Be irrational about irrationality

Given my focus here on challenging traditional assumptions about knowledge and the law, it would be negligent of me not to draw attention to a concise Scientific American blog from last month that points up a key flaw in much popular writing about the psychology of decision-making.

The shortcomings of our rationality have been thoroughly exposed to the lay audience. But there’s a peculiar inconsistency about this trend. People seem to absorb these books uncritically, ironically falling prey to some of the very biases they should be on the lookout for: incomplete information and seductive stories. That is, when people learn about how we irrationally jump to conclusions they form new opinions about how the brain works from the little information they recently acquired. They jump to conclusions about how the brain jumps to conclusions and fit their newfound knowledge into a larger story that romantically and naively describes personal enlightenment.

This is not a new problem, but it is enhanced by the proliferation of this kind of literature, and the way that the message of these books is amplified by blogs and tweets. I confess to being part of this chorus, so this is a conscious effort to help myself avoid being sucked into unwavering belief.

Ultimately, we need to remember what philosophers get right. Listen and read carefully; logically analyze arguments; try to avoid jumping to conclusions; don’t rely on stories too much. The Greek playwright Euripides was right: Question everything, learn something, answer nothing.