This is an excerpt from Steven Pinker’s new book, “Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress,” published by Viking and republished on Apolitical with his kind permission. It appears in our feed on government innovation.
To make public discourse more rational, issues should be depoliticized as much as is feasible. Experiments have shown that when people hear about a new policy, such as welfare reform, they will like it if it is proposed by their own party and hate it if it is proposed by the other—all the while convinced that they are reacting to it on its objective merits.
That implies that spokespeople should be chosen carefully. Several climate activists have lamented that by writing and starring in the documentary An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore may have done the movement more harm than good, because as a former Democratic vice-president and presidential nominee he stamped climate change with a left-wing seal. (It’s hard to believe today, but environmentalism was once denounced as a right-wing cause, in which the gentry frivolously worried about habitats for duck-hunting and the views from their country estates rather than serious issues like racism, poverty, and Vietnam.) Recruiting conservative and libertarian commentators who have been convinced by the evidence and are willing to share their concern would be more effective than recruiting more scientists to speak more slowly and more loudly.
Also, the factual state of affairs should be unbundled from remedies that are freighted with symbolic political meaning. The legal scholar Daniel Kahan found that people are less polarized in their opinion about the very existence of anthropogenic climate change when they are reminded of the possibility that it might be mitigated by geo-engineering than when they are told that it calls for stringent controls on emissions. (This does not, of course, mean that geo-engineering itself need be advocated as the primary solution.)
Depoliticizing an issue can lead to real action. Kahan helped a compact of Florida businesspeople, politicians, and resident associations, many of them Republican, agree to a plan to adapt to rising sea levels that threatened coastal roads and freshwater supplies. The plan included measures to reduce carbon emissions, which under other circumstances would be politically radioactive. But as long as the planning was focused on problems they could see and the politically divisive backstory was downplayed, they acted reasonably.
For their part, the media could examine their role in turning politics into a sport, and intellectuals and pundits could think twice about competing. Can we imagine a day in which the most famous columnists and talking heads have no predictable political orientation but try to work out defensible conclusions on an issue-by-issue basis? A day in which “You’re just repeating the left-wing [or right-wing] position” is considered a devastating gotcha? In which people (especially academics) will answer a question like “Does gun control reduce crime?” or “Does a minimum wage increase unemployment?” with “Wait, let me look up the latest meta-analysis” rather than with a patellar reflex predictable from their politics? A day when writers on the right and left abandon the Chicago Way of debating (“They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue”) and adopt the arms-controllers’ tactic of Graduated Reciprocation in Tension-Reduction (make a small unilateral concession with an invitation that it be reciprocated)?
That day is a long way off. But the self-healing powers of rationality, in which flaws in reasoning are singled out as targets for education and criticism, take time to work. It took centuries for Francis Bacon’s observations on anecdotal reasoning and the confusion of correlation with causation to become second nature to scientifically literate people. It’s taken almost fifty years for Tversky and Kahneman’s demonstrations of Availability and other cognitive biases to make inroads into our conventional wisdom. The discovery that political tribalism is the most insidious form of irrationality today is still fresh and mostly unknown. Indeed, sophisticated thinkers can be as infected by it as anyone else. With the accelerating pace of everything, perhaps the countermeasures will catch on sooner.
However long it takes, we must not let the existence of cognitive and emotional biases or the spasms of irrationality in the political arena discourage us from the Enlightenment ideal of relentlessly pursuing reason and truth. If we can identify ways in which humans are irrational, we must know what rationality is. Since there’s nothing special about us, our fellows must have at least some capacity for rationality as well. And it’s in the very nature of rationality that reasoners can always step back, consider their own shortcomings, and reason out ways to work around them.