Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Insight regarding rationality/accuracy

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I recently got into a lengthy verbal kerfuffle, one in which I was maintaining a position that turned out to be unpopular. Normally I will take the hint and drop the matter, but this situation was not about a serious issue (merely grammatical, it seemed to me), so I thought I would play it out to see what happened, particularly as I felt I was on solid ground and could readily explain my position (which, to my mind, was clearly correct even if a bit unpopular).

Eventually the thing died down, and the following day when I revisited the thread I was astonished by how mean spirited and obnoxious my comments seemed to me now. I did post an apology, and figuring out what happened and why was a valuable experience for me because I finally understood something, doubtless obvious to most, that I had not previously grasped so clearly.

First, you’ve doubtless noticed that almost everyone places signifcant importance on things at which they excel. Correlation is not causation, as we are repeatedly told (to the extent that I suggest the acronym CINC (pronounced “sink”) to covey the message. That is, it’s unclear whether they decide that something is important after they notice that they have a gift for it, or they may value something and work hard at it because they consider it important, and thus become good at it.

Whatever the cause, I’ve noticed that those who are good at sports believe firmly that sports are quite important. Those gifted in music find music to be a central touchstone. Those who are good at tools of the mind—rational thought, clear reasoning, and logic—often see those as centrally important. All those talents and skills are good, but considered abstractly, each applies to only a portion of the range of human experience, which is enormously rich. Still, when we encounter a situation or problem, we tend to turn first to our particular strengths. Abraham Maslow famously observed that a man with a hammer sees every problem as a nail: we want to use our best skills in tackling a problem, even if the tail wags the dog and the skill we select shapes the direction of effort even when it’s the wrong direction. We find ourselves like the drunk in the joke, searching for his keys not in the dark alley where he dropped them, but out in the street where light is better.

If you’ve seen the (wonderful) movie Up!, you’re familiar with the intelligent talking dogs, formidable opponents except when one glimpses a squirrel, which causes him involuntarily to shout, “Squirrel!” whereupon the entire pack swivels their heads to spot the squirrel, completely losing track of whatever effort is underway.

That is more or less my reaction when I’m working on a problem: I am overwhelmed by my own squirrel: rational, logical argument and accurate statements. (This may be related to something Steve of Kafeneio calls “scientism”: a caricature of science, which holds that only questions amenable to a scientific approach are valid questions and only answers arrived at by science are valid answers. (I don’t think anyone actually holds this position, BTW. Still, the term is often hurled at those who look for scientific answers in novel situations, by people who feel that science is inappropriately applied to such situations.)

<aside> It’s not just science that people feel doesn’t work in certain areas. Plato has Socrates propound the philosophical reality of the Forms. A thing is a horse or an ashtray (to use  canonical seminar examples from my student years) because it “participates” in the Forms of “horse” and “ashtray” respectively. The Big Five Forms were Same, Other, Motion, Rest, and Being, with much discussion of the relationship of the (two?) Forms Being and Good—sort of the Platonic equivalent of the Continuum Hypothesis. But Socrates states states explicitly that the philosophical tool of Forms was not to be used with things like mud, dirt, and hair, just as some feel that science and its methods should not be used in the context of (say) poetry or religion or the like. </aside>

However, I hold the scientific method as a core idea and approach. I use a looser definition of “scientific method” than some, who restrict the term to apply only to experiments performed in a laboratory. For them, astronomers, for example, do not use the scientific method, nor do naturalists making field observations or anthropologists studying cultures. That seems way too restrictive to me, but I can’t think of another term that captures this particular and specific method of resolving problems and answering questions: to look at what actually happens in reality, and use rational thought and logical processes to draw conclusions, always testing those conclusions by looking to reality rather than (say) to divine texts, or to what the law states, or to what “makes sense” (e.g., that heavy objects (obviously) fall faster than light objects: they heavier).

Some go so far as to not look at reality at all: they construct positions that seem quite logical and internally consistent and hold to those, drawing conclusions from them and refusing to check to see whether they are real. Like the dogs of Up!, they are distracted by the logic (“Squirrel!”) and don’t see that the whole thing is absurd and fails to match reality. A good example: Economists, who for years derived conclusions from the premise that individuals make rational choices to maximize returns. From that starting point, and using rational and logical processes such as mathematics, one could work out what people would do in various situations and deduce the reasons for certain trends. But when Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky actually looked at the reality of what individuals do when making decisions, they found that the processes we follow are not at all rational as the term was used, though the processes do make evolutionary sense. And although we are irrational, we are, as Dan Ariely states in the title of his book, Predictably Irrational. (The Wikipedia article at the link explains some of his findings. I highly recommend the book.)

So for me (and, I think, others of my mindset) the gold standard, the highest standard, is rational argument based on statements that accurately reflect reality, testing conclusions against observed reality. What could go wrong with that? The statements are true, the argument is rational, and everything matches reality.

What I learned in reflecting on that little kerfuffle is that rational/logical argument and accurate/true statements are not the highest standard. On the contrary, they are the lowest standard. They are the ante:  you don’t even get into the game without having at least that. But they are simply the first consideration, not the final measure, as a little reflection will show. For example, relevance is more important than rational/logical and accuracy/truth. While it is true that 335/113 is a very good approximation of pi, you can’t throw that into every argument, despite its truth. It is relevant only rarely (but absolute dynamite in those rare situations).

Stated another way, rationality/logic and accuracy/truth are necessary but not sufficient. Also required are (for example) relevance and appropriateness. Example: At Tad’s 8th birthday party, his crazy uncle takes him aside and spends some time explaining carefully how Tad is going to age, grow old, and die. Death is inevitable, and the joy of this moment cannot hide the fact that some Tad will fall down and breath his last, etc. Horrified parents and crying children confront the crazy uncle, who becomes defensive but remains unbowed: “It’s absolutely true,” he retorts. “You’re just ignoring facts and logic: Tad here is indeed going to die.” Crazy uncle is so distracted by the bright and shiny glitter of rational/logical thought and true/accurate statements—“Squirrel!”, in effect—that he cannot grasp that his position is inappropriate. Everyone grants the logic and truth of his position, but those are beside the point: the point is that this argument is inappropriate. (BTW, when people are challenged, I think they immediately seek refuge in where they are right: thus the crazy uncle wants to restrict the discussion to whether Tad is mortal, since that proposition is true, and resists stepping back to consider other issues—i.e., places where he might be wrong.)

Thinking purely of the rational/accurate aspect means that much is ignored, including social reality, something that is always significant to a social animal. Probably most people always have social reality in mind, but some of us are so taken by the bright and shiny character of rational/accurate argument that we see only how bright/shiny it is and don’t see that it ranks quite low in the hierarchy of argument: it’s the bottom level, corresponding to “physiological needs” in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It is indeed important. It’s the first thing you take care of. But it’s just the base level, the starting point. There are higher considerations as well, such as relevance, appropriateness, results, and so on.

I know quite a few reading will long since have rolled their eyes and muttered, “Duh!” Still, I suspect that even they know some for whom the low position of rationality/logic and accuracy/truth in the hierarchy of argument will come as news. It certainly took me some effort to realize what was going on and how I had gone wrong.

Written by Leisureguy

29 November 2013 at 8:52 am

Posted in Daily life

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