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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


People in the grip of love or sexual passion are apt to burn their lives down to the ground.
- Margaret Renkl, Nashville’s Mayor Has Stumbled. Who Will Cast the First Stone?, NYT, FEB. 19, 2018


What mystifies me about Brexit is that so few people—particularly in Westminster—have been able to approach it analytically, even rationally. With very little cost benefit analysis, or any modelling that would sensibly use the existing relationship as the benchmark, as any competent business person would normally require before contemplating such a momentous step.

Hard truths are dismissed as Project Fear but they are Project Fact. I can’t see how Brexit is going to be anything other than disastrous for the United Kingdom.
- Gina Miller, It is not possible to “make a success of Brexit”, Prospect, October 31, 2018


A quick refresher on why forced arbitration is so unfair to workers: Workers win less often in arbitration than in court, and when they do win, they get less money than they would in court.
- Terri Gerstein, End Forced Arbitration for Sexual Harassment. Then Do More., NYT, Nov. 14, 2018 [This reflects unfairness only if workers win less often than they deserve and if when winning they get less money than deserved. Compare: "A quick refresher on why going to court is so unfair to employers: Employers win less often in court than in arbitration, and when they lose, they pay more money than they would in arbitration."]


In the late 19th century, a British naval officer described stepping onto a remote, coral-fringed island in the Andaman Sea and encountering one of the world’s most enigmatic hunter-gatherer tribes, an extraordinarily isolated group of “painfully timid” people.... ...
Fascinated, the officer, Maurice Vidal Portman, basically kidnapped several islanders. He took them back to his house on a bigger island, where the British ran a prison, and watched the adults grow sick and die. After returning the children to the island, he ended his experiment, calling it a failure.

“We cannot be said to have done anything more than increase their general terror of, and hostility to, all comers,” Mr. Portman wrote in his 1899 book. ...
Maybe the islanders were traumatized.... ... No one has ever figured out exactly why they are so hostile to outsiders....
- Kai Schultz, Hari Kumar and Jeffrey Gettleman, Islanders Who Killed American Have a History of Guarding Their Isolation, NYT, Nov. 22, 2018



Some excerpts from M. V. Portman's A History of Our Relations With the Andamanese:

Early in January, 1880, I paid a visit to the North Sentinel Island with Colonel Cadell. ...
One day, while marching through the jungle, we came upon a camp of Jarawas, and captured a woman and four small children unhurt. These were kept for a few days on board the Constance, and the woman and one child were then released with a quantity of presents. ...
A few days later, while crossing the island from the south-east to the western coast, Lieutenant Hooper and I met, on a track in the middle of the forest, an old man with his wife and child. ...
We caught the three unhurt and brought them on board. The next day we took the six Jarawas in to Port Blair, where I kept them at my house for some days. They sickened rapidly, and the old man and his wife died, so the four children were sent back to their home with quantities of presents.
This expedition was not a success, for, misled by Mr. Homfray's statements regarding the numbers and ferocity of the aborigines, they were met in a less conciliatory manner than was desirable, and we cannot be said to have done anything more than increase their general terror of, and hostility to, all comers. It would have been better to have left the Islanders alone, until the Onges of the Little Andaman were tamed, and then to have approached them with the assistance of the latter. The facts which justify this view were not, however, known at that time. ...
In March, 1896, three Jarawas fired at some convicts of the Forest Department who were working in the jungle near Mile Tilek, wounded one man and killed another. Three parties were sent in search of them, and they were tracked to a small new village of three huts on the side of Mount Chulnga, after which all trace of them was lost. ...
As regards the Jarawas on the North Sentinel Island, if the Government decide to convert the whole Island into a coconut plantation, for which it is admirably adapted by nature; or if, for scientific or other reasons, it is considered that the aborigines should be tamed, then the Officer in charge of the Andamanese should take a steam launch, a lighter with water tanks, a sailing cutter, and some Andamanese canoes over there in the month of February, anchor them in the lagoon on the south side of the island, and remain there for about two months. He should take with him Andamanese, convicts, Police, and a good number of Onges....
Search parties should go through the jungle and catch some of the male Jarawas unhurt, and should keep them in the camp, taking them out turtle catching, and feeding them on turtle, yams, and such food only as they are accustomed to in their own homes. They should be given presents, and half the number caught should, after a few days, be allowed to return to their villages; if the Onges could accompany them, so much the better.
If others to do not come in willingly with the Onges, they must be captured, and this procedure must be persevered in until the majority of the people on the island have spent some days in the camp, are accustomed to us, and find they are well fed and not injured. ... In this way we might get on a friendly footing with some of them.... ...
A similar policy might be pursued with regard to the Jarawas on Rutland Island, who have not been much molested by us. ...
With the Jarawas of the Great Andaman circumstances are different. ...
At the time of their murder of the convicts of the Forest Department in March, 1896, persons who were unacquainted with the nature of the Andaman jungles, or the habits of the savages, talked about exterminating them... a step directly in opposition to the declared policy of the Government of India, as before shown in this work.... ...
Andamanese have no baggage, have no paths through the jungle, which is very dense and matted, can cross mangrove swamps faster than any other people can follow them, and can go by night as well as by day, swimming the broad creeks and leaving no trail. They travel, also, at a speed which no other person can hope to compete with, at least for long. In order to tame them, they must be caught, and it is this catching which is so difficult. ...
Once caught, they might be kept with the Officer in charge of the Andamanese until they are to a certain extent tamed, and learn a little Hindustani; they might also be taught to smoke, thus establishing a craving which intercourse with us can alone satisfy.... ...
Possibly, after this treatment, some of them, if returned to their own homes, might be the means of inducing the others to become more friendly. The principal difficulty, after they have been caught, in carrying out the above policy, is, that in captivity, the Jarawas sicken and die.

- Portman, M. V, A History Of Our Relations With The Andamanese Vol.2, 1899, pp. 726-727, pp. 762-766


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