The Rationality of Irrationality
When I adopted rationality more than a decade ago, discovering that the only intelligent way to go through life was to base decisions on the preponderance of evidence, critically attacking ideas to improve thinking, and working to constantly remove assumptions from my analysis, it was akin to the conversion of Saul in Acts 9:18; scales falling from my eyes and seeing the world for how it really was for the first time. I never anticipated how painful it would be to see others remaining behind in Plato’s cave given my natural inclination to teach and help people. Even reading the articles on news stories can be unpleasant.
Consider the case of the Pennsylvania boy who stabbed 21 people at Franklin Regional High School. The number one, top comment with an upvote count of 425 and a downvote count of 9 is:
Yet, in what will come as no surprise to any of you, a quick glance at the FBI Uniform Crime Reports shows us this is entirely untrue. It is absolutely, without exception, without question, undeniably false. In fact, reality is the opposite. Not only are these crimes becoming less common, they are far less common than they have been in generations. This has even had an influence on our society as the Pew Institute examines the correlation to lower support of the death penalty as people are confronted with less violence in their lives.
Despite the facts, irrational people believe it when they say violence is getting worse. They actually think society is getting more, not less, violent because they aren’t living within a rational framework, but instead relying on faulty memory and anecdotes, ignoring the power of mass media where people now hear about crimes thousands of miles away in near real-time. Even when shown the facts, many of them won’t believe it (try it yourself). They’ll insist there must be some classification difference in how the numbers are being tracked, even when those factors are controlled.
One of the other top comments, with an upvote count of 127 and a downvote count of 31 is:
And this …
And this …
It is so emotionally traumatic for some people to consider that a human could commit acts this horrific without a malevolent influence that they can’t help but externalize the source of evil. It must be something “out there” because it’s less scary. As a result, they accept it despite a total dearth of evidence to indicate that it is true and the abundance of evidence the cause is more mundane, including genetic predispositions to violence, which can be clearly identified as heritable. Some people are simply evil, and they choose evil. Others are crazy; born with a broken brain that was no fault of their own.
For thousands of years, people have been avoiding reality because it gives them comfort. The anxiety can be relieved because an evil spirit can be guarded against, either by wearing a Talisman to a Roman God, seeking a ceremony with a witch doctor, throwing Holy Water blessed by a priest, or covering the doors of their house with the blood of a slaughtered lamb.
It’s a coping mechanism that correlates negatively with intelligence and education. It’s why you see more of it in primitive societies where the adult population can’t read than advanced societies where the kids are doing calculus. When an epidemic breaks out in the Congo, you’re going to see a lot of spiritual warfare. When an epidemic breaks out in New York, you’re going to see a lot of microscopes and hazmat suits. It’s one of the reasons life expectancy is more than 1.62x higher in the latter than the former.
Externalization Is One of the Basic Coping Mechanism In the Human Psyche
The ignorant do this with all sorts of things they don’t understand. Epilepsy is a terrific case study. For thousands of years, many religions in the world, continents apart, considered it a sign of demonic activity, possession, or attack. A perfectly normal person suddenly falls down, shakes violently, foams at the mouth, bites off their own tongue? Must be a spirit. Even the Christian gospels that formed the cultural foundation of the West, among the most modern of ancient scriptures, contain this error; look at Matthew 17:14-23, where Jesus saves a boy from Grand Mal seizures when his disciples couldn’t cast out the demon spirit.
The disciples hadn’t failed, it’s that they didn’t have the tools they really needed – a prescription pad and some Carbamazepine and Phenytoin.
Here’s a life pro-tip: If the scientists at Merck, Bristol Myers Squibb, Johnson & Johnson, GlaxoSmithKline, Novartis, or Pfizer can do what the disciples of Christ could not, the problem isn’t spiritual.
This nonsense came to an end in the late 19th century when Dr. John Hughlings Jackson, a neurologist in England, decided it was all superstitious idiocy. In an age without modern technology, he applied his brilliant intellect and deductive reasoning skills to the problem, settling that it was a brain disorder and earning him the distinction of having “discovered” the disease as he saw it for what it really was. Society adjusted just fine, translators of books like the Bible began retroactively changing the text to reference epilepsy whenever they could, and a generation or two later, few people remember it was any other way. Yet, because impulse control and mental disorders are still considered foreign – you can’t see them like you can another birth defect – they fall into the realm of the unknowable for a big segment of the population. Living in the particular part of the country I do, I’ve known people personally who don’t doubt the existence of Down’s Syndrome or a cleft palate (they can see it), but will argue almost violently that “No one is born with a predisposition to alcoholism. It’s a spiritual curse.”
Irrationality Can Be Rational from a Society-Wide Perspective
What I struggle with is that, on a net, system-wide basis, this irrationality can be rational in that it provides an evolutionary advantage, which is the reason it evolved in the first place. Therefore, to be upset by it is, itself, irrational; a sort of paradox. An example might help illustrate my point. I’ve used this one in the past, but it still stands.
In an age before germ theory, you wouldn’t have known about bacteria, but superstition is what caused people to avoid dying from eating food that had gone bad. Look at the Hebrew and Christian scriptures in Leviticus 19:7, where Yahweh, or יהוה, purportedly tells Moses that food eaten after the third day an abomination.
Every civilized country on the planet now ignores this “abomination” because we understand:
- Why it was causing people to get sick, and
- It’s no longer necessary as a result of refrigeration technology.
To put it in an irreverent way, the Word of God was a temporary stand-in until the invention of the meat thermometer, which you can now buy at Williams-Sonoma for $20.95. That’s why you don’t walk into a Methodist church and hear them talking about Sister Gretchen needing to repent after being caught reheating frozen meatloaf from last week.
People could rightly mock the more Orthodox members who continue to adhere to it as a anachronistic relic of conditions no longer present, but it did at one time serve a life-saving purpose. Those who continue to behave as if it has some meaning are acting like animals, mindlessly repeating behavior that is now sub-optimal because they won’t critically think for themselves, but the initial genesis of the behavior was based on potential correlation through observation.
Despite knowing all this, I still find myself cringing when I hear, or read, someone make one of these asinine assertions. I want better for them. They’ve handicapped their lives. I have to remind myself that without these neurological predispositions, humanity would have died off a long time ago.
The conflict arises from one truth I cannot escape: History has shown that over longer periods of time, the society that focuses on facts and reason is the society that comes to enjoy the blessings of health, prosperity, and peace. It’s one of the reasons that critical thinking must be taught in the school system; children and adults must be trained to question every belief, attack every assertion, and come to their own conclusions so they have a natural line of defense against things like propaganda (think various governments at various times), religion (think child sacrifice to Moloch), or economic cults (think radical communism).
Those who would take power know this – look at what Hitler did when he got his hands on Poland. One of his first acts was to systematically execute the thinkers, including academics and journalists, so he could brainwash the youth into believing they were subservient to those of German ancestry. Look at what happens to independent thought in North Korea. Critical thinking is the silver bullet against totalitarianism, fascism, and theocracy. It is an economic engine, a political defense, and a personal tool for a more enjoyable life for the man or woman wielding it.
How do we do it? On one hand, I don’t think criticizing those who are irrational is always a moral good. On the other hand, there are only a few tools available in a cultural arsenal to modify behavior, and social pressure is one of them.