Features

Sense and sensibility: Steven Pinker and Rory Sutherland on reason vs instinct

Steven Pinker and Rory Sutherland on reason vs instinct

18 December 2021

9:00 AM

18 December 2021

9:00 AM

Steven Pinker’s latest book is called Rationality. Rory Sutherland is The Spectator’s Wiki Man. We arranged for them to meet at the Cucumber restaurant, where they discussed the logic of monarchy, gender-bending, and why academics are unreasonably obsessed with wine.

Steven Pinker: Part of the reason I wrote Rationality was to ask, how there can be so much irrationality in an era that has the resources for unprecedented rationality. We invented a vaccine for Covid in less than a year. So why do people today believe in conspiracies like QAnon?

Rory Sutherland: Conspiracy theories aren’t always irrational, and instinctive responses can serve you well. An instinctive person with no knowledge of virology wouldn’t go into a cave full of bats.

SP: Instinct also produced the miasma theory of disease.

RS: But I think the miasma theory had good outcomes. It led to ventilated hospitals during the Spanish flu outbreak. We can believe things for the wrong reason, like religion, but they can be nonetheless socially beneficial.

SP: There are beneficial aspects, but also a lot of harmful aspects. Miasma theory led to delays in sanitation.

RS: But doctors wore masks in the Middle Ages, whereas science was highly resistant to masks last year. There was a weird idea that, unless you had evidence that masks worked, you shouldn’t bother. Also… think about humour. It’s not rational! Why do we have it? It must be evolutionarily valuable in some way. Does it just allow you to say some things you couldn’t say seriously without conflict?

SP: That’s right. It’s a way of puncturing dignity which can be done aggressively if you are taking the priest, the teacher or the politician down a few pegs. But it can also be used convivially and self-deprecatingly. In groups of friends, you don’t want a hierarchy to develop. So it’s used to emphasise that I don’t have any properties that I am going to lord over you or vice versa. I can make fun of myself, I can make fun of you in a way that is not aggressive, but bonding.

RS: One social scientist said that when he was in the US air force, the degree of abuse between people would have shut down an Ivy League university! But there’s no banter in academia because people’s reputations are far too fragile.

SP: We all live on campus now — what was true of academia is becoming true of wider society. I don’t know if you heard about the lawsuit that Tesla lost recently. It was $137 million over accusations of racism. Not racism by the company itself, but by other employees. Companies are liable if there is a hostile atmosphere in violation of the Civil Rights Act. It’s not enough to prove their own policies are not racist, but that they simply tolerate an atmosphere.

RS: Even unknowingly?

SP: Even unknowingly, yes.

RS: Context matters a great deal. Obviously, we should experiment far more with changing the context than changing the objective reality. One fundamental problem is that we don’t perceive the world objectively: our perception of time, of temperature, of colour has been formed by evolution to be useful, not to be accurate. So you can look for a rational, objective truth, but if people don’t perceive it that way, then you’ve failed at the first hurdle.

SP: This is why we need institutions like science to aspire to objective understanding, not forcing us to fall back on common sense. It’s an example of how a lot of our rationality must come from explicitly designed institutions.

RS: Business is another, which has one virtue by the way — it’s the only discipline where you actually get paid to change your mind.

SP: It could be said that the military is another. You either win or lose the war.

RS: Military decision-making is very interesting. I always remember talking to General Michael Jackson who said that an order has to factor in comprehensibility. Can everyone align around this objective? Whereas ordering people to do something highly complicated might be theoretically optimal, but it damages coordination. The most interesting experience of that is the adoption of video-conferencing, which took a pandemic to solve!

SP: Getting everyone on a small number of platforms like Zoom.

RS: Zoom only delivers its value when it reaches a certain level of use. Like, there’s not much point in owning the world’s only fax machine! Zoom was universally available in 2018, but it was only when people were forced to make the effort that they tried it out.

SP: Sure, like when my mother had to participate in a Zoom seder. Jewish mothers had to learn how to use Zoom.

RS: I attended a bar mitzvah in Vancouver from a moving car in Kent! And there are quite a lot of products where you only notice the benefits by using them, like a car. The tragedy is that owning a car is a little like heroin. Once you’ve become acclimatised, it’s very difficult to quit. By owning a car, you discover the magical functions of it which go way beyond transportation, like privacy or the fact it is effectively a locker.

SP: How can you tell which technologies will stick?

RS: Well, I had large numbers of friends who were resistant to having a mobile phone in the 1990s, but they were bullied by social norms into playing along. This is a very interesting question for how much of behaviour learnt during the pandemic will stick. What’s true is that social norms condition behaviour to a huge extent. Take Coca Cola and Dr Pepper. There is a magical property to Coke which nobody really notices. You can ask for it anywhere without it seeming unreasonable. You can go to a Tanzanian beach shack, you can go to a Michelin-starred restaurant in Paris, and the expectation is that they will give you a Coke if asked. But that’s not true of Dr Pepper! Asking for a Dr Pepper in both of those locations would involve a significant degree of social awkwardness and, in the French case, a patronising response from the maitre’d. Fundamentally, we do things that are normal. Therefore if other people start doing those things, we do too. Dressing for dinner in the 19th century was effectively performative, but you had to do it because everybody else did. To not do it was to send a signal.

SP: Like if you came to a wedding in a t-shirt, shorts and sneakers.

RS: Yes, you’re actually communicating whether you like it or not. We’re always communicating, whether we like it or not. What about self-deprecating humour? Owning the insult is another technique for subtly communicating, isn’t it?


SP: I think that’s particularly and instinctively British. To Canadian and American ears it sounds like humble bragging.

RS: Are we particularly guilty of that?

SP: I think so.

RS: One of the biggest problems is if you believe a cause is well-intentioned, but you criticise the mode of communication, you are assumed to be criticising the cause. The classic example is environmental or social-justice protestors defacing war memorials. I am sure it feels great at the time, but the behaviour is entirely counterproductive. We have to be able to criticise the means without being vilified as opposing the ends.

SP: Indeed. Rationality is always in pursuit of a goal. There’s no such thing as rationality across the board. If you’re trying to change minds, the question is what is the best tactic towards that goal?

RS: Counter signalling is also a really interesting conundrum. Environmental activists will often do something hair-shirted which is only status-enhancing if it is done by someone already high in status. Rather as in times past it was acceptable for dukes to dress like tramps. So if you are an A-list actor and you turn up at the Oscars in a Prius, nobody assumes it’s because you couldn’t afford a limo. It’s clearly a choice. But the person who cleans up the theatre afterwards, if he turns up by bicycle the assumption is that it’s not a choice, but it’s because he can’t afford a car. A lot of the environment stuff is a case of ‘luxury beliefs’. It’s one coined by Rob Henderson. Have you heard of that phrase?

SP: I haven’t.

RS: There are beliefs you can only hold if you are rich.

SP: Like in Pygmalion, when Henry Higgins says to Dolittle, ‘Have you no morals, sir?’ and he says, ‘I can’t afford them, sir, and neither could you if you were as poor as me.’

RS: You’re teaching at Harvard. I think that education has now become a signalling war. It’s become a luxury good which signals your qualities to an employer far more than it delivers any human worth.

SP: In one of my articles, I said it’s a $250,000 marshmallow test.

RS: It’s only a matter of time before Louis Vuitton buys Harvard. The signalling problem has been made worse because of the expansion of further education. When I graduated in 1988, having a good degree was sufficient but not necessary to get a good job, and now it’s necessary but not sufficient. What you’re doing is unfairly demonising people who don’t play the game. We should break up Harvard because it’s far more uncompetitive than Google is. When you’re buying an education, you’re buying a peer group. The question you ask is not what university is best for me, but what university do other people think is best?

SP: It’s common knowledge. This is the topic of my next book.

RS: But dislodging Harvard from its position of eminence, barring some massive child abuse scandal, is almost impossible because everyone’s mind has to change simultaneously. Zoom only succeeded because we changed everybody’s mind simultaneously [during the pandemic], not gradually. I preferred the 1980s where having a good car was more prestigious than having a good degree. You get lots of lifetime chances to own a Rolls-Royce, but you only get one chance to get a degree.

SP: That’s why universities keep marble pillars and classical architecture. They know the value of prestige.

RS: Academia is very weird, isn’t it? Someone said, if you bought a Corvette as an academic, you would lose all credibility from your fellow academics and yet, in any academic gathering they rank each other’s status like courtiers in Versailles.

SP: And there’s the wine…

RS: Academics are obsessed with high-end wine! Are they not conscious there is a huge amount of bullshit around it? Wine tastes better if you tell people it’s expensive.

SP: It’s all wine, art, oriental rugs and second homes.

RS: But it’s okay for an academic to have a second home. It means when he writes a book, you can say ‘he divides his time between…’ which is essential!

SP:Conventional status symbols are dead. Gender-bending is the new one, like punk and hip hop used to be. Since the 1960s, there has been a rather tedious dynamic of each pop culture group trying to out–Bohemian the previous one.

RS: What also intensified in the 1960s was a narrative that protestors are always on the right side of history, but that’s survivorship bias. There were protests in the 18th century in England against popery. We only remember the ones we approve of in retrospect.

SP: A more recent example we thought was progressive which is now seen as retrograde is the movement of many French intellectuals in the 1970s and 1980s to lower the age of sexual consent.

RS: That was extraordinary. We can equally argue that appealing to children has gone in the opposite direction. I am always a little suspicious when anti-vaping campaigners refer to kids as the object of their concern. I’ve got two daughters, and worry number no. 473 is that they might take up vaping! Of all the drugs and the things that could go wrong, the chance they might take up vaping doesn’t lose me any sleep. There is this tendency now which is an appeal to anything concerning the young.

SP: Using the young as a way to demonise some practice goes back to Socrates.

RS: Exactly!

SP: It shows that some issues get arbitrarily moralised. One of the reasons we have so much science denial is not because of scientific illiteracy. Tests of scientific confidence don’t differentiate climate deniers from acceptors. The only thing that matters is how much to the left or right they are on the political spectrum. One of the reasons we have science resistance on the right is that science increasingly brands itself as a branch of the political left. For example, engineers are politically balanced, but their associations increasingly make statements of woke social justice.

RS: And of course there are reasonable conservative arguments. The monarchy would be a classic example: it works for evolutionary reasons, but some want to get rid of things for the purposes of intellectual neatness rather than effectiveness. What do you make of a constitutional monarchy?

SP: I think it’s a great idea.

RS: It ain’t bad: we can’t say that it’s causative but we can say that those countries that follow it seem to be disproportionately successful, and that could simply be because they’ve never gone through violent revolutions. But the very fact that the head of state is arbitrary, which is what drives Americans crazy, is actually part of what makes it work.

SP: I think that’s right and at least above politics.

RS: You’re Canadian, but if I say this to Americans…

SP: They think you’re nuts. Burke argued that if something has persisted as a norm for centuries, there might be some rationale behind it that we can’t understand.

RS: There is a value to having common beliefs because we can understand the behaviour of others more easily than if they adhered to a rational calculus. For example, the knowledge that I can go into a shop without being attacked by the shopkeeper. Another is that the belief in an all-seeing deity and an afterlife is a pretty useful mental trick to improve your behaviour.

SP: Although I think a judicial system and a police force is more effective.

RS: You might argue that without some belief in an external deity, large-scale cooperation beyond very small kinship would never have got off the ground.

SP: Historically, that might be true but now we have societies which are majority atheist which function quite well, such as in Scandinavia, New Zealand and Ireland.

RS: Superstitions and stories can be motiv-ating.

SP: But you don’t have superstitions that have people put smoke detectors in their houses and fasten their seatbelts and buy cars with airbags. The superstitions might have been useful in a pre-scientific era but once we have data, we are much better off forgetting them.

RS: But you have to assume there is pretty good science, which I don’t think is necessarily a safe assumption. There were some pretty clever Nazi scientists.

SP: But the alternative is witch doctors and barber surgeons. It certainly didn’t lead to better outcomes than an era with science. It’s a mistake to look at failures of science and say that shows we don’t need science. Our original condition is ignorance. The only way that knowledge can accumulate is by broaching hypotheses and testing them.

RS: There’s another way of making progress — lucky accidents. Doing things for a ridiculous reason and continuing to do them because they seem to work. Quite often, the need to pre-rationalise activities acts as a limitation on what we test. Here’s a really interesting finding from the ad industry, which is that the more you test, the more successful you are. There are no diminishing returns. My concern is that if you make rationality a precondition of an experiment, you are not experimenting enough.

SP: I don’t know if that would work in a scientific context.

RS: Penicillin? No one said ‘let’s chuck some fungus into a petri dish!’. Accidents followed by investigation are behind as much scientific progress as acting intentionally.

SP: Yes, but pointing post-hoc to a random finding doesn’t mean that we should try hypotheses at random. As Pasteur put it, chance favours the prepared mind. Science is not monkeys at the typewriter. If it was, you’d be wasting an awful lot of time.

RS: It has been an absolute pleasure.

SP: The pleasure is mine, thank you.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10


Show comments
Close