Steven Pinker, the Harvard psychologist recently described as “the world’s most prominent defender of the status quo,” has a new book out about his favorite subject: rationality. Specifically, the dearth of it that leads people to believe in often baseless conspiracies — i.e. “florid fantasies” about transnational pedophiles who use their wealth and connections to shield financial and sexual crimes. The book is called Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters. Here is one of his diagnoses of our modern, unreasonable era, cribbed from a review in the New York Times:
“Rationality is uncool,” he laments. It isn’t seen as ‘dope, phat, chill, fly, sick or da bomb.’”
As Pinker sees it, all these jive-talking cats have made the “ability to use knowledge to attain goals” seem corny. Some of his references for this contemporary phenomenon are: the Talking Heads, the 1964 feature film Zorba the Greek, and “the Artist Formerly Known as Prince,” who is dead. (Pinker blames the latter for popularizing the phrase “let’s go crazy,” an endorsement of irrationality). He suggests that it’s easy to forget that reason gave us some good developments, like “human progress.” Fortunately, Pinker — who once told a publication called Monocle that he’d have his last meal at Peter Luger — is here to make “the intellectual tools of sound reasoning” cool again.
The book emerged from a lecture course Pinker taught at Harvard, which set out to ask how an “era with unprecedented scientific sophistication” could produce so much “fake news, quack cures, conspiracy theories, and “post-truth rhetoric.” At the time, Pinker answered the question by assigning students his own work: Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. (It was one of just two books listed on the syllabus, which also links to his defense of the work in the ultimate sensible outlet, Quillette). Rationality takes the question further, walking through a series of cognitive biases that lead seemingly rational actors to engage in irrational behavior. One example of the latter: “The person who ‘succumbs’ to the ‘small pleasure’ of a lasagna dinner instead of holding out for the ‘large pleasure of a slim body.’”
Some have suggested that Pinker’s latest text is a “response to his critics'' — the unreasonable enforcers of, as he puts it, “the universities’ left-wing suffocating monoculture.” In recent years, some less enlightened ideologues have taken issue with Pinker’s history of say, calling the Tuskegee syphilis study “a one-time failure to prevent harm to a few dozen people” or describing alt-right enthusiasts as “often highly intelligent, highly literate.” Per The Guardian:
In Enlightenment Now, Pinker recommends “cognitive debiasing” programmes as part of a strategy of countering irrationality in the world; Rationality reads like the centrepiece of the curriculum. If only everyone were capable of reasoning properly, Pinker sometimes seems to imply, then our endless political arguments would not occupy so much of public life. Instead of being consumed by conflict, we would be busily problem-solving.
But this website would never suggest Pinker’s interest in “cognitive debiasing” has anything to do with backlash over flying on Jeffrey Epstein’s “Lolita Express,” or for advising Alan Dershowitz’s defense of Epstein’s 2007 sex trafficking charge by asserting that the “sole rational reading” of a legal passage would find the billionaire innocent of violating a federal statute against soliciting minors on the internet, or for teaming up with Dershowitz that same year to teach a class on “Morality and Taboo.” Gawker has a more reasonable stance on the whole situation, more in line with a quote from Enlightenment Now: “Everything is amazing.”