When Republicans are prepared to challenge every decision made by President Joe Biden, often before he announces a course of action, this thinking process is irrational. To a lesser extent, when Democrats support the president before thinking through the ramifications, this is not a rational exercise. In both cases it is easier and more emotionally satisfying to stick with the party line rather than modify a long-held belief.
The number of partisan Republicans and Democrats comprise a large portion of the voting population and are relatively equal. Wide majorities in both parties – 75% of Democrats and 64% of Republicans – say those in the other party are more closed-minded than other Americans. With these hardened battle lines, there is little room for a rational “peace table” to flourish.
How can it be that as humanity is reaching new heights of scientific understanding and information sharing it also appears to be losing its mind? How can our society that developed vaccines for COVID-19 in less than a year produce so much fake news, medical quackery and political conspiracy theorizing?
Given the fractured condition of the American polity it should come as no surprise that a rash of books on rationality will be published this fall. Steven Pinker, the best-selling author who has written extensively on human behavior, has released “Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters” (Viking). His thesis is that we actually think in ways that are sensible in the low-tech contexts in which we spend most of our lives. However, we fail to take advantage of the powerful tools of reasoning that are part of the human condition. These tools include logic, critical thinking, probability, correlation, causation and optimal ways to update beliefs. He concludes that developing these tools should become a standard part of the education curriculum to foster rational thinking at an early age.
Two philosophers have checked in on rationality with the recent publication of “When Bad Thinking Happens to Good People: How Philosophy Can Save Us from Ourselves,” by Stephen Nadler & Lawrence Schapiro (Princeton). This book reviews philosophy’s tools for better reasoning. The authors remind us that conspiracies and misinformation are not new and that some of our best strategies for dealing with them are not new either. For example, epistemology (which addresses the nature of belief and knowledge) and ethics (the study of moral principles that should govern our behavior) can reduce bad thinking. Moreover, the book summarizes why philosophy’s millennia-old advice about how to lead a good, rational, and examined life may be the key for escaping our current predicament.
My favorite recent study on rationality is “The Scout Mindset: Why Some People See Things Clearly and Others Don’t,” by Julia Galef (Portfolio). The author finds the best description of motivated reasoning as: “When we want something to be true we ask ourselves, ‘Can I believe this?’ When we do not want something to be true we instead ask, ‘Must I believe this?’ searching for an excuse to reject it.”
This book keeps things simple by identifying two types of people. First are the “scouts” who achieve success by not defending one side of a contentious issue over the other. The scout method is to go out, survey the territory and come back with an accurate map. A scout must recognize when he/she has gone down the wrong road, be prepared to uncover blind spots, test assumptions and be willing to change course.
The rest of us have “soldier” mindsets. From tribalism and bias to rationalizing in our personal lives and everything in between, loyal soldiers are driven to defend the ideas they most want to believe – and shoot down those they do not. Making scouts out of soldiers is equivalent to making independent thinkers out of Democrats and Republicans. It is the process of turning untrue opinions away from a soldier’s fear of negative defeat into the scout’s positive decision-making. It is the open-minded task of constructing the map of life with accuracy and fulfillment.
At the end of the day, there is little possibility that a majority of Americans will take to heart the advice in these books and reach a consensus on the major issues of the day. One rational approach would be to stop arguing with those “soldiers” who are committed to irrational opinions and to stick with a positive message of well-developed and vetted facts in our public discourse. As time passes, reason and content that is true should win over public opinion.
I have found several sources of news to be above average in delivering rational, unbiased information. First, “The News Hour with Shepard Smith” on CNBC at 7 p.m. is straightforward without the one-sided opinions found on other cable networks. Second, POLITICO is an online news source that covers American politics with excellent journalism that does not favor one party over the other.
There is no magic bullet that will cure us of bad thinking. Like weight loss and procrastination, we often identify the problem but choose the easier road of sticking with our routine.
I will close with the advice of English philosopher John Locke: “It is ambition enough to be employed as a laborer in clearing the ground a little, and removing some of the rubbish that lies in the way to knowledge.”
Gary Stout is a Washington attorney.