The Grid Optimization Blog

The Age of Rationalism, or Pandemonium?

'Rationalism' doesn't lead to rational and consistent conclusions when applied to most of society's conundrums which are outside of the hard sciences. Folks that seem sane and logical, having access to identical information, regularly come to amazingly different conclusions when it comes to say, politics, macro-economics, global warming, theology, etc.

Whether climate change, gun control legislation or some other hot topic, most of us believe we hold logical beliefs based on legitimate evidence. Technologists particularly pride themselves in being what philosophers have classed as "rationalists".  Rationalism is the belief that truth is discovered primarily through reason. Gather information, grind through it in a logical process and you discover truth. Of course, you can't be just a brain on a stick. Whatever truth you discover and whatever predictions you make must at some point jibe with observations.

In my early college years, when I was so proud of knowing everything, I read a lot of Bertrand Russell's writings. Except for his bullheaded atheism, I agreed with much of what he said about finding truth. He was a rationalist. I thought I was a rationalist. In fact most of my school chums were what I'd call rationalists, apart from the beer and pizza. What thinking person wouldn't be?

Engineers and most scientists generally earn their living by following a rational process. We use accepted principles of physics, chemistry and other basic sciences. We logically apply these principles to the question at hand and come up with a common solution or prediction that can usually be verified. A New Zealand mechanical engineer comes up with similar answers as his/her counterpart in China.

But 'rationalism' doesn't lead to rational and consistent conclusions when applied to most of society's conundrums which are outside of the hard sciences. Folks that seem sane and logical, having access to identical information, regularly come to amazingly different conclusions when it comes to say, politics, macro-economics, global warming, theology, etc.

We're more divergent in our conclusions and belief systems than ever before, and getting more so. Why is that?

Here's the issue. If folks, with similar logic, used exactly the same information input, their conclusions would tend to converge or at least not diverge. But when we look at the information and assumptions that are available to stuff into our reasoning process, we find an almost unlimited supply, much of it conflicting and most of it of questionable accuracy. There's so much data out there that we have to choose subsets of information.

And how do we choose the information to use in our mental CPU?

We really have no choice but to select input based on our best judgment, our intuition (or often, emotions) – a process which usually leads to giving the most credibility to information that aligns with our existing beliefs. In turn, we become more entrenched in our existing stand and even pickier in finding information that we align with!

An engineer would call that a form of chaos, system instability caused by positive feedback.

Oh sure, many people say that they read everything so they can keep an open mind. Well, if you're reading conflicting opinions and information, you really can't use the information without giving more weight to some and less to others. The alternative is to truly have an 'open mind' and believe nothing at all.

At one time, newspapers and magazines had some editorial oversight and reporting was a profession, not a blogging hobby.  There was a structure of accountability, but that began to come apart when the information hurricane began blowing with development of the Internet. Then it kicked up to category five with the metastasis of social media. Everybody's connected to everybody. Everybody is equal in credibility. Anybody can become a published expert on any topic.

And the trained and conscientious professional journalist is lucky to get a job folding sweaters at the mall.

But it gets worse. A recent Yale study showed that even when folks, proficient in understanding statistical data, are presented with the exact same data, their conclusions are biased by their political leanings. Liberals as well as conservatives and about equally. And it's not just the soft sciences that get distorted by subjective bias. Wherever there's room for human judgment there's seepage of political subjectivity. The chaos du jour being climate change (I don't even want to get started on that one).

Okay, so much for Bertram Russell. He worshipped man's reasoning. In fact, most of us do. That's the way we were taught. But, his philosophy is falling far short of levitating us to a higher intellectual or spiritual plain.

Another philosopher and theologian, Francis Schaefer, simplified things by saying (my very rough paraphrasing) that the biggest questions in life are: 1) Why is there something rather than nothing? 2) How do I relate to what is around me? And 3), the toughest one – what authority do I trust in answering the first two questions?

Get those questions settled in your mind and the rest of life falls into place, even without a Twitter account.

Discuss this Blog Entry 3

on Sep 23, 2013

You left out another leg of the stool- you're right about how we pick and choose info to support our beliefs, but there's the whole issue of incorrect information put out by the media. Editors control what info gets out - not researchers. Look at climate change issues for example

on Sep 23, 2013

To apply a small twist to G.K. Chesterton, "the [rational] approach has not been tried and found wanting, it has been found difficult and left untried."

When we are intellectually disciplined and do the research and test the facts and consider all alternatives and make choices based on maximizing benefit and minimizing cost, we get workable results. When we ignore history and act only on the basis of our own limited life experiences and prejudices and let the principal criterion of choice be what feels good, we get perverse results. There is no better example of this than the EPA and the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS).

The National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences comissioned and just published a study led by Yale economist Dr. William Nordhaus detailing how federal government renewable fuel subsidies and tax credits have actually increased the consumption of gasoline and the emission of greenhouse gases. Biofuels are probably the worst example in the energy field of the federal government taking a "feel good" approach instead of a scientific approach. A close second is pushing solar and wind onto the grid without the necessary buffering/energy storage and then trying to hide the huge plant costs and efficiency and stability losses by socializing them to taxpayers with budget-busting subsidies and passing them off to utilities and rate payers with directives like FERC Order 1000. Our children and grandchildren would benefit from more science and less agenda in government energy policies.

(See Nordhaus et al. Effects of U.S. Tax Policy on Greenhouse Gas Emissions. Accessed August 22, 2013.

Wayne Humbyrd (not verified)
on Oct 4, 2014

The problem Is very simple we do not trust the liberal professors and liberal colleges that put out the data. They have agendas! How many times have we seen examples of this? Global warming is a perfect example! How many times has the news media done a story only to find out that it was falsified because of their political leanings? COMMON SENSE is what is missing. Those who have gone before us left us with a clearly defined AMERICA. CULTURE and it has been grossly watered down to the point that we have lost our soul. Why? I lay the blame squarely at the feet of over educated elitest liberals with utopian socialist ideas fueling their agendas. Socialism is here! We have half the country on some form of Govt assistance! This is the formula for a revolution. It is coming. The people who work and pay the taxes will reach a boiling point. There is no turning back at this point.

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