A Rational Renaissance

“Clever” is something of a catchall word. According to Dictionary.com, it has the following meanings, among others:

1. mentally bright; having sharp or quick intelligence; able.

3. showing inventiveness or originality; ingenious:

We all know of clever people from human history. People like Plato, Archimedes, Leonardo da Vinci, and Isaac Newton. We also know many clever people from our daily lives. People like the network technician who maintains and configures our office network or the surgeon who corrected our nephew’s heart defect.

Cleverness, however, is not a good way to describe a teachable skill. When a person falls ill, you do not call the emergency services and say “Get a clever person down here, stat!” When your refrigerator breaks down, you do not search Google for “clever people near me”. Instead, you will seek out help from people with skills that satisfy an academic or professional standard.

Academic and professional training creates specialists by giving them the skills to tackle specific tasks. There are college courses that students can take that will teach them how to be doctors or operate computer systems. But things were not always so…

Science Before the Scientific Revolution

Imagine that you are living in the 13th century, several hundred years before the scientific revolution. Your neighbor, a gardener, is testing a new fertilizer by planting the same plants in adjacent beds. By comparing his new fertilizer to the old one, side-by-side, using the same plants, the same light, the same weather conditions, the gardener is controlling for many other factors that might affect the growth of his plants. Had the gardener had switched out both his beds to the new fertilizer, the performance of the plants might have varied because of the quality of his seeds, an unusually warm summer, or an abundance of pests.

Now, imagine what you might say to your fellow gardener when he tells you how he tested his fertilizer. You would probably say, “That’s a clever way of doing it!” Maybe you would say “This gardener is smart!” However, you would not say “That is scientific!” because science has yet to be formally invented. You have no idea that there might be a standard method for determining answers to questions through experimental test.

From the 17th to 19th centuries, the scientific revolution would change human culture, not only by transforming our understanding of the world, but by creating academic and professional standards. Thanks to modern science education, the words “clever” and “scientific” now mean two different things. Science literacy and scientific expertise are considered skills, not gifts.  Moreover, science education in schools does more than prepare the those few students who will enter scientific careers. Science training teaches all of us that science is a way of thinking. Science is a technical discipline, not a magical gift that is accessible only to genius of a Galileo or an Einstein.

Living in the Pre-rational Age

Unfortunately, when it comes to rational thinking, we have yet to experience a comparable revolution. Most people would be hard pressed to distinguish rationality from intelligence, common sense, selfishness, or lack of emotional affect. When we want to understand what data says about our world, we are likely to leap to unjustified conclusions, or else hang on the words of any genius who tells us what we want to hear. Essentially, the process of rationality is invisible to the majority of people. We don’t know how we reason, and we don’t know how reason ought to work. To make matters worse, we are likely to see ourselves as more rational than we are.

Creating even the most basic academic and professional standards of rational thinking could radically transform the way we think. First and foremost, we would come to see rational thinking as a skill that is distinct from intelligence. We would see that, to think rationally, we must apply rules of logical and statistical inference while attempting to overcome the myriad of documented cognitive biases that might throw us off course.

Second, we would learn to treat rationality more like muscle strength. When it comes to our physical abilities, we generally have a realistic assessment of our own abilities. A man would never try to lift a large refrigerator all by himself, and if he did, his muscles would immediately send pain signals to his brain to alert him to his mistake. Unfortunately, human reasoning has no such alarm system. There is little to tell us that we have taken-on too much, or that our cognitive abilities are in a danger zone. For many, the only thing they are aware of is that a right-seeming conclusion has popped into our minds — we often cannot explain how we arrived at our conclusion, and tend to be overconfident. But, like a muscle, we can train our rational ability, and become more sensitive to how we reach our conclusions. We can learn to recognize our cognitive limitations, and systematically find ways to manage them.

The promise of a rational revolution

Rationality training would provide students with specific skills, teaching them how to reason and how to anticipate cognitive bias. Yet, the knowledge of what rationality is maybe culturally more important than the technical knowledge about how to reason. Most people have yet to learn what rationality is, and so have no handle with which to manage irrationality. All of this could change in a generation. If we commit ourselves to a program of high school and adult education in rationality, we could radically alter the way society deals with questions of inference from data and public policy. Perhaps people will have more humility with regard to their own inferences, more respect for expertise, and more consensus about the facts. This does not mean that we will all agree on policy, but agreement on the facts should result in better public policy.