September 22, 2014

Why smart people — and movement skeptics — do dumb things; irrational, anti-rational, non-rational

Over at Insight, Skeptic's new blogging spot, Barbara Drescher has a nice piece on the "smart people do dumb things," reminiscing on joining Mensa, with the lead-in of a fairly well-known story of a college prof falling victim to the fake Russian lover scheme. That said, such issues, or related ones, aren't confined to Mensa.

Let's see if motivated reasoning gets tackled over there. One can be so smart and so skeptical to be sure that secondhand smoke isn't carcinogenic and that global warming isn't real. Or, one can be so smart and so skeptical to be sure that "little tweaks" to websites aren't criminally fraudulent. Or one can be sure that such smart people in positions of skeptical authority are right when they are being sure. If you're active in "movement skepticism," I don't think I need to name names.

Beyond that, the forums at the James Randi Educational Foundation website have had people start threads defending irrational ideas. (I guess that, and the effort involved in moderating them, is why Randi is dumping off the forums.)

More seriously, this is the tip of an iceberg. There's differences, I would say, between non-rational, irrational and antirational actions.

And, I'm going to address a bit more how I see those three as separate from each other.

Non-rational actions are of a few different types.

One is, per Daniel Kahneman, where "fast," reflexive thinking is expected. To riff on our ancestry, if you're on a safari vacation, and the grass rustles, you jump just as much as an australopithecine 2 million years ago, since that rustling grass could signify a lion.

Somewhat similar are non-reflexive, but still emotional decisions. You don't analyze why you like chocolate ice cream more than vanilla or strawberry, you just eat.

Third are leaps of faith and similar actions that are forced decisions. (Not all leaps of faith are forced decisions, of course.) Let's say you have a job offer and have 24 hours to decide whether to take it or not. Interviews have been entirely by phone or email; you've never met the bosses and principals at the other end; you've never seen the work site; you've never met your would-be coworkers. At the same time, you're actively looking to get out of your current employment situation. You may, after you leap, find more information that, had you known it earlier, would have led to a decision not to leap. (The issue of emotional dissonance, an emotional parallel to cognitive dissonance, might come into play on some of these issues.)

Then, there's irrational decisions, like the college professor chasing the fake lover. If we would just stop a minute and do our "slow" thinking, we'd escape many of them. They need no more explanation.

Then, there's anti-rational decisions. A good example is Richard Nixon late in his second term, in foreign policy decisions he made after Watergate started catching up to him. He figured if he acted nuts enough vis-a-vis the Russians, they'd think he actually was nuts. Of course, that could be considered rational, as well as anti-rational.

The whole edifice of North Korea's leadership and its action in foreign affairs might be a more reasonable idea of anti-rational action.

Arguably, the Mutual Assured Destruction stance on nuclear staredowns between the US and the USSR in the 1950s is another.

Interesting, that the first three examples I recognized of deliberately anti-rational action are all international affairs, isn't it? Interesting, and scary.

Update, Sept. 26: Drescher needs to pen an addendum about her own boss.

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