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Only *You* Can Prevent Irrationality
February 29, 2012 10:53 AM   Subscribe

The Irrationality of Politics is a TEDX talk by Michael Huemer.
posted by anotherpanacea (16 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite

 
Nice talk, especially about the hidden costs of rationality. But, yes, I think even Plato understood that politics could easily go irrational, best solution would be to get enlightened leaders. Hard to do that usually but I think we got one now though! :)
posted by skepticallypleased at 11:07 AM on February 29, 2012


Very good talk--and he's recognizably describing most voters on the left AND right in the US. I have a feeling I'd disagree with him pretty strongly as to the best political solutions to the nation's problems (I suspect he's essentially libertarian), but he's right about people's aversion to evidence-based argument.
posted by yoink at 11:10 AM on February 29, 2012


But by the "backfire" effect I now believe people are more rational than ever after watching this video!
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 11:10 AM on February 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think the "if you're getting angry you're probably irrational" line is BS. This is said by smug people that don't get easily roused, and they've come to believe it is a virtue (just because we all believe that the way WE are is virtuous - it's a another source of irrationality). But politics, at its core, is not about reason - it is about values that we have. When we discuss things with someone who either doesn't share those values, or does not acknowledge them, it is natural that emotion be involved. This is not irrational per se. Values are not simply not subject to rational argument (don't try to tell a libertarian that, though. They may get angry!).

How we should act to reach common goals may be subject to rational argument, but the values underlying those goals are not.
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 11:50 AM on February 29, 2012 [2 favorites]


I find that when I am angry about something I have a hard time accepting that I may be in the wrong.

I'm pretty far from a libertarian; in fact, the Randian bitterness at all mutual interdependence strikes me as a great example of anger (at the USSR) leading to error.
posted by anotherpanacea at 12:12 PM on February 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


I find that when I am angry about something I have a hard time accepting that I may be in the wrong.

That wasn't his point though; he was pretty clearly saying that the anger is evidence that the underlying argument you're making is irrational, ant that's not the case. It may, in fact, be a rational argument, conditioned on a particular value you are passionate about.

Also, you could be arguing with an asshole. They will tweak you for the sake of being about to SAY how irrational you are, as if that wins the political argument. I see this often when men argue with women. Sometimes the man will intentionally push the buttons of the woman, even if the woman's argument is better backed-up. When the woman gets angry at the intentional tweaking, the man feels like he's won because the woman is hysterical and irrational, driven by emotion instead of "reason".
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 12:22 PM on February 29, 2012 [3 favorites]


Quick question: hasn't there been a significant amount of work in economics done on the harm free trade and lack of protection has done to domestic markets in third-world countries?
posted by jsturgill at 12:41 PM on February 29, 2012


He kind of bailed on explaining why protectionism is bad. For the terrorism example he presented facts and numbers, but for the protectionism example he simply appealed to the authority of "virtually every economist." I'm open to the argument, and I know he has limited time, but he could at least TRY to present some data supporting his example. It also seems to elide over the fact that protectionism is geared are producing not just economic, but social effects.
posted by Panjandrum at 1:25 PM on February 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


While it may be true that we are overspending on terrorism, his arguments do not lead to this conclusion. The problem is that the spending on anti-terrorism (and the resulting conflict deaths) might be reducing the damage inflicted by terrorists. The correct analysis is to compare the cost of fighting terrorism with the potential damage that would occur if we did not spend on anti-terrorism.

An example might be useful here. Polio used to be a major killer, but the number of polio deaths in the US is near zero. Yet we spend millions of dollars on vaccinating kids against polio. So by his logic, this vaccination is irrational because almost no one dies of polio. But obviously this is *because* we spend the money on vaccination.

Again, I am not arguing that our current level of anti-terrorism spending is justified, only that his conclusion does not follow from his graphs.
posted by notme at 2:20 PM on February 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


That wasn't his point though; he was pretty clearly saying that the anger is evidence that the underlying argument you're making is irrational, ant that's not the case.

This seems uncharitable to me. I went back and looked, and he deliberately distinguishes this "getting angry" sign from situations where someone is "insulting you or punching you." Yet your examples seem to involve people being insulting. Moreover, he does not say it's a sign that the argument is irrational, just that the speaker is irrational about this topic. That's why he pairs it with the other sign: having an opinion without evidence. Both are foundational failures to use evidence to arrive at opinions and update that evidence in light of new facts.

It's basic Bayesianism: If I'm angry, I have trouble listening. I stop engaging with evidence. Are other people really that different?

In the gendered example you give, I feel like you're not distinguishing between "getting frustrated with someone who doesn't listen" and "getting angry because someone is advancing a contrary argument." It seems completely reasonable to get frustrated with someone who won't pay attention to what you say, or discounts your beliefs rather than engaging with them, or keeps making a claim in light of new evidence you supply: you're getting angry at the lack of respect your interlocutor shows you. This is basically what anger is FOR.

On the other hand, some people grow angry merely because you disagree with them: merely discovering I am an atheist, for instance, pisses some people off; or when I make arguments for a basic income guarantee, the mere thought of benefits not being means-tested or going to the "undeserving" just enrages some people. In effect, these people take disagreement as disrespect. I feel like Huemer is right to call *that* behavior irrational.
posted by anotherpanacea at 2:52 PM on February 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


Terrorism works.
posted by telstar at 3:10 PM on February 29, 2012


the anger is evidence that the underlying argument you're making is irrational, ant that's not the case. It may, in fact, be a rational argument, conditioned on a particular value you are passionate about.

Yes, it may be. Which means that anger isn't proof that you're being irrational. But being angry does make it more likely that you're being irrational, which is exactly to say that it is evidence.
posted by escabeche at 3:25 PM on February 29, 2012


Yes, it may be. Which means that anger isn't proof that you're being irrational. But being angry does make it more likely that you're being irrational, which is exactly to say that it is evidence.

Agreed. But anger at injustice is a rational response and can be used as a goad to take actions. Those are societal goods. So I would be careful about throwing the baby out with the bathwater there.
posted by lumpenprole at 3:31 PM on February 29, 2012


Yeah I wanna discuss protectionism too! I've gone and intelligently read all the stuff on wikipedia I could in 10 minutes, and I've now selectively remembered several facts to support my pre-existing bias!

Seriously though. This is the case I want to know more about: There's two countries in the world, Northland and Southland. I'm president of Southland. Northland implements stringent protectionist measures. Is it more beneficial to Southland to continue free trade practices or also implement protectionism?

If we expand this situation to our current complex global system, should we respond to protectionism with protectionism on a country by country basis, like some big prisoner's dilemma problem? Or is free trade beneficial even when you are the only side practicing it? This is the question I really want answered, I agree that free trade is super great if everybody is doing it.
posted by SomeOneElse at 4:12 PM on February 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


Agreed. But anger at injustice is a rational response...

We should be careful to not confuse different uses of the word "rational." It's certainly NATURAL and (probably) HEALTHY to get angry at injustice. It may, at times, help right some wrong. So getting angry might have UTILITY.

Maybe it's a good thing that people get angry at injustices. And it's fine if that's what you mean by "it's a rational response," e.g. it's a response that is natural, healthy and useful. However, that does NOT mean that it's necessarily a response that enables rational thought. THAT'S what the speaker was talking about. His claim is that anger impedes logical-reasoning ability. You can agree or disagree with that, but that's a different claim than whether or not it's natural, healthy and useful to get angry. It can simultaneously be natural, healthy and useful AND impede rational thought. We evolved to shut down our (slow and cognitively expensive) rational systems when we're threatened. At such times, instinctual reactions (fight or flight) are more likely to serve us.

I think the "if you're getting angry you're probably irrational" line is BS. This is said by smug people that don't get easily roused, and they've come to believe it is a virtue (just because we all believe that the way WE are is virtuous - it's a another source of irrationality). But politics, at its core, is not about reason - it is about values that we have. When we discuss things with someone who either doesn't share those values, or does not acknowledge them, it is natural that emotion be involved.

It's not B.S., and you don't have to be smug to agree with it. It's simply a fact.

To SOME extent (the amount depends on the person getting angry and how angry he gets), anger WILL impede rationality. It may help you passionately deliver a logical argument that you came up with before you got angry, but while you're raging or fuming or whatever, you're simply not as rational as when you're not. Which means that during your anger, you won't be able (or AS able) to adjust your argument if rationality demands it. You won't be as able to listen to counter-views with an open mind, etc. But you will, perhaps, be very persuasive, because passion is powerful.

This has to do with how the brain evolved: how the "lizard brain" (the emotion systems) is linked to the cortex (the part of the brain capable of rational thought). In many cases, the emotional system can trump, turn off, or dampen the rational systems. The opposite is less often the case. That is just how we're wired.

There are endless experiments that have proven this. For a good primer, read "Thinking, Fast and Slow." It's a great book in general, explaining many decades of research.
posted by grumblebee at 5:59 PM on February 29, 2012


This has to do with how the brain evolved: how the "lizard brain" (the emotion systems) is linked to the cortex (the part of the brain capable of rational thought). In many cases, the emotional system can trump, turn off, or dampen the rational systems. The opposite is less often the case. That is just how we're wired.

This is oversimplified to the point of being wrong (even accounting for the use of the term "lizard brain"). This can occur in some situations, but it is actually the case that without the "emotion systems", people have a lot of trouble making "rational" decisions (see the work, for instance, of Anthony Bashara). "Reason" is not something that is located in a particular part of the brain and can get "turned off". It is extremely complicated and subserved by multiple brain systems, including these responsible for reward and emotion.
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 11:41 PM on February 29, 2012


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