Reconsidering Rationality, part 2

There’s a form of therapy called Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy that’s been around since the 50s. It’s a short-term form designed to identify self-defeating thoughts and feelings, challenge the rationality of those feelings, and replace them with healthier, more productive beliefs. Be more rational and be happier, right?

The creator of rational emotive behavior therapy, Albert Ellis (1913-2007), wrote a little song about it, which Nicole Turygin brought to my attention. It’s called, “Perfect Rationality”:
Some think the world must have a right direction –
And so do I ! And so do I !
Some think that with the slightest imperfection
They can’t get by, and so do I !
For I, I have to prove I’m superhuman,
And better far – than people are!
To show I have miraculous acumen –
And always rate among the great !
Perfect, perfect rationality
Is, of course, the only thing for me!
How can I ever be so free
And still exist quite fallibly?
Rationality must be a perfect thing for me.
It turns out, there is “a growing rationality movement, with its own ethos, thought style, and body of knowledge, drawn heavily from psychology and economics.” A rationality movement?

Yes, there are books like the Steven Pinker one I mentioned, and Julia Galef’s The Scout Mindset: Why Some People See Things Clearly and Others Don’t. The “scout mindset” is seeking out one’s blind spots, testing one’s assumptions, and changing course – in contrast to the “soldier mindset,” of defending one’s positions at any cost. Galef is co-founder of the Center for Applied Rationality and hosts a podcast called “Rationally Speaking.” And there’s a raft of blogs where rationalistas post their careful reasoning.

This isn’t exactly new – those blogs have been around for between 10 and almost 20 years. Still, it’s now catching on at a higher level. You may not have noticed because the apparent upswing in irrationality has been grabbing more attention. A third of Americans won’t get vaccinated. Many believe in conspiracy theories or pseudoscience.

Maybe it makes sense that rationality would be having a break-out moment. As economist Arnold Kling explains: “The barbarians sack the city, and the carriers of the dying culture repair to their basements to write.”

Maybe that’s what the “doubtless very different St. Benedict” looks like. Benedict of Nursia (480-548), in the early 6th century, composed the "Rule of Saint Benedict", a set of rules for monastic life that were so widely adopted throughout the middle ages that Benedict is thought of as the founder of Western Christian monasticism. This monasticism created enclaves where learning could be preserved as the Roman Empire collapsed.

Alasdair MacIntyre referenced St. Benedict 40 years ago in at the haunting ending of his book After Virtue. Way back in 1981, MacIntyre saw the barbarians not just at the gate but having already sacked the city:
“What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are not waiting for a Godot, but for another – doubtless very different – St. Benedict.” (Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue)
Since I read that back in grad school I’ve been wondering what a “doubtless very different St. Benedict” could be. Maybe the rule of this “doubtless very different St. Benedict” is the rule of probability and randomness, formal logic, Bayesian inference, expected utility, and game theory?

Just as the medieval Christian monastics perceived sinfulness as ever-present even amidst their commitment to a learned and holy life, so the rationalistas understand that delusion is ever-present even amidst commitment to reason. Ambrose Bierce’s “Devil’s Dictionary” defined “rational” as: “Devoid of all delusions save those of observation, experience and reflection.” Which, of course, still leaves a lot of scope for delusion -- and highly rational people know this.

Rationality is one of humanity’s super-powers. And so is confirmation bias. Ninety-nine-point-three percent of the time homo sapiens have been on the planet went by before we hit upon the scientific method – but we did get there. Eventually.

We are bedeviled by cognitive biases, of which confirmation bias is a biggie, but by no mean the only one. We will fall prey to the sunk cost fallacy – which is a tendency to follow through on an endeavor if we have already invested time, effort, or money into it, whether or not the current costs outweigh the benefits. When we should be cutting our losses, we instead keep at an unsuccessful effort in the hope that the costs we’ve already sunk into a project not go to waste. The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan – the way it happened – left much to be desired, but the regret that centered on not wanting the billions of dollars and the thousands of lives to have “all been for nothing” illustrates the sunk-cost fallacy. Better to cut our losses than keep throwing more lives and resources into a fruitless endeavor.

There’s the framing effect – the framing of a decision as protection against loss or a possibility of gain. We are built to be more oriented to protect what we have than to gain something more. And that’s not itself an irrational thing – but becomes so in cases where the avoided loss and the accrued gain are just matters of phrasing. For instance, to encourage students to register early, a college tried assessing a penalty fee for late registration. And then they tried offering a discount for earlier registration. Now, the amount of the discount and the amount of the penalty avoided were exactly the same – the bottom-line costs for registering later and for registering earlier were the same. But when it was called a discount 67% of students registered earlier, and when it was called avoiding a penalty 93% of students registered earlier. That’s the framing effect.

Then there’s the overconfidence effect. For certain types of questions, answers that people rate as "99% certain" turn out to be wrong 40% of the time. A variation on that is the “illusory superiority” effect – which we see when nearly 90% of drivers rate themselves above average.

We are bedeviled by cognitive biases. On the plus side, we are also beings capable of learning to recognize them. We can train our brains to notice when they are being sucked in to a fallacy. There are trainings available for calibrating how certain we FEEL that a statement is true with our actual probability of being wrong about it.

We are capable of learning, remembering, and applying the Bayes rule that posterior probability is equal to prior probability times the likelihood of the data, divided by the commonness of the data. Hmm. That sounds like a bit an uphill slog, maybe. I know some of you are, like, “well, duh” – and, I admire that about you. For me, I’m pretty unlikely to remember that equation or even the meaning of the terms – though I was able to essentially get there with the 2 by 2 grid I made for the video you saw about Audrey’s positive test result (see part 1).

How far toward living rationally do you really want to go? Joshua Rothman writes:
“We want to be more rational as individuals, but not to overdo it. We need to know when to think and when to stop thinking, when to doubt and when to trust.”
We want NOT to be duped by our own cognitive biases, but we also want NOT to turn ourselves into cogs in the machine. Rothman’s essay concludes:
“The realities of rationality are humbling. Know things; want things; use what you know to get what you want. It sounds like a simple formula. But, in truth, it maps out a series of escalating challenges. In search of facts, we must make do with probabilities. Unable to know it all for ourselves, we must rely on others who care enough to know. We must act while we are still uncertain, and we must act in time—sometimes individually, but often together. For all this to happen, rationality is necessary, but not sufficient. Thinking straight is just part of the work.”
I’m not sure how rational I want to be – but maybe just a little more that I am. Maybe just a little more.


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