Thinking Straight

Photo of anti-vaccination protest, Los Angeles, October 12, 2021
October 12, 2021: protesting the Los Angeles Unified School District’s COVID-19 vaccination mandateHans Gutknecht/MediaNews Group/Los Angeles Daily News via Getty Images

Does rational reasoning count for anything these days? The evidence is discouraging, but as Johnstone Family professor of psychology Steven Pinker argues, the answer had better be yes. At just the right moment, he has delivered Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters (Viking, $32). It is a clear guide to a compelling subject—honed by his presentation of the material in a Harvard course. From the preface:


Rationality ought to be the lodestar for everything we think and do. (If you disagree, are your objections rational?) Yet in an era blessed with unprecedented resources for reasoning, the public sphere is infested with fake news, quack cures, conspiracy theories, and “post-truth” rhetoric.

How can we make sense of making sense—and its opposite? The question is urgent. In the third decade of the third millennium, we face deadly threats to our health, our democracy, and the livability of our planet. Though the problems are daunting, solutions exist, and our species has the intellectual wherewithal to find them. Yet among our fiercest problems today is convincing people to accept the solutions when we do find them.

…[I]t’s become conventional wisdom that people are simply irrational. In social science and the media, the human being is portrayed as a caveman out of time, poised to react to a lion in the grass with a suite of biases, blind spots, fallacies, and illusions. (The Wikipedia entry for cognitive biases lists almost two hundred.)

Yet as a cognitive scientist I cannot accept the cynical view that the human brain is a basket of delusions. Hunter-gatherers—our ancestors and contemporaries—are not nervous rabbits but cerebral problem solvers. A list of the ways in which we’re stupid can’t explain why we’re so smart: smart enough to have discovered the laws of nature, transformed the planet, lengthened and enriched our lives, and, not least, articulated the rules of rationality that we so often flout.

To be sure, I am among the first to insist that we can understand human nature only by considering the mismatch between the environment in which we evolved and the environment we find ourselves in today. But the world to which our minds are adapted is not just the Pleistocene savannah. It’s any nonacademic, nontechnocratic milieu—which is to say, most of human experience—in which the modern instruments of rationality like statistical formulas and datasets are unavailable or inapplicable….[W]hen people are given problems that are closer to their lived reality and framed in ways in which they naturally encounter the world, they are not as witless as they appear. Not that this gets us off the hook. Today we do have refined instruments of reason, and we are best off, as individuals and as a society, when we understand and apply them.

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