Tag Archives: rationality

The Destruction of Iraq and Failures of Reasoning

The month of March is the tenth anniversary of the War in Iraq.  The facts of Iraq’s destruction at the hands of the Washington bureaucracy and its associated business interests are well-established, even if not largely well-known.  Tens of millions of Americans were led to believe that Iraq possessed or were seeking to acquire weapons of mass destruction.  Equivocating statements from the White House and its ideological base further caused many to believe that Iraq had some connection to religious terrorism.  The majority of Americans believed these lies, despite an abundance of information to the contrary.  This common failure of human rationality led to the destruction of a nation that holds the heart of human civilization.  Anywhere from half a million to one million Iraqi men, women, and children died from the war and the destruction of the nation’s infrastructure, and four and a half thousand American soldiers were killed.  David Swanson has compiled and evaluated more complete information here.

The War in Iraq was an amazing failure of reasoning on the part of the American people, who supported their government despite the approbation of many nations of the world.  The self-interested refusal of Continental Europe to join the war led to charges of their cowardice, rather than our self-reflection.  However, the reaction is predictable, once we realize that human beings are more apt use various “thinking shortcuts” (or heuristics) under stress, rather than evaluate the available evidence and derive conclusions using rational methods of thought.

A great deal of irrationality stems from the intersection of anxiety and group identity.  This is to be expected, given the role of both in improving the chances for survival.  Human beings under stress are more likely to use shortcuts than to more thoroughly weigh evidence and develop sensible predictions.  Stressful situations alter learning, for example, with persons under stress making over-optimistic predictions, rather than realistic predictions.  Thus, a nation told (and swallowing entirely) that a mushroom cloud might engulf their city might genuinely believe the ridiculous idea that American soldiers would be greeted as liberators in Baghdad after imposing almost a generation of crippling sanctions.

Happily, human beings are cooperative animals, and that our self-conception involves group identification is a mechanism for that cooperation.  Less happily, we don’t always have a healthy relationship with that faculty for group identity.  Self and group identity might involve believing facts about the world that are manifestly false; for example, the denial of evolution, or the known age of the universe, is required by many religious organizations.  Even worse, determination of proper belief may simply be initiated by the group leadership, as it was in 2003.  Group membership is necessary for survival, and certain beliefs are necessary for group membership.  Thus, facts that contradict those needed for group membership are themselves threats.

Group bias is why political dissidence, though not by itself a threat to anybody, enrages those who are not otherwise in danger of harm.  Challenges to socially dominant beliefs triggers “motivated reasoning”, the process of cognitively retrieving evidence that supports already held beliefs.  Cognitive dissonance can be an ugly scene.  At a protest back in 2003, I once saw a jogger erupt into purple rage at the presence of the demonstration.  Months before, just after the war began, a truck attempted to kill anti-war protestors.  Protestors, in declaring against an irrational war, had also declared themselves in the eyes of the fearful as “not-one-of-us”.  You can do anything to them.

This mental disorder is not confined to one political faction.  In 2003, Republicans were those most likely to name dissidents as traitors.  In 2013, Democrats decry anybody believing actual facts about Obama’s use of drones, or his war on whistleblowers, as conspiracy theorists or questionable patriots.  In the existing social structure, it’s never about reason, but which group (be it party, class, race, sex, etc) has power.

The combination of perceived threat and group identification was and is a disaster, mainly for Iraq and the Middle East, though America did not spare itself.  Unfortunately, many continue to believe that thoughtless action is the virtuous response to danger.  In reality, a situation of supposed danger most requires the courage of rational and deliberative citizenship, and large numbers of Americans did not find that courage.

We continue that failure by being unable to undertake sustained and consistent criticism of our current state organization.  We must take people as they are, cognitive biases and all; we can only craft principles of justice and social institutions for such creatures as we find them.  Democratic organization can make a rational being from the crooked timber.

Voting for the Lesser Evil is Irrational

It’s the tie color that makes the difference. The only difference.

Presidential election season means pretty much half of all the voters are asking, “Do I really have to vote for that guy?”  Libertarians and Tea Partiers have no desire to vote for Mitt Romney, and liberals, socialists, and Occupiers don’t want to have to vote for Obama.  Reluctant voters are scolded that if they don’t vote for one of the major party candidates, then the other guy will win; and make no mistake, he’ll destroy America.  Of course, America has already been mostly destroyed, and the two major parties are some of the main culprits.  In any case, the idea that you should set aside your own political preferences to vote for one of two cartoonish villains is known as “the lesser evil argument”. read more »

Institutional Analysis Versus Conspiracy Theory

Alexander Cockburn has a great piece of commentary on the apparently increasing trend in U.S. politics of ascribing our social woes to conspiracies.  Readers at the Helmet will recall that our understanding of how institutions drive human behavior is central to solving the real social problems of our country and our world.  However, it seems hard going to get people to understand that no particular person or group of people is causing all the problems, but the way that people interact through the social institutions that they inhabit.

Instead, Americans cling to the stories of angels and demons in the White House and Congress who will lead them to the promised land.  The same tendency towards conspiracy leads to the cult of personality that takes over every four years when it comes time to elect the president.  Last time it was Obama, angel to most though demon to some.  And he will probably be turned into some sort of angel-demon for the next election, through the political parties’ media engines of ideology.

This tendency to understand outcomes in terms of human agency seems to be fundamental to the human brain.  But just as nature’s workings are devoid of any intention, so human institutions have their own operations at least partially independent of any person’s will.  Just as we improve our lives through dispensing with the belief that nature has its own will, so we must be jettison the idea that our social problems are the results of sinister men behind the scenes, if we are to solve them.

Book Review: Nudge, by Thaler and Sunstein

Nudge Nudge Wink Wink, Say No More

In Nudge, the behavioral economist Richard Thaler and political scientist Cass Sunstein describe the various ways that people behave irrationally because of the cognitive biases and the seemingly irrelevant contextual cues that influence our choices.  Their solution is what they call “nudging,” or promoting rational choice without limiting one’s choices, through “choice architecture,” the organization and design of choice presentation.  Since human beings’ choices are influenced by seemingly irrelevant environmental circumstances, Thaler and Sunstein see no harm in organizing those environmental circumstances to nudge people to make the best choice, so long as they still have the option of the less good choice.  In discussing Thaler and Sunstein’s book, I’ve divided my comments into three parts: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. read more »