Sunday, May 3, 2015

On Being Rational

I got no well-structured thoughts on the subject. For now it's just a list of points for future elaboration.

  1. Being rational (having common sense) means being persuadable by evidence. Everyone will agree with with, but most people will firmly hold on to their deeply-held irrational convictions.

  2. Majority of opinions we hold are prejudices, biases, and instilled dogmas, rather than tested assumptions that were proven to be correct. Our identities are largely based on these untested opinions. Parting ways with one's identity is an extremely traumatic experience, hence people often would rather die than admit they were spectacularly wrong, even in the face of incontrovertible evidence. Early-formed, quickly-formed and strongly-embraced identities are the surest way to becoming deeply irrational.

  3. Rationality can be made more wide-spread if it's treated as a form of intellectual hygiene: compensating for own biases and stamping out fallacies in ones thinking is not natural, but also not terribly difficult: it can be learned, and the habit of questioning own assumptions can be maintained through practice, like washing hands and brushing teeth. To that end, rhetoric and logic should be taught, with spotting fallacies being the most important skill practiced in lab exercises. Ability to detect untrustworthy sources of information is not a natural proclivity either because it requires ability to adjust for own biases. But that too is a reasonably easy skill to acquire.

  4. Historically, being rational was not the most advantageous behavior: proving that Earth is not at the center of the Universe could get you killed. Allegiance to the tribe was valued more than being right about facts. Repeating disproved theories as an article of faith is just a statement of allegiance to the tribe, to reassure identity, and to get protection and the status among peers. As tribes become less essential in providing security for individuals, mutants who practice rationality are free to use feedback loops for quickly iterating through trial and error in chasing larger status goals: having much larger scale of impact and acquiring more wealth.

  5. Most opinions stated on TVs are not backed up by anything, and usually are pile of fallacies.

  6. The most exciting word for a rational person is "because". Claim without proof means nothing.

  7. In the long run, incentives inevitably trump culture. Aspirations and convictions melt away as compliance with incentives get justified even if incentives contradict views dictated by the culture. Structuring incentives correctly is more important than efficient day-to-day management of performance problems.

  8. Being right in business was always more profitable, but few businesses until now were structured to separate clear performance data from the noise of subjective opinions about the contributor. Also, even if a business was successful vs the competition due to acting in a rational manner, until recently businesses didn't have the global reach to compel the competition to also adopt measuring performance. Current situation where self-measuring businesses get very decisive competitive advantage is the single largest contributing factor for increased rationality in the society in general.

  9. Big Data dramatically simplifies and reduces costs of searching for evidence.

  10. Problem: when measured criteria are too few and simplistic, incentives get narrowed down to focusing on passing the test at any cost, including taking on insane workloads and cheating. Another problem is negative motivational power of measuring one's performance: people get turned off if they fear they may score poorly, leading to the vicious cycle of "low performance => poor score => even lower performance".

  11. Cooperation is more profitable than confrontation. It's obvious on the surface, but in evolutionary terms, humans had such a small amount of resources throughout the history, that someone's benefit almost certainly was somebody's loss, hence zero-sum mentality took hold and still dominates (sports, wars and border conflicts lasting well into the era of potential abundance). That's why it looks like humans programmed not to truly enjoy their success unless competitor loses. Most successful societies are those where trust covers widest possible number of people. That's not really natural, as evolution taught us to trust members only inside small social network: a family, a tribe, ethnic group, etc. That's why corrupt and brutal but familiar local leaders are routinely elected and stay in power as long as they can maintain the fear of the larger groups of outsiders even if the leader produces dismal outcomes for the group.

  12. Adding value (working) has become more profitable than taking property of others (war) very recently in historical terms. That's another facet of the reasoning why humans are ultimately held down by using zero-sum thinking as a default route.

  13. From evolutionary perspective, status among peers is the only important measure of success because it lead to reproductive advantage. Hence physiologically status is more important than wealth because wealth is only a proxy for status. Since status competition is zero-sum by definition, the question is "how much money does one really need" is moot: winner will be satisfied with one penny as long as everyone else got nothing.
If you agree with what I wrote above, you are in danger of being irrational as I made lots of claims without providing any proof or references. :-)

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