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Ch. 1: How Rational an Animal? | Rationality

#180: Jan. - March 2022 (Non-Fiction)
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Chris OConnor

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Ch. 1: How Rational an Animal? | Rationality

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Ch. 1: How Rational an Animal? | Rationality

Please use this thread for discussing Ch. 1: How Rational an Animal? | Rationality.
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Robert Tulip

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Re: Ch. 1: How Rational an Animal? | Rationality

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This is a great book. It shows how people constantly make bad decisions because our intuition evolved in situations quite different from what we now routinely encounter. People gamble rather than save despite the near-certainty of far lower returns. There are so many good examples in this first chapter of mind bending simple questions. We like to think we are logical, but when abstract questions are replaced by practical questions about cheating and money we understand them more easily. My favourite of all was the Monty Hall Problem, named after the TV game show host.

I will put this in reverse from how Pinker explains it. Imagine you are looking at a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle. You are told there is a prize under one piece and get to choose one piece at random. But before you turn it over, you are informed that 998 of the others don’t conceal the prize, leaving one other that might be the winner. Would you stick with your first random 0.1% chance or switch to the other one, which you now know has a chance of being 99.9% likely to conceal the prize?

Put like that the answer is obvious, we would all switch. But the psychology of logic is not so simple. Imagine the same exercise with a hundred-piece puzzle, then a ten-piece puzzle, then a three-piece puzzle. With the three-piece puzzle, on exactly the same method as described above, 1000 PhDs wrote letters complaining that it made no difference to switch. One of the greatest mathematicians in the world had to laboriously study it to be convinced that switching had a 2/3 probability of being correct while staying with the first choice still only had a 1/3 chance.
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Re: Ch. 1: How Rational an Animal? | Rationality

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A major theme of this book is that none of us, thinking alone, is rational enough to consistently come to sound conclusions: rationality comes from a community of reasoners who spot each other's fallacies.
(From the preface.)
America sure does not feel like a "community of reasoners." A large number of folks not only won't get the vaccine or follow other Covid protocols, they are also actively courting a virus they still think is a hoax. A snippet I heard on AM talk radio two days ago: "Who is going to stay home New Year's Eve with masks on? NOBODY! We are all going out to party!"

I'll see how the book goes - it does look good - but at this point I do not share Mr. Pinker's apparent optimism on the overall situation.
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Chris OConnor

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Re: Ch. 1: How Rational an Animal? | Rationality

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I'm listening to Chapter 1 on Audible as I drive today.
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Re: Ch. 1: How Rational an Animal? | Rationality

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Because in the twenty-first century, when we think by the seat of our pants, every correction can make things worse, and can send our democracy into a graveyard spiral.
Pinker sees the gravity of the situation. :-D But I'm skeptical that detailing various logical methods will resolve it. America is split into two camps, something like the following.

Universe 1. We must untangle gerrymandering, restrict the power of state election officials to ignore the vote count, and attempt to reduce biased voting laws despite the SCOTUS ruling several years ago. If we are not successful, democracy is lost.

Universe 2. All efforts such as the above are attempts to cheat and steal the election and must be fought vigorously. State officials must be able to overrule tainted vote counts. Gerrymandering reflects the will of the people. The election of 2020 was stolen; this will be prevented or overturned in future elections by using violence if necessary. If we are not successful, democracy is lost.

I'll try to remain open, but I don't see how discussions of logical principles such as "Bayesian Reasoning" or "Signal Detection and Statistical Decision Theory" will provide a safe course correction for American democracy.
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Re: Ch. 1: How Rational an Animal? | Rationality

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I haven't decided whether to read the book, but you're piquing my interest. I think you're probably right that there is something in the current state requiring a far more thorough solution than analyzing logical fallacies. Pinker himself, I woud guess, isn't promoting such a simple solution in the book, though.

To what extent rationality can ever prevail, when almost any thought we have is laden with emotional color, is one topic I'd like to see Pinker aim at.
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Re: Ch. 1: How Rational an Animal? | Rationality

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He uses the term 'Rocket Surgery'... Lol
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Chris OConnor

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Re: Ch. 1: How Rational an Animal? | Rationality

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I liked that too. LOL
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Re: Ch. 1: How Rational an Animal? | Rationality

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In addition to the Monty Hall problem that Robert summarized (even though I understand the rationale behind switching, I find it hard to accept) I was enthralled with the Conjunction Fallacy. This is where people are more likely to assign higher probability of a set of events occurring than the probability of one event that is part of the set occurring. Basically, that A and B is more likely than just A or B. Which is obviously not reasonable when you look at it in a purely algebraic form.

I notice this around me everyday (and I probably fall into the trap often myself) with the conspiracy theorists that believe that JFK Jr. isn't dead and will team up with Trump. Or that Bill Gates and Fauci developed the corona virus to sell their vaccine. These may be extreme examples, but it speaks to the desire for a story to be told in our minds. There are folks that believe these insane scenarios are not only probable, but true.

It's a bit frightening to me that we are so easily duped...and that there are those that use this against us. The 'news' media talking head shows are a prime example.
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Re: Ch. 1: How Rational an Animal? | Rationality

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I'll be going at this book non-sequentially. Pinker has some great things to say, but he also is the king of illustration and explanation--which is fine, but I don't have his facility for speciality areas of logic. That might be another way of saying I can be lazy, not eager to work as hard as I feel he wants me to. I'm reading Chapter 10, "What's Wrong with People," and wow, this guy has a handle on the current scene of divergent realities.
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