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Irrationality

It is no secret, especially here in America, that we live in a post-Enlightenment age in which rationality, science, evidence, logical argument and debate have lost the battle in many sectors, and perhaps even in society generally, to superstition, faith, opinion and orthodoxy.
- Neal Gabler, The Elusive Big Idea, NYT, Aug. 13, 2011


Few people think more than two or three times a year; I have made an international reputation for myself by thinking once or twice a week.
- attributed George Bernard Shaw (perhaps incorrectly)


Take what happened with spinal fusion, an operation that welds together adjacent vertebrae to relieve back pain from worn-out discs. Unlike most operations, it actually was tested in four clinical trials. The conclusion: Surgery was no better than alternative nonsurgical treatments, like supervised exercise and therapy to help patients deal with their fear of back pain. In both groups, the pain usually diminished or went away.

The studies were completed by the early 2000s and should have been enough to greatly limit or stop the surgery, says Dr. Richard Deyo, professor of evidence-based medicine at the Oregon Health and Sciences University. But that did not happen, according to a recent report. Instead, spinal fusion rates increased....
- Gina Kolata, Why ‘Useless’ Surgery Is Still Popular, NYT, Aug. 3, 2016


This is the mentality of a cult, in which fantastical beliefs are flaunted as proof of one's piety. That mentality cannot coexist with an esteem for the truth, and I believe it is responsible for some of the unfortunate trends in recent intellectual life. One trend is a stated contempt among many scholars for the concepts of truth, logic, and evidence.
- Steven Pinker, Preface to The Blank Slate, p. x


Once she [Martha Nussbaum] began studying the lives of women in non-Western countries, she identified as a feminist but of the unfashionable kind: a traditional liberal who believed in the power of reason at a time when postmodern scholars viewed it as an instrument or a disguise for oppression.
- Rachel Aviv, The Philosopher of Feelings, The New Yorker, July 25, 2016


It’s easy to point to a Google or a Facebook algorithm for the rise of fake news, but it’s wholly insufficient. The misinformation spread through the echo chamber of the web and social media is the symptom — not the source — of a much deeper and systemic problem.

The problem is that we aren’t ever taught how to think clearly. Most people are unaware of our hard-wired cognitive biases. We aren’t trained how to spot logical fallacies in our own arguments and the arguments of others. It takes time and persistence to overcome these obstacles, and most people just don’t have the luxury or the interest to put in the effort.

If we want a better democracy with more informed citizens, then we need to find a better way to provide people with the cognitive tools needed to better detect misinformation and lies. It’s not a problem that can be solved with a new algorithm.
- Mark Bessoudo, Letter to the Editor, NYT, Nov. 28, 2016


The Enlightenment included thinkers like John Locke and Immanuel Kant who argued that people should stop deferring blindly to authority for how to live. Instead, they should think things through from the ground up, respect facts and skeptically re-examine their own assumptions and convictions. ...
Today’s anti-Enlightenment movements don’t think truth is to be found through skeptical inquiry and debate. They think wisdom and virtue are found in the instincts of the plain people, deep in the mystical core of the nation’s or race’s group consciousness.
Today’s anti-Enlightenment movements believe less in calm persuasion and evidence-based inquiry than in purity of will. They try to win debates through blunt force and silencing unacceptable speech. ...
We live in a time when many people have lost faith in the Enlightenment habits and institutions.
'- David Brooks, The Enlightenment Project, NYT, FEB. 28, 2017


Coming from a group of academics in the nineteen-seventies, the contention that people can’t think straight was shocking. It isn’t any longer. Thousands of subsequent experiments have confirmed (and elaborated on) this finding. ...reasonable-seeming people are often totally irrational. Rarely has this insight seemed more relevant than it does right now. Still, an essential puzzle remains: How did we come to be this way?

In a new book, “The Enigma of Reason” (Harvard), the cognitive scientists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber take a stab at answering this question. ...
Living in small bands of hunter-gatherers, our ancestors were primarily concerned with their social standing, and with making sure that they weren’t the ones risking their lives on the hunt while others loafed around in the cave. There was little advantage in reasoning clearly, while much was to be gained from winning arguments. ...
It’s no wonder, then, that today reason often seems to fail us. As Mercier and Sperber write, “This is one of many cases in which the environment changed too quickly for natural selection to catch up.”
Steven Sloman, a professor at Brown, and Philip Fernbach, a professor at the University of Colorado, are also cognitive scientists. They, too, believe sociability is the key to how the human mind functions or, perhaps more pertinently, malfunctions. They begin their book, “The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone” (Riverhead), with a look at toilets. ...
Where it gets us into trouble, according to Sloman and Fernbach, is in the political domain. It’s one thing for me to flush a toilet without knowing how it operates, and another for me to favor (or oppose) an immigration ban without knowing what I’m talking about.
- Elizabeth Kolbert, WHY FACTS DON’T CHANGE OUR MINDS, New Yorker, FEBRUARY 27, 2017


But Mr. Trump’s tweets on Monday made his feelings evident for all to see and raised questions about how he is managing his own administration.

“They wholly undercut the idea that there is some rational process behind the president’s decisions,” said Walter E. Dellinger, who served as acting solicitor general under Mr. Clinton.
- PETER BAKER and MAGGIE HABERMAN, Trump Grows Discontented With Attorney General Jeff Sessions, NYT, JUNE 5, 2017


At the news conference on Wednesday, Wanda Llovet, the director of Puerto Rico’s demographics registry, said more people died in September because so many young people had left the island, leaving Puerto Rico with an aging population.

Her colleagues, though, said that her reasoning was flawed, since the population had dropped and the absolute number of elderly had not increased.
- ;:- FRANCES ROBLES, Puerto Rico Deaths Spike, but Few Are Attributed to Hurricane, NYT, NOV. 8, 2017


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