When I first turned 18 years of age, living in Greenwich, Connecticut, just a few miles from New York City, getting ready to make my first drive into Gotham, my father advised me with serious intent. He said, “Just remember, when you drive in the city, ‘He who hesitates is lost.’ This assertive but careful advice to driving has actually served me pretty well through the years. Too much hesitation can get you into trouble. It was very similar advice to what my high school football coach, Sam Rutigliano (yes, that Sam Rutigliano) once said to us: “Those who hesitate at play get hurt.”
But my father was not a man who gave a lot of advice, nor was he a man who made many proclamations; so, when he decided to make an assertion, I listened. Perhaps the one that intrigued me the most of his legacy “wisdoms” was the assertion that we live in an irrational world, not a rational one.
In these socially and politically troubling and disorienting times, I think a lot about that statement. Rationality depends a great deal on truth. But when truth gets muddled by misinformation and disinformation, rationality gets pushed to the margins.
Steven Pinker’s new book “Rationality” talks about the importance of humility in the quest for rational thinking and behavior. In a review of the book in the Wall Street Journal, Andrew Stark claims that “Mr. Pinker’s main concern lies with the many ways we frustrate our pursuit by making irrational mistakes about reality.”
Our biases limit our rationality Stark claims, “because we are less able to see beyond them. The rational mind can accomplish great things. But we are always vulnerable to hidden biases, and self-certainty too often shuts down debate.”
In another interesting book by Princeton professor Robert Wuthnow, “Why Religion is good for Democracy,” he argues that whether biases come from conservative evangelicals or left-leaning religious organizations, that contending beliefs (biases) are a way through deliberation of getting at truth, albeit it’s a messy process. But here again, decision-making and rational behavior are expectantly based on facts and truth, which never seem to be the coin of the realm, perhaps now more than ever. So, does father know best?
Could it be that living in an irrational world is like a chronic plague of the human condition? And if so, are things getting worse with inflamed biases emanating from the misinformation of social media, the tribalism of our religious communities, our politics, and ideology, limiting our ability to think and act rationally; or, is it like most diseases, controllable, a situation of learning to live with irrationality and controlling it through education as Pinker suggests “to instill humility as a kind of life skill, much as we have done with literacy and numeracy, thus giving human reason the widest possible berth to converge on the truth?”
I don’t like to view myself as a pessimist. It’s not a healthy way of pursuing hopes and dreams. And the worrier mentor is not the mentor you want for your progeny or your students. Yet as symptoms of irrationality seem to be presenting with greater consistency in this brave new tribal world of polarized politics and information overload, it’s hard not to think that father was right.
Now the question is, how do we manage the disease? One thing’s for sure, Pfizer or Moderna can’t help.
Bill Sims is a Hillsboro resident, retired president of the Denver Council on Foreign Relations, an author and runs a small farm in Berrysville with his wife. He is a former educator, executive and foundation president.