Rob St. Amant

Rob St. Amant
December 31
My roots are in San Francisco and later Baltimore, where I went to high school and college. I stayed on the move, living for a while in Texas, several years in a small town in Germany, and then several more in Massachusetts, working on a Ph.D. in computer science. I'm now a professor at North Carolina State University, in Raleigh. My book, Computing for Ordinary Mortals, will appear this fall from Oxford University Press.


NOVEMBER 8, 2011 7:58PM

The Rational Beast

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Human beings are rational animals. We're not the only rational animals, contra Aristotle; the great apes and some birds, for example, behave rationally in many situations and sometimes show remarkable flashes of insight. Even if we're not uniquely rational, though, human beings are more rational, more often.

But it's not built into our nature. It doesn't come for free. Being rational is hard work.

I'll illustrate. Now that Rick Perry has been taking his turn (off and on) as frontrunner among Republican candidates for President, some of his earlier statements have gained some publicity. Last year Perry was interviewed on television by Evan Smith, editor-in-chief of the Texas Tribune.

Smith asked, Why does Texas continue with abstinence education programs when they don't seem to be working? In fact I think we have the third highest teen pregnancy rate in the country.

Perry answered, "Abstinence works."

...But it doesn't seem to be working.

"It works... I'm just going to tell you, from my own personal life. Abstinence works."

Perry visibly struggled for three solid minutes, offering nothing more than assertions of his belief. He was in a spot. You might expect a social conservative to say, "Sex education for teenagers should be limited to abstinence education; anything else would be immoral." But Perry also expresses small-government views, and you'd expect a small-government conservative to say, "The government shouldn't be in the business of sex education." He couldn't square the circle.

This is what I mean by rationality being hard work. A rational person takes evidence into account when forming beliefs. It takes work to find and consider that evidence. A rational person even looks for evidence weighing against a belief, and revises if needed. That also means work. And managing beliefs so that they don't contradict each other--that's the hardest of all.

Beliefs without evidence, even beliefs despite evidence, aren't unusual in the modern world. (I sometimes wonder whether we're less superstitious than our medieval ancestors.) Here are a few common beliefs, according to recent polls:

Most Americans believe that angels and demons are active in the world today. (This from a 2008 Washington Post poll.)

Many Americans believe that prayer can avert or ameliorate natural disasters.

Many Americans believe that Jesus Christ will return to Earth within their lifetime. (This from a 2010 Pew survey.)

I use these examples because they have a few things in common. They're not based on any reasonable evidence. The world is not driven by supernatural inflences--at least, angels and demons have never been seen, and most happenings can be explained by natural causes. Prayer has been tested in experiments. It gives some people the personal fortitude to deal with natural disasters, but it doesn't directly affect the earth or wind or rain. It doesn't work that way. And the Bible has never been a good predictor of current events, much less the end of the world. These beliefs also have political implications. Should a politician "demonize" some group of people? Given a belief in literal demons, why not? How should a politician deal with, say, a severe drought? Given a belief that prayer works, perhaps an official proclamation for a day of prayer. How should long-term political or economic problems in the world be dealt with? Here's an analogy: You're alone in the world, with no family or dependents, and you believe you have a terminal disease. If you're going to die in a week, do you bother to pay your bills?

Many beliefs without evidence are harmless. Some are not. They take our attention away from real problems and real potential solutions.

One of the hardest things about being rational is revising one's beliefs to reflect new evidence. I've acquired many of my beliefs, for example, from authority figures in my life, from people I've trusted. Like most people, I gravitate toward others who share my beliefs. And like every human being, I have built-in biases in the way I interpret and think about the world around me. Giving up a specific belief may involve more than rearranging the thoughts in my head. It could mean changing my mind about the views of someone I respect. It could push me away from a circle of friends. It might even overturn some of my thoughts about who I am as a person.

Does this seem worthwhile? Actually, it does, if the stakes are high. After all, I like to think of myself as a rational beast.

 Cross-posted at Does This Makes Sense?

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A single common belief can be associated with, and supportive of thousands of other “bits” of information in our mind. Over time we build up a huge, intricate structure of “facts”. Most of them untested and the product of beliefs rather than reason.

It is actually amazing that we ever change our mind about anything. All has been placed in some relationship to all else. What amazes me most is that every few years we seem to make a major change in a number of things we thought were rock-solid truth. At this time we often seem to have undergone an almost overnight total revision of that which we hold as “so.”

I have found myself stunned at things I “held to be truth” just yesterday! Had I not experienced this phenomenon a number of times over my 70 years, it would cause me great concern. A common reaction to this happening is that our friends and family can be completely put out by us “changing our mind” about certain things that are important to them.
That's a very nice summary, skypixie. Especially this: It is actually amazing that we ever change our mind about anything.

It is amazing. It's not like flipping a switch, false to true or the reverse. I've sometimes talked with people who have said, "Even if such-and-such is true, I can't bring myself to believe it, because it would undermine my reasons for living."
Right--it's possible to believe almost anything, I think, if (a) you ignore anything that's inconsistent with your beliefs, and (b) you're sufficiently skeptical of any conflicting information you come across by accident. But it can be a slippery slope to solipsism.
My husband has a book called Why People Believe Weird Things, by Michael Shermer. It's been on my list of things to read ever since 1999, when I bought my first computer and forgot how to read. Have you read it? If so, do you recommend it?
Human beings aren't really that rational, like about ...67 per cent.

I have not read the book, but the first few pages I can see on Amazon are fascinating and funny. I'll pick it up. One of my favorite old books on this topic is by Martin Gardner, Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, from the 1950s. It's a collection of very short chapters on a wide range of topics: flat and hollow Earth theories, Charles Fort, flying saucers, homeopathy and chiropractic, general semantics... It's great stuff.
Don, I think that's about right. Though I'd want to test that percentage. :-)
Our personal mythos is what defines us as individuals. That mythos can take many forms -- religion, science, whatever -- but at the core is our attempt to define the world around us as filtered through our own perceptions, which, of course, may (or may not) change over time....

And ach, what the hell. I could go on forever on this subject. Cripes, I wrote papers about it a hundred years or so ago; they'd bore a saint.

Suffice to say, I don't have a problem with what anyone believes -- or what God he or she worships, if he or she worships -- just so long as it doesn't involve hurting someone else.
You raise a good point, Lee: Humans are story-telling, ritual-loving, pattern-recognizing animals. I wouldn't do away with any of that. And I should have included some thoughts about judgment calls. It's simply not worth analyzing everything to death.

Though I'm not religious, I love to wander through cathedrals and other places of worship. I don't really wonder why, though I have read books on architecture and the decorative arts. They're beautiful, and I can appreciate that. (Even though I sometime reflect on the human cost of building those structures--we couldn't do it today.)
Religion draws irrationality from some people. I think the responses to those religious questions are belief and/or responses as if the question being asked was: Are you religious?
For example, those who truly believe Jesus is coming within their lifetime is a smaller number than those who answered in the affirmative.
Perry is performing the same act, just a more obvious, intentional example. It's a sort of southern evangelical self-beatification. Saint Rick the Chaste. He avoids the question of whether it works as a sex ed program, substituting the statement that it works for him. I suppose it worked even better for whoever he abstained from having sex with.
Personal experience and the ability to test provide most f us with some sort of rational foundation for the actions we use to stay alive and healthy and reliably predict some sort of future. But we are each limited in time and direct experience and mental capabilities to investigate many of the really fundamental things in formulating a general understanding of the universe. And even those who spend their lives intensely probing basics are continuously surprised at what new investigations reveal. Astronomy and physics still are inevitably tangled in puzzles revealed continuously. So, in order to maintain some sort of stability we choose leaders in each field to trust and help us determine what must become at least some sort of mental stability. We each are very individual in these choices out of our traditions and mental flexibility. I agree that other creatures than humans also go through these processes also but since they each are endowed with different rigors of life and very frequently different qualities and types of sensory apparatus they, in effect, inhabit different universes than we do.
Rationality is not a simple process but we manage as best we can.
Going round and round in my mind lately, is this self-made myth of the rotation of the earth, moon, sun, stars, and planets. I know I could read up on it, learn a lot! But I am really enjoying the primitive feeling of invention. I resist being told something that I haven't - at least - tried to make sense of first.
Rationality? Kpffft! With each passing year, more and more people seem to be taking the position that "rationality and knowledge are all, like, stupid and stuff." Magical thinking and rejection of facts if they don't fit one's world view are in, reason and empiricism are out - welcome to the U.S.A. circa 1279 AD.
You're right that it's a constant struggle Rob. As the years pass I try to avoid being wedded to too many views. And it helps if you have friends with divergent opinions. Something that helps me is that I don't want to be pegged, in the sense that if I open my mouth, everyone knows what I'm going to say. "There's Abra going on about ... again".

What Perry was doing is playing out the implications of the right wing bumper sticker wisdom. Pandering to the base in other words. It puts me in mind of Monty Python's exchange from The Argument Clinic:

M: An argument isn't just contradiction.
A: It can be.
M: No it can't. An argument is a connected series of statements intended to establish a proposition.
A: No it isn't.
M: Yes it is! It's not just contradiction.
A: Look, if I argue with you, I must take up a contrary position.
M: Yes, but that's not just saying 'No it isn't.'
A: Yes it is!
M: No it isn't!

A: Yes it is!
M: Argument is an intellectual process. Contradiction is just the automatic gainsaying of any statement the other person makes.
(short pause)
A: No it isn't.
Specifically to Perry's comments, Abstinence works. It is empirically true, abstinence is a useful way to prevent pregnancy and disease. However, teaching abstinence is not teaching sexual education. Sexual education is learning what your parts are, how they work, how we use them, and the results of using them in various ways. Abstinence is not being practiced by very many people, regardless of their religious views about sex, so it is not a worthy investment in teaching self reliance to an educated citizenry. Maybe the government should not be in the business of sex education, as he mentioned, but they should not be in the business of teaching abstinence either. Perhaps he could mandate sex ed to be part of the vaccination program, something you get at the doctor's office on the public healthcare dime. That would be far more useful, and probably correct information.
Thanks for the incisive comments! And the entertaining ones. I'll just add a couple of thoughts:

I didn't recognize the point you make, Oryoki Bowl. You're right: abstinence does work in the way you describe. I'd been assuming that Perry was using "abstinence" as shorthand for "abstinence education", but it could be that he and the interviewer were talking past each other. That would make the interview worse than I'd thought. It's a very plausible interpretation.

Also, I can't believe (okay, really I can) that I didn't quote Lewis Carroll:

'I can't believe that!' said Alice.
'Can't you?' the Queen said in a pitying tone. 'Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes.'
Alice laughed. 'There's no use trying,' she said 'one can't believe impossible things.'
'I daresay you haven't had much practice,' said the Queen. 'When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.'
Considering the latest scientific disciplines involving quantum theory, dark matter, string theory of multiple dimensions and possibly a few more, believing the impossible has become quite trendy.
Of course, almost all the religions have been doing wonders in that direction for centuries.
All evidence that is contrary to my belief system is false.
The theories of evolution and climate change are contrary to my belief system.
Therefore the theories of evolution and climate change are false.

Or some rational argument like that.

Rob, the general lack of value placed on rationality by our society simply kills me. It's usually labeled "anti-intellectualism," but it pretty much boils down to the same thing. More Americans believe in ghosts than believe in evolution. In fact, the phrase "believe in evolution" drives me nuts, too.
still believing six impossible things before breakfast, here :)
and then jettisoning 8 before lunch. Figure at this rate I might finally get my mind into rational thought processes by the time I'm 128.
Perry is trying to make an emotional/religious argument valid by trying to make it appear rational by making the statement (as did Bush) that abstinence works. But, what does abstinence work for? Why is the government invested in keeping children from having sex, versus teaching them how to avoid unintended pregnancies and spreading disease? The Christian right is not concerned with reducing birth rates at all, among "legal" Americans. Perry legislated having the HPV vaccine included in the government mandated programs, because he saw reducing cancer in women as a good thing- and that sexual activity being inevitable for most, it is preventative healthcare. Sex education is preventative healthcare. The questions still are being argued on whether or not the government should be invested in healthcare, sex, reproduction and freedom of choice. Since he doesn't agree with himself anymore, he can only state the obvious, unarguable answer "abstinence works (to prevent pregnancy and STDs)". It removes ethics, religion and science from the discussion, but is not very useful. People don't tend to vote rationally, they vote from their feelings, about those very things.
One of the other hardest things about being rational is restraining the impulse to club irrational people in the head. Besides knowledge one would most likely be severely punished for doing so, restraint comes from knowing one would be behaving irrationally oneself by clubbing irrational people in the head.

Then again, is it irrational to want to rid the world of the irrational? Or does attitude sound like something more befitting the Nazis?
Thanks for all the comments! I'm glad there are so many anti-anti-intellectuals here. :-)
Abrawang learned that technique from his friend Johnny Fever