Book Notes: Rationality


Reflecting on his 1912 defeat as a third party presidential candidate, Teddy Roosevelt lamented that “the average American in his party affiliations is largely influenced by a feeling quite as unreasoning as that which makes the average fan depressed or exultant over the victory of a professional baseball team.”

That’s from TR: The Last Romantic, by H.W. Brands. Good book about a great man: I recommend it.

The same Teddy Roosevelt, according to the same biographer in the same book, also offered the reflections on the state of the world in 1914 (the first from an article, the second from a private letter):

Untried men who live at ease will do well to remember that there is a certain sublimity even in Milton’s defeated archangel, but none whatever in the spirits who kept neutral, who remained at peace, and dared side neither with hell nor with heaven.

. . .

More and more I come to the view that in a really tremendous world struggle, with a great moral issue involved, neutrality does not serve righteousness; for to be neutral between right and wrong is to serve wrong.

It’s easy to agree with all three of Roosevelt’s observations without recognizing their implicit paradox.

On the one hand, we can all agree that party feeling is very often more emotional than reasoned. There’s a sense of team spirit involved: we’re more inclined to forgive “our guys” for things we’d be swift to condemn in “their guys.”

Examples abound, but Campus Reform has made a cottage industry of the phenomenon. They’ve produced a lot of entertaining videos in which college students are first asked to respond to statements made by a Republican—and then, after they’ve expressed their disgust or outrage, they’re informed that the statement was actually made by a Democrat and are asked how they feel about that Democrat now. (See here, for example.) The results are predictable: when they’re told Donald Trump said something, they immediately and unequivocally condemn it. When they learn it was actually Joe Biden, or Hillary Clinton, or Barack Obama, their confusion is adorable.

It’s a good gag, but I suspect you’d get similar results if you reversed the polarity—although I’m not sure where you’d find crowds of young people as reflexively rightist as college students are reflexively leftist.

We can also probably all agree that neutrality in matters of great consequence is a serious moral failing: as the saying goes, you can’t be neutral between the fire and the fireman.

(Fireperson. Whatever.)

But what’s a matter of great consequence? Who gets to decide? I mock the climate alarmists for their hysteria not because I don’t “believe” in climate change—the climate never sits still—but because I consider their alarmism to be wildly disproportionate to the issue, and because I believe in purely human terms the costs of their recommended solutions would outweigh the benefits. And they would surely mock me for what they would perceive as my indifference to something so obviously terrifying.

Roosevelt’s criticism of the American electorate, accurate as it may have been, was mostly an expression of sour grapes: he’d been squeezed out of the Republican nomination in 1912 and had therefore run in the general election—and lost—as a Progressive (the official name of what was more popularly known as the “Bull Moose” party). He blamed his loss, as you have seen, on the weak moral fiber of the American voter. This was in character for Roosevelt, who built himself up from a weak and sickly child into a veritable force of nature and therefore believed that all weakness was a moral failing, but in light of his other comments we’re entitled to ask: what if Americans habitually voted Democratic or Republican not out of habit, but conviction?

In other words, what if it wasn’t the idea of a third party they found unappealing, but the idea of the Bull Moose Party’s ideas?

One of the problems in today’s political environment is that we all deplore neutrality on the great moral issues: we just disagree very strongly on what those issues are.

It is reasonable to make that observation. It is rational. It is, if I say so myself, pretty fucking lucid.

Which brings me to my complaint.

I’ve been reading Steven Pinker’s Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters. It’s a mostly good book on a very important topic and if it can help get more people to think rationally I’m all for it.

But it suffers from one crippling flaw: the man is a raving partisan.

In Chapter 3 (“Logic and Critical Thinking”), in a section entitled “Critical Thinking and Informal Fallacies,” Pinker descripts the “increasingly popular affective fallacy, in which a statement may be rejected if it is ‘hurtful’ or ‘harmful’ or may cause ‘discomfort.’ “

He illustrates this fallacy with a New Yorker cartoon. Three young students are standing at a classroom blackboard: two of them have written that 7 x 5 = 35; a third has written that 7 x 5 = 75. The female teacher is staring down at him, and the little boy is telling her: “It may be wrong, but it’s how I feel.”

Pinker resumes:

Many facts, of course, are hurtful: the racial history of the United States, global warming, a cancer diagnosis, Donald Trump. Yet they are facts for all that, and we must know them, the better to deal with them.

What’s the name of the fallacy of assuming all your readers share your own political perspective?

This is just one example—the most recent one I encountered—but the book is full of them. Pinker’s constantly tossing off these rhetorical partisan hand grenades, and for no good reason.

He’s entitled to be a leftist. His leftism doesn’t disqualify his arguments (saying they did would be to succumb to the genetic fallacy: “evaluating an idea not by its truth but by its origins”). But why would someone writing an otherwise thoughtful book about rationality, reason, and logic pollute so much of his material with obviously partisan stuff?

I have a theory that’s anchored in three personal experiences.

First: back when I was pitching The 5-Minute Iliad to publishers with my agent, he warned me: “when they ask about your background, leave out the stuff about your work with Republicans. Publishing is very liberal, they wouldn’t understand.”

Second: Simon & Schuster, who bought the book, assigned me a publicist who arranged for me to do a reading at a big New York bookstore for the launch, then fly up to Boston, stay in a hotel, and do a reading at a big bookstore up there. And because I had a base of support in Chicago, there was also a flight to Chicago and a reading at big suburban bookstore there. There were radio and newspaper interviews being lined up as well, but those events and the travel between them were where all the publicity money was being spent. I reminded the publicist that I owned a car, that I lived in New York and had family in Boston and plenty of friends in Chicago. Could we not get more bang for our buck by holding more events across the country if I drove myself around and stayed mostly at the homes of family and friends? She loved the idea and we moved over to a big map of the country she had on one wall of her office. I charted a line with my finger on the map: I could start in New York, then do Connecticut, Boston, one or more of the university towns in upstate New York, then drive west to hit some of the big midwestern cities, then cross the plains to end up in Seattle, whence I could turn south and hit Portland and—and that’s where she reached out and seized my hand.

“And that covers it,” she said.

My line had gone north from New York. cut west through most of the nation’s biggest northern college towns, and dipped no further south on the west coast than Portland, Oregon. The southernmost city on the entire tour, latitudinally speaking, was Chicago.

I said we were leaving the whole south out of the tour.

“They don’t buy books,” she said.

That was a publicist for one the biggest publishing houses in the world.

Third: prior to, during, and for quite a few years after the publication of the book, I had a website called (its origins story is a good one, but irrelevant here). The main feature was something called the Moron’s Almanac (“Just like the Farmer’s Almanac, but without all that crap about farming”). It included a newsletter and (eventually) a message board, and at its peak boasted a few thousand daily readers. That was a pretty solid following back in those primitive days. Every day I wrote a short feature tying into that day’s anniversary of some historical or literary event and included lists of all that date’s major holidays, events, and birthdays from around the world. I always included a picture of a pretty girl in a bikini because I figured that couldn’t hurt. It was high-brow menu served on a low-brow plate.

I avoided partisan politics very carefully.

And yet most of the many readers who wrote me privately—this was back in the days when my writing was apparently interesting enough to elicit feedback (you slouches!)—assumed I was a raving leftist. They would pepper their correspondence with leftist tropes in the apparent expectation that I shared their political outlook, despite my never having given any hint of my own politics (which were then, as now, well to the right of center).

I could keep going with these examples, but those should suffice to support my theory that American arts and letters are entirely dominated by the left. It’s hardly a controversial theory; I felt obliged to explain how I arrived at it myself. It was not through hearsay or supposition, but long and often quite uncomfortable experience.

Steven Pinker’s use of partisan leftist assumptions in his work may have been deliberate or it may have been unconscious, and—again—it doesn’t detract from his arguments or reasoning. They do however distract from the lucidity of his book. An impartial editor would have noticed that and suggested that it would perhaps therefore be best to strike them.

Such politically impartial creatures are unlikely to be found at Viking Penguin, however—or anywhere else in the New York publishing ecosystem. And were one to find them, were one to round them all up into a stadium to address them as one, and were one to say, “You are sullying good work with the injection of partisan politics into everything,” they probably wouldn’t even disagree.

They might even cite Teddy Roosevelt: to be neutral between right and wrong is to serve wrong!, they might thunder back at you, and the left is right and the right is wrong.

This, too, is a fallacy: the fallacy of self-righteous certitude.

What’s a rationalist to do in an era when even books about rationality are stuffed to the gills with militant (and superfluous) political opinion?

It’s a sincere question.

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Soren Rasmussen
Soren Rasmussen
2 years ago

It certainly is a valid question, but unfortunately not one, I think, with an easy answer.

So instead I will talk about something else.

For starters, we definitely need a word for the delusion of thinking that everyone around you simply has to share your political perspective. That is a very peculiar kind of blind spot that makes otherwise intelligent people seem like utter morons.

In a way I suppose it may at its core be a kind of category error. We all operate under some kind of assumption that we share certain ways of looking at the world with other people. We safely assume, for example that others have the same idea of up and down as we do. We probably assume that they see the same colors as we do. And this shared sense of our physical world and the information conveyed to us by our senses, is then extended to other areas as long as we believe to be among those who are like us.
This would include certain moral judgements and norms.

We can usually operate safely assuming that everyone around us thinks Hitler is bad, videos of kittens sneezing are adorable. The trouble comes when they misjudge what goes into the bucket of Everyone-Agrees.

So, Pinker clearly puts Donald Trump into the Everyone-Agrees-this-is-BAD bucket.

On the one hand, if Pinker were to reflect on this even a few seconds it seems hard to believe that someone as intelligent and (ahem) rational as he, would not quickly see that someone who got 74 million votes is self-evidently not a good candidate as an Everyone-Agrees item. But it seems more likely that the thought simply doesn’t occur to him, since everyone in his own bubble probably IS in complete agreement that Orange Man Bad.

So, maybe this is simply Bubble Vision.

Or maybe it is a case of the emotions being SO strong as to override the rational thought. Trump is SO horrid, that never mind that we recognize intellectually that nearly half the voting population (horrid deplorables, though they be) will not agree with our instinctive judgment, we HAVE to signal our virtue and tell everyone that we have the correct, the proper, the good opinion.

Whatever it is, it is deeply fascinating to behold the willful determination not to acknowledge one’s own value judgements as less than universal.

Soren Rasmussen
Soren Rasmussen
2 years ago
Reply to  greg nagan

well, given that they are all in the same bubble, it stands to reason that none would see anything amiss (and if anyone did, they might want to keep quiet for fear of being suspected of harboring impure thoughts and feeling insufficiently disgusted by the Bad Person).