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Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters

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'Punchy, funny and invigorating ... Pinker is the high priest of rationalism' Sunday Times 'If you've ever considered taking drugs to make yourself smarter, read Rationality instead. It's cheaper, more entertaining, and more effective' Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind In the twenty-first century, humanity is reaching new heights of scientific understanding - and 'Punchy, funny and invigorating ... Pinker is the high priest of rationalism' Sunday Times 'If you've ever considered taking drugs to make yourself smarter, read Rationality instead. It's cheaper, more entertaining, and more effective' Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind In the twenty-first century, humanity is reaching new heights of scientific understanding - and at the same time appears to be losing its mind. How can a species that discovered vaccines for Covid-19 in less than a year produce so much fake news, quack cures and conspiracy theorizing? In Rationality, Pinker rejects the cynical cliché that humans are simply an irrational species - cavemen out of time fatally cursed with biases, fallacies and illusions. After all, we discovered the laws of nature, lengthened and enriched our lives and set the benchmarks for rationality itself. Instead, he explains, we think in ways that suit the low-tech contexts in which we spend most of our lives, but fail to take advantage of the powerful tools of reasoning we have built up over millennia: logic, critical thinking, probability, causal inference, and decision-making under uncertainty. These tools are not a standard part of our educational curricula, and have never been presented clearly and entertainingly in a single book - until now. Rationality matters. It leads to better choices in our lives and in the public sphere, and is the ultimate driver of social justice and moral progress. Brimming with insight and humour, Rationality will enlighten, inspire and empower. 'A terrific book, much-needed for our time' Peter Singer


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'Punchy, funny and invigorating ... Pinker is the high priest of rationalism' Sunday Times 'If you've ever considered taking drugs to make yourself smarter, read Rationality instead. It's cheaper, more entertaining, and more effective' Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind In the twenty-first century, humanity is reaching new heights of scientific understanding - and 'Punchy, funny and invigorating ... Pinker is the high priest of rationalism' Sunday Times 'If you've ever considered taking drugs to make yourself smarter, read Rationality instead. It's cheaper, more entertaining, and more effective' Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind In the twenty-first century, humanity is reaching new heights of scientific understanding - and at the same time appears to be losing its mind. How can a species that discovered vaccines for Covid-19 in less than a year produce so much fake news, quack cures and conspiracy theorizing? In Rationality, Pinker rejects the cynical cliché that humans are simply an irrational species - cavemen out of time fatally cursed with biases, fallacies and illusions. After all, we discovered the laws of nature, lengthened and enriched our lives and set the benchmarks for rationality itself. Instead, he explains, we think in ways that suit the low-tech contexts in which we spend most of our lives, but fail to take advantage of the powerful tools of reasoning we have built up over millennia: logic, critical thinking, probability, causal inference, and decision-making under uncertainty. These tools are not a standard part of our educational curricula, and have never been presented clearly and entertainingly in a single book - until now. Rationality matters. It leads to better choices in our lives and in the public sphere, and is the ultimate driver of social justice and moral progress. Brimming with insight and humour, Rationality will enlighten, inspire and empower. 'A terrific book, much-needed for our time' Peter Singer

30 review for Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters

  1. 5 out of 5

    BlackOxford

    More From Mary Poppins “What is a man, If his chief good and market of his time Be but to sleep and feed? A beast, no more. Sure he that made us with such large discourse, Looking before and after, gave us not That capability and godlike reason To fust in us unus’d. —Hamlet” This epigraph from Shakespeare, which Pinker uses to preface his latest book, summarises his fundamental misunderstanding of the issue he addresses. For Pinker, Shakespeare seems to be saying ‘if you got it flaunt it.’ ‘It’ being “su More From Mary Poppins “What is a man, If his chief good and market of his time Be but to sleep and feed? A beast, no more. Sure he that made us with such large discourse, Looking before and after, gave us not That capability and godlike reason To fust in us unus’d. —Hamlet” This epigraph from Shakespeare, which Pinker uses to preface his latest book, summarises his fundamental misunderstanding of the issue he addresses. For Pinker, Shakespeare seems to be saying ‘if you got it flaunt it.’ ‘It’ being “such large discourse,” that is to say, language, which is indeed “godlike” and itself amounts to “reason.” Indeed we are a species able, no compelled, to use language in order to survive. The luxuries of sleeping and eating depend upon our effective use of it. However Shakespeare’s irony as a writer forced to make his way in life through language is obvious. But not to Pinker. Rationality is not scarce; it exists in an over-abundance. It may yet kill us all if we keep treating it as the divine solution to our ills. Let me start by agreeing with Pinker: no human being is irrational, not even the most psychotic or criminal mind is without rationality. We all have what to us are good reasons for doing whatever we do. Or we are at least capable of formulating such reasons after the fact with conviction and assurance. The fact that others may not accept either our premises or our deductions does not make us irrational; it makes us wrong. But Pinker doesn’t follow his own logic. This makes him contradictory, a good sign that what he’s peddling should be wrong for all of us. He thinks that he knows what he calls “the benchmarks of rationality” that should be the goal of education and the standards by which we judge what we hear and read, and presumably what we say and write. The benchmarks he has in mind are largely statistical and don’t address the core issue of rationality at all. Whenever anyone starts an argument with ‘there are only two options to consider,’ be on the lookout for the garden path to reasoned stupidity. Pinker’s dichotomy of choice is that there are, “two modes of believing: the reality mindset and the mythology mindset.” No prizes for guessing which one Pinker is going to promote. But what he actually does is subtly shift the subject with this linguistic tactic from rationality to reality. And since reality must be superior to myth, it will define the rational. The problem of course is that Pinker has no idea what he means by reality. Or, better said, the ambiguity of reality is just what he needs in order to hide his contradictions - from himself as well as his readers. Without the touchstone of reality his subsequent argument is vacuous. What he is actually appealing to is some quasi-religious need in himself for stability or fixedness in how the uncontrollable beast of Language can be tamed, or at least contained within safe boundaries. He makes this need clear and wants us all to share in his anxiety: “In an era in which rationality seems both more threatened and more essential than ever, Rationality is, above all, an affirmation of rationality.” Indeed, just as faith is an affirmation of faith. Pinker wants us to restore our faith in language and its ability to track with this thing called reality. Some words, he wants us to know, are closer to reality than other words. These latter are the words we should use to judge other words. How do we spot such words? Here is another proposition with which I agree wholeheartedly: “… none of us, thinking alone, is rational enough to consistently come to sound conclusions: rationality emerges from a community of reasoners who spot each other’s fallacies.” So there is the central contradiction which Pinker tries to navigate around throughout his argument. Reality, he contends, is outside of language and defines rationality. But no, he also contends, rationality is what other language users determine to be rational. One has to ask of course: who are these other language users? What makes their opinions privileged? How are disagreement between groups to be resolved? In short, which group is to be considered dominant in the matter of language accuracy? Pinker knows that what constitutes rationality depends on the circumstances. For him rationality is “… a kit of cognitive tools that can attain particular goals in particular worlds.” Yet another point on which we agree. The bushmen of the Kalahari employ a rationality that would not assist survival on the streets of Manhattan. What we take for scientific method and logic today is not what was accepted a century ago, nor will it be that which is accepted a century hence. The evolution of rationality itself is a fact that Pinker doesn’t deny. And yet he insists there is such a thing that is established in an unchanging Platonic realm of ideas. Pinker makes a distinction between “the rational pursuit of goals… [and] an objective understanding of the world.” In this he engages in yet another self-contradiction. What he means by ‘objective’ apparently is the result of investigation by a totally disinterested observer. But if such an observer has no interest in a situation or condition, what prompted him or her to investigate in the first place? It is a basic principle of science that no effort is made without a reason, a question, a puzzle, a doubt. To engage in such an effort would be not just unreasonable but impossible. Yet Pinker thinks there is such a person, probably nesting comfortably among the other Platonic figures in a philosophical heaven of stability and without language. Pinker spends a great deal of time on cute logical paradoxes. These are largely irrelevant to the core problem of rationality, which is the reasons for doing things not the errors we might make in acting on those reasons. Our choice of reasons, even if the reasons are only articulated after our actions in order to literally rationalise them, is an event that by definition cannot be reasonable. But that choice is what then determines the constitution of that which we casually call a fact. Once again: there are no objective facts; such things are self-contradictory. The only real issue of rationality is reasons. For example: The expressed reason for the Holocaust was the need to rid the world of a harmful ideology of mutual responsibility that was invented and preserved by Jews. The official reason for the European invasion of the Americas was the promulgation of the true faith necessary for salvation. The reason for the existence of the CIA is the protection of American interests abroad at any political or cost to the rest of the world. Hegel demonstrated the rationality of these reasons dialectically; just as Kant with utmost rationality put paid to the idea that facts could undermine the reasons we promote. Pinker has absolutely nothing to say about these sorts of reasons, except that they might be rejected if they had been discussed and debated openly. And perhaps not even then since it depends on who is doing the discussing. The matter is entirely political. Like it or not, morality, like facts, is a political matter. Pinker’s call for critical thinking is nothing more than a suggestion towards scepticism about established mores and rationality. So once again he contradicts himself. The crowd can be wrong after all. They may have missed a fallacy but they’re sticking with it. For them no fallacy exists; they just started with different reasons. The bottom line is that while there are words that are better than other words for getting on in the world, we don’t know what they are from moment to moment. The words we use today may prove to be the cause of tomorrow’s destruction; but we have no way of assessing this either. Pinker is right to suggest that all we have is each other in the search for the right words. But we have no idea how to organise that search much less know when it is successful. We are at the mercy of this thing we presume to control - language. And Pinker, as he does in everything he writes, refuses to get that this is our predicament. What he provides is not Shakespearean insight but a diverting musical comedy. A gentle Mary Poppins, perhaps, come down from above to assure us children that the universe is benign and that Trump is a temporary aberration. How comforting.☂️ Postscript 30/09/21: for more on the same topic, see: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show... Postscript 23/10/21: An example of the very irrational state of scientific rationality: https://apple.news/AA27bMZ17QuCqAo51e...

  2. 5 out of 5

    Clif Hostetler

    This book starts out with a review and discussion of logic, probability, and randomness. Proceeding from that foundation it explores ways in which people can be predictably led astray by following their intuition. The book then continues with a discussion of game theory and behavioral economics. Toward the end the book addresses the issues promised by the book’s subtitle; why rationality seems so scarce and why it’s important. The book suggests that one reason humans are so poor at estimating exp This book starts out with a review and discussion of logic, probability, and randomness. Proceeding from that foundation it explores ways in which people can be predictably led astray by following their intuition. The book then continues with a discussion of game theory and behavioral economics. Toward the end the book addresses the issues promised by the book’s subtitle; why rationality seems so scarce and why it’s important. The book suggests that one reason humans are so poor at estimating exponential growth is because it wasn’t part of the natural environment during human evolution (i.e. in nature exponential growth is capped by limited resourses). Mention of exponential growth attracts my attention because economist seem to believe that it's possible to go on forever. Concepts explored in the heart of the book includes beliefs/evidence, risk/reward, and alarm/response. One reason economics is such an inexact science is because people can’t be counted on to make rational choices. There seems to be no end to ways in which human nature seems to lead us astray. Sometimes it’s a matter of what comes to mind first, so that’s the event guessed to be most likely to occur. Other times we forget how common—or uncommon—an event is when confronted with a clue pointing in a certain direction which then leads to incorrect guesses at probabilities. Pinker provides a long discussion about the scarcity of rationality and why it matters, but I found the explanation given by The Enigma of Reason by Mercier and Sperber to be more succinct and convincing. Pinker acknowledges their work, but continues to explore other explanations. Pinker insists that humans can always learn, and if you look close everyone possesses the powers of reason. After all, they have enough rationality to keep food on the table. Below is an excerpt that is an example of “base-rate neglect” which involves giving too little weight to the original probability of an event in the face of new information. This excerpt also shows how wording of the problems can make a difference in recognition of the solution. I guess one reason I've included it here is because I didn't get the correct answer in the first instance. Suppose that the prevalence of breast cancer in the population of women is 1 percent. Suppose that the sensitivity of a breast cancer test (its true-positive rate) is 90 percent. Suppose that its false-positive rate is 9 percent. A woman tests positive. What is the chance that she has the disease? The most popular answer from a sample of doctors given these numbers ranged from 80 to 90 percent. Bayes's rule allows you to calculate the correct answer: 9 percent. That's right, the professionals whom we entrust with our live flub the basic task of interpreting a medical test, and not by a little bit. They think there's almost a 90 percent chance she has cancer, whereas in reality there's a 90 percent chance she doesn't. (p150) If this same question is worded differently it becomes easier to intuitively arrive at the correct answer. Forget the generic "a woman"; think about a sample of a thousand women. Out of every 1,000 women, 10 have breast cancer (that's the prevalence, or base rate). Of these 10 women who have breast cancer, 9 will test positive (that's the test's sensitivity). Of the 990 women without breast cancer, about 89 will nevertheless test positive (that's the false-positive rate). A woman tests positive. What is the chance that she actually has breast cancer?" It's not that hard: 98 of the women test positive in all, 9 of them have cancer; 9 divided by 98 is around 9 percent—there's our answer. When the problem is framed in this way, 87 percent of doctors get it right (compared with about 15 percent for the original wording), as do a majority of 10-year-olds. (p169) So what's the lesson here? Is it important that people be able to answer questions like this correctly? By tapping preexisting intuitions and translating information into mind-friendly formats, it's possible to hone people's statistical reasoning. Hone we must. Risk literacy is essential for doctors, judges, policymakers, and others who hold our lives in their hands. And since we all live in a world in which God plays dice, fluency in Bayesian reasoning and other forms of statistical competence is a public good that should be a priority in education. The principles of cognitive psychology suggest that it's better to work with the rationality people have and enhance it further than to write off the majority of our species as chronically crippled by fallacies and biases. (p171) Here's a quote that verifies my own observation of today's political divide. We are not...living in a "post truth" society. The problem is that we are living in a myside society. The sides are the left and the right, and both sides believe in the truth but have incommen-surable ideas of what the truth is. The bias has invaded more and more of our deliberations. The spectacle of face masks during a respiratory pandemic turning into political symbols is just the most recent symptom of the polarization. (p295-p296)

  3. 4 out of 5

    Ryan Boissonneault

    Rationality can be defined as “the ability to use knowledge to attain goals.” You don’t get credit for rationality if you attain a goal simply by chance; rather, your beliefs must be true, rather than false, and justified, rather than random. Whether the goal is theoretical (proving the truth of an idea) or practical (achieving some tangible outcome), to be rational simply means using knowledge (justified true belief) to attain the stated goal. Reason also has the unique characteristic of being Rationality can be defined as “the ability to use knowledge to attain goals.” You don’t get credit for rationality if you attain a goal simply by chance; rather, your beliefs must be true, rather than false, and justified, rather than random. Whether the goal is theoretical (proving the truth of an idea) or practical (achieving some tangible outcome), to be rational simply means using knowledge (justified true belief) to attain the stated goal. Reason also has the unique characteristic of being non-negotiable, in that if you argue against its use—by employing reasons—you’ve already lost the argument. Since reason is non-negotiable and necessary for any intelligent and socially beneficial behavior, we all ought to take the time to learn how to use it better, especially since we did not evolve to handle the types of abstract mathematical, logical, and statistical problems we face in the modern world. We have to explicitly learn how to solve these higher-order problems; the skills to do so unequivocally do not come naturally. The problem is, most books on rationality or critical thinking narrowly focus on biases and fallacies and simply list all the ways humans make stupid decisions. But as Pinker points out, humanity’s greatest achievements (discovering the age of the universe, mapping the human genome, etc.) cannot be explained by noting all the ways in which we confuse ourselves. There’s a better way to learn the rules of rationality; namely, by covering the wider variety of cognitive tools we’ve developed over the millennia to enhance our natural rational powers. Pinker covers critical thinking and logic, statistics and probability, Bayesian reasoning, risk and reward, game theory, and more, collecting in one volume the diverse range of cognitive tools we’ve developed over the course of our history to think better. And unlike other bad faith actors who pretend that being “rational” guarantees the truth of their beliefs, Pinker (as a cognitive psychologist) actually understands the subject matter well enough to note the nuances, exceptions, and complexities that make rationality an inexact science. This excerpt from the book is worth quoting in full: “Now, arguments for truth, objectivity, and reason may stick in the craw, because they seem dangerously arrogant: ‘Who the hell are you to claim to have the absolute truth?’ But that’s not what the case for rationality is about. The psychologist David Myers has said that the essence of monotheistic belief is: (1) There is a God and (2) it’s not me (and it’s also not you). The secular equivalent is: (1) There is objective truth and (2) I don’t know it (and neither do you). The same epistemic humility applies to the rationality that leads to the truth. Perfect rationality and objective truth are aspirations that no mortal can ever claim to have attained. But the conviction that they are out there licenses us to develop rules we can all abide by that allow us to approach the truth collectively in ways that are impossible for any of us individually.” The rules of rationality—critical thinking, logic, probability, empirical reasoning—are employed to circumvent our biases, avoid common fallacies, and get ever closer to the elusive objective truth (without ever getting there for certain). Pinker adeptly reviews these tools, comments on real-world examples of fallacious thinking, and even presents new research and thinking that shows that some commonly perceived fallacies are not actually fallacies at all (e.g., the “hot hand” fallacy in basketball). The reader will have to be patient in some sections as the material is not always easy to follow, but the payoff (better critical thinking skills) will be well worth the effort. Of course, learning the rules of rationality is not necessarily sufficient. There’s a strong case to be made for the idea that we evolved, not to be rational and to engage in the disinterested pursuit of truth, but to use reason to simply win arguments in favor of our preferred beliefs. Because of the uncertainty of knowledge, it’s all too easy to use motivated reasoning to “confirm” beliefs we wish to be true and to ignore all contradictory evidence. For this reason, intellectual integrity and humility are far harder to teach than even the rules of rationality itself. But if you do have them, you’ll benefit greatly from this book.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Morgan Blackledge

    Steven Pinker is a firebrand. And that in itself is a kind of a mystery to me. Only because I find his basic arguments to be (for lack of a better word) reasonable. His message is (essentially): The current state of affairs is obviously concerning. But if you look at the human condition over the long term, a lot of things are improving. According to Pinker. Science, technology, rule of law and liberal democracy have liberated billions of humans from poverty, miserable servitude, disease and political Steven Pinker is a firebrand. And that in itself is a kind of a mystery to me. Only because I find his basic arguments to be (for lack of a better word) reasonable. His message is (essentially): The current state of affairs is obviously concerning. But if you look at the human condition over the long term, a lot of things are improving. According to Pinker. Science, technology, rule of law and liberal democracy have liberated billions of humans from poverty, miserable servitude, disease and political terror. Even though we had Donald Trump, and even though the planet is obviously dying. Let’s not panic. Let’s stay focused, stay the course and (to the very best of our abilities) let’s let evidence and reason dictate our policies. He’s a very controversial figure to both far left and extreme right of American politics. The progressive left hate him because he criticizes some of their more anti-intellectual tactics. Such as politically correct speech suppression, and Romantic mistrust of scientific methods and findings (when they counter progressive liberal talking points). The extreme right hate him (a little less, but still) because he’s (essentially) an outspoken liberal intellectual. Some locate him as center right. Some locate him as center left. Regardless of his politics (a subject I find uninteresting and distracting from his arguments). A lot of criticism focuses on his use of data. Ok. That’s legit. Everyone knows statistical data is easily massaged. But much of the same criticism seems to be politically motivated. And snore…. As clearly abhorrent, toxic and (add whatever expletive you wish) ridiculous as the Trump era post truth tactics are. Pinker thinks it is a mistake to allow them to poison the well of liberal thought and policy. For instance. Pinker criticizes progressive liberal bias in university culture. Although my politics (for what it’s worth) lean progressive liberal. I’m absolutely inclined to agree. Trust and participation in university education is (by my account) a near unalloyed good. Keeping university culture open to a broad spectrum of thought keeps the engine of progress chugging. My mother (a philosophy professor) used to say, “remove the agitator from the washing machine and see how clean the clothes get”. Seeking to stifle open debate in university is like a left wing version of the POS reverend Jerry Falwell‘s moral majority caucus from the 1980’s. In case you’re too young to remember how awful that bullshit was, Google it! Zealous adherence to “woke” new speak, cancel culture bullying, and cringe worthy nakedly transparent, “progressive” virtue signaling are toxic to the type of spirited open debate and evidence based methodology that makes university culture worthy of trust. My mom aslo used to say “never fight with a pig because you both get muddy and the pig will love it”. The intuitive response to Trump era populist neofascist agitprop is to adopt an equal and opposite intellectual counterpose. But if we do, we’re sinking to an unspeakable low. Pinker’s argument (as far as I can tell) is: Rather than join in the pizza gate style, post truth, epistemological nightmare. Better to stay the course, welcome reasonable debate, adhere to reliable methods, adjust policy based on hard evidence and continue to move, step by (at times excruciatingly slow) step, in the direction liberal humanistic values. I can’t reasonably disagree. Lastly. Many criticize Pinker’s admittedly corny humor. This is as much a matter of taste as anything. But I’m gonna come out in favor of it. I find Pinker‘s clever and witty ‘dad’ jokes to be laugh out loud funny. They make his otherwise dense writing massively entertaining and fun. Like, I wish my dad was that fucking funny. Anyway. Given that Pinker is clearly a flawed human. And just for fun, name a human that isn’t. I’m a fan boy. And I fucking loved this book. Sorry about it ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ FIVE STARS ⭐️

  5. 5 out of 5

    Alexander

    Are all maps equally useful? Suppose that you are lost in the Himalayas but only have a map of the Pyrenees. Is this map helpful? Sure, it is viable as fuel for fire but not as a map to navigate the territory. Maps correspond to the territory as our beliefs correspond to reality. Are all beliefs about reality equally accurate? Are all beliefs about how to achieve a goal equally conducive? You cannot make an accurate map of a city by sitting at home with your eyes shut and drawing lines upon paper Are all maps equally useful? Suppose that you are lost in the Himalayas but only have a map of the Pyrenees. Is this map helpful? Sure, it is viable as fuel for fire but not as a map to navigate the territory. Maps correspond to the territory as our beliefs correspond to reality. Are all beliefs about reality equally accurate? Are all beliefs about how to achieve a goal equally conducive? You cannot make an accurate map of a city by sitting at home with your eyes shut and drawing lines upon paper according to your impulses. The lack of an ultimate map of the territory does not imply that no map is better than another or that the territory doesn’t exist. Similarly, the absence of an ultimate belief system does not mean that all beliefs are equally valid or that reality does not exist! A false belief feels the same from the inside as a true belief until you run an experiment. How does Pinker define Rationality? He certainly does not define it as "objective facts." He is an imperfect mortal, but he is not so naive. The modern-day definition of Rationality fully embraces the inherent subjectivity of the human experience. It fully embraces the intrinsically probabilistic nature of human knowledge. It fully embraces the enormous advances that have been achieved in modern cognitive science, which assert that all organisms create models of their worlds (refer to Active Inference by K J Friston et al.). There is currently no single, ultimate theory of Rationality, and Pinker does not pretend one exists. A complete theory of Rationality requires that we have a complete theory of cognition; not only human cognition but all possible minds. That being said, we do have some conjectures about what Rationality tools work effectively and why. Pinker dedicates 7 chapters of his book to exploring these tools. These tools are not prescriptive. They are simply tools. It is up to you whether you decide to use them or ignore them. Pinker defines Rationality as follows: to use knowledge to achieve goals. Another commonly accepted and similar definition is: Epistemic rationality: to systematically improve the probabilities of your beliefs about reality. Instrumental rationality: to systematically improve at achieving your goals. If you think “rationality” is “bad” then you are almost certainly defining it as something other than the above. Rationality does not prescribe goals. Therefore, it is not in principle good or bad. Rationality is beyond good and evil. If someone wants to reject this definition and claim that it's "contradictory" or "impossible", then they have the daunting burden of explaining to the rest of us exactly how and why it's impossible to improve our models of the world and exactly how and why we cannot improve at achieving goals. I like to think of rationality as “The Art of Mapmaking.” It’s the art of achieving better map-territory convergence. The art of making our mental models more resembling of reality and of making our roadmaps for achieving goals more conducive. Rationality does not claim to know "objective truth". Instead, it provides us with a set of tools that promise to improve our chances of making better predictions of future experiences. Objective reality is not a place we can ever reach (as far as we know) but rather a direction. This quote from The Constitution of Knowledge captures this beautifully: "Truth, as Karl Popper said, is a regulative principle. Like north, it is a direction, an orientation, not a destination. When we join the reality-based community—when we sign up for the years of training, the exacting research, the criticism and lost arguments—we resolve to conduct ourselves as if reality were out there and objectivity were possible, even while acknowledging that reality is elusive and perfect objectivity is impossible." You will find some reviewers here making claims along the lines of "There are no objective facts; such things are self-contradictory" as criticism of this book. This makes me question their underlying agenda. Such claims make three transgressions. First, a strawman argument for Rationality has never claimed to know objective facts. Second, this sentence is itself a contradiction for if it's true, it must be false. Third, such claims denigrate without providing alternatives, i.e. they are cynical. If you think that contradictions are somehow ok because Hegel said "Everything is inherently contradictory, and in the sense that this law in contrast to the others expresses rather the truth and the essential nature of things" in a remark in the Doctrine of Essence then you probably need to expand your horizons and move beyond Hegel. Bertrand Russell's attack on Platonists in his epic polemic  A History of Western Philosophy applies aptly to Hegel and Hegelians: "It is noteworthy that modern Platonists, almost without exception, are ignorant of mathematics, despite the immense importance that Plato attached to arithmetic and geometry, and the immense influence that they had on his philosophy... a man must not write on Plato unless he has spent so much of his youth on Greek as to have had no time for the things that Plato thought important." Some critics of rationality like to use this quote from The Enigma of Reason: "Whereas reason is commonly viewed as a superior means to think better on one’s own, we argue that it is mainly used in our interactions with others. We produce reasons in order to justify our thoughts and actions to others and to produce arguments to convince others to think and act as we suggest." This perspective is centred around comparing people's beliefs with each other but disregards an external reality, which is the ultimate judge of the accuracy of beliefs. It present truth as just a weapon in a power struggle. This kind of thinking is futile because it gets stuck in an infinite loop of comparing maps and ignoring the territory. Whenever someone attacks reason, their goal is to replace it with themselves as the authority on truth, a thinly veiled attempt to convince others to think and act as they suggest. This kind of attempt is pathetic because it only works until it comes into contact with the stress-testing of reality. Dogmatists deliberately operate to distort our reality for political gain. Once you detach people from reality and reason, ask a soviet propagandist, you open them to demagoguery, to deceit, they become cynical, they become disorientated, they become demoralised. All these things make it easier to control a political environment. Lasting persuasion is a byproduct of good explanations, which are precise predictions of future experiences. Galileo certainly was not a persuasive lad but most of us today take for granted that the Earth moves around the Sun. This letter from Galileo to Kepler in 1610 conveys both his frustration at the obstinacy of the crowds and failure to persuade: "My dear Kepler, I wish we could laugh at the extraordinary stupidity of the mob. What say you about the foremost philosophers of this University, who with the obstinacy of a stuffed snake, and despite my attempts and invitations a thousand times they have refused to look at the planets, or the moon, or my telescope?" Why do we find Galileo's theory about the world more convincing than it's preceding or competing theories? It is because this theory in contrast to the others offers a more precise map of reality, not because Galilio was a good rhetorician. Similarly, we find the physics of Einstein more convincing than the physics of Newton, not because Einstein was a better rhetorician than Newton but because the physics of Einstein achieves better map-territory convergence compared to that of Newton. The physics of Einstein offers more precise assertions about reality. When calculating the Earth-Moon transfer orbit with each type of physics, we find that Einstein's relativity produces predictions that are more accurate by ~1.3cm. Another quote from A History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell beautifully and succinctly captures the problems with anti-rational philosophy: One of the bad effects of an anti-intellectual philosophy, such as that of Bergson [and Hegel], is that it thrives upon the errors and confusions of the intellect. Hence it is led to prefer bad thinking to good, to declare every momentary difficulty insoluble, and to regard every foolish mistake as revealing the bankruptcy of intellect and the triumph of intuitions. I am highly critical of arbitrary distinctions between intellect/rationality and intuition/emotion. Such distinctions are abused in certain philosophies to futile ends. Intuitions/emotions are not magic, they have a well (but not perfectly) understood physiological basis (refer to Handbook of Emotions by L F Barrett et al.). Distinctions between system 1 (gut-feeling) and system 2 (analytical) are handy in some specific contexts, such as when talking about cognitive biases, highlighting how our brains compromise accuracy for speed. However, all of these are aspects of the same thing, namely our experience of the world. Dividing our experience up into these categories and then claiming that knowledge created by our intuitions is superior to that created otherwise is unsubstantiated. While we are talking about intuitions and emotions, it is important to point out that the stereotype of the rationalist as devoid of emotions is also unsubstantiated. It is perfectly rational to be respectful of other people's emotions, for you are less likely to succeed at achieving your goals if you are unkind. What I liked about this book: This book is more succinct and mainstream than Rationality: From AI to Zombies. Rationality: A-Z goes into more depth, which is unsurprising given that it's about four times longer. Pinker's book is more suitable for most people as an introduction to rationality. I quite liked that Pinker doesn't portray humans are irretrievably irrational savages, something many books on cognitive biases do. Pinker provides examples showing that despite our numerous cognitive biases, we are very rational animals, just not in all contexts. In situations that our survival depended on, we are remarkably rational. The San people of the Kalahari Desert, despite their mythological beliefs, are stunningly rational. Louis Liebenberg documented how the San people use Bayesian reasoning for hunting, applying it to footprints and animal droppings to build an accurate picture of an arid desert on which they have subsisted for many thousands of years. The chapters on probabilistic reasoning and causal inference provided the most intuitive high-level explanations of those concepts that I’ve come across! What I disliked about this book: This book is too mainstream and flavourless for my liking. It explains the concepts well, it is witty and the examples used are well selected and well presented, but it lacked the forcefulness and opinionatedness that Rationality: From AI to Zombies had. This book is titled Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters but the "Why It Matters" part of the book is rushed and I found Pinker's justification not quite profound or particularly convincing. I found Rationality: A-Z to be much more convincing. Pinker references this series of Tweets by Tim Farley regarding the harm of irrationality: > What’s the harm in conspiracy theories? FBI identifies “conspiracy-driven domestic extremists” as a new domestic terror threat. > What’s the harm in getting health advice from an #herbalist? A 13-year-old died after being told not to take insulin. Now the herbalist is headed to jail. > What’s the harm in a #faithhealing church? Ginnifer fought for her life for 4 hours. Travis Mitchell, her father, “laid on hands” and the family took turns praying as she struggled to breathe and changed colors. “I knew she was dead when she didn’t cry out anymore,” Mitchell said. > What’s the harm in believing in supernatural beings? Sumatran villagers killed an endangered tiger because they thought it was a shape-shifting “siluman.” > What’s the harm in seeing a #psychic? Maryland “psychic” convicted of scamming clients out of $340K. Pinker also references this study Individual differences in adult decision-making competence by Wändi Bruine de Bruin, et al. which found that after controlling a few factors, such as intelligence and socioeconomic status, competence in reasoning and decision making was correlated with positive life outcomes. However, this doesn't prove causation and still counts as weak evidence. Please don't be influenced by the mob that is trying to cancel Pinker for being an optimistic and honest man. Read Pinker's books and decide for yourself. Overall, a good book on rationality. Four stars because this book doesn’t offer a better explanation than previously available (and I dislike the cover). It merely summarises other peoples’ ideas in a clear, witty and succinct way.

  6. 5 out of 5

    shinminmetroskyline

    Wouldn’t have read it if i hadn’t received it for free, and it wasn’t pre publication. If i disagree with this book its because of its aesthetic, or lack thereof. Ugly book. It also violates my taboo against reality mathematics, and in particular morality mathematics. I does provide a workout though, and throws into focus the failing of my mind. I failed the nearly all of the logic problems.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Nilesh

    Rationality spends most of the book length covering elementary concepts from a collection of subjects. Even when it comes to pulling them together for something original in conclusions, the book fails equally abjectly. For some strange reasons, the author recounts the topics well covered in hundreds of books from the fields of probability theory, statistics, game theory, logic, behavioral sciences, and the likes. These discussions are staggeringly unoriginal in their conclusions and the details - Rationality spends most of the book length covering elementary concepts from a collection of subjects. Even when it comes to pulling them together for something original in conclusions, the book fails equally abjectly. For some strange reasons, the author recounts the topics well covered in hundreds of books from the fields of probability theory, statistics, game theory, logic, behavioral sciences, and the likes. These discussions are staggeringly unoriginal in their conclusions and the details - say in the examples or illustrations used, descriptions, or explanations of the formulas. These chapters form almost 90% of the book; they are without a single aha moment for those even somewhat familiar. When one finally reaches the most anticipated part - something even the author pens in as many words to start the section - the disappointment compounds with the banality of the postamble. Rather than spending any more time about the book's content, the reviewer is jotting down his thoughts sparked by the book - not necessarily original but undoubtedly personal. Nothing is entirely rational, or everything is, because of the massive range of issues that impact any rational analysis. A deployment of rational concepts and tools for human brains - even those straightforward ones in math and logic - requires immense training. Behavioral finance is replete with examples of how our intuitions crumble in various reasonably objective settings. At the same time, other psychological fields prove our mental inadequacies in dealing with situations that require intricate interplays. In real life, many factors that go into rational-conclusion-throwing-cauldron are highly subjective. What one decides as a rational course of action is dependent on the highly subjective utility functions, ethics, and personal histories. Circumstances and experiences play additional random roles in what the person doing the analysis prioritizes as the primary goal at a specific time point while relegating the other discordant types. All of the above does not count the role played by norms and expectations. The book shows well through discussions on taboos, the societies and communities around us erect artificial bounds on rational tools, methods, analysis, and conclusions available to us. One of the key conclusions the book fails to draw despite coming close is the circularities involved in rational thinking because of the concepts like Bayesian priors. Priors are those critical irrationals - call them axioms, beliefs, superstitions, assumptions, or whatever else – at the root of most real-life rational analysis. Like in Newton Method in calculus, and actually far worse, the results of a supposedly rational exercise are utterly dependent on the initial assumptions for which there is often no obvious agreement. Say my faith in what I hear from my ancestors makes me believe that there is almost a hundred percent probability of the existence of black swans, even if extremely rare. Let's say that while I meet a hundred who consider me a looney, I also meet a believer who claims that he spotted a black swan in the dark of the night recently. The others may consider this person delusional, but given my priors, I would not only give higher credence to such one-off data points but use them to increase my overall conviction levels. One can replace Black Swan with a ghost or a unicorn or a particular type of god or even geocentric views at the times of Galileo to see how what is deemed irrational by one may not be irrational at all in the contexts of the highly subjective priors one starts with. And all this is not factoring in limits of rationality most cleverly exposed in game theory situations but more realistically observed in people with differing goals. In practical life, it often pays - "rationally" - to be irrational. What is rational is not a zero-one game, but it is not even a scale where at one end you have things as true as 2 and 2 equals four, with the opposite having the claims of the same as five. Rationality is a multi-dimensional landscape shaped by the above and more - like rules, laws, generally accepted objective facts, etc. Any conclusions veering towards the paucity of absolutes for a field searching for the truths would leave almost everyone unhappy, including the most liberals. Clearly, many with specific input parameters would rationally decide to be intolerant of anyone who does not subscribe to their views. Even a few in any mix would create those game theory situations where it is rationally better for all to become intolerant of dissenting groups. With such extreme analysis, rationality turns out to be not just axiomatic (and almost irrational or faith-based) but also nihilistic. Or in other words, it does not pay to overthink rationality!

  8. 4 out of 5

    Jessica - How Jessica Reads

    Honestly, some of this was a little over my head, ha. But I liked a lot of what he had to say, and I kept saving quotable bits. "Three quarters of Americans believe in at least one phenomenon that defies the laws of science, including psychic healing (55 percent), extrasensory perception (41 percent), haunted houses (37 percent), and ghosts (32 percent)— which also means that some people believe in houses haunted by ghosts without believing in ghosts." "And a special place in Journalist Hell is r Honestly, some of this was a little over my head, ha. But I liked a lot of what he had to say, and I kept saving quotable bits. "Three quarters of Americans believe in at least one phenomenon that defies the laws of science, including psychic healing (55 percent), extrasensory perception (41 percent), haunted houses (37 percent), and ghosts (32 percent)— which also means that some people believe in houses haunted by ghosts without believing in ghosts." "And a special place in Journalist Hell is reserved for the scribes who in 2021, during the rollout of Covid vaccines known to have a 95 percent efficacy rate, wrote stories on the vaccinated people who came down with the disease— by definition not news (since it was always certain there would be some) and guaranteed to scare thousands from this lifesaving treatment." Full review coming for Shelf Awareness.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Kathryn Bashaar

    This book can be tough going. Pinker condenses into just a few hundred pages what would surely be a full 3-credit Logic course at a university. It gets a little hard to follow. But there's a payoff. I think of myself as very rational. But I fell for the fallacious answer to several of the questions that Pinker poses. Here's an example. On the game show Let's Make a Deal, let's say you chose Door #1. If the host reveals that the big prize is NOT behind Door #3, should you change your choice to Do This book can be tough going. Pinker condenses into just a few hundred pages what would surely be a full 3-credit Logic course at a university. It gets a little hard to follow. But there's a payoff. I think of myself as very rational. But I fell for the fallacious answer to several of the questions that Pinker poses. Here's an example. On the game show Let's Make a Deal, let's say you chose Door #1. If the host reveals that the big prize is NOT behind Door #3, should you change your choice to Door #2? I'd have said no, the chance that the big prize is behind Door #2 versus Door #1 are now 50-50. You probably think the same. Long story short, we are wrong. I still don't quite understand why. Some of the other logical fallacies are easier to understand, but, altogether, it is a tough book. My brain was working so hard that one night I had trouble falling asleep after reading. But the cumulative effect is to help the reader to be a more critical thinker. For example, I've always heard that correlation is not the same as causation, but I will now be much more alert to correlation fallacies. In one chapter, I think Pinker did his readers a disservice. He claims that 90% of breast cancer diagnoses are false positives. First, he uses the assumption that only 1% of women will get breast cancer, which I believe is wildly incorrect. Second, he explains his reasoning abstractly, without reference to the specific breast cancer example. So it was really hard to follow, and hard for me to determine how much impact his use of the 1% figure had on his conclusion that 90% of diagnoses are false positives. Also, he doesn't define what he considers a "diagnosis." Is it a suspicious mammogram? A biopsy result? A pathology test after surgery? And what is the difference between a "diagnosis", and his claim that only 1% are true positives? As a breast cancer survivor, it seemed sloppy to me. Overall, though, I felt that the book was worth reading. I especially appreciated the last few chapters. In Chapter 10, he talks about why people seem so irrational at times. Short version, emotion overrides rational thinking. The obvious rational conclusion might not be to your liking (motivated reasoning) or might not confirm what you and your friends believe (myside bias). Or it might contradict a mythology (e.g., religion) that is central to your understanding of the universe. In the case of conspiracy theories, people are susceptible because it happens to be true that sometimes there really ARE conspiracies. And honestly it's sometimes just easier to believe whatever grabs your attention, compared to thinking it through. In Chapter 11, Pinker makes an impassioned and well-argued case for how rationality has improved lives. And, bottom line, rationality is the only tool we have to convince each other when we disagree. The alternative is force of some kind. If we hope to keep our democracy, we must respect rationality. Like my reviews? Check out my blog at http://www.kathrynbashaar.com/blog/ Author of The Saints Mistress https://camcatbooks.com/Books/T/The-S... Overall, though, this book was worth the hard thinking.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Ietrio

    Sweet irony! A call to rationality from a white old male who is dominated by his irrational fears: Muslims, Covid, anything that might threaten his dominant status. And, like the Christian preachers he despises, whomever doesn't care about his important issues, they are irrational, a white way to say Haram. Sweet irony! A call to rationality from a white old male who is dominated by his irrational fears: Muslims, Covid, anything that might threaten his dominant status. And, like the Christian preachers he despises, whomever doesn't care about his important issues, they are irrational, a white way to say Haram.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Alan Johnson

    I agree with many things in this book. However, I disagree with some of Pinker's basic principles and a few of his specific statements. For example, Pinker follows Hume and other moderns in arguing that reason/rationality applies to means, not ends. Ends are, according to Hume and Pinker, postulated by our emotions, our desires, our feelings. If so, then Hitler was rational to the extent that his war machine was rationally designed to achieve his end of world conquest and tyranny. He was irratio I agree with many things in this book. However, I disagree with some of Pinker's basic principles and a few of his specific statements. For example, Pinker follows Hume and other moderns in arguing that reason/rationality applies to means, not ends. Ends are, according to Hume and Pinker, postulated by our emotions, our desires, our feelings. If so, then Hitler was rational to the extent that his war machine was rationally designed to achieve his end of world conquest and tyranny. He was irrational when he made emotional decisions about his war machine that were not conducive to his ends. Pinker acknowledges an exception when our ends are in conflict with each other. Then, somehow, we must use reason to adjudicate among our conflicting ends. He does not discuss how reason is involved when a person's conflicting ends are all unethical. (See Rationality, 45–56, 70, 175, and 329, Kindle edition.) At the end of the book, however, Pinker apparently advocates, if only implicitly, the importance of reason as part of the conception of good ends. In contrast to the modern consensus, Plato showed how Socrates used rational dialectic to identify proper ends (Republic, especially Book I). Similarly, Aristotle held that correct reasoning should be applied both to the ascertainment of ends and to the formulation of means (Nicomachean Ethics 6.1.1138b18–35, 6.2.1139a21–27, 6.5.1140b5–7, 6.13.1144b1–1145a11; see also Daniel C. Russell, Practical Intelligence and the Virtues [Oxford: Clarendon, 2009], part 1). I agree with Plato, Aristotle, and Russell on this issue. Pinker also argues that rationality requires, among other things, “mastery of cognitive tools like formal logic and mathematical probability” (Rationality, 324). He thereby implicitly consigns the majority of the human species to irrationality. In contrast, I think it is possible for people even without such mathematical and quasi-mathematical (symbolic notation) training to be rational about both ends and means. This is what I understand to be the thought behind the movement for informal logic and critical thinking. The discipline of “formal logic” involves abstract (symbolic) philosophical, mathematical, computational, or linguistic propositions that ignore questions about correct reasoning in ordinary human decisions and actions, whereas “informal logic” and “critical thinking” address the actual content of human thought and communication. I elaborate my own views on these matters in my work-in-progress Reason and Human Ethics. (edited November 21, 2021)

  12. 4 out of 5

    Sid Nuncius

    The message of this book is important and timely and I am wholly in agreement with its arguments and analyses. However, I did find it a bit of a slog. Pinker argues clearly and passionately that rationality and reason are vital and that their current abandonment by a worrying number of people is dangerous. He looks at the role of rationality and the essential part it plays in maintaining a civilised society and also attempts to analyse why some people reject it in favour of irrationality, conspir The message of this book is important and timely and I am wholly in agreement with its arguments and analyses. However, I did find it a bit of a slog. Pinker argues clearly and passionately that rationality and reason are vital and that their current abandonment by a worrying number of people is dangerous. He looks at the role of rationality and the essential part it plays in maintaining a civilised society and also attempts to analyse why some people reject it in favour of irrationality, conspiracy theories, evidence-free fantasies and so on. This includes some good analysis of why scientific data can be messy and a clear explanation o why that doesn’t mean that it can simply be ignored. All of this is commendable but I had some reservations. Firstly, although Pinker has a reputation for brilliant, readable writing, I found the prose quite hard going in places. It is dense, unalleviated by much in the way of light relief and burdened by his tendency to use obscure words where ordinary ones will do just as well – “patrimony,” for example where “inheritance” would make at least as much sense and make for a far easier read. Secondly, I wasn’t really sure that Pinker was saying much that was new. The book, he explains, grew out of a course he taught and that makes it, for me, a restatement of pretty well rehearsed arguments and ideas. Important, certainly, and a useful restatement of arguments but not all that stimulating. And thirdly, I kept getting a strong feeling that he is preaching to the converted. This is a book aimed at and surely read by those who, like me, already believe strongly in rationality. It may strengthen our stance, but will it change what really needs to be changed? I don’t want to be too harsh; this is a good, important book. However, for me Robin Ince’s recent, very enjoyable and equally important book The Importance Of Being Interested said much the same thing in a far more readable and witty way, which may do a better job of reaching the people it needs to.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Anandpreet Singh

    Down the rabbit hole I went again. We live in a world where we highly prioritize being rational. But why? And how can we define someone as rational? What is Irrational? By doing this aren't we dividing the world in black and white instead of seeing it as grey? "We should not be surprised that what people take away from science education is a syncretic mishmash, where gravity and electromagnetism coexist with psi, qi, karma, and crystal healing." There's been a huge rise in behavioral economics in Down the rabbit hole I went again. We live in a world where we highly prioritize being rational. But why? And how can we define someone as rational? What is Irrational? By doing this aren't we dividing the world in black and white instead of seeing it as grey? "We should not be surprised that what people take away from science education is a syncretic mishmash, where gravity and electromagnetism coexist with psi, qi, karma, and crystal healing." There's been a huge rise in behavioral economics in the last two decades, although it points out the Irrational things we do, the reason why we do it wasn't that satisfactory and was mostly based on experiments. Steven Pinker approach here is from a cognitive psychologist perspective and the explanations he gives are really interesting to read. There are entire chapters dedicated to simple topics such as probability, causality, statistics, correlation etc, which gives an in-depth study of these basic topics. Stuff of thought really. This book is very well structured, read it in the given order and it'll all make sense in the end. My favourite chapter from this book has to be chapter number 10, what's wrong with people? This chapter is like a conclusion of all the things that he told in previous chapters and with real life examples. The last chapter why rationality matters, felt more like a part of enlightenment now (another great book by him) instead of this one. To all people who are planning to read this book, I'll highly recommend to read some books on behavioural economics and psychology before picking this one. This book is densely packed with knowledge, going without prior knowledge on behavioural economics and psychology will make this book very hard to understand and this is the only criticism I've for this book. If behavioural economics and psychology interests you, this is the most up-to-date book to read.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Steve

    3.5 stars I guess. I really loved Pinker’s earlier books about linguistics and psychology. There’s certainly some good stuff in this book, but I don’t think he covered the topic all that well. There were reminders of his good sense of humor and his good writing, but not so much. I’m happy that he uses interesting words, but he may have gone a little overboard in using obscure terminology.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Richard Thompson

    There's nothing new here for anyone who has a basic knowledge of logic, statistics, game theory and behavioral economics. Still, it's a good recap of basic concepts, and Mr. Pinker does a good job of describing current academic thinking about our departures from rationality and why things that seem like departures may really only be issues of context and point of view that are not necessarily irrational at all. I generally agree with everything that is in this book, so why did I come away from i There's nothing new here for anyone who has a basic knowledge of logic, statistics, game theory and behavioral economics. Still, it's a good recap of basic concepts, and Mr. Pinker does a good job of describing current academic thinking about our departures from rationality and why things that seem like departures may really only be issues of context and point of view that are not necessarily irrational at all. I generally agree with everything that is in this book, so why did I come away from it feeling that Mr. Pinker and I have a fundamental divergence of our points of view and wondering whether this may be the last Steven Pinker book that I will read? I think perhaps that it is because I am deeply drawn to the irrational and spiritual. I am not religious or superstitious. I try to be as objective as possible in my evaluation of news and society and in my job. And yet I also feel that there is a fundamental human need for something that is trans-rational. Sometimes when things don't make sense that is the whole point of them, and they can only be understood by accepting their irrationality. Like a Zen koan. Or the Trinity. And things that defy rational analysis can have great beauty. However, Mr. Pinker seems to be mired in the Enlightenment. I have great admiration for Enlightenment thinking. David Hume, who is quoted several times with approval by Mr. Pinker, was very smart and was right far more often than he was wrong, plus he could write philosophy in a way that was much more readable than any of the great German philosophers. And the French Enlightenment also produced some very good ideas. But most of the world has gotten past all that. We need to leaven our rationality with compassion, and we need to re-enchant the world. Mr. Pinker for all of his smarts and good intentions seems to miss this point. He and I are on different tracks.

  16. 5 out of 5

    D.L. Morrese

    The title poses some very good questions, but does the book answer them? Well... Steven Pinker is undoubtedly a brilliant fellow, and I loved his book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, but Rationality reads more like a textbook on probability than a clear explanation of reason and critical thinking. Rather than introducing the subject in layman's terms using specific examples, it starts off with definitions of rules of logic, graphs, and diagrams. That's all well and goo The title poses some very good questions, but does the book answer them? Well... Steven Pinker is undoubtedly a brilliant fellow, and I loved his book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, but Rationality reads more like a textbook on probability than a clear explanation of reason and critical thinking. Rather than introducing the subject in layman's terms using specific examples, it starts off with definitions of rules of logic, graphs, and diagrams. That's all well and good, but it's a tad dry. The issue on the minds of many people, and the reason this subject is so timely, was/is what seems like a spreading plague of irrationality epitomized by the rise of Donald Trump. How were otherwise intelligent people lured into his delusions? Did they not notice that much of what he said made little or no sense, or did they simply not care? And if they didn't, why not? What is going on in the minds of religious extremists and terrorists who believe that God wants them to hurt people? What draws people into giving any credence at all to ranting radio talk show hosts and internet conspiracy theorists? This book mentions some of these questions, especially in the final section, but I didn't find succinct answers to any of them. Maybe there aren't any.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Pete

    Rationality : What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters (2021) by Steven Pinker is the celebrity Harvard Psychologist’s latest work. In Rationality Pinker uses the content of a course he teaches at Harvard about how to reason better. Most of the book is used to instruct the reader on logic, probability, Bayesian Reasoning, Expected Utility, Further Statistics, Game Theory and Correlation and Causation. In the final two chapters Pinker describes what he sees as being wrong with people and fi Rationality : What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters (2021) by Steven Pinker is the celebrity Harvard Psychologist’s latest work. In Rationality Pinker uses the content of a course he teaches at Harvard about how to reason better. Most of the book is used to instruct the reader on logic, probability, Bayesian Reasoning, Expected Utility, Further Statistics, Game Theory and Correlation and Causation. In the final two chapters Pinker describes what he sees as being wrong with people and finally states why he believes he Rationality matters so much. Pinker knows his subject and his very widely read and writes really well. Pinker has read and understood Hume and includes Hume’s statements about causality and that notably, ‘reason is the slave of the passions’. Pinker writes very well about Kahneman and Tversky and also includes Gerd Gigerenzer’s critiques of their work. At times the combination of lessons in logic and psychology is very interesting. The didactic content of Rationality on reason would be better presented as a course than a book. The sections on what’s wrong with people and Pinker’s justification of Reason are not substantial enough. Pinker does make the worthwhile point that people are rational in their own lives and careers but then tend to believe in many strange things regarding politics. But he doesn’t explore that enough. Also Pinker fails to engage much with the concept that smart, very numerate and logical people come to wildly different conclusions on important subjects. Economics provides many examples of this. Pinker’s treatment of statistics is quite good, but Tim Harford’s work with the More or Less podcast and his book ‘The Data Detective” are better. Pinker also acknowledges and writes about ‘myside’ bias but his answers to that are not as good as those provided by Julia Galef’s book ‘The Scout Mindset’. Bryan Caplan’s ‘The Myth of the Rational Voter’ also has interesting things to say about why people vote, and believe things about the world that they do. Rationality isn’t a bad book, but it’s not Pinker’s best. Pinker gives the book a tremendous task but fails to deliver. The lessons in reasoning aren’t bad but aren’t really extensive enough and the summary of the importance and the reasons for people’s irrationality are not sufficiently well developed.

  18. 4 out of 5

    David D. Knapp, Ph.D.

    This is the third book by Pinker that I've started, with "Enlightenment Now" and "The Better Angels of Our Nature" being the other two. But it is the first one I've finished...and it wasn't easy. Pinker's work is frustrating to me. On one hand, he writes about topics about which I care deeply (rationality, critical thinking, overcoming biases and fallacies...). So, I WANT to read his books. However, he writes about these topics in a dense, academic style that I graphically refer to as "academic ma This is the third book by Pinker that I've started, with "Enlightenment Now" and "The Better Angels of Our Nature" being the other two. But it is the first one I've finished...and it wasn't easy. Pinker's work is frustrating to me. On one hand, he writes about topics about which I care deeply (rationality, critical thinking, overcoming biases and fallacies...). So, I WANT to read his books. However, he writes about these topics in a dense, academic style that I graphically refer to as "academic masturbation" (egotistical and intellectual language and overall style designed to illustrate one's intelligence with the ultimate goal of self-pleasure, rather than for the enjoyment of the reader). We know you're an expert in these topics, Dr. Pinker, so you don't have to prove it by writing about them in a practically impenetrable fashion. Seriously, I have taken numerous Ph.D.-level courses in these topics. I have taught these topics both at the undergraduate and graduate levels. And, yet, I struggled mightily to get through Pinker's coverage of them in this book. Consequently, he has limited the impact of his potentially powerful writing by exclusively targeting other intellectual readers who probably also engage in "academic masturbation" when they write. How about "dumbing it down a little" - for lack of a better phrase - so that readers who really need to contemplate and learn about these topics can follow your thoughts on them? (For example, I think Jay Heinrichs has done a marvelous job of this very thing in the various editions of his "Thank You for Arguing: What Aristotle, Lincoln, and Homer Simpson Can Teach Us About the Art of Persuasion.") Anyway... I'm not sure I'll try to fight my way through any other works by Pinker - unless he miraculously changes his approach to writing (which is highly unlikely). And that's a shame. Because I truly believe I could learn a lot from this brilliant man...if only he wouldn't keep trying to constantly remind me how brilliant he is.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Anthony

    Not what I expected but in sum, rationality is mathematical.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Weronika

    It is a solid compilation book. No new research, however (I should have expected this, though, Pinker has been writing compilation books with no original input for some time). I liked the chapter on formal logic and thought for a moment whether the book would be a good fit for students, for an interpretation/critical thinking class, but there are better options. The references to current political events mean that the book will date quickly. I would have opted for a wider range of cultural and p It is a solid compilation book. No new research, however (I should have expected this, though, Pinker has been writing compilation books with no original input for some time). I liked the chapter on formal logic and thought for a moment whether the book would be a good fit for students, for an interpretation/critical thinking class, but there are better options. The references to current political events mean that the book will date quickly. I would have opted for a wider range of cultural and political references that would keep the book "fresh" and relevant longer. I still enjoyed it and would recommend it to someone who likes logical puzzles (thought if you've read a few books on the subject, some experiments/examples will be a repeat).

  21. 4 out of 5

    Sebastian Gebski

    Is there a topic more important these days (than rationality)? I don't think so. That's why I've pre-ordered "Rationality" - a book written by the author I respect and value high. Every topic can be approached from many different angles, this applies to rationality as well. Pinker's approach is far more about probability, logic, game theory, and statistics than behavioral/cognitive psychology. Or, to be more precise - he tries to use these mathematical foundations to understand the psychological Is there a topic more important these days (than rationality)? I don't think so. That's why I've pre-ordered "Rationality" - a book written by the author I respect and value high. Every topic can be approached from many different angles, this applies to rationality as well. Pinker's approach is far more about probability, logic, game theory, and statistics than behavioral/cognitive psychology. Or, to be more precise - he tries to use these mathematical foundations to understand the psychological aspects better. This approach was some sort of a surprise. I'm far from telling you that it's the wrong way, but it felt like the author is going through many simple concepts (that can be found in a zillion of sources - like correlation vs causation or conditional probability), but in the end, the connection between irrational behavior and the laws of logic doesn't seem more comprehensible and clear. Not mentioning bringing up good counter-measures (to advocate rationality) - don't expect any practical hints. But still, even with these flaws, I think it's a valuable book. Some observations will enrage many people (from both sides of a heavily polarized sociopolitical scene), but well - if you ask me, it's the price of rationally writing about rationality. In the end, this book could have been better, but at least it triggers the conversation, in a very well-balanced, open way. That's a lot (IMHO).

  22. 4 out of 5

    Justin Pickett

    Mediocre. It essentially provides a summary of what is in Thinking, Fast and Slow and The Book of Why: The New Science of Cause and Effect, sprinkled with shorter summaries of specific research articles (e.g., Tetlock's work on the psychology of the unthinkable). The few additions to this material that Pinker makes generally constitute philosophical nonsense. The most useful thing about this book is probably just that Pinker explains some complex things (e.g., Bayesian updating) in understandabl Mediocre. It essentially provides a summary of what is in Thinking, Fast and Slow and The Book of Why: The New Science of Cause and Effect, sprinkled with shorter summaries of specific research articles (e.g., Tetlock's work on the psychology of the unthinkable). The few additions to this material that Pinker makes generally constitute philosophical nonsense. The most useful thing about this book is probably just that Pinker explains some complex things (e.g., Bayesian updating) in understandable ways.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Julian Schrittwieser

    A great introduction to the subject - why thinking rationally is important, how we fail at doing so and what to do about it. If you are familiar with LessWrong or Rationality: AI to Zombies, this covers similar ground, but in condensed form and in a form easily digestible by newcomers.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Vili

    This should be mandatory reading in schools. People are out in the world voting people into power and influencing public policies while at the same time those same people have never learned how to think. Even less - how to decode.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Allie Fowler

    Hold up. Mr Pinker, did you just say "sudden adoption of a radical academic doctrine called Critical Race Theory?" Critical Race Theory literally calls for the teaching of ACTUAL US HISTORY, rather than the whitewashed fiction that passes in schools even still today. Even a casual mention that yes, the Tulsa bombing massacre of entire Black neighborhoods occurred as well as the numerous coup d'etats of democratically elected Black governments. Things I was never taught as a white person growing up Hold up. Mr Pinker, did you just say "sudden adoption of a radical academic doctrine called Critical Race Theory?" Critical Race Theory literally calls for the teaching of ACTUAL US HISTORY, rather than the whitewashed fiction that passes in schools even still today. Even a casual mention that yes, the Tulsa bombing massacre of entire Black neighborhoods occurred as well as the numerous coup d'etats of democratically elected Black governments. Things I was never taught as a white person growing up in the south, 90 minutes away from one particularly egregious coup. My dude, your own bias is showing. And now I need to go back and question each of your little ad libs. A shame, because you did a pretty decent job of spelling out the formal logic errors that most US citizens aren't taught.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Justin Hall

    Thanks to PRHAudio for this complimentary audiobook! What a great refresher to many theories I have studied in the past. Like most things I need a reminder of how rational thoughts and decision making effect our lives and those around us. This book couldn't come out at a more perfect time. With so much at stake in a pandemic where science and conspiracy are being thrown against each other using rational thinking is incredibly important. I admire the reference to Daniel Kahneman throughout and if Thanks to PRHAudio for this complimentary audiobook! What a great refresher to many theories I have studied in the past. Like most things I need a reminder of how rational thoughts and decision making effect our lives and those around us. This book couldn't come out at a more perfect time. With so much at stake in a pandemic where science and conspiracy are being thrown against each other using rational thinking is incredibly important. I admire the reference to Daniel Kahneman throughout and if you had any doubts about the studies be assured they were done by the best in the business. Really wish more people would get a hold of this book.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Adam

    An interesting overview of rationality. Some good overviews on logic and some flaws we all fall for. I've been exposed to these time and time again over the past decade and a half as I become more and more involved in skepticism, critical thinking and generally in my pursuit on the truth. I've never really read a book specifically on critical thinking or which explains the various logical fallacies, many of which I'm nonetheless familiar with. As such it is nice to have a lot of them laid. In so An interesting overview of rationality. Some good overviews on logic and some flaws we all fall for. I've been exposed to these time and time again over the past decade and a half as I become more and more involved in skepticism, critical thinking and generally in my pursuit on the truth. I've never really read a book specifically on critical thinking or which explains the various logical fallacies, many of which I'm nonetheless familiar with. As such it is nice to have a lot of them laid. In some cases there were concepts I believed and had formulated somewhat on my own but which seem to have formal names which is likely why I would have been exposed to some similar arguments in the first place! That's all good. Everyone could be better to understand and apply such rules to their own thinking. Expose flaws and shortcomings in your own arguments. It's not just about owning people online, a fairly frustrating and fruitless pursuit, but being a better thinker yourself and using your mind more effectively. There's an idea here which I hadn't fully wrapped my head around which Pinker puts together well. I reject the idea that we are in a post truth world, possibly because Pinker shoots down the idea in Enlightenment Now, but also because people in some way seem to use logic and evidence more than ever. They're just not super consistent about it. Steven Pinker argues that people are rational and reasonable, though he exposes some of the shortcomings and gives very good reasons for why. Certainly I've long believed the idea that we are simply mismatched to the modern world in many ways, with bodies and minds evolved to fit our evolutionary environment so that we do things "wrong". This is part of why we are irrational but that doesn't totally explain quite how and why. This book really gets into the weeds to explain exactly why we believe what we do, why it's sometimes useful when contrasted against simple academic logic puzzles and thought experiments and in other cases when it is actually maladaptive and bad for ourselves or society, but sometimes one and not the other. How disappointing that a rational actor may be better off in following their tribe and supporting such an idiotic false belief. I accept this, of course, but still chose to pursue the truth even if it sometimes makes me unpopular or simply leads to heretic views which I don't bother to utter publicly. Steven Pinker is one of my top two non fiction writers. This isn't his best book, but it's still great! If you need to read one of his books, read the Blank Slate. If you're going to read four or five ... well this one is probably up there!

  28. 5 out of 5

    Larry Norton

    I have been a fan of Steven Pinker since reading The Better Angels of our Nature (2011) and Enlightenment Now (2018). As such, I was greatly looking forward to the release of Rationality, his latest book. Though filled with interesting insights and sometimes moving exhortations to embrace the power of reason, this book was somewhat of a disappointment for me. In his preface, he writes: “A major theme of this book is that none of us, thinking alone, is rational enough to consistently come to sound I have been a fan of Steven Pinker since reading The Better Angels of our Nature (2011) and Enlightenment Now (2018). As such, I was greatly looking forward to the release of Rationality, his latest book. Though filled with interesting insights and sometimes moving exhortations to embrace the power of reason, this book was somewhat of a disappointment for me. In his preface, he writes: “A major theme of this book is that none of us, thinking alone, is rational enough to consistently come to sound conclusions: rationality emerges from a community of reasoners who spot each other’s fallacies.” As it turns out, the greater part of the book is devoted to the first proposition, namely, we can not go it alone, with far less devoted to the community of reasoners. The sections of the book that are devoted to the ways we as individuals succeed and fail at reasoning read like a survey course. We learn how we fail to apply logic, misunderstand probability and neglect critical thinking. We constantly run into biases and fallacies that hinder our ability to think clearly. Pinker provides introductions, with lively examples, to the topics of logic, probability, Bayesian reasoning, rational choice and expected utility, signal detection, decision theory, game theory, and the relationship between correlation and causation. If you are even a casual reader in these disciplines, much of the ground that Pinker covers here has been covered elsewhere before. Examples include the Monty Hall Problem, The Linda Problem, the Tragedy of the Commons and The Prisoners Dilemma. A saving grace of Pinker’s survey of the territory of reason is that it is well organized and provides a bracing refresher to the obstacles that lay in the way of sound reasoning. Pinker’s arguments for rationality emerging from a community of reasoners are sparce and come late in the book, and I would have liked to have seen a deeper dive into his thinking here (perhaps it is meant for another book?). Again, he covers ground that others have covered on the values of institutions, such as government, academia, public and private research units, the press and our legal system and the communal processes that support these such as checks and balances, peer review, editing and fact-checking and the adversarial system in law. Having shown us all the ways we fail to live up to the standards of rationality, Pinker does not despair. In his chapter “Rationality Matters” he makes that case that but for reason, we would not have progress. We are, in fact, better off today both materially and morally, then we were at the dawn of the Enlightenment. He paraphrases Martin Luther King, saying: “The arc of knowledge is a long one, and bends toward rationality”. Yet, when he steps down from the broad perspective of history to discuss ways – today - that we can continue to bend that arc, his proposals, though laudable, seem weak or at least weakly argued. We must “valorize” the norms of rationality, we should have more scientists in congress, we should build and support institutions that specialize in creating and storing knowledge. To each of these proposals, I wrote in my notes “but how?”. I may have been asking for too much from this book; my hope was that Pinker would offer us powerful tools to help us combat the rising tides of irrationalism that our plaguing contemporary society. However, as an analysis of where we are today in terms of our understanding of our strengths and weakness as rational agents, his is clear, accessible, and memorable.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Dr. Lloyd E. Campbell

    Since I’ve never had a course in logic I found this book difficult reading. Thankfully, I’ve read Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow. In much of this book Pinker elaborates on ideas Kahneman introduced to me in Kahneman’s discussion of Thinking Slow. Pinker gives excellent examples of difficult ideas throughout this book. He also provides a useful tool at the end of the book to help the reader. He opens the book with three examples of logic problems 2/3 of college students get wrong. I’ll share one t Since I’ve never had a course in logic I found this book difficult reading. Thankfully, I’ve read Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow. In much of this book Pinker elaborates on ideas Kahneman introduced to me in Kahneman’s discussion of Thinking Slow. Pinker gives excellent examples of difficult ideas throughout this book. He also provides a useful tool at the end of the book to help the reader. He opens the book with three examples of logic problems 2/3 of college students get wrong. I’ll share one to whet your appetite. The Monte Hall problem Monte Hall hosted a popular TV game show called Let’s Make a Deal. Contestants were asked to choose one of three doors. They were instructed that behind one of the doors was a new car. Behind the other two doors were goats. If the contestant chose the wrong door they got nothing. Before revealing what was behind the door the contestant chose Monte would open one of the other two doors revealing a goat. Then Monte would present another choice. The contestant could keep their original choice or change their choice. The question is: Is it better to keep your original choice or is it better to change your choice, does it matter whether you change your choice? If you like to think about such things, you will enjoy this book, if not then don’t bother.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Urszula

    This is a really excellent, short introduction that I would highly recommend to anyone unfamiliar with logic, rationality, different biases that affect our thinking. It's elementary, so if you're already familiar with rational discourse, you will not find anything new in this book. However, if you want to recommend someone a basic introduction to rational thinking - this is a gem, and you should totally use it! It covers a great range of topics, from basic logic principles, through Bayesian prio This is a really excellent, short introduction that I would highly recommend to anyone unfamiliar with logic, rationality, different biases that affect our thinking. It's elementary, so if you're already familiar with rational discourse, you will not find anything new in this book. However, if you want to recommend someone a basic introduction to rational thinking - this is a gem, and you should totally use it! It covers a great range of topics, from basic logic principles, through Bayesian priors and prisoners dilemma, to differences between correlation and causation. It's also very current and touches upon conspiracy theories around covid/vaccines and other irrational/wishful thinking examples. It also points us to some rationality results, like egalitarian societies and expanding circle with its anti-speciesism. It's very simply written, so anyone will understand it (I would make it one of the books kids should read in class). Enjoyable read!

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