Ls&Qs: Rationality and Fear

Two long quotes today, from opposite ends of the spectrum from rationality to fear.

NYT Magazine, 3 Sep 21: Steven Pinker Thinks Your Sense of Imminent Doom Is Wrong

Interview with Pinker, whose new book Rationality comes out on Tuesday.

Your new book is driven by the idea that it would be good if more people thought more rationally. But people don’t think they’re irrational. So what mechanisms would induce more people to test their own thinking and beliefs for rationality?

Ideally there’d be a change in our norms of conversation. Relying on an anecdote, arguing ad hominem — these should be mortifying. Of course no one can engineer social norms explicitly. But we know that norms can change, and if there are seeds that try to encourage the process, then there is some chance that it could go viral. On the other hand, a conclusion that I came to in the book is that the most powerful means of getting people to be more rational is not to concentrate on the people. Because people are pretty rational when it comes to their own lives. They get the kids clothed and fed and off to school on time, and they keep their jobs and pay their bills. But people hold beliefs not because they are provably true or false but because they’re uplifting, they’re empowering, they’re good stories. The key, though, is what kind of species are we? How rational is Homo sapiens? The answer can’t be that we’re just irrational in our bones, otherwise we could never have established the benchmarks of rationality against which we could say some people some of the time are irrational. I think the answer is, especially for publicly consequential beliefs: We achieve rationality by implementing rules for the community that make us collectively more rational than any of us are individually. People make up for one another’s biases by being able to criticize them. People air their disagreements, and the person with the strongest position prevails. People subject their beliefs to empirical tests.

“We achieve rationality by implementing rules for the community that make us collectively more rational than any of us are individually.”


Or, on the other hand, you can close yourself off from the larger community to preserve your irrationality.

Salon, 28 Aug 21: Evangelicals, science and the vaccine: Refusal is built on deep-seated fear

Subtitled, “Too many of my fellow evangelicals see science as the mortal enemy of faith. It doesn’t have to be that way.”

From Darwin to COVID the church has been wrong. It’s really about fear among the Christian faithful when they turn away from science. Even scientific theory is dismissed out of hand by the church because of a fear that somehow science will prove that God does not exist. As the pandemic spreads from one church to another and global warming continues to be ignored by the evangelical movement, it is clear that practitioners of the current Christian faith have not evolved from their ancestors who condemned Galileo and Darwin.  

This is why it has been so difficult to get evangelicals to accept things proven by the scientific community. You have probably noticed that many Republicans still will not confirm that climate change is even a thing. They almost certainly know better but are spineless, too afraid to alienate their hardcore Christian constituency, despite the clear ignorance behind the evangelical understanding of the climate crisis.

As I said, this is about fear. Understand that for many people of faith it has become very challenging to hold onto that faith. Christians are asked to believe in an invisible being in the sky who keeps score of all our sins, and in the literal truth of a giant book put together over thousands of years that describes people rising from the dead, seas parting and water becoming wine. Because of this intense insecurity, which they cannot admit, some Christians cannot tolerate any information that weakens the case for the existence of God. (The more liberal Protestant denominations and the Catholic Church have made some progress in this area, although even there the relationship to science remains uneasy.) When science becomes the enemy, something like a vaccine cannot be trusted — because it was created by the same people that are trying to destroy God.

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