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Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters Kindle Edition
A TIMES BOOK OF THE YEAR 2021
'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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Steven Pinker is among the best science writers in history, and with Rationality he applies his talents to one of the most important and misunderstood human abilities - tracking reality with a brain that was designed to do so under some circumstances but not others. If you've ever considered taking drugs to make yourself smarter, read Rationality instead. It's cheaper, more entertaining, and more effective. -- Jonathan Haidt, NYU-Stern School of Business and author of The Righteous Mind
The Enlightenment torchbearer is eloquent in his defence of clear thinking ... [reason] is a tool that human beings have to learn to use with care, something this book will help any reader to do. -- Julian Baggini ― Financial Times
Rationality - like all of Pinker's work - [is] a paen to human potential... what Pinker really trades in are profoundly refreshing, energising sets of explanations for why we do and think the way we do ... harnessing reason is not just useful in all kinds of ways both personal and universal, but a wondrous property of being human. -- Zoe Strimpel ― Daily Telegraph
Almost every sentence in Rationality is crisp and intelligible, which is quite a feat, given that explaining logic to humans is like teaching them Sanskrit. Pinker suggests various ways to run our collective affairs more rationally. -- Simon Kuper ― New Statesman
A reader-friendly primer in better thinking through the cultivation of that rarest of rarities: a sound argument.― Kirkus
Rationality is a terrific book, much-needed for our time. In addition to drawing together the tools for overcoming obstacles to rational thinking, Pinker breaks new ground with the evidence he provides linking rationality and moral progress. -- Peter Singer --This text refers to the paperback edition.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
How Rational an Animal?
Man is a rational animal. So at least we have been told. Throughout a long life I have searched diligently for evidence in favor of this statement. So far, I have not had the good fortune to come across it.
He that can carp in the most eloquent or acute manner at the weakness of the human mind is held by his fellows as almost divine.
Homo sapiens means wise hominin, and in many ways we have earned the specific epithet of our Linnaean binomial. Our species has dated the origin of the universe, plumbed the nature of matter and energy, decoded the secrets of life, unraveled the circuitry of consciousness, and chronicled our history and diversity. We have applied this knowledge to enhance our own flourishing, blunting the scourges that immiserated our ancestors for most of our existence. We have postponed our expected date with death from thirty years of age to more than seventy (eighty in developed countries), reduced extreme poverty from ninety percent of humanity to less than nine, slashed the rates of death from war twentyfold and from famine a hundredfold. Even when the ancient bane of pestilence rose up anew in the twenty-first century, we identified the cause within days, sequenced its genome within weeks, and administered vaccines within a year, keeping its death toll to a fraction of those of historic pandemics.
The cognitive wherewithal to understand the world and bend it to our advantage is not a trophy of Western civilization; it's the patrimony of our species. The San of the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa are one of the world's oldest peoples, and their foraging lifestyle, maintained until recently, offers a glimpse of the ways in which humans spent most of their existence. Hunter-gatherers don't just chuck spears at passing animals or help themselves to fruit and nuts growing around them. The tracking scientist Louis Liebenberg, who has worked with the San for decades, has described how they owe their survival to a scientific mindset. They reason their way from fragmentary data to remote conclusions with an intuitive grasp of logic, critical thinking, statistical reasoning, causal interference, and game theory.
The San engage in persistence hunting, which puts to use our three most conspicuous traits: our two-leggedness, which enables us to run efficiently; our hairlessness, which enables us to dump heat in hot climates; and our big heads, which enable us to be rational. The San deploy this rationality to track the fleeing animals from their hoofprints, effluvia, and other spoor, pursuing them until they keel over from exhaustion and heat stroke. Sometimes the San track an animal along one of its habitual pathways, or, when a trail goes cold, by searching in widening circles around the last known prints. But often they track them by reasoning.
Hunters distinguish dozens of species by the shapes and spacing of their tracks, aided by their grasp of cause and effect. They may infer that a deeply pointed track comes from an agile springbok, which needs a good grip, whereas a flat-footed track comes from a heavy kudu, which has to support its weight. They can sex the animals from the configuration of their tracks and the relative location of their urine to their hind feet and droppings. They use these categories to make syllogistic deductions: steenbok and duiker can be run down in the rainy season because the wet sand forces open their hooves and stiffens their joints; kudu and eland can be run down in the dry season because they tire easily in loose sand. It's the dry season and the animal that left these tracks is a kudu; therefore, this animal can be run down.
The San don't just pigeonhole animals into categories but make finer-grained logical distinctions. They tell individuals apart within a species by readin--This text refers to the paperback edition.
- ASIN : B08PY44J1P
- Publisher : Penguin (28 September 2021)
- Language : English
- File size : 9907 KB
- Text-to-Speech : Enabled
- Screen Reader : Supported
- Enhanced typesetting : Enabled
- X-Ray : Enabled
- Word Wise : Enabled
- Print length : 414 pages
- Best Sellers Rank: 11,744 in Kindle Store (See Top 100 in Kindle Store)
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Much of the earlier pages is mathematical in concept and spells out probability thinking in a comparatively digestible way. But even in these simpler earlier chapters, you have to take it slowly and go back and forth over the arguments or it is too easy to gloss over something really important.
Later, the chapters get less mathematical and frankly, a bit more offering opinions about irrational thinking than hard reason. As the arguments get further from logic and maths into bias, prejudice, taboos so it begins to relate less to learning from a professor and more on thinking that can be challenged.
However, the book is so densely written in places that I am sure I have missed some essential thinking, hence the decision to read again, still, I hope with an open mind. That is a condition that the author feels is essential to all rational thinking, and I heartily agree. Too much of the current discourse about identity, politics, diversity, morality and religion is based on tribal gut feeling, not nearly enough on listening to other arguments, comparing and contrasting, weighing up evidence. This book is an essentail antidote to that, but I fear will be lost on those who think differently before they read it.
The largest portion of this book consists of a fairly advanced manual in critical thinking. It’s not the kind of book that can be read at speed. Each chapter could form the basis for a taught module in logic, probability, game theory and so on. Much of it will be familiar to those who have read similar books. Most of us by now are, or should be, familiar with biases and fallacies such as confirmation bias (selecting evidence which confirms our beliefs), ad hominem attacks (criticising the person, not the argument), the principle that correlation does not imply causation (an increase in margarine sales may correlate with an increase in teenage pregnancies, but it’s unlikely that one is the cause of the other), and so on. But there’s a great number of more advanced ideas I hadn’t heard of including hyperbolic discounting, heretical counterfactuals, instrumental variable regression and much more. Getting to grips with this material requires considerable effort.
One of the most shocking revelations was how ignorance of Bayesian reasoning can lead to unnecessary medical treatment. If you get a positive test result for a disease that has a 10/1000 prevalence in the population and the false positive rate is, say, 9%, what’s your chance of actually having the disease? Many people, including many doctors, ignore the base rate (the actual prevalence of the disease) and conclude it’s a 91% chance, whereas in fact it’s closer to 9% because of all the false positives that will result from testing 1000 people. If you want to check out this claim (and I had to scratch my head a bit!) Pinker does the maths on page 169.
Rationality and intelligence do not necessarily go together. Highly intelligent people can be just as vulnerable as everyone else to fallacies and biases such as motivated reasoning and my-side bias. But we’re not hopelessly irrational. Often, our irrationalities have rational motivations such as the desire to win an argument rather than to get at the truth. But human progress depends on rationality and we should all try to get better at it. Pinker’s book is one of many that can help.
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on 9 December 2021