Restoring Sanity to Our Politics, Our Economy, and Our LivesBook - 2014
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The author begins by describing his understanding of reason and its five key characteristics. The limits of rationality as the guiding principle to structure civilisation must be recognised in view of its excesses in the French Revolution, mechanised killing characteristic of modern warfare and industrial development which jeopardises the habitability of the planet. These excesses can however be understood as errors in reasoning and not as an indictment of the Enlightenment project. Our rationality is limited by a host of cognitive biases which operate automatically. These processes evolved as a response to our need for quick decision making in pre-historic times and are correct most of the time within the context where they evolved. Reason evolved very recently, probably concurrently with language skills. It is not our primary cognitive process and usually needs to override our intuitive processes to function. As we now live in a built environment, the reliability of intuitive cognition is decreasing. Advertisers and political operatives have learned to exploit these intuitive processes to elicit responses favorable to their products or positions, thus further reducing the likelihood that we will respond rationally to an advertisement or a politician’s quote. The search for favorable intuitive or emotional responses by the electorate has led to the adoption of patently unreasonable or insane positions. We can improve the quality of our reasoning by recognising how it operates and by employing “kluges” to facilitate its action. Reason often relies on phenomena outside the mind, such as a pencil and paper to perform mathematical operations. One of the most important external supports to reason is the critical review of our thinking through social interaction. Thus if we are to enhance our reasoning, we need to develop a “scaffolding” of physical and social artefacts. Heath presents an impressive review of cognitive biases in arguing the limits to rationality. He also discusses at length the methods used by advertisers and political strategists to distract us from a rational analysis of their messages. Unfortunately he does not present an equally compelling structure to address the threats to rationality. As he says his proposals constitute “Small steps to a saner world”.
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