Welcome back to HxA’s What We’re Reading series, where we chat with authors about their thought-provoking work on issues around viewpoint diversity, constructive disagreement, and open inquiry. 

Today’s exchange is with Steven Pinker, cognitive psychologist at Harvard University, the author of more than ten books, including the New York Times Bestseller, Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters. Rationality explores how the rational pursuit of self-interest, sectarian solidarity, and uplifting mythology can add up to crippling irrationality in a society.

Q. Steven, what led you to write this book?
I had three goals. One was to explain the tools of rationality—”normative models” of how an agent ought to reason—that I think should be second nature to every educated person. These include logic, probability, Bayesian reasoning, statistical decision analysis, rational choice, game theory, and causal analysis. A second was to present research on human reasoning, not as a list of fallacies and biases nor as a set of quick reflexes of hunter-gatherers, but as abilities that work serviceably well in a low-tech, concrete, face-to-face environment but must be supplemented by normative tools that can be applied to novel and abstract challenges. And a third, unavoidable goal was to try to explain why a rational species appears to be losing its mind—why people fall for conspiracy theories, quack cures, fake news, and paranormal woo-woo. 

Q. Who is the book intended for?
A. Any reader of nonfiction. 

Q. Okay, the three big questions (in brief):
(1a) What is rationality?
A. The use of knowledge to attain goals, where “knowledge,” according to a standard definition, is “justified true belief.”

(1b) Why does it seem scarce?
First, rationality is always relative to a goal, and that goal may be rational for us as individuals but irrational for us as society—a kind of Tragedy of the Rationality Commons, as when it makes sense of every shepherd to graze his sheep on the town commons, but when everyone does it, they’re all worse off because the commons gets denuded. Likewise, if everyone is ingenious in gaining prestige within their political sect by glorifying its sacred beliefs and demonizing rival sects, that may work to everyone’s individual advantage, but not to the advantage of the whole society in its interest in the truth and the best policies. 

Another part of the answer is that we are born with primitive intuitions that served us well in traditional societies but have become obsolete in a scientifically sophisticated one. For example, we have the intuition that living things harbor an essence, an inner stuff that makes them function and gives them their powers, and that disease comes from external contaminants that pollute it. That leads us to quack remedies like bloodletting, purging, cupping, and homeopathy, and opposition to genetically modified food, no matter how objectively harmless.  Similarly, the intuition of dualism, that people have minds as well as bodies, leads naturally to a belief in ghosts and ESP and communicating with the dead. And the intuition of teleology or design in our plans and artifacts leads to creationism and the superstition that “everything happens for a reason.”

Now most of us unlearn these intuitions when we buy into the consensus of the scientific establishment—it’s not as if we understand the physiology or neuroscience or cosmology ourselves. But many people don’t trust the scientific establishment, so they fall back on basic cognitive intuitions. 

Finally, the conviction that all our beliefs should be grounded in evidence is psychologically unnatural. I quote Bertrand Russell, “It’s undesirable to believe a proposition when there’s no ground whatsoever for supposing it is true.” But that’s not a truism: it’s a radical manifesto. Most of us insist on reality when it comes to our immediate surroundings and our everyday lives. We have to in order to get the kids clothed and fed, to keep gas in the car and food in the fridge. But we may not care about literal factuality when it comes to distant and cosmic questions like: How did life arise? What happens in remote halls of power? What’s the ultimate cause of disease? Until there was modern science and record-keeping and journalism, we had no way of finding out the answers anyway. Mythology was the best we could do, and the criteria were uplift and solidarity and entertainment, not literal truth. 

(1c) Why does it matter?
irst, rationality matters to our personal lives. People who follow normative models and avoid cognitive fallacies, on average have fewer accidents and mishaps, have better financial, health, employment outcomes, and are less likely to be swindled by medical or psychic charlatans. 

Second, rationality matters for material progress. In my previous book, Enlightenment Now, I showed that longevity, peace, prosperity, safety, and quality of life have all increased over time. This did not come from some mystical force called “progress” that lifts us ever upward. It came from deploying reason to improve human flourishing.

Third, rationality matters for moral progress. When researching an earlier book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, I was surprised to see how many of the great moral improvements in history, such as the reduction of religious persecution, cruel punishments, autocracy, war, slavery, and the oppression of women and gay people, began with an argument. A philosopher or activist would present arguments why some practice of the day was incompatible with values that everyone claimed to hold. Their treatise would be distributed and translated and discussed in salons and pubs and coffeehouses, spreading to those in power and eventually becoming the law of the land. Not only has rationality inspired moral progress, but it should inspire it: it spells the difference between moral force and brute force, between marches for justice and lynch mobs, between human progress and breaking things. And it will be needed to ensure that moral progress will continue: that the abominable practices of our day will be seen by our descendants as slave auctions and heretic burnings seem to us. 

Q. Why should HxA’s audience care about this topic?
In resolving the paradox of how a species smart enough to have discovered the Big Bang, DNA, and vaccines could believe so much superstition and nonsense, I came to realize that institutions were vital—communities that run by truth-enhancing rules, like liberal democracies with their checks and balances, the judicial system with its adversarial process and presumption of innocence, science with its empirical testing and peer review, responsible journalism with its editing, fact-checking, and source-verification, and academia, with its commitment to free inquiry and open debate. Ideally, they allow the flaws in one person’s reasoning to be corrected by others. When universities are suffocated by cancel culture and other kinds of repression of intellectual freedom, we are disabling our only known means for approaching the truth, and sapping the credibility of the institutions that people must trust if they are to replace their superstitions and folk beliefs with our best understanding of reality. 

Q. What kind of pushback have you received from the book? Have you changed any of your views as a result?
A. Some of the pushback has been ideological and ad hominem – some reviewers are shocked that I put the shibboleths and dogmas of wokeism or Trumpism under the magnifying glass of reason and have tried to discredit me. Some of the criticisms have been useful, such as questioning whether the “madman strategy” in international relations (an example of the “rational irrationality” I try to explain) has ever really been effective. Some have been amusing – my references to pop culture are too boomer. And some have provided welcome support—former HxA Communications Director Musa Al-Gharbi’s recent op-ed No, America is not on the brink of a civil war awakened me to a literature that empirically supports an idea I had presented as sheer conjecture, namely that people can treat their beliefs as expressions of moral solidarity rather than assessments of empirical reality.

Q. What’s your next big project?
A.  I just completed a BBC radio and podcast series, Think with Pinker,” which explores many issues in rationality in conversation with theorists and practitioners in fields such as medicine, law, governance, sports, education, punditry, forecasting, and investing. And I’m starting work on a new book growing  out of my research, provisionally titled Don’t Go There: Common Knowledge and the Science of Civility, Hypocrisy, and Outrage.