Rationality And Progress

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Rationality And Progress

Rationality And Progress

As we have seen in our article about bias and why it occurs across various judgment domains. People in all demographic groups display it, and it is exhibited even by expert reasoners, the highly educated, and the intelligent. Studies have shown a tendency toward the narrow search for evidence, biased evaluation of evidence, biased memory of outcomes, and biased evidence generation.

But there is also some rationality to the myside bias, coming from game theory where Dan M. Kahan calls it expressive rationality: reasoning is driven by the goal of being valued by one’s peer group rather than attaining the most accurate understanding of the world. People express opinions that advertise where their heart lies. As far as the fate of the expresser in a social milieu is concerned, flaunting those loyalty badges is anything but irrational. Voicing a local heresy, such as rejecting gun control in a Democratic social circle or advocating it in a Republican one, can mark you as a traitor, a quisling, someone who doesn’t get it, and condemn you to social death. Indeed, the best identity-signaling beliefs are often the most outlandish ones. Any fair-weather friend can say the world is round, but only a blood brother would say the world is flat, willingly incurring ridicule by outsiders.

Unfortunately, what’s rational for each of us seeking acceptance in a clique is not the rationale for all of us in a democracy seeking the best understanding of the world. Our problem is that we are trapped in what Hugo Mercier calls a Tragedy of the Rationality Commons.1 

The reality and mythology mindset.

For example, Mercier notes that holders of weird beliefs often don’t have the courage of their convictions. Though millions of people endorsed the rumor that Hillary Clinton ran a child sex trafficking ring out of the basement of the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria in Washington (the Pizzagate conspiracy theory, a predecessor of QAnon), virtually none took steps commensurate with such an atrocity, such as calling the police. The righteous response of one of them was to leave a one-star review on Google. (“The pizza was incredibly undercooked. Suspicious professionally dressed men by the bar area that looked like regulars kept staring at my son and other kids in the place.”) It’s hardly the response most of us would have if we thought that children were being raped in the basement. At least Edgar Welch, the man who burst into the pizzeria with his gun blazing in a heroic attempt to rescue the children, took his beliefs seriously. The millions of others must have believed the rumor in a very different sense of “believe.” 

Mercier here points out that impassioned believers in vast conspiracies, like the 9/11 Truthers and the chemtrail theorists, publish their manifestos and hold their meetings in the open despite their belief in a brutally compelling plot by an autocratic regime to suppress brave truth-tellers like them. It’s not the strategy you see from dissidents in repressive regimes like North Korea or Saudi Arabia. Mercier, invoking a distinction made by Sperber, proposes that conspiracy theories and other weird beliefs are reflective, the result of conscious cogitation and theorizing, rather than intuitive, the convictions we feel in our bones. It’s a powerful distinction, though we draw it a bit differently, closer to the contrast that the social psychologist Robert Abelson.

People divide their worlds into two zones. One consists of the physical objects around them, the other people they deal with, the memory of their interactions, and the rules and norms that regulate their lives. People have mostly accurate beliefs about this zone, and they reason within it. They believe there’s a real-world and that ideas about it are true or false. They have no choice: that’s the only way to keep gas in the car, money in the bank, and the kids clothed and fed. 

The other zone is the world beyond immediate experience: the distant past, the unknowable future, faraway peoples and places, small corridors of power, the microscopic, the cosmic, the counterfactual, the metaphysical. People may entertain notions about what happens in these zones, but they have no way of finding out, and anyway, it makes no discernible difference to their lives. Beliefs in these zones are narratives, which may be entertaining or inspiring, or morally edifying. Whether they are literally “true” or “false” is the wrong question. The function of these beliefs is to construct a social reality that binds the tribe or sect and gives it a moral purpose. Call it the mythology mindset. 

Bertrand Russell famously said, “It is undesirable to believe a proposition when there is no ground whatsoever for supposing it is true.” The key to understanding rampant irrationality is recognizing that Russell’s statement is not a truism but a revolutionary manifesto. There were no grounds for supposing that propositions about remote worlds were true for most human history and prehistory. But beliefs about them could be empowering or inspirational, and that made them desirable enough. 

Russell’s maxim is the luxury of a technologically advanced society with science, history, journalism, and their infrastructure of truth-seeking, including archival records, digital datasets, high-tech instruments, and communities of editing, fact-checking, and peer review. We children of the Enlightenment embrace universal realism: we hold that all our beliefs should fall within the reality mindset. We care about whether our creation story, our founding legends, our theories of invisible nutrients and germs and forces, our conceptions of the powerful, are true or false. We have the tools to get answers to these questions, or at least to assign them warranted degrees of credence. We have a technocratic state that should put these beliefs into practice. 

It is not the natural human way of believing. The human mind is adapted to understanding remote spheres of existence through a mythology mindset, it’s not because we descended from Pleistocene hunter-gatherers specifically, but because we lacked the Enlightenment ideal of universal realism. Submitting one’s beliefs to the trials of reason and evidence is an unnatural skill, like literacy and numeracy, and must be instilled and cultivated. 

And for all the conquests of the reality mindset, the mythology mindset still occupies swaths of territory in the landscape of mainstream belief. The obvious example is religion. More than two billion people believe that if one doesn’t accept Jesus as one’s savior, one will be damned to eternal torment in hell. Fortunately, they don’t take the next logical step and try to convert people to Christianity at swordpoint for their good or torture heretics who might lure others into damnation. Yet in past centuries, when Christian belief fell into the reality zone, many Crusaders, Inquisitors, conquistadors, and soldiers in the Wars of Religion treated their beliefs as literally true. For that matter, though many people profess to believe in an afterlife, they seem to be in no hurry to leave this vale of tears for eternal bliss in paradise.

Thankfully, Western religious belief is safely parked in the mythology zone, where many people are protective of its sovereignty. In the mid-aughts, the “New Atheists,” Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, and Richard Dawkins, became targets of vituperation not just from Bible-thumping evangelists but also from mainstream intellectuals. They did not counter that God exists. They implied that it is inappropriate, uncouth, or just not done to consider God’s existence a matter of truth or falsity. Belief in God is an idea that falls outside the sphere of testable reality. 

Another zone of mainstream unreality is the national myth. Wich as we argued before, whereas the nationalist system was in full effect in Europe throughout most of the nineteenth century, its’ success in other parts of the world came along at a later point. Whereby today, most countries enshrine a founding narrative as part of their collective consciousness. These were epics of heroes and gods, like the Iliad, the Aeneid, Arthurian legends, and Wagnerian operas. More recently, they have been wars of independence or anticolonial struggles. Common themes include:

The nation’s ancient essence is defined by a language, culture, and homeland.

An extended slumber and glorious awakening.

A long history of victimization and oppression.

A generation of superhuman liberators and founders.

Guardians of the mythical heritage don’t feel a need to get to the bottom of what transpired. They may resent the historians who place it in the reality zone and unearth its shallow history, constructed identity, reciprocal provocations with the neighbors, and founding fathers’ feet of clay. Still, another zone of not-quite-true-not-quite-false belief is historical fiction and, as we have shown in the case of Irish and Scottish Nationalists, fictionalized history.

On the other hand, when the events come too close to the present, or the fictionalization rewrites important facts, historians can sound an alarm, as when Oliver Stone brought an assassination conspiracy theory to life in the 1991 movie JFK. In 2020, others objected to the television series The Crown, a dramatized history of Queen Elizabeth and her family, which took liberties with many depicted events. Most critics and viewers had no problem with the sumptuously filmed falsehoods. Netflix refused to post a warning that some of the scenes were fictitious (though they did post a trigger warning about bulimia).

Offering reasons why rationality matters is a bit like blowing into your sails or lifting yourself by your bootstraps: it cannot work unless you first accept the ground rule that rationality is the way to decide what matters. 

We all do accept the primacy of reason, at least tacitly, as soon as we discuss this issue, or any issue, rather than coercing assent by force. It’s now time to raise the stakes and ask whether the conscious application of reason improves our lives and makes the world a better place. Given that reality is governed by logic and physical law, it ought to be. Do people suffer harm from their fallacies, and would their lives go better if they recognized and thought their way out of them? Or is a gut feeling a better guide to life decisions than cogitation, with its risk of overthinking and rationalization?

One can ask the same questions about the welfare of the world. Is progress a story of problem-solving, driven by philosophers who diagnose ills and scientists and policymakers who find remedies? Or is progression a story of struggle, with the downtrodden rising up and overcoming their oppressors?

We detailed why to distrust false dichotomies and single-cause explanations, so the answers to these questions will not be just one or the other. Are the fallacies and illusions we described above just wrong solutions to complex math problems? Or can poor reasoning lead to actual harm, implying that critical thinking could protect people from their own worst cognitive instincts? 

We discount the future myopically, but it always arrives, minus the large rewards we sacrificed for the quick high. We assess danger by availability and avoid safe planes for dangerous cars we drive while texting. We misunderstand regression as the mean and so pursue illusory explanations for successes and failures.

In dealing with money, our blind spot for exponential growth makes us save too little for retirement and borrow too much with our credit cards. Our failure to discount post hoc sharpshooting, and our misplaced trust in experts over actuarial formulas, lead us to invest inexpensively managed funds that underperform simple indexes. Our difficulty with expected utility tempts us with insurance and gambles that leave us worse off in the long run. 

Our difficulty with logic can lead us to overinterpret a positive test for the uncommon disease in dealing with our health. We can be persuaded or dissuaded from surgery depending on the words in which the risks are framed. Our intuitions about essences lead us to reject lifesaving vaccines and embrace dangerous quackery. Illusory correlations and confusion of causation lead us to accept worthless diagnoses and treatments from physicians and psychotherapists. A failure to weigh risks and rewards lulls us into taking foolish risks with our safety and happiness. 

In the legal arena, probability blindness can lure judges and juries into miscarriages of justice by vivid conjectures and post hoc probabilities. A failure to appreciate the tradeoff between hits and false alarms leads them to punish many innocents for convicting a few more of the guilty.

In many of these cases, the professionals are as vulnerable to folly as their patients and clients, showing that intelligence and expertise provide no immunity to cognitive infections. The classic illusions have been demonstrated in medical personnel, lawyers, investors, brokers, sportswriters, economists, and meteorologists, all dealing with figures in their specialties. 

These are some of the reasons to believe that failures of rationality have consequences in the world. Can the damage be quantified? The critical-thinking activist Tim Farley tried to do that on his website and Twitter feed named after the frequently asked question “What’s the Harm?” Farley had no way to answer it precisely, of course. Still, he tried to awaken people to the enormity of the damage wreaked by failures of critical thinking by listing every authenticated case he could find. From 1970 through 2009, but mainly in the last decade in that range, he documented 368,379 people killed, more than 300,000 injured, and $2.8 billion in economic damages from blunders in critical thinking. They include people killing themselves or their children by rejecting conventional medical treatments or using herbal, homeopathic, holistic, and other quack cures; mass suicides by members of apocalyptic cults; murders of witches, sorcerers, and the people they cursed; guileless victims bilked out of their savings by psychics, astrologers, and other charlatans; scofflaws and vigilantes arrested for acting on conspiratorial delusions; and economic panics from superstitions and false rumors.

Yet as Farley would be the first to note, not even thousands of anecdotes can prove that surrendering to irrational biases leads to more harm than overcoming them. At the very least, we need a comparison group, namely the effects of reason-informed institutions such as medicine, science, and democratic government. 

We do have one study of the effects of rational decision-making on life outcomes. The psychologists Wändi Bruine de Bruin, Andrew Parker, and Baruch Fischhoff developed a measure of competence in reasoning and decision making by collecting tests for some of the fallacies and biases that we discussed.

Not surprisingly, people’s skill in avoiding fallacies was correlated with their intelligence, though only partly. It was also correlated with their decision-making style, the degree to which they said they approached problems reflectively and constructively rather than impulsively and fatalistically. The trio developed a kind of scale to measure life outcomes, a measure of people’s susceptibility to mishaps large and small. 

They found that people’s reasoning skills did indeed predict their life outcomes: the fewer fallacies in reasoning, the fewer debacles in life.

Correlation is not causation. Reasoning competence is correlated with raw intelligence, and we know that higher intelligence protects people from bad outcomes in life, such as illness. But intelligence is not the same as rationality since being good at computing means that a person will add the right things. Rationality also requires reflectiveness, open-mindedness, and mastery of cognitive tools like formal logic and mathematical probability. Bruine de Bruin and her colleagues did the multiple regression analyses and found that better reasoners suffered fewer bad outcomes even when they held intelligence constant.

Socioeconomic status, too, confounds one’s fortunes in life. Poverty is an obstacle course, confronting people with the risks of unemployment, substance abuse, and other hardships. But here, too, the regression analyses showed that better reasoners had better life outcomes, holding socioeconomic status constant. 

Rationality and progress

Though the availability bias hides it from us, human progress is an empirical fact. When we look beyond the headlines to the trend lines, we find that humanity overall is healthier, wealthier, longer-lived, better fed, better educated, and safer from war, murder, and accidents than in decades and centuries past. Beginning in the second half of the nineteenth century, life expectancy at birth rose and, according to available statistics, has continued to do so.

The world has not yet put an end to war, as the folk singers of the 1960s dreamed, but it has dramatically reduced their number and lethality:

More vigorous efforts are needed to reduce the global homicide rate, but also that has been falling slowly.

In the end, it is good to care about people’s virtue when considering them as friends, but not when considering the ideas they voice. Ideas are true or false, consistent or contradictory, conducive to human welfare or not, regardless of who thinks them. The equality of sentient beings, grounded in the logical irrelevance of the distinction between “me” and “you,” is an idea that people through the ages rediscover, pass along, and extend to new living things, expanding the circle of sympathy like dark moral energy. 

Sound arguments, enforcing consistency of our practices with our principles and with the goal of human flourishing, cannot improve the world itself. But they have guided and should guide movements for change. They make the difference between moral force and brute force, between marches for justice and lynch mobs, between human progress and breaking things. And it will be sound arguments, both to reveal moral blights and discover feasible remedies, that we will need to ensure that moral progress will continue, that the abominable practices of today will become as incredible to our descendants as heretic burnings and slave auctions are to us. 

The power of rationality to guide moral progress is a piece with its capacity to guide material progress and wise choices in our lives. We can eke out of a pitiless cosmos and be good to others by grasping equitable principles that transcend our parochial experience despite our flawed nature. We are a species endowed with an elementary faculty of reason, which has discovered formulas and institutions that magnify its scope. They awaken us to ideas and expose us to realities that confound our intuitions but are valid for all that.


  1. Hugo Mercier, Not born yesterday: The science of who we trust and what we believe. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2020, pp. 191–97.  


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