RATIONALITY: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters. Steven Pinker. (2021, Kindle Edition)
Have you ever wondered why humans are prone to act irrationally, to be persuaded by bad arguments and/or conspiracy theories? In the book, Rationality, Harvard professor, cognitive psychologist, and bestselling author, Steven Pinker, explores the nature of rationality and the puzzle of why it seems to be so scarce.
Pinker argues that in a world in which human irrationality is a pressing issue, citizens need to command the intellectual tools of sound reasoning such as logic, critical thinking, probability, correlation and causation; as well as the use of these tools in making rational choices alone and with others. He asserts that these tools of reasoning “help us calibrate risky choices, evaluate dubious claims, understand baffling paradoxes, and gain insight into life’s vicissitudes and tragedies”.
Throughout the eleven chapters, Pinker draws examples from math, logic, probability and forecasting to demonstrate “quirks” in human reasoning in order to explain how our species can be so smart and yet so easily deluded. He uses puzzles and gameshow brain-teasers to demonstrate how people often jump to wrong conclusions by relying on habit and intuition, and from the fear of change.
A favorite brain-teaser he used is drawn from a popular game show in which a contestant is faced with three doors. Behind one of them is a sleek new car. Behind the other two are goats. The contestant picks a door, say Door 1. To build suspense, the gameshow host opens one of the other two doors, say Door 3, revealing a goat. To build the suspense still further, he gives the contestant an opportunity either to stick with their original choice or to switch to the unopened door. If you are the contestant, what does your intuition suggest you do? What do the rules of chance suggest is the better choice? No spoiler here, the answer lies in the book!
Beyond some fun examples, Pinker does not shy away from addressing controversial topics such as the anti-vaccine movement, Donald Trump’s rise in popularity, climate change, terrorism, conspiracy theories, among others. He also draws examples from a variety of professional fields of practice (e.g., medical, legal, insurance) to demonstrate how failure of rationality may have far-reaching consequences. Therefore, there is little doubt that many readers may disagree with some of Pinker’s arguments.
Rationality is an enlightening (and sometimes entertaining) read on a technical and complex topic that may stir the emotions.
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