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On Rationalia

Reposted from https://www.facebook.com/notes/adam-buchbinder/on-rationalia/10154142966136131.

Adam’s Original Post

Neil deGrasse Tyson tweeted this last week.

It received a pretty negative reaction. Outright loathing and comparisons to the French Revolution from the Right; sneering disdain and comparisons to the Third Reich from the Left; patronizing annoyance from science journalists.

Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion, but not to their own facts. –Daniel Patrick Moynihan (maybe)

My politics are pretty much milquetoast pacifist liberalism meets autistic rationalism. I feel painfully aware of how much worse things can always get, of how far we’ve come, of how much we have to lose. So I’m an incrementalist. And rather than constructing a pretty decent defense of scientism (see also here), or running off into the weeds and telling people that Venezuela only collapsed because they didn’t have simple, logical e-government like Estonia does (wat), I’m just going to wonder what it would look like to take a few steps toward Rationalia.

“My friends, we are again met on the field of political competition with our fellow countrymen. It is more than appropriate, it is necessary that even in times of crisis we have these contests, and engage in spirited disagreement over the shape and course of our government. We have nothing to fear from each other. We are arguing over the means to better secure our freedom, and promote the general welfare. But it should remain an argument among friends who share an unshaken belief in our great cause, and in the goodness of each other. We are Americans first, Americans last, Americans always. Let us argue our differences.” –John McCain, at the 2004 RNC (still a trash bag full of cole slaw, though)

The overriding theme of the responses is that even if you do science and you get all the evidence, you still have to do politics to decide what to do with that evidence. Science tells you what you can do, but using “the weight of evidence” to decide what your values are (safety versus freedom versus efficiency, for example) feels like a type error. And that’s a totally valid criticism to make… but there’s a lot that using evidence can do. I’ll be more specific.

Back in the Good Old Days of the nineties, we had a nonpartisan, widely-respected source of information about science and technology that Congress used to make decisions; it was called the Office of Technology Assessment, it was defunded in 1994, and it seems like the sort of thing we should have. That’s a step toward Rationalia, and it doesn’t seem like it’s going to end in The Terror. Or consider the Cochrane Collaboration, an attempt to do systematic reviews in medicine. It doesn’t tell you at what point prolonging life only brings more suffering, but it at least helps you not waste money on overpriced drugs.

The notion is that we’re sadly flawed people, incapable of really thinking clearly. That attempts to move toward more formal methods of decision-making would inevitably run into the limitations of our own biases (if only science could help us there!), so it’s better not to try. This strikes me as like refusing to eat chicken, because you could choke on the bones, so to be safe, you’ll just eat raw chicken instead: you’re not solving the original problem, and you’re making things worse on top of that. Or “but if I properly inflate my tires, I might go to the wrong place!”. Deflating your tires doesn’t really solve that problem.

We dither on with worries about the repugnant conclusion while we spend five times as much on lottery tickets as on books. We’re endangered by cold, brutal utilitarianism? We are dying from a lack of cold, brutal utilitarianism. Literally, given how inefficient our medical system is.

Before I offend you guys, enjoy this bird with arms as thanks for getting this far.

[Content warning: Unsavory implications, ideas historically linked with bigotry, mental health, denigration of certain careers.]

I’ll put my money where my mouth is. There are Blue Facts and Red Facts, right? Each denied by the other side? But there’s only one, true, world that we live in. Some of these politicized facts are true, some are false. So I’ll plant my flag here and pick a true and false Red Fact and a true and false Blue Fact. Fight me, peasants! But seriously, I’d enjoy suggested examples or thoughts.

  • Blue (True): Climate change is real, anthropogenic, and poses a significant threat over the next century.
  • Blue (False): Nuclear power generation has caused a significant amount of injury and death.
  • Red (True): g is real, mostly heritable, and mostly fixed by adulthood, absent injury or illness.
  • Red (False): Due to risk compensation, widely-available long-acting reversible contraception will worsen levels of unintended pregnancy.

The list is in some ways redundant–I really only need two, not four of these–but I wanted to pick a positive statement for each. There are likely also facts which are just plain poorly-known without having strong political valence, e.g., allowing children to skip grades is good for them in the long run; microdoses of lithium prevent suicide; we don’t actually know how to educate people and this is wasting time and treasure.

So–and I’m serious about this–tell me why we shouldn’t steer the ship of state toward Rationalia. Because at this point, I can’t see any good reason not to, and everyone out there seems to think I’m obviously wrong. Someone’s made a mistake.

Hugh Blumenfeld’s Response

Funny how much science and politics I learned from studying poetry, and particularly the poet William Blake. Reason, or rationality is constrained by two things: first, it has to be based on “facts,” and even in science there are none. We perceive not ultimate reality but phenomena, and these are affected not only by the limitations of our senses, including our technologically extended senses, but by our preexisting beliefs, even the language we use to parse our experiences. In politics, the situation is even worse, since the social contracts we create are based on values. What is more important, the individual or the group, cooperation or competition, life or freedom? How does one measure values, and how should societies respond when they are in conflict? You can use reason, but your logical conclusions will depend on both your perception of the facts and the values you place on them, and therefore rational people will always disagree.

The second problem is that reason cannot create a new thing, it just deduces relationships, “ratios”, amongst things that are already “known” or defined. To create something new involves imagination - the ability to bring to rational consideration something which does not yet exist. In science, we talk about the theories that have spawned scientific revolutions, making what was once rationally accepted as truth seem unreasonable, and offering new ways of looking at things that get accepted long before they can be proven (we are still finding “proofs” of relativity). In politics, we have what my friend, the poet Martin Espada, calls the “Politcal Imagination” - the ability to fundamentally change the way we perceive ourselves as humans and our relationships to each other, to conjure up a society that doesn’t yet exist, to consider its merits based on new perceptions and values, and then to act to bring it into being. I don’t know if this has anything to do with Godel’s incompleteness theorem - that no system can be both completely rational and complete (if that’s even close to an accurate paraphrase) - but it’s a thought.

Finally, one thing humans have demonstrated throughout history is that how we think and how we act are two different things. No one really understands the things we call emotion, instinct, intuition, but they motivate our actions even when they conflict with reason. As reason uncovers new “truths,” and new knowledge leads to societal changes, the prospect of change causes both hope and fear - and ultimately conflict. When the perceived consequences of change are the sacrifice of long-held values or even survival itself, rationality is not likely to play a dominant role in the conflict. But this is how we got to where we are today, and 100,000 years ago, who could have imagined this?

Adam’s Reply

Thank you so much for replying! I’ve been mulling over your comment, and I really appreciate that we’re coming at this from such incredibly different viewpoints. (They call it “Romanticism versus Enlightenment” over on TV Tropes.)

I’ve seen the human mind described as “the lens that sees its own flaws”. There’s a there there; I want to appeal to rocketships, to the internet and to electricity, saying as Samuel Johnson once did to claims that we can’t really know anything, “I refute it thus”. But that’s cheap, so I’ll outline my perspective without trying to tell you that you’re wrong.

It’s said that without a ground truth, a link to the perfect or divine, knowledge and morality can have no true basis. I imagine discovering that there’s no basis for all our knowledge and beliefs as being like discovering that the universe is three feet to the left of where we thought it was. At once, the whole concept of the world shifts, and at the same time, nothing changes. Our model of the world floats untethered, but it still floats.

I agree with you wholeheartedly that understanding the facts is a fiendishly subtle and difficult thing (hence science), and applying them to often self-contradictory values we may not even share with our fellows only multiplies our confusion. (Jonathan Haidt has done some excellent work on identifying and describing those values.) In a formal sense, people reasoning rationally must agree if they have the same knowledge and same beliefs (Aumann’s agreement theorem), but we generally have neither, as you note.

I also agree that there’s a role for inspiration and imagination, for paradigm-shattering visions. (Wasn’t it Blake himself who said ‘what is now proved was once only imagined’?) But my preferences lean more toward Scott Alexander’s “Meditations on Moloch” or “The Goddess of Everything Else” than Prospero in Greg Egan’s “The Planck Dive”, i.e., reason in the driver’s seat. I see the Incompleteness Theorem as saying that there’s no simple solution to every question. A universe where it didn’t hold would be flatter; every problem would fall to a single algorithm. In that sense, you’re right–a simple mechanism can’t solve every problem–and I embrace that fact.

(It’s extremely rare to have someone outside of the field use a technical term to make a helpful analogy. Well done!)

I can barely begin to grasp the terrible lacuna that yawns between what we are and what we wish to be. We strive not against the flesh-and-blood princes of this world, but against powers and principalities. Against the uncaptured exernality, against the market failure, the lost purpose, the principle-agent problem.

I believe that we can understand instincts and emotions, that it’s a dense and technical problem, but Kahneman and Tversky, Hrdy, Haidt, and others are trying to shine a light, that applying the sword of reductionism to human nature doesn’t demean it any more than unweaving the rainbow made it less beautiful. Maybe our descendants won’t share our highest values, but instead be constructed by them. Who could have seen any of this coming?