About Rationally Speaking


Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Why are so many people irrational?

This question has been posed to me a few minutes ago by a contributor to this blog. Here is what I think. At least to some extent, widespread irrationality and lack of critical thinking are a result of basic human biology (and, rather ironically as far as creationist are concerned, of evolution).

Neurobiological research shows that the human brain is hard-wired to jump to conclusions in the face of little evidence, then stick with it. This was probably a good idea during the Pleistocene, when one needed to make instant decisions about life-threatening matters, and not waffle about them.

It's similar to the idea that so many people in modern Western societies are overweight because their primordial instincts tell them to eat as much sugar and fat as possible, even though they now have 24hr access to cheap junk food.

As in the case of weight control, critical thinking therefore requires rigorous exercise and constant practice. Which is why one way to think of (good) books, (sensible) newspapers, (professional) radio-TV broadcasts, and (progressive?) blogs is as gyms for your brain...

18 comments:

  1. (1) Viscerotonia - characterized by love of physical comfort, these individuals seemed motivated to assimilate and conserve energy

    (2) Somatotonia - characterized by love of power and risk, these individuals seemed motivated to expend and utilize energy

    (3) Cerebrotonia - these individuals seemed to be characterized by hyperexpressionality, and love of privacy and control
    (1) Endomorphy - persons dominated by the digestive system; characteristically fat, with underdeveloped musculature

    (2) Mesomorphy - persons displaying a sturdy appearance; "athletic"

    (3) Ectomorphy - persons who were fragile, delicate, slender

    Compliments of Dr. William Sheldon

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  2. William, are you presenting Sheldon's categories as an example of irrationality or an explanation? I'm wondering because irrational people tend to gravitate toward theories which sound good but have little or no substance.

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  3. Yeah, like a diet based on your blood type. A friend of mine was gushing over that one.

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  4. I would agree that we really do come from ancestors who were plagued by very similar problems to ourselves.

    HOWEVER

    The thing is, humans haven't changed notably since the Pleistocene. (if such an era outside of geology did exist) But if they have adapted at all, my guess would be that we - as presumably affluent populations - are in fact LESS able to cope with other person’s irrationality than we use to be. Religion notwithstanding, this is the state of affairs as it is for people groups who are not forced to be resourceful and have no need to work together.

    In the absence of the above mentioned conditions, we could be doing considerably more with the vast amount of information and tech that we have, not to mention the speed which it can be rocketed around the world, than to find new (er, progressive) ways to not only jump to conclusions, but to be able to send those same conclusions around the world rapidly, so even MORE people can participate in re-activism.

    Nope. Technology hasn't changed our true natures nary a bit.

    c

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  5. I really have never been a fan of any system that seeks to categorize human behavior into buckets as many psychological tests attempt to do. Its strikes me a bit "soft" science wise, a bit like astrology in where I a part of me identifies with the characteristic of each of the defined categories.

    The "-morphy" categories above are a bit more concrete because they are based on physical descriptions - not unlike how anatomists categorize morphological differences -- though there are still those who blur the lines.

    The behavioral categories - as I said, I feel are mostly meaningless given the plasticity of human behavior.

    Likewise, referring to people as "rational" or "irrational" is rarely that black and white. Many people are perfectly rational in one aspect of their lives and completely irrational in another aspect. They are able to compartmentalize their irrationality.

    Michael Shermer (no stranger to those fans of Massimo, I would hazard to guess) wrote about this in "Why People Believe Weird Things". As Massimo conjectures in the original post, there were very strong selection pressures that favored humans making a Type II error, i.e. accepting that there might be a tiger behind the bush without any evidence. If you were wrong to believe falsely no big deal, but if you were skeptical the one time a tiger really was behind the bush -- well lets just say that skeptical gene didn't get propagated.

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  6. “Nope. Technology hasn't changed our true natures nary a bit.”

    Evolution occurs over a long, long period of time. Technology (at least the type that has led to mass transit, mass communication and an overall greater exchange of ideas) has simply not had enough time to assist in a change from irrationality to rationality.

    Of course, it probably is wishful thinking to imagine that it will. The unreasonable definitely have access to the same technology. And since they have a more attractive package (although with less substance) technology will most likely serve their purposes more.

    Anyway, I’m inclined to agree that being reasonable is hard work. It’s hard to resist the urge to jump to conclusions, use fallacious reasoning, say just about anything to win an argument. That’s why I appreciate sites like this, where one can choose to take time before answering questions and debating points until they’ve formulated something relevant and sound. But I guess first one has to choose to take that time.

    Noah

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  7. "Technology has simply not had enough time to assist in a change from irrationality to rationality."

    In the span of technological applications, which to me is not proof of an increasingly more intelligent species, but instead a lazy one, we have also lost some societal and environmental factors that might help us see reasons to be patient.

    Technology does certainly have some good things going for it in terms of medical applications. There are, however, just a huge number or areas where technology actually stimulates the increase in our demand for "rights", and thus can even tend to make our society more irrational and naturally demanding. Religion isn’t the issue here.


    "It’s hard to resist the urge to jump to conclusions, use fallacious reasoning, say just about anything to win an argument."

    You're addressing me, more or less, so I wonder if you are referring to something you think I've done here.

    cal

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  8. Cal,

    I apologize if my post wasn’t clear, but I was actually referring to myself in that quote. I do find it hard to be reasonable sometimes. One of my weaknesses is that I don’t always think clearly on my feet when pressed. That’s why I appreciate forums like this, I have time to think about what I want to say before I say it (as well as some times use a spell check.) That doesn’t mean I won’t make mistakes in reasoning, but it is good practice. But I will admit, you are part of the inspiration for the last line of my post.

    As to religion, your right, religion in general is not the point of this thread, but irrationality is, and there are some religious beliefs that fall squarely into that category. But my main point there wasn’t religion necessarily, just that irrationality is generally more attractive than reason (well, many seem to think so anyway.)

    And technology, well, I did say that it was wishful thinking to believe that it will ultimately lead to more reasonable people. I was just commenting that we live in the most technological time in history and most of that tech has come in a very, very short amount of time. It might be a little to early to judge it’s effects on human reason. (Although I will admit that early indications are not in favor of reason.)

    Noah

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  9. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  10. As in the case of weight control, critical thinking therefore requires rigorous exercise and constant practice. Which is why one way to think of (good) books, (sensible) newspapers, (professional) radio-TV broadcasts, and (progressive?) blogs is as gyms for your brain...

    Um, I'm willing to bet there are a great many progressive blogs (post-modernism, anyone?) that are just as lacking in critical thought as their right wing counterparts. In fact there are very few blogs of any stripe(at least in the political realm) where true objective, fair, critical thought rules the day.

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  11. "But I will admit, you are part of the inspiration for the last line of my post."

    I know that I seldom if ever use sarcasm, nor do I use ad hom attacks. So please tell me what you mean, exactly? That I keep on an issue long after everyone tires of it and goes home?

    There's a reason for that. At home, I was the youngest of five (poor me) and the only way to accomplish a single thing, or be heard, was by sheer persistence.

    Lots of it.

    Likely I drove everybody insane and right over the edge - but I suppose that was the point. You'd think some people would eventually opt to grow up, wouldn't you. :)

    Now about technology and irrationality. There might be a subtle connection between the two. (even tho technology certainly isn't to blame for irrationality) As I started to suggest before, but didn't complete the point, probably a mixture of mental or physical 'laziness'?

    cal

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  12. Cal,

    Your right, the last line of my post was a low blow. I'm sorry.

    Noah

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  13. Noah,

    I appreciate the sentiment, but no need to be sorry.

    It is possible that I view these kinds of discussion (and opposition to my ideas) very much less threateningly than some people do. And I almost always realize that. :) My goal (even tho my writing and idea formation could use much improvement) is to help others (real time or otherwise) to feel less threatened when confronted with difficult people or controversies. That is the first step to truly walking away from irrationality, imnsho.

    For myself, I love the cultures that enjoy communication with others, come what may. (that is, whether the outcome is good or bad) I grew up in a culture (which was sort of old European) where people would often have lengthy discussions on philosophy, theology and politics. And it was no big deal even when neighbors and friends disagreed. Sometimes the men folk would become very animated over certain issues, but would never hold grudges or vendettas about these matters. Of course, the Finns are sort of the epitomine of pacifism and are also very much a model for socialism. But individuals within the community, by all means certainly have (had) their own ideas.

    cal

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  14. So I'm tossing this out here: is it worth trying to present a reasonable point of view on places that are very unreasonable?

    Like, I have been participating on a message board with a lot of antisemites, and I've been arguing against some of the more absurd positions (like, that Jews think gentiles ought to be decapitated for studying Torah, that Jews really want to kill/steal from/cheat non-Jews and then take over the world). And just when I think I *might* be getting through to some of the folks, I get shot down again by people who think Jews are basically evil and so on.

    I'd like to think I might maybe be reaching some of the lurkers who might be unsure if what's being said about Jews is true or not. But then again, I could just be completely wasting my time trying to convert people who have largely built their identities around being anti-Jew.

    What do you all think? Is it worth even making an effort to try? Can reason triumph over hate?

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  15. "I'd like to think I might maybe be reaching some of the lurkers who might be unsure if what's being said about Jews is true or not. But then again, I could just be completely wasting my time trying to convert people who have largely built their identities around being anti-Jew."

    Yeah, but it kind helps to be able to show people how. They will never adopt a new view without a reasonably sound bridge to cross over on. Do you want to be a bridge? Steadfast and sound bridges are not easy to find these days. Sometimes tho, you'll quite honestly wind up with a number of shoe marks on your person.

    I remember one of the few times that I decided to enter a white-supremist chat area. I watched the flow of discussion for of few minutes, and then submitted that one can't make a case for a more genetically sound race by frequently interbreeding. That it in fact, degrades the species and compounds mutations. Etc. etc. Of course, that wasn't very well received. I was cussed and promptly kick out. I was glad, tho. If it made even ONE person think, it was worth it. My mother’s family has a famous German family name that would have made a few of those fools stop and think. But I wouldn’t want acceptance on those terms anyway. Accept me as another ARAB, BLACK or JEWISH human being, or don’t accept me at all.

    cal

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  16. Sometimes tho, you'll quite honestly wind up with a number of shoe marks on your person.

    You said it, sister.

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  17. As Noah well said:

    Anyway, I’m inclined to agree that being reasonable is hard work. It’s hard to resist the urge to jump to conclusions, use fallacious reasoning, say just about anything to win an argument.

    It really is, and we scientists are not at all immune to this weakness, in spite of all the "training" we're supposed to have. If you're reading or listening to something that you agree with, you can't help but accept it without much deeper thought. Partially suspend disbelief, let's say. Well, if it's confirming my previously held ideas, it must be right, isn't it? :-)

    When, on the other hand, somebody is presenting a theory you don't like, or data or interpretations which undermine your pet theories, be sure some feathers will fly. I lost count of how many times I saw this on scientific papers and meetings. In a situation like that, people get really skeptical, nitpicking, demanding the most stringent evidence. And even then, it's a long process to change one's mind, if it gets to happen at all.

    Being a scientist, in my opinion, requires that you try to be a stringent critic even of your own favorite ideas. Which we try, not always with dignified results... :-)

    Cheers
    J

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  18. Most people are lacking an important part of the human equation: Survival instinct. Unless they experience something that conditions them to believe that they have to rely on their own understanding in order to survive, they will equate social norms with truth.

    It will be like a glitch in their reasoning where any deviant beliefs cannot even be considered because of how much they might cause people to reject them.

    So an unpopular claim cannot be looked at objectively or intelligently it is just automatically wrong and there is something wrong with you for even considering it.

    They will even talk about how you think people will like you for bringing them an exotic truth as if that is what motivates people who search for understanding in order to better survive.

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