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By and large, humans are not good at thinking rationally, but, really, who can blame us? We have not had much practice at it. According to the accepted wisdom of anthropologists and paleontologists, by no later than 12,000 B.C.E. – approximately 14 millennia ago – humans already had spread to and settled in every continent on the planet except Antarctica. Yet we only started to make rational sense of our existence a few hundred years ago. Prior to the mid-seventeenth century, nearly all human understanding of ourselves and our world arose out of a mythic, poetic, narrative sense – not a rational one.

Of course, that is because “rationality” – properly understood – is not a concept easily embraced by humans. We are drawn to certainty and to firm, fixed answers, but for an idea to be rational it must be capable of being proved false. To embrace rationality means to embrace uncertainty, rationality’s essence.

This injunction runs directly counter to the goal of nearly every person who seeks to understand anything. When a person asks, “Why did such-and-such happen?” or “How does such-and-such work?” or, more generally, “What is the right thing to do?” that person is unlikely to be persuaded by a response that begins, “Well, to the best of our understanding . . . .”

As a general rule, people prefer conviction and certainty over querulous equivocation; in fact, people prefer it so much that often they will embrace terrible policies and follow awful leaders so long as those leaders speak forcefully enough in support of whatever rotten ideas they happen to be pushing. As Bill Clinton once famously observed, “Americans prefer strong and wrong over weak and right.”

It is to the human race’s great credit that we are slowly learning to give up our natural desire for certainty when it conflicts with our desire to better understand the world around us – an understanding that can only be achieved through embracing the ever shifting, uncertain terrain of rational thought. The great philosopher of science Karl Popper alluded to this idea in his writings about the need for what he termed “empirical falsification.” Popper’s writings suggest that no idea, concept, or assertion qualifies as rational unless it has the potential to be proved false. If the idea, concept, or assertion is incapable of being proved false, then it is not rational but is instead simply an unverifiable belief.

Consider the European discovery of Cygnus atratus, the black swan. For millennia, every swan ever seen by any European had been white. Accordingly, Europeans rationally believed that “all swans are white.” The supposed proof of this assertion lay in the fact that every time a new swan was seen – sure enough! – it, too, was white. So it came as quite a shock to Europeans when they landed in Australia and beheld a black swan for the first time. Nevertheless, what made the Europeans’ idea “all swans are white” a rational concept was not its correctness or incorrectness, but the possibility (later realized) that it might be proved wrong. Sighting after sighting after sighting of white swans, for years and for decades and for centuries, certainly suggested that all swans are white.

But it took only a single example of one black swan to falsify that suggestion. Having been proven false, the idea then could be revised and refined until it more closely approximated what now appears to be the case: most swans are white.

Unfortunately, it is difficult to internalize the concept that an idea must be capable of falsification in order to be rational, and this difficulty has led to some catastrophic consequences. For example, on June 6, 2002, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld held a press conference at NATO headquarters. At the time, the Bush Administration was arguing that going to war against Iraq was a necessary response to the supposed threat posed by Saddam Hussein’s possession of weapons of mass destruction. However, that argument was undermined by the Bush Administration’s inability to present any actual evidence that Hussein did, in fact, possess such weapons.

When a reporter asked Rumsfeld upon what basis the Bush White House was making this claim, Rumsfeld replied, “the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence. . . . Simply because you do not have evidence that something exists does not mean that you have evidence that it doesn't exist.”

According to reporters Michael Isikoff and David Corn, this was not merely an off the cuff remark uttered by Rumsfeld in the middle of a press conference. In their 2006 New York Times bestseller, Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War, Isikoff and Corn reveal that Rumsfeld’s assertion about the absence of evidence was actually an argument routinely made by Undersecretary of Defense Douglas J. Feith, who had been charged with making the case internally for going to war with Iraq, and whom General Tommy Franks – the man who led both the 2001 Afghanistan invasion and the Iraq War – once called, “the dumbest fucking guy on the planet.”

According to Isikoff and Corn, Feith argued that if Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction – as the Bush Administration believed – then it only made sense that Hussein would hide those weapons. Accordingly, the failure of U.S. intelligence and UN inspectors to find any actual evidence that Hussein possessed WMD was perfectly consistent with the idea that Hussein did possess WMD. As a result, Feith argued, the lack of evidence that Saddam Hussein was a dangerous threat could in itself be considered evidence that Hussein was a dangerous threat.

Relying upon such arguments, George W. Bush invaded Iraq, tens of thousands of U.S. troops were wounded or killed, and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis – men, women, children, and infants – died horribly. Of course, no WMD were ever found.

Even if one puts aside the dubious nature of Bush’s good faith in invading Iraq and simply accepts that he and his advisors honestly believed the rationale they were mouthing to one another, one still is struck by how completely irrational these people were when they committed the United States and Iraq to war and terrible bloodshed. They posited that the United States had to invade Iraq because Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, then claimed support for this assertion by pointing to the fact there was no evidence Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.

Simply stated, they made a case in favor of war that could not, under any circumstances, be proved false without actually going to war – which was the entire point to begin with. It is difficult to imagine an argument more irrational, or one with more tragic consequences.

* * *

Our understanding of the world is and can only be a mere model of the real thing. Our ideas exist only within the confines of our skulls, and it is something of a miracle that within such a small space – only a few hundred cubic centimeters – we are capable of representing the Universe. Unfortunately, we often forget that the representation we create for ourselves is not the reality, and that the map we draw in our heads is not the territory. Every map, no matter how finely drawn, is only an approximation of what it represents; some information is always lost when the map is created, some terrain is never represented entirely correctly.

To have the surest guide, we must be willing always to embrace the idea that the map we have drawn might be wrong and might need to be revised. Of course, that also means embracing the idea that we sometimes will get a little lost, and that at times we may even have to reverse course, but we can accept such setbacks if we also recognize that changing our map when necessary is the only way by which we can progress, stumblingly and haphazardly, to the Truth.

But if we give in to our natural impulse to sacrifice doubt for certainty, to give up rationality for belief, then we will end up drawing our map so that that its errors cannot be repaired; if that happens, then eventually we will wander where “there be dragons” and, ultimately, we will perish.

Originally Posted at Casa Cognito.

Originally posted to swellsman on Wed Nov 28, 2012 at 02:02 PM PST.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  I will be having my kids read this one. Thanks! (4+ / 0-)

    Poverty = politics.

    by Renee on Wed Nov 28, 2012 at 04:17:42 PM PST

  •  That was one of the best... (7+ / 0-)

    ...essays I've read here in quite some time.

    Well done.

    GOP Motto: The rich don't have nearly enough and the poor have way too much.

    by DawnG on Wed Nov 28, 2012 at 10:17:52 PM PST

  •  excellent diary! (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    radarlady, Pandoras Box, blueoasis

    I've hotlisted it for future reference.

  •  The sad thing is that, in the abstract, Rumsfeld's (7+ / 0-)

    & Fleith's dictum is technically correct, with one slight alteration:  absence of evidence is not NECESSARILY or DEFINITIVELY evidence of absence -- i.e., you can't PROVE the null hypothesis.   Of course, when you look & look & look all over for WMD's but can still never find them, a rational person begins to become more & more convinced that the WMD's probably just aren't there, unless really you're ideologically committed to the WMD's having  been there,  evidence  be damned.  There are pretty obvious parallels in science.  People didn't immediately give up belief in & search for the luminiferous ether when Morley & Michaelson reported their experiment. Their experiment certainly strongly suggested that there was no such thing as the ether; but it was only when more than a few researchers also tried & failed to find the ether & failed that scientists in general comcluded it wasn't there.

    Of course, some people STILL don't believe that there weren't WMD's in Iraq and, imfortunately, there's no definitive way to prove otherwise -- ultimately, you can't "prove" a null hypothesis to someone ideologically and emotionally deeply committed to the truth of its contradiction.  It's like the old joke about the psychotic challenged by the new intern to prove that he really is Jesus Christ by making the intern disappear, to which the psychotic responds closing his eyes and saying, "There. You're gone."

    •  Right. Not falsifiable = not useful. (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      la motocycliste, ybruti, Simplify

      We've seen this kind of stupidity before. It will forever be exemplified by FDR's Executive Order 9066, which cleared the way for the relocation of the Nisei into camps during WWII. FDR relied on Secretary of Defense Henry Stimson, who in turn was guided by John DeWitt, the commander of the Western Theater of Operations in San Francisco at the start of our entry into World War II. DeWitt's "reasoning" follows:
       

      "In the war in which we are now engaged racial affiliations are not severed by migration. The Japanese race is an enemy race and while many second and third generation Japanese born on United States soil, possessed of United States citizenship, have become "Americanized," the racial strains are undiluted. To conclude otherwise is to expect that children born of white parents on Japanese soil sever all racial affinity and become loyal Japanese subjects, ready to fight and, if necessary, to die for Japan in a war against the nation of their parents. That Japan is allied with Germany and Italy in this struggle is no ground for assuming that any Japanese, barred from assimilation by convention as he is, though born and raised in the United States, will not turn against this nation, when the final test of loyalty comes. It, therefore, follows that along the vital Pacific Coast over 112,000 potential enemies, of Japanese extraction, are at large today. There are indications that these are organized and ready for concerted action at a favorable opportunity. The very fact that no sabotage has taken place is a disturbing and confirming indication that such action will be taken."
      We are doomed to repeat these same mistakes until the species dies out or is radically improved. However, we can at least try to space the errors out as far as possible by remembering where we went wrong before.

      My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.
      --Carl Schurz, remarks in the Senate, February 29, 1872

      by leftist vegetarian patriot on Thu Nov 29, 2012 at 12:51:52 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Global warming is a hoax (6+ / 0-)

    because it contradicts conservative beliefs.

    Yes, there will be dragons.

    look for my eSci diary series Thursday evening.

    by FishOutofWater on Wed Nov 28, 2012 at 11:43:27 PM PST

  •  this was so good (5+ / 0-)

    I read it twice to relive the feelings of approval from the first pass. Well done.

    "Some of you are going to die... martyrs, of course, to the Freedom that I will provide!"

    by emperor nobody on Wed Nov 28, 2012 at 11:49:52 PM PST

  •  Well written... (11+ / 0-)

    I must admit that part of the charm of your diary for me is that it confirms my world view.  The older I get, the more liberal and uncertain I become.

    I find there is freedom in being uncertain.  It leaves one free to discover, free to seek the opinion of others.  There is, perhaps, an inherent push toward the brotherhood of man in admitting to uncertainty.

    Or, perhaps I am full of it.

  •  Rationalism vs. reason (7+ / 0-)

    Your actual topic is logical positivism, which is the movement that Popper is associated with. The Positivist is a fine purgative, but the answer to such a person is simple:

    "Your death."
    The positivists were one response to the discovery of uncertainty in Rationalism. After mathematics had run across unbreakable paradoxes, such as the Russell/Whitehead problem:
    "What is the set of all sets?"
    either mathematics was illegal or the methods were.

    Humans have always thought logically and rationally. For that, we only need deduction or induction. What they did not do until Aristotle was study the way they thought logically. Descartes to Kant gives us an attempt to construct an entire theory of knowledge from proven reason. Hegel is skeptical. We get to a point, though, where the skepticism results in a need to really purge the whole project.

    We've always been logical, but we haven't always known it.

    Time is not a fiction; it is a narrative.

    by The Geogre on Thu Nov 29, 2012 at 03:19:26 AM PST

    •  THANK YOU. eom (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      The Geogre, pico, raincrow

      -9.38/-7.69 If religion means a way of life, and life's necessities are food, clothing, and shelter, then we should not separate religion from economics. - Malcolm X

      by dirkster42 on Thu Nov 29, 2012 at 08:40:40 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  History proves otherwise (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      ybruti, DawnG

      A review of human history shows little evidence of rationality and a lot of evidence of emotion driven irrational behavior.

      The difference between a human and a cat is that humans have a grapefruit sized brain and fails to use it 90% of the time, a cat has a walnut sized brain and uses it 90% of the time. Which is one reason why I work and use the money I earn to feed two cats.

  •  This Diary Does Not Conclusively Prove (4+ / 0-)

    that you are a bright, rational human being, but it does make it awfully damn likely.  Well done.  Tipped and recc'ed.

    Long you live and high you fly, but only if you ride the tide; balanced on the biggest wave, you race towards an early grave.

    by Abelian on Thu Nov 29, 2012 at 03:50:57 AM PST

  •  very interesting stuff (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    scarvegas, cotterperson
  •  I take comfort in the fact that reality is (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    mrkvica, cotterperson, raincrow

    a stubborn thing, it never sleeps, it never goes away, and in the end, reality always wins.

  •  All swans ARE white. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    raincrow

    The black ones are just differently white.  /pc

    or

    ESPECIALLY the black ones.

  •  This is a summary of what it mean to grow up (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    blueoasis, DawnG

    As a young child, I believed in Santa and as a young person, I believed in various religions (at various times).  But I finally understood that life was none of these things.  It is when I stopped searching for certainty that I became an adult.

    Old Hippies Never Give Up!

    by ravenrdr on Thu Nov 29, 2012 at 08:30:38 AM PST

  •  SUPERB. We are blind to most of reality. Some (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    blueoasis, YucatanMan, ancblu

    settle for any rock to cling to in a universe of the unknown and frightening.

    Fear is the Mind Killer...

    by boophus on Thu Nov 29, 2012 at 10:05:23 AM PST

  •  Wonderful post, swellsman. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    blueoasis, ancblu

    Very glad I had the opportunity to read it.  Thanks very much.

  •  Actually, we have a basic propensity for (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    blueoasis, A Citizen, raincrow

    rationality and empiricism, but it is countered and offset by a very strong propensity for pattern recognition and a tendency to go along with the group/leaders. Then there is fear, and fear shifts the balance, allowing charlatans to leverage  the pattern recognition and follower modes into a synthetic psuedo-reality.

    That, in its essence, is fascism--ownership of government by an individual, by a group, or by any other controlling private power. -- Franklin D. Roosevelt --

    by enhydra lutris on Thu Nov 29, 2012 at 10:58:17 AM PST

    •  The primitive brain overrules the rational brain (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      enhydra lutris

      frequently in situations of pain, fear, hunger, etc.  It is, literally in both position and hierarchy, the root of our thinking.

      Rational thinking has to be practiced to routinely overcome the primitive brain.  

      Fake News is successful at influencing their watchers through all the red, the fear-infused wording, and the constant "ALERT! ALERT!" scrolling across the screen.  It should be called Fear News.

      "The law is meant to be my servant and not my master, still less my torturer and my murderer." -- James Baldwin. July 11, 1966.

      by YucatanMan on Thu Nov 29, 2012 at 02:43:20 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Fear is the enemy of reason. (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        YucatanMan

        Fear is useful. It can motivate us to act. But fear can easily give way to panic. If there is a fire in a building, people care going to be afraid. But if they don't panic, people can calmly and efficiently get out of the building.

        People panicking in a burning building can be disastrous. Fear can be guided by reason, as in an orderly evacuation. With panic, reason is thrown out the window.

        The wolfpack eats venison. The lone wolf eats mice.

        by A Citizen on Thu Nov 29, 2012 at 06:39:22 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  Actually, WMD *were* found in Iraq (sort of) (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    swellsman, ybruti, Simplify

    From the DoD in 2006:

    "These are chemical weapons as defined under the Chemical Weapons Convention, and yes ... they do constitute weapons of mass destruction," Army Col. John Chu told the House Armed Services Committee.
    The munitions found contain sarin and mustard gases, Army Lt. Gen. Michael D. Maples, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said. Sarin attacks the neurological system and is potentially lethal.
    However, it seems unlikely that even Hussein himself knew about them, let alone was able to use them:
    The munitions addressed in the report were produced in the 1980s, Maples said. Badly corroded, they could not currently be used as originally intended, Chu added.
    "I do believe the former regime did a very poor job of accountability of munitions, and certainly did not document the destruction of munitions," he said.

    Fake candidates nominated by the GOP for the recalls: 6 out of 7. Fake signatures on the recall petitions: 4 out of 1,860,283.

    by GeoffT on Thu Nov 29, 2012 at 11:41:48 AM PST

  •  Lovely piece, swellsman. (3+ / 0-)

    You might find this amusing, speaking of Feith et al. (emphasis added):

    The outside experts on Team B were led by Harvard Professor Richard Pipes and included such well-known hawks as Paul Nitze, William Van Cleave, and Paul Wolfowitz. Not surprisingly, Team B concluded that the intelligence specialists had badly underestimated the threat because they relied too heavily on hard data, instead of extrapolating the Soviets' intentions from ideology. According to some Team B members, "the principal threat to our nation, to world peace, and to the cause of human freedom was the Soviet drive for dominance based upon an unparalleled military buildup."

    Although the Team B report contained little factual data, it was enthusiastically received by conservative groups such as the Committee on the Present Danger, whose members included Ronald Reagan, and the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. But the report turned out to be grossly inaccurate. For example, it said that the Soviets would have 500 intercontinental Backfire bombers capable of striking the United States by 1984. In reality, only 235 were deployed. Team B also claimed that the Soviets were working on an anti-acoustic submarine, though they failed to find any evidence of one. The hawks explained away this lack of evidence by stating that "the submarine may have already been deployed because it appeared to have evaded detection."

    Feith's mentors were part of the genesis of that Team B; Feith did them proud.

    Politics is about the improvement of people's lives. - Paul Wellstone

    by occams hatchet on Thu Nov 29, 2012 at 03:05:57 PM PST

  •  Your timeline of rational thinking is greatly in (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    ancblu, Simplify

    error, it appears to me.

    First, some definitions of "rational" gleaned from a quick Google search:

    A decision-making process that is based on making choices that result in the most optimal level of benefit or utility for the individual.
    [H]olding well-defined goals which pertain primarily to external state.
    A musing on epistemic rationality:
    [T]he goal is to obtain accurate beliefs about the world. But, like the scientific process, it is understood that the means for achieving these accurate beliefs is to continually refine one’s beliefs [to arrive at] some explanation [multiple observers] both can agree is accurate.”
    (1) From the moment we begin exploring our environment, we routinely use the scientific method to learn to manipulate and predict the elements of that environment. Initially we explore in conjunction with encouragement/ prompting/ modeling from parents and other interacting humans (profoundly neglected infants withdraw), then begin spontaneous exploration. Exploration may be aided, confounded, muddled, or all-of-the-aboved by the quality of explanation and modeling a child receives from the people around her.

    (2) Tool manufacture and elaboration, carrying tools in anticipation of their use, agriculture, animal husbandry, astronomy, the use of fire, the manufacture of clothing from animal and vegetable inputs, the atlatl, the invention of boats -- humans were engaged in goal-directed, abstract problem-solving and the development of multi-generational culture as long ago as 1.6 million years. The oldest known mathematical texts are ~4000 yrs old.

    This -- and my own multi-decade anecdotal observations, fwtw -- would seem to argue against your assertion that "[a]s a general rule, people prefer conviction and certainty over querulous equivocation" and "our natural impulse [is] to sacrifice doubt for certainty, to give up rationality for belief." You may need to hang out with more hunters, skiiers, sailors & river runners, fishers, soldiers, pilots, prospectors, midwives, and explorers before making such generalizations.

    If indeed humans have a long-standing preference for "conviction and certainty over querulous equivocation," wouldn't a million+ years of hominid evolution have resulted in a species with social structures far more uniform and rigid than is the actual case (think ants, bees, mole rats, wolves, horses)? Would we have moved toward social structures that so far (tho admittedly 30,000 yrs is a drop in the evolutionary bucket) seem relatively durable to multi-faction political speech; philosophical and scientific inquiry; thousands of variations on religious practice, artistic expression, personal decoration, etc.; democratic legislative processes, etc.?

    YES WE DID -- AGAIN. FOUR MORE YEARS.

    by raincrow on Thu Nov 29, 2012 at 07:01:48 PM PST

    •  You offer an interesting counterpoint, (0+ / 0-)

      however my own anecdotal experiences and studies lead to the exact opposite assessment about our species' propensity to tolerance and acceptance.  Yes ... it is true that "multi-faction" expression, associations, practices, and various forms of personal idiosyncrasies abound, however protection of minority rights is a relatively modern and rather narrowly applied politico-legal phenomenon that is persistently breached in that and other social spheres and global cultures far more than it is respected.

      Here in Alaska, for example, our population is nothing if not filled with "hunters, skiiers, sailors & river runners, fishers, soldiers, pilots, prospectors, midwives, and explorers."

      As I live in and generalize of our population in this context, I find many of these supposed "pragmatic realists" to be no paragons of broadly applied rationality.  Certainly with exceptions, these interests or skill sets are equally prone to an under-informed and lazy reliance on narrow belief systems rather than applying the discipline and courage to deal with limits of knowledge and uncertainty in an intellectually honest, open-minded and tolerant manner.

      The one permanent emotion of the inferior man is fear - fear of the unknown, the complex, the inexplicable. What he wants above everything else is safety. H.L. Mencken

      by ancblu on Thu Nov 29, 2012 at 09:38:55 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  My argument is that you've used your own (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        ancblu

        idiosyncratic definition of "rational." My assessment is that you've done so because it lets you judge as "irrational" those around you with whom you disagree on a variety of subjects. In doing so, and in couching your assertions about human nature as accepted wisdom rather than your own analysis, it could be argued that you've behaved with the same "under-informed," "lazy," "narrow" mindset ;D

        As your white/black swan example demonstrates, when modeling, pretty much everything depends on finding that Goldilocks data set: not too broad, not too narrow, just right.

        YES WE DID -- AGAIN. FOUR MORE YEARS.

        by raincrow on Fri Nov 30, 2012 at 10:05:00 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  I suffienctly qualified my anectodal (0+ / 0-)

          observations that are in distinct contrast with yours (and omitted references to my own academic and professional experience for brevity), but for whatever reason you choose to distort that fact.

          You are also free to boot-strap your misreading into some sort of validation of your hypothesis and re-characterization of mine as nothing more than self-invalidating circular logic.

          I understand the epistemological variances one finds in empirical disciplines as opposed to those reliant on belief systems.  The former necessarily relies on tools of critical thinking whereas the latter does not -- by definition.  If you fail to recognize such a distinction, I think you're being a bit obtuse.  

          And as far as your silly point about being around more pilots and adventures ... it's bollocks, my friend.  Come join me in Alaska and we'll sit amongst them to reflect on your thrall of them as paragons of some sort of special reason and capacity for deeper reflective thought.

          The one permanent emotion of the inferior man is fear - fear of the unknown, the complex, the inexplicable. What he wants above everything else is safety. H.L. Mencken

          by ancblu on Fri Nov 30, 2012 at 10:47:27 AM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  Did you read the diary? If not: (0+ / 0-)

            In the very first sentence the author asserts, without qualification as anecdote, her/his own understanding of rationality; mischaracterizes it; and displays faulty knowledge of the history of rational human thought; arguably because her/his personal definition of "rationality" has blinded her/him to the ubiquity of rationality that attends, indeed is demanded by, everyday living from cradle to grave, even when surrounded by people engaged in activities that very abundantly illustrate this rationality. (I mistook the diarist for a somewhat well-heeled city person because IMO s/he appeared to be unfamiliar with the high-frequency, highly dynamic modeling and testing, and high tolerance for uncertainty required for success in high-risk physical activities.)

            By and large, humans are not good at thinking rationally, but, really, who can blame us? We have not had much practice at it. According to the accepted wisdom of anthropologists and paleontologists, by no later than 12,000 B.C.E. – approximately 14 millennia ago – humans already had spread to and settled in every continent on the planet except Antarctica. Yet we only started to make rational sense of our existence a few hundred years ago. Prior to the mid-seventeenth century, nearly all human understanding of ourselves and our world arose out of a mythic, poetic, narrative sense – not a rational one.
            Here the diarist introduces her/his own idiosyncratic definition of rationality, asserting that her/his definition embodies the proper understanding of the term.
            Of course, that is because “rationality” – properly understood – is not a concept easily embraced by humans.
            Again, the lack of utility in her/his definition has led to an easily falsified conclusion. Our success (so far) as a species argues that we are very, very good at rationality.

            Then the diarist again asserts as common wisdom her/his own anecdotal understanding of human psychology.

            We are drawn to certainty and to firm, fixed answers...
            S/he then correctly asserts that rational thought involves inquiry based on hypothesis testing, and that a hypothesis can only be tested if it is falsifiable.
            ... but for an idea to be rational it must be capable of being proved false. To embrace rationality means to embrace uncertainty, rationality’s essence.
            The diarist then discusses the basics of the scientific method and provides an example of hypothesis testing.

            The diary again offers as accepted wisdom her/his opinion on the difficulty of thinking rationally, then moves into an analysis of the Bush Administration's Iraq invasion as an example of irrational action based on belief and the refusal to think rationally.

            Unfortunately, it is difficult to internalize the concept that an idea must be capable of falsification in order to be rational, and this difficulty has led to some catastrophic consequences.
            In taking this tack, the diarist -- irrationally, I would argue -- completely ignored years of data, declassified government documents showing that the Bush Administration began as early as January 2001 looking at military intervention in Iraq, speeches and foreign policy white papers by people such as Doug Feith and Paul Wolfowitz that long preceded the election of Bush 43, the well-documented and very deliberate campaign of lies and propaganda employed by Bushco to sway the American people into a war that would make a select cadre of wealthy men and women much, much wealthier -- all of which revealed quite rational, if utterly amoral, thinking; deliberative planning, based on the science of social psychology, by people who wanted a specific omlette, weren't above breaking a lot of eggs to get it (those eggs being American soldiers and their families, Iraqi citizens and their culture and infrastructure, and the U.S. Treasury), and for the most part continue to laugh all the way to the bank. Psychologists and history will tell you that sociopathy is in no way incompatible with rational thinking.

            However, if I understand the following point from the diary correctly, then I do indeed agree with it:

            Simply stated, they made a case in favor of war that could not, under any circumstances, be proved false without actually going to war – which was the entire point to begin with. It is difficult to imagine an argument more irrational, or one with more tragic consequences.
            The U.S. media and too many citizens swallowed the Bush Administration's lies without critical examination, and their irrationality and unfounded belief very much did lead to catastrophe.

            I also agree that "the map is not the territory," but I would ask the diarist to keep that maxim very much in mind when s/he asserts, without any scientific justification, that

            Our understanding of the world is and can only be a mere model of the real thing. Our ideas exist only within the confines of our skulls, and it is something of a miracle that within such a small space – only a few hundred cubic centimeters – we are capable of representing the Universe.

            As of yet, we haven't the faintest clue WHAT our understanding of the world is, WHAT it can ultimately be, WHERE our understanding resides, and WHETHER or not it is a miracle.

            I would close by reiterating that, as the diarist's white/black swan example demonstrates, when modeling, pretty much everything depends on finding that Goldilocks data set: not too broad, not too narrow, just right.

            Cheers and have a good weekend.

            YES WE DID -- AGAIN. FOUR MORE YEARS.

            by raincrow on Fri Nov 30, 2012 at 05:51:28 PM PST

            [ Parent ]

            •  btw, my point was that we shouldn't be too (0+ / 0-)

              overly proud of our rationality and how wonderfully we wield it compared to Those Other People because in that mindset ... there very often be dragons ...

              I'm sorry I rankled you, but you really did carve your own narrow slice of "rationality" and ignore the vast bulk of it, and that's downright unscientific. Thinker rethink thyself! ;D

              YES WE DID -- AGAIN. FOUR MORE YEARS.

              by raincrow on Fri Nov 30, 2012 at 09:41:19 PM PST

              [ Parent ]

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