Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Review of Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters by Steven Pinker

This book review was written by Eugene Kernes   

Book can be found in: 
Book Club Event = Book List (09/21/2024)
Intriguing Connections = 1) The Style of Math, 2) How To Have A Conversation?

Watch Short Review


“Instead of feeling any need to persuade, people who are certain they are correct can impose their beliefs by force.  In theocracies and autocracies, authorities censor, imprison, exile, or burn those with the wrong opinions.  In democracies the force is less brutish, but people still find means to impose a belief rather than argue for it.  Modern universities – oddly enough, given that their mission is to evaluate ideas – have been at the forefront of finding ways to suppress opinions, including disinviting and drowning out speakers, removing controversial teachers from the classroom, revoking offers of jobs and support, expunging contentious articles from archives, and classifying differences of opinion as punishable harassment and discrimination.” – Steven Pinker, Chapter 2: Rationality and Irrationality, Page 50-51

“And another reason not to blow off persuasion is that you will have left those who disagree with you no choice but to join the game you are playing and counter you with force rather than argument.  They may be stronger than you, if not now then at some time in the future.  At that point, when you are the one who is canceled, it will be too late to claim that your views should be taken seriously because of their merits.” – Steven Pinker, Chapter 2: Rationality and Irrationality, Page 51

“And that is the power of reason: it can reason about itself.  When something appears mad, we can look for a method to the madness.  When a future self might act irrationally, a present self can outsmart it.  When a rational argument slips into fallacy or sophistry, an even more rational argument exposes it.  And if you disagree – if you think there is a flaw in this argument – it’s reason that allows you to do so.” – Steven Pinker, Chapter 2: Rationality and Irrationality, Page 74


Is This An Overview?

Using rational reasoning skills, humans have been able to achieve material and scientific progress.   Rationality is composed of cognitive tools that people use to understand a situation, to find potential solutions to a problem.  Rationality is often found in groups, as each individual reciprocates in finding each other’s fallacies.  Reason can reason about reason, which enables people to disagree and find alternative solutions.  There are situations in which people can find rational reasons to behave irrationally, situations in which there is strategic value in ignorance.  People use reasoning skills when they argue, persuade, evaluate, accept, or reject an argument instead of threatening and coercing each other. 

Various social and institutional systems used force to shape others’ beliefs rather than use persuasion.  The acceptable methods of forcing beliefs on others have changed, but even institutions that are meant to evaluate ideas, find ways to suppress divergent views.  The problem of using force, is that force can leave the opposition with no alternative other than to reciprocate with force.  Relative power can shift to the opposition who will reciprocate the lack of willingness to be heard on merits. 



The book expresses rationality through various methods such as formal logic, game theory, and probability.  Although the decision theory and mathematics are provided in an introductory form, a reader who has not yet learned the ideas might need to apply more effort to understand them such as by researching for more details and applications.  The way some parts are written can contradict values in other parts, such as highlighting individual failures of rationality even though the group process of finding rationality is understood, and sharing causes to biases but providing various examples that enable the biases to occur.   

Questions to Consider while Reading the Book

•What is the raison d’etre of the book?  For what purpose did the author write the book?  Why do people read this book?
•What are some limitations of the book?
•To whom would you suggest this book?
•What is the Monty Hall dilemma?
•What is the conjunction rule of probability? 
•What is the reality mindset and the mythology mindset? 
•Is rationality an individual process or a communal process? 
•How do the San use reason to hunt? 
•What is rationality? 
•What does the visual system inform you of?  
•What is the difference between reason and logic? 
•Should people choose to persuade or coerce?
•How do universities influence the spread of ideas?
•What is the marshmallow dilemma? 
•Is it better to delay gratification or seek to gratify oneself immediately?
•What is the game of chicken? 
•What is the Madman Theory?
•What are the valid inferences of formal logic? 
•What information does logic have? 
•What are different kinds of logical fallacies? 
•What puts a category together? 
•What are the odds of a financial market analysist making correct predictions over many years? 
•What is a rational choice? 
•What is a Bayesian analysis? 
•What are null results?  How are they effected by the p-value? 
•What is game theory?
•What is the prisoner’s dilemma? 

Book Details
Publisher:               Penguin Books [Penguin Random House]
Edition ISBN:        9780525562009
Pages to read:          274
Publication:             2022
1st Edition:              2021
Format:                    eBook 

Ratings out of 5:
Readability    5
Content          5
Overall          5