On Risk, and Reason, and the Meaning of "Rationality"
I'm an Instructor at Harvard, a consultant in risk perception and risk communication, author of How Risky Is it, Really? Why Our Fears Don't Always Match the Facts, and principal co-author of RISK, A Practical Guide for Deciding What's Really Safe and What's Really Dangerous in the World Around You. I run a program called Improving Media Coverage of Risk. I was the Director of Risk Communication at the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, part of the Harvard School of Public Health, for 4 years, prior to which I was a TV reporter, specializing in environmental issues, for a local station in Boston for 22 years.
Over at "Mind Matters", my fellow blogger David Berreby offers an intriguing post Is Individual Liberty Over-Rated about some some new discussion of an old theme that I also dance around here; we've learned a lot about the limits of human reason, and how those limits cause us to sometimes make judgments that are bad for us, so we need to find ways to apply what we've learned about these limits to the goal of making fewer of these 'irrational' harmful mistakes.
The focus of this discussion pivots around the meaning of 'rational'. Does rationality mean, as most assume, intelligent objective pure clean get-it-right reason, or something more, something more realistic, that acknowledges more holistically the affective way we actually live, and all the evidence to which David refers that there is no such thing as pure just-the-facts/objective reason. Which raises the question about which David writes...what should society do about the absolute grant of individual liberty (to adults, who supposedly can reason better than kids, who supposedly can't) if it allows us to make choices that are sometimes bad not only for us but those around us. This is the topic about which I write at this blog, and which I specifically address in the Closing Thoughts of my book, How Risky Is It Really? Why Our Fears Don't Always Match the Facts.
David writes that, given all we've learned about the limits to pure reason, that we live in what he calls a 'post-rational' world. I think that we ARE rational, but given what we've learned about how cognition works, and the inherent limits on pure reason, we need a new definition of what rational means. So here are those Closing Thoughts, which speak directly to this question.
In his groundbreaking book Descartes’ Error, neuroscientist Antonio Damasio describes Elliott, a patient who had no problem making rational sense of information, but who nonetheless could not live a normal life. Elliott passed every standard psychological and intelligence test with flying colors. But he was dysfunctional as a person because he was missing one thing: his cognitive brain couldn’t converse with his emotional brain. The wiring connecting his prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain behind the forehead that plays a key role in making decisions, had been damaged and could no longer connect with the areas of the brain involved with emotions. So Elliott couldn’t make decisions about anything, because he could not place a value on one choice over another. One job over another, one place to live over another, even which time would be best for simple appointments—these choices involved judgments about which one was better. It was not a matter of facts alone. The choices between options called for a decision about which one felt better than the other, and Elliott could not tell. He could think about one choice being better than another, but he couldn’t feel it, and without feelings, he could not decide.
It’s an important lesson about how the human animal functions. The overwhelming evidence from Elliott, from Susan Napolitano, from Linda in Pennsylvania, from all those people who got behind the wheel of a motor vehicle instead of into an airplane after September 11, and from everybody else you’ve met in the preceding pages supports the view of Thomas Aquinas, who said, “Most men seem to live according to sense rather than reason.” We are Homo naturalis, not purely Homo rationalis. We are Affective beings whose views of and responses to the world are shaped not just by what we know, but also by what we feel. Indeed, our perceptions and behaviors are often shaped mostly by what we feel. Scottish philosopher David Hume said, “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.”
Yet somehow, in our Enlightenment confidence in the supreme power of rationality, some people think that we can make choices about risk simply by thoroughly gathering all the “sound science” about hazard and exposure and probabilities, coolly calculating the costs and benefits of the various options for dealing with the risk, and choosing what the facts will then clearly show us is the rationally “right” way to go. The facts will reveal the truth. Enlightenment pioneer Immanuel Kant said, “All our knowledge begins with the senses, proceeds then to the understanding, and ends with reason. There is nothing higher than reason.”
Sorry, Professor Kant. Sorry, all you devotees of the myth of ideal rationality, all you believers in the supreme power of the human cortex to think and reason our way to “correct” choices. You bow before a false god. As Elliott’s tragic circumstances warn us, all the facts in the world are meaningless, in the fullest and most precise meaning of that word, without the other components of Affect that help us judge which choices are better or worse, right or wrong, good or bad. We need our feelings to make sense of things, to judge pros and cons, risks and benefits, to decide among choices which one is right. Which one feels right. Without Affect there is no truth, just meaningless data.
Risk is not just a statistic. It is an idea and a feeling, a perception informed not just by the reasoning of the thinking cortex that humans have more recently developed, but by all the emotional and instinctive cortical systems that we have had since pre-human times, long before we developed the relatively recent ability to think and reason. We remain Affectives, not pure Rationalists. We need to heed the wisdom of Blaise Pascal, who observed, “We know the truth, not only by the reason, but by the heart.” Pascal spent the first part of his life as a brilliant rational mathematician and scientist—tutored in part by rationalist Descartes (“I think, therefore I am”) himself—and the second as a religious philosopher. An interesting shift in perspectives, and a telling metaphor for this book. Pascal’s two-part life, and his observations about the truth from his masterwork Pensées, perfectly sum things up. Reason and Affect. Facts and Feelings. Thinking and Sensing. They are not separate. It’s not either/or. It’s and. We must understand that they are interwoven components of a single system that helps us perceive the world and make our judgments and choices.
Still, we should not accept the idea that simply because this is who we are, we should therefore simply accept our true nature and defer to its innate wisdom. That is more than simplistic. It’s dangerous, because sometimes this system simply is not wise. As powerful as it is, the Affective system of perception is not perfect. Evolved to respond to simpler circumstances, it can make mistakes about more complex modern challenges, errors that get us into trouble. This book is full of examples.
So what are we to do? We can’t function as perfect reasoning machines. Elliott teaches us that. Nor can we trust ourselves to always make the right calls when our reason is mixed with emotions and instincts not yet calibrated to handle the kinds of threats we now face. And we can’t wait for evolution to work out the bugs, because we’re pretty clearly mucking things up so badly, so fast, that there isn’t time for that sort of patience.
What we can do to avoid the dangers that arise when our fears don’t match the facts—the most rational thing to do—is to understand our Affective Risk Response system more intimately, and how each part shades our perceptions and colors our judgments, and use that self-evaluation to step back and think things through more carefully, more completely, and more honestly.
That holistic view of the Affective Risk Response system, an absolutely fascinating system whose components and details have been summarized in the pages you’ve just read, will let you know yourself a little better, think a little more carefully, and hopefully will empower you to make wiser, healthier choices for yourself, your family, and the tribes to which you belong.