Saturday, February 25, 2017

Unreasonable behaviour

There's a Stewart Lee routine about a bigoted taxi driver that ends with the exasperated homophobe responding to Lee's well-reasoned argument in memorable fashion: "Well, you can prove anything with facts". In 2017, in a post-truth world awash with "alternative facts" and scepticism towards science and scientific method, the problem is arguably the opposite: that you can't prove anything with facts.

Reviewing three recently published books for the New Yorker (Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber's The Enigma Of Reason, Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach's The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone and Jack Gorman and Sarah Gorman's Denying To The Grave: Why We Ignore The Facts That Will Save Us), Elizabeth Kolbert explores the fact - and yes, it is a fact - that "reasonable-seeming people are often totally irrational".

The answer, it seems, lies in our "hypersociability" (the need to cooperate and collaborate, which goes against innate self-interest and reason) and our tendency to rely on the often flimsy "knowledge" of others to prop up our own thinking and beliefs: "If your position on, say, the Affordable Care Act is baseless and I rely on it, then my opinion is also baseless. When I talk to Tom and he decides he agrees with me, his opinion is also baseless, but now that the three of us concur we feel much more smug about our views. If we all now dismiss as unconvincing any information that contradicts our opinion, you get, well, the Trump Administration". And the echo chamber that is Facebook and social media more generally, Kolbert might have added.

The problem, she acknowledges (as do Jack and Sarah Gorman), is that attempting to hammer home scientifically proven or demonstrably true facts as a corrective to falsely held convictions just doesn't work; on the contrary, confirmation bias means that those facts often only serve to convince people even more that the opposite is true. A horrible impasse, to be sure.

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