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

Join the discussion


  • 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.

  • 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 🙁

  • 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.

  • To get involved in the discussion and stay up to date, become a registered user.

    It's simple, quick and free.

    Sign me up