Plato Would Have Laughed at Our Era's Faith In Rationalism

How did our world come to be ruled by a view of human nature that contradicts the testimony of much of history, and the bulk of the arts, and your daily experience? Mathoholics are to blame. 


1. History will puzzle over our era’s ruling faith in rationalism. Behavioral economics is shaking that faith but as Nick Romeo notes, Plato described “cognitive biases” ~24 centuries ago.

2. And Plato is far from alone. Hasn’t every realistic writer described humanity’s everywhere-evident cognitive foibles? Except some math-obsessed economists?

3. Doesn’t history, and the arts, and daily experience, testify against those hyper-rational individualists of econo-models?

4. For instance, here's Shakespeare on confirmation bias: “Trifles light as air / Are to the jealous confirmations strong / As proofs...”

5. The gist of many cognitive biases shouldn’t surprise non-economists (“a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” = “loss aversion”).

6. Daniel Kahneman’s cognitive-bias-cataloging Nobel involved studying grandmotherly wisdom (every psychologist knows we’re “neither fully rational, nor completely selfish”).

7. Beyond the fun of footnoting philosophy-founding dialogues with cognitive biases, Plato would have laughed at econo-rationalism.

8. And Plato saw money-lust as enslavement to irrational impulses (now driving mindless market priorities).

9. He knew we’re irrationally persuadable. He hated sophists for teaching how to sell seductive surfaces over substance (marketing over product). Marketing, obviously, has always used cognitive biases (under-theorized).

10. Even as many economists declare that we’re rational optimizers, businesses operate on the profitable principle that there’s an easily manipulable fool born every minute.

11. But Plato abetted modern rationalism’s rise by popularizing math-lust. 2,000 years later “falling in love with geometry” was an Enlightenment “occupational hazard.” And today similar math-worship (for algebra + stats) drives economists to irrational math-oholic fantasies.

12. Largely unnoticed is how Plato’s dialogues dramatize the shortcomings of “cognitive individualism.”

13. Social cognition research shows that “individual knowledge is always remarkably shallow”—>“we never think alone.”

14. Isn’t it self-evident that we evolved to reason socially? Thinking, like every other significant aspect of human nature, evolved collectively and tribally (not econo-individualistically).

15. Intriguingly, while “confirmation bias” worsens solo thinking, it can improve group reasoning (other cognitive perspectives countering your biases—>don’t think alone, or with cognitive clones).

16. Countering cognitive individualism is how science succeeds (bias-balancing processes).

17. That famed-science-institution motto "take no man's word for it," also applies to your own word. Feeling sure that you’re right often isn’t a reliable intuition. We fall in love with ideas and methods and become blind to our beloved’s faults.

18. Math-method-loving economists strengthen faith in rationalism by routinely excluding "obvious empirical” facts if they’re not equation friendly. This “equation filtering” begets “theory-induced blindness” (field-wide method-level bias).

19. This math-fashioned folly must misrepresent us for its beloved math model-making to work. Arguing that models, like maps, must exclude details, fails because here we’re ignoring known roadblocks. There’s no efficient-allocation market nirvana without rationally optimizing masses.

20. Beyond the matho-pathology of unbehavioral economics, misplaced faith in rationalism enabled Donald Trump’s presidency. He grasps empirical psychology better than many rationalists. Every salesperson knows persuasion isn’t factual or logical, but unavoidably emotional, and trust-dependent (see Aristotle on ethos, pathos, logos).

21. Ways of life that deny our deeply limited, deeply flawed, deeply social nature are doomed to history’s dustbin.

 

Illustration by Julia SuitsThe New Yorker cartoonist & author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions

​There are two kinds of failure – but only one is honorable

Malcolm Gladwell teaches "Get over yourself and get to work" for Big Think Edge.

Big Think Edge
  • Learn to recognize failure and know the big difference between panicking and choking.
  • At Big Think Edge, Malcolm Gladwell teaches how to check your inner critic and get clear on what failure is.
  • Subscribe to Big Think Edge before we launch on March 30 to get 20% off monthly and annual memberships.
Keep reading Show less

Why are so many objects in space shaped like discs?

It's one of the most consistent patterns in the unviverse. What causes it?

Videos
  • Spinning discs are everywhere – just look at our solar system, the rings of Saturn, and all the spiral galaxies in the universe.
  • Spinning discs are the result of two things: The force of gravity and a phenomenon in physics called the conservation of angular momentum.
  • Gravity brings matter together; the closer the matter gets, the more it accelerates – much like an ice skater who spins faster and faster the closer their arms get to their body. Then, this spinning cloud collapses due to up and down and diagonal collisions that cancel each other out until the only motion they have in common is the spin – and voila: A flat disc.

Scientists study tattooed corpses, find pigment in lymph nodes

It turns out, that tattoo ink can travel throughout your body and settle in lymph nodes.

17th August 1973: An American tattoo artist working on a client's shoulder. (Photo by F. Roy Kemp/BIPs/Getty Images)
popular

In the slightly macabre experiment to find out where tattoo ink travels to in the body, French and German researchers recently used synchrotron X-ray fluorescence in four "inked" human cadavers — as well as one without. The results of their 2017 study? Some of the tattoo ink apparently settled in lymph nodes.


Image from the study.

As the authors explain in the study — they hail from Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility, and the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment — it would have been unethical to test this on live animals since those creatures would not be able to give permission to be tattooed.

Because of the prevalence of tattoos these days, the researchers wanted to find out if the ink could be harmful in some way.

"The increasing prevalence of tattoos provoked safety concerns with respect to particle distribution and effects inside the human body," they write.

It works like this: Since lymph nodes filter lymph, which is the fluid that carries white blood cells throughout the body in an effort to fight infections that are encountered, that is where some of the ink particles collect.

Image by authors of the study.

Titanium dioxide appears to be the thing that travels. It's a white tattoo ink pigment that's mixed with other colors all the time to control shades.

The study's authors will keep working on this in the meantime.

“In future experiments we will also look into the pigment and heavy metal burden of other, more distant internal organs and tissues in order to track any possible bio-distribution of tattoo ink ingredients throughout the body. The outcome of these investigations not only will be helpful in the assessment of the health risks associated with tattooing but also in the judgment of other exposures such as, e.g., the entrance of TiO2 nanoparticles present in cosmetics at the site of damaged skin."

Photo by Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash
Mind & Brain

Do human beings have a magnetic sense? Biologists know other animals do. They think it helps creatures including bees, turtles and birds navigate through the world.

Keep reading Show less