Sunday, March 20, 2022

Reason and Less: Pursuing Food, Sex, and Politics III

This is not a particularly long book, but I am reading it in short segments because it is written primarily for academics, and I've never taken a psychology or anatomy class (behaviorism was popular when I was in college and sounded incredibly boring). Goel's theory is fairly straightforward, and I have no significant objections to his argument, but he is going through all the paces to present his colleagues with a falsifiable theory and is dutifully recounting years of experimental results. He has described in detail the evolution and workings of the human brain and compared it to the brains of other species. Then he says:

Taking this neuroanatomy seriously has far-reaching consequences for our understanding of human behavior. It provides an underlying biological basis for the qualitative differences in autonomic, instinctive, associative, and reasoning behaviors. The biology suggests that the cognitive characterization of rationality as unhindered by more earthly concerns is not rooted in reality. The neuroanatomy paints a picture of hierarchically organized systems but with a clear tethering of newer systems to older ones. 

In the next chapter he makes a case for "feeling" as the mechanism that modulates between the chronologically separated components of human brain anatomy. I am doubtful that this approach will have much influence on his colleagues, but think that it is quite adequate for my purposes. Whether or not he can provide an academically acceptable model for human behavior, I think that it is sufficient as an intuitive model that one can understand through introspection. If you ever analyze your own reactions to different situations, you will notice that they are often based on your feelings about past situations that you experienced in your life. Thus, you are likely to weigh strong feelings that you had over tepid feelings, and in this manner you may make appropriate or inappropriate decisions. In my view, this is about the best that most people can hope to do in most situations, and I think that some of the rationalistic models presented in economics and cognitive science, on close examination, may be little more than status-bestowing presentations to those who are currently successful, wealthy, or both. That is why I was skeptical of the Steven Pinker-Bill Gates alliance celebrating the triumph of reason at this stage in our collective history. I am inclined to think that humans have a limited capacity to understand much of anything, and although science is usually better than the alternatives, we may be incapable of truly understanding many highly complex phenomena.

For my purposes, I am happy that Goel brings up actual cases of public cognitive mistakes. He describes the fishing dilemma in the Canadian Maritime provinces from the 1970's to the 1990's. There was a precipitous drop in cod catches in 1974, and the Canadian government intervened and set limits on cod fishing. The cod fishermen rejected the quotas and applied political pressure to have them raised. As a result, by 1992 the cod population was practically eradicated, and the fisheries accordingly went out of business. This example shows how individual self-interest can backfire when people don't follow rational procedures for the benefit of a group as a whole. Goel uses this example as a parallel to the public's lack of responsiveness to warnings about climate change. I am hoping that he will have more to say about public irrationality in the remaining chapters, because that is probably the greatest problem of our time. The underlying issue is that human nature allows people to act in self-interest even when the long-term consequences of that behavior are extremely negative. In this instance, despite an effort by the government to protect the fishermen, their irrationality sabotaged the actions taken to assist them.

Although, in a practical sense, this is a more complete treatment of human cognitive limitations than that of the other authors I mentioned, I don't think that Goel will be extending the discussion as far as I would like. At the moment we have not only destructive autocrats making the world unsafe for millions of people, but also millions of people in democratic countries making poor choices about political candidates. This isn't a simple case of democracies being better than autocracies, because, as is clear from Goel's examples, either system can result in catastrophic mistakes. We are currently in a situation in which we have to worry not only about deranged autocrats, but also about deranged democratic voters. Faith in democracy is looking pretty misguided at the moment. It's as if we just wasted four years worrying about what the idiot who was elected president of the U.S. would do next, only to waste more time worrying about what the idiot Russian autocrat would do next. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has to be one of the stupidest and most destructive events since World War II.

I am approaching the end of the book and will wrap up on my next post.

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