Rationality by Steven Pinker review – everything goes without saying | Science and nature books

WWhether in primitive tribes or in the most technologically advanced cities of the 21st century, human beings are born with the ease of reasoning. It takes rational analysis to track down an animal, just as it does to decide which utility company offers the best deal. So why are we inclined to act irrationally, to be persuaded by bad arguments and led by cynical leaders?

This is the question that, in so many words, Steven Pinker seeks to answer in his new book. Pinker, the cognitive psychologist at Harvard, is the author of a number of voluminous books that have become increasingly popular, and perhaps more controversial, in their approach. After unraveling the mysteries of cognition and the way we learn grammar, he moved on to the argument that humanity is becoming less violent in The best angels of our nature.

This book has sparked much controversy, and the affable Pinker has become an increasingly disparaged figure by those who regard him as a white male product and a defender of the scientific establishment. Among others, Rationality is also a response to these critiques, a reaffirmation of critical thinking against the encroachments of critical theory.

As he writes: “Trendy academic movements like postmodernism… argue that reason, truth, and objectivity are social constructs that justify the privilege of dominant groups. Pinker’s line is that while we can never definitively establish objective truth, objective truth nonetheless exists, and our best way to approach it is through rational understanding.

But what does rationality really mean? Essentially, it is a set of rules and tools that help us eliminate prejudices, bigotries, phobias, superstitions and what Pinker calls the “cognitive illusions” that stand between us and our perception. the clearest of reality. Among these tools are systems of logic, probability and empirical reasoning.

Just the mention of such sentences makes me think Star Trek‘s Mr Spock – the archetypal dry and humorless slave of rational thought. Pinker is neither dry nor humorless. And while his jokes might not be entirely funny, he knows that what we find funny is often nothing more than clever reversals of logic. Or as critic Clive James once said, a sense of humor is just common sense, dancing.

Reason has never been as sexy as emotion, and our romantic side will always support the enthusiast over the rational. Yet even Romeo, as Pinker notes, citing psychologist William James, had to use his rational mind to find a way to overcome the obstacles placed between him and Juliet.

As Pinker points out, rationality is really just a way to get what we want, so even the most irrational people are able to make rational choices. Where things get tricky is when our brains, which have evolved to seek mental shortcuts, lead us astray – a fate that regularly visits even the sharpest minds.

To illustrate this trend, Pinker describes some classic pitfalls and fallacies. My favorite is the three-door pick that featured on an American game show. Behind one of the doors was a car and behind the other two a goat. After the contestant selected a door, the host opened one of the other two remaining doors, revealing a goat. Then, the candidate would be offered the possibility to change her choice of door.

Most candidates stuck with their original choice, assuming it was a 50-50 deal – an assumption made even by some notable mathematicians. But they were wrong. Switching to the other gate improves the competitor’s chances of winning the car from one in three to one in two. We find it difficult to calculate this fundamental fact of probability. But imagine there were a thousand doors, and you picked one, and then 998 were opened to reveal goats. Would you still stick with your original choice, rather than going with the other unopened door?

How does a game show puzzle have real life application? Because we draw the wrong conclusions all the time, relying on habit and intuition, and fearful of change. The anti-vaccine movement, says Pinker, is one example. It focuses on extremely rare reactions to vaccines and ignores the much more common consequences of not taking a vaccine.

The same goes for the rise of populism. Someone like Donald Trump lies and contradicts himself almost every time he opens his mouth, but his emotional attraction has often “overshadowed” his logical shortcomings.

It’s hard to argue against Pinker’s own logic, but there will always be a ghost in the machine, those impulses and instincts that serve to distort reality. We are much more likely to die while driving than flying, but this knowledge does little, if anything, to allay the fear of nervous travelers. Ultimately, however, rationality is all we have to keep the world from descending into chaos or tyranny. You cannot argue against it – other than through rational means, which would be doomed to fail. Nevertheless, it would not be rational to underestimate the attraction of the irrational.

Rationality: what is it, why it seems rare, why it matters by Steven Pinker is published by Allen Lane (£ 25). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy on guardbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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