ’s claims, are on that journey.
No myth.