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18 Oct, 2021 08:59

Steven Pinker’s ‘Rationality’ explains how to avoid becoming a conspiracy theory nutjob hunting paedos at your local pizza joint

Steven Pinker’s ‘Rationality’ explains how to avoid becoming a conspiracy theory nutjob hunting paedos at your local pizza joint

Cognitive therapist Steven Pinker’s new book provides the tools needed to unravel the fallacies underpinning those modern-day issues around race, gender, politics and religion and steers us away from the beartrap of irrationality.

Imagine you have a pizza restaurant near home that you and your family like to frequent. Then imagine you find out, from posts on social media, that restaurant is apparently being used by evil paedophiles as their centre of operations for a sex trafficking ring whose members were raping children in the basement. 

And those people running this criminal enterprise were led by none other than Hillary Clinton and a cabal of high-ranking politicians and government officials who, through their sheer deviousness, have managed to keep this a secret from you and others all the time you’ve been happily chewing through your Margherita pizzas on your regular visits.

What would a rational person do upon hearing this news? Here are the options:

  1. Laugh it off as the latest whackjob conspiracy theory
  2. Call the police and tell them of your suspicions
  3. Arm yourself with a high calibre rifle, storm the restaurant and spray a few shots around in a spot of ‘self-investigation’
  4. Give the restaurant a one-star rating on Google for its ‘overcooked pizzas’ and the unnerving presence of men wearing suits sitting at the bar who looked at your kids

The fact that all four of the above were various responses to the very real alarm in 2016 when this conspiracy theory first appeared shows just how different our personal levels of ‘belief’ can be, and this is what experimental cognitive therapist Steven Pinker delves deep down into in his latest book, Rationality: What it is, Why it seems scarce, Why it matters.

And to answer the last question of the title first, it matters because there is a massive gulf between the consequences of laughing off a conspiracy theory like Pizzagate and deciding, like 28-year-old Edgar Welch, to travel to Comet Ping Pong pizza restaurant in Washington, DC armed with an AR-15 and let off a few shots among the patrons as you have a little look-see for yourself and maybe rescue a few children from the monstrous paedophiles.

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Laughing off nonsense doesn’t, generally, result in innocent restaurant-goers being shot.

All four responses above are understandable, in their own way, but using Pinker’s approach, only one (laughing it off) could really be considered rational. While he goes to great lengths to explain the workings of propositional logic, formal and informal fallacies, probability, Bayesian reasoning, rational choice theory, decision theory, game theory and regression analysis, as the weapons of rationality the Harvard professor of psychology has in his impressive arsenal, a simple preference for common sense has to be the real takeaway from his book.

While that in itself is not an earth-shattering revelation, Pinker has made a career of pointing out the lack of rationality that exists in the public conversation on, for instance, conspiracy theories and critical theory on race and gender.

When in doubt, he encourages us to look at the probability of a given set of circumstances as a starting point for rational debate, using zero certainty as the baseline and building up from there. In taking that approach, it’s then possible to see how fallacies pile up so that a body of belief around alt-right thinking can, for example, turn into Q-Anon or rigid positions over race inequality might become Black Lives Matter (BLM).

The baseline of zero certainty – where the probability of an event is so unlikely as to be impossible – can become obscured beneath conjecture and falsity, creating an argument based on irrationality. In Pizzagate that baseline was set on the premise that there was something alarming about the purported contents of hacked emails from Hillary Clinton’s campaign chair, for BLM that baseline is predicated on the propensity of white policemen shooting black citizens, in treating teenagers for gender dysphoria the baseline often used there concerns the fear around their committing suicide if denied the hormones they seek.

Pinker’s known for his example of questioning Christianity. What, rationally, is the likelihood that Jesus actually died and then came back to life when such an occurrence has never been recorded before or since? The probability is pretty much zero yet that baseline is the foundation for two millennia of religious belief.

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You can see how questioning these baselines might well evolve into a totally different point of view around these very modern issues because, as Pinker points out, people will argue their case for a line of thinking, not for the sake of truth, but for the sake of a win.

The adversarial nature of our legal system, our parliament and even our highly politicised media, encourage this behaviour, so when we investigate the lack of rationality, there’s no need to look far to find its root cause – it’s those we generally entrust to look out for our interests and keep us on the straight and narrow.

If those who speak loudest in the public conversation are doing so from an irrational standpoint then it is no wonder the issues of our time around religion, gender, politics and race are so divisive. We should all be encouraged to think a little more critically.

Try some rationality. Who knows? You might like it.

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.