Tag Archives: reason

Time To Dump Linda

You have probably read articles that reference the famous Linda Study conducted by researchers Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky back in the early 1970’s. In it, the researchers describe an outspoken person named Linda who is and smart and politically active and who has participated in anti-nuclear demonstrations. They then ask the subject to indicate whether Linda is more likely to be a) a bank teller or b) a bank teller who is also an active feminist.

No direct evidence is given to indicate that Linda is either a bank teller or a feminist. She is smart so she might be a bank teller, and since she has been socially active she might be a feminist. But logically it is far more likely that Linda is only one of these things than that she is both. Yet most people, given the choices presented and regardless of education, answer that Linda is probably both a bank teller and a feminist. This is an example of the Conjunction Fallacy (see here), in which a person mistakenly believes that multiple conditions are more likely than a single one.

Although this study is frequently cited in popular science articles, the conclusions drawn from it have been strongly criticized or at least given more nuanced analysis (see here). Few popular ideas from science since the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle have been so misused and overextended as the Linda Study. We really should stop reading so much into this study and cease abusing it so badly.

irrationalAn example of one such popular science article describes research by Professor Keith Stanovich (see here). In his work he used the Linda Study methodology along with other tests to measure rationality. Although I do not know how well this popular science article represents the actual research by Stanovich, it suggests that the Linda Test is a strong indicator of rationality. I find that assertion very troubling.

First off, while the Linda Test does expose the Conjunction Fallacy, we are all are susceptible to a huge number of logical fallacies. I document dozens of these in my book, “Belief in Science and the Science of Belief” (see here). While everyone should be taught to do better at recognizing and avoiding logical fallacies, failing to do so probably does not adequately correlate to irrational thinking.

If subjects were made aware that this was intended as an SAT-style logic gotcha, many would answer it in a more literal context. But we normally assume a broader scope of inference when answering this sort of question and the pattern-recognition machines we call our brains are capable of all sorts of fuzzy logic that is completely independent of, and much broader than, strict mathematical logic. In the real world, it might well turn out that women like Linda are in fact more likely to be both bankers and feminists.  Moreover “both” is a far richer answer in the context of most real-world interactions. The more logically correct answer is less insightful and interesting.

This is not to suggest that we should become lax about adhering to principles of logic, but only to suggest that a simple “brain teaser” logic question is not a very powerful indicator of overall rationality. Furthermore, equating rationality to a fallacy recognition test diminishes the profound complexity and importance of rationality.

I suggest that there are far stronger indicators of rationality. Does the subject believe in God? Do they deny climate-change? Do they subscribe to pseudoscientific nonsense? Is their thinking muddled by irrational New Age rationalizations? Do they insist the world is only 6 million years old and that humans coexisted with dinosaurs (cough) Ken Ham see here (cough).

Here’s the problem. All of these direct indicators are too entrenched and widespread to be overtly linked to irrationality. So instead we use safe, bland, non-confrontational indicators like the Linda Test that are at best weak and at worst undermine important and frank questions about rationality.

So dump Linda already in favor of far more meaningful measures of rationality!

 

Pascal’s Folly

PascalsWagerYou’re probably familiar with Pascal’s Wager. It says that even if there is only an infinitesimally small possibility that god exists, the consequences of eternal reward or punishment far outweighs any earthly cost. Therefore, a smart person should “hedge their bets” and believe in god.

This is incredibly specious logic but it nevertheless holds powerful sway over a great many people. Lots of otherwise intelligent thinkers put it forth as a reasonable argument, even as an inescapable iron-clad rationale. But there are many flaws in it including the assumption that belief is a harmless hedge. In the end it is no more than a silly trick of logic that can equally justify anything whatsoever. By this logic, for example, the proposition you received via email from a Nigerian Prince might be legitimate. However small the chance that it’s real, isn’t it worth responding? In fact, the Nigerian Prince is far more likely to be real than is god. Such a prince could actually exist.

But you might reject that argument with yet more pseudo-logic. You might argue that only heaven is sufficient reward to offer compelling enough stakes to accept Pascal’s Wager. And I then counter by suggesting right here and now that you cannot get into heaven unless you give up ice cream. Regardless of how small the chance that god only favors those who prove their faith by forsaking ice cream, Pascal’s Wager demands you give it up. But I doubt you would accept that wager and actually swear off ice cream.

We reject most such nonsense out of hand. Here is yet one more flaw of Pascal’s Wager. We apply it only to one extremely specific assertion and reject an infinite number of others even though they are equally legitimate according to the logic put forth. You can counter yet again and say, well but I cannot play all possible lottery games, and I choose to play this one. Fair enough, so I can counter your counter. This logical fencing goes on and on unendingly without resolution. Playing mental games is something we humans do extremely well.

But why do we reject the same logic for pretty much anything else except the god proposition? We reject it because such logic is clearly stupid. And this brings us to yet another problem with Pascal’s Wager. There is actually in fact no possibility, none, nada, nil, zero, absolute zero, that god actually exists. Someone will in fact actually win the $100M lotto, so that might be worth a $2 ticket by Pascal’s logic. But no one can actually go to heaven because it does not exist. And you cannot claim “but it could” unless you really are equally willing to ACT ON every other impossible proposition.

This illustrates a fundamental problem with logic. As powerful and important as it is, logic has limitations. Thinking that abstract logic necessarily reflects reality can be like a Chinese Finger Trap. I just read an interesting book by Jordan Ellenberg called “How Not to be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking” (see here). I do recommend it highly. But in it he twice states emphatically that “reason cannot answer the question of god.” If that is true, then it is our reason that is flawed. And it’s easy to see how. Ellenberg is a mathematician. Even a mathematician can become too familiar and comfortable with mathematical concepts like infinity that have no actual basis in reality. Our minds can conceive of symbols and rules of logic that cannot exist in reality. God is one of those. Pascal’s Wager is one of those. It is a human conceptual model that leads to seemingly incontrovertible but nevertheless absurd conclusions.

To illustrate the problem of blindly accepting a “logical” argument without insisting upon testing that logic against reality, consider Zeno’s Paradox. In the 5th century Zeno gave us his famous paradox that says that since we cannot arrive at our destination without infinitely cutting the remaining distance in half, we can never actually arrive at it. The “logic” of this proposition has confounded thinkers ever since as it is extremely difficult to refute by the rules of logic. But a guy called Diogenes the Cynic disproved it by simply standing up and walking across the room.

We humans have an amazing capacity to imagine things outside physical reality and to conceptualize logical systems of rationality that are imperfect in describing that reality or that extend beyond physical boundaries. But we have to be careful that our own cleverness does not make us stupid. Get up and walk across the room. God does not exist and religion is not a harmless hedge.

Here’s the bottom line. If your system of logic leads you to the conclusion that god might exist or that you cannot ever reach the other side of the room, it’s because your system of logic is flawed or ever-extended or you just want it to be true. If your logic cannot disprove flying pigs or gods, you are not thereby proving that god might actually exist. You are merely encountering the limitations or failings of your logic.

And to my agnostic atheist friends who refuse to say with certainty that god does not exist, if you allow for any possibility that god might exist, you have essentially lost the argument. You have admitted that Pascal’s Wager is reasonable and that belief and religion are therefore reasonable. You may think you can logic your way out of that shifting maze, but that only leads to endless ridiculous arguments that mostly serve to give undue credibility to the ridiculous.

The Language of Reason

reasonWe routinely use a large number of very similar words when we talk about thinking: rational, rationale, rationality, irrational, rationalize, rationalization, reason, reasonable, and even superrational. We all kinda-sorta mostly generally understand the nuanced differences between these words, but since they are so very important and so often confused, it may be helpful to put them all on the table where we can clearly compare and contrast them.

Rational describes thinking that is based upon true facts and sound logic. This is the good kind of thinking. It requires that the thinker is unbiased, fact-based, sane, logical, and as objectively correct as one can be given the best information available. Note that the threshold here is quite high. It is not enough to merely follow “my own logic” to reach a conclusion, but that one follow independently valid logic and adhere to independently validated facts. One cannot merely feel they are being rational; they must in fact be objectively, measurably, demonstrably rational. A certifiably crazy person may be absolutely convinced they are perfectly rational in concluding that aliens are beaming signals into their brain, but that does not make them so.

Rational thinking implies that one meets all these requirements in a particular line of thought. A rational thinker is one who generally employs rational thinking. Often this term implies that one consciously values rational thinking as well. Although religious thinkers insist upon being shown respect as rational thinkers, it is difficult to see how their claims in any way reach the threshold of rational thinking. They seek to dilute and diminish the term so that it applies to them.

The term rationality is generally used in the context of questioning one’s rationality. That is, when we wish to make an assessment of a person’s capacity to be rational, either generally or at a given time.

Superrational is a term coined by cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter to describe a cooperative group behavior in game theory. However like many scientific concepts it has been incorrectly hijacked by New Age types. They invoke it to suggest that there is some intuitive mode of thought that transcends normal rational thinking – which they then invoke to justify any magical thinking they wish. They might say, for example, I believe in psychic powers because I’m a superrational thinker.

The word reason is trickier. In its basic form it is inherently neutral with regard to truth or rationality. It simply describes the cause, explanation, or justification one uses to explain their conclusion or action. But we also use it more generally to describe our rational capacity. It is in this sense that it is used for example in the “Reason Rally.” It sounds better there than would the “Rationality Rally.” The word reason also has the benefit of invoking feelings of reasonable or reasonableness.

However the connection between reason and reasonable is also a problem. Reason shares the fairly high bar with rational. But to be reasonable only requires that one be fair, moderate, and sensible. That’s why the word reason is a dangerous one to substitute for rational. Using reason as a synonym for rational can lower the bar for rationality in the minds of many people who might like to claim that their “reasonable” beliefs are rational conclusions because they are reasonable. Reasonable people can agree to disagree. Rational people cannot disagree for very long.

And that is a great segue into the biggest source of confusion amongst these terms. Just as the word reasonable dilutes the word reason, the word rationalization dilutes the word rational. Even worse, it totally reverses it!

Although it seems like they should be different forms of the same word, rationalize is almost the complete opposite of rational. To rationalize is to contrive some rationale, some apparent logic, to make the illogical appear perfectly rational. It is to “rationalize away” facts, logic, and reason. It is the process of deluding one’s self into thinking that some possibly preposterous idea is sound and credible regardless of the facts of the matter. We rationally reach scientific conclusions, but we rationalize our religious beliefs to convince ourselves that we are rational thinkers. These are not remotely equivalent.

This is insidious because once we have rationalized something, it then seems completely rational to us. Once rationalized, we become certain that our thinking is perfectly sound and reasonable. And we have evolved to be incredibly good at rationalizing. From the evolutionary perspective it was evidently far more important that we feel certainty in the face of ambiguity or the unknown; that we reach harmonious consensus in a delusion, than that we know the real facts of the world. There is also evidence that belief served a benefit of requiring less energy consumption as well (see here). But belief is no longer a beneficial or even harmless adaptation in our modern world.

Despite the fact that it no longer serves us well, we as a species remain incredibly good at rationalizing. Clinically delusional people are often completely certain that their delusions are perfectly rational. But this isn’t just an affliction of the insane. Rationalization is our normal human brain function that we are all susceptible to. Once rationalized, we normally continue to believe any ridiculous belief without reevaluation. We don’t need to be beyond the threshold of insanity to hold some insane rationalizations.

The lesson then is to be very skeptical when anyone insists that their conclusions are rational – even when it is ourselves. Few of us can distinguish between our own truly rational positions and completely rationalized ones. Fortunately science gives us methods to help us assess whether our conclusions are fact-based and soundly logical.

Likewise, we don’t need to train our young thinkers to rationalize problems, as they are innately quite adept at that already. Education in debate, law, marketing, sales, religion and many other fields mostly enhance our innate ability to create any argument that convinces others – to rationalize. We need far more training in science and skeptical thinking so that we can  better judge whether the rationalizations that impact our lives are truly rational.