Worn out by the Apocalypse

By now, we know that human intuition can easily be fooled. But it's a bit of a surprise to read, according to a blog post in Scientific American, "The Irrationality of Irrationality: The Paradox of Popular Psychology," that even when we know we're being fed limited information, the conclusion-jumping hardly slows.

The fact is, we're much too confident in our assessments. SciAm:

It’s natural for us to reduce the complexity of our rationality into convenient bite-sized ideas. As the trader turned epistemologist Nassim Taleb says: 'We humans, facing limits of knowledge, and things we do not observe, the unseen and the unknown, resolve the tension by squeezing life and the world into crisp commoditized ideas.' But readers of popular psychology books on rationality must recognize that there’s a lot they don’t know, and they must be beware of how seductive stories are. The popular literature on cognitive biases is enlightening, but let’s be irrational about irrationality; exposure to X is not knowledge and control of X. Reading about cognitive biases, after all, does not free anybody from their nasty epistemological pitfalls.

The past 200,000 years or so of human development has honed a biological heuristic for dealing with all of the world, all at once. We imagine. We create. We fill in the gaps. We tell stories, some of them better than others. But our sentient, mirrored selves are quick to swivel back to threats. Our grapefruit-sized brains still buzz about the unknown. Is that rustling in the bush friend or foe?

"Exposure to X is not knowledge and control of X."

Here's the question: Do we believe the best or worst? Do we use our imaginative faculties to ask great questions or to seek out threats? On a recent Sunday afternoon passing through an airport bookstore, I stopped to admire the placement of two books, side by side: Jonah Lehrer's "Imagine" and Michael Savage's "Trickle Down Tyranny." While they were stocked because of their appearance on the New York Times best seller lists, their positioning - one hopeful and future oriented and the other cynical and despairing - got my attention, and I wondered if the bookstore employee had placed them together in an act of protest.

I don't know about you but the apocalypse is wearing me out.

Jonah Lehrer, by the way, spoke at the 2008 IdeaFestival.

In our compressed and constantly pinging culture we often forget just how enormous it all is and how small, really, our understanding. Ulcerative opinions and strained theories don't make discoveries that can be used over and over again, nor do they lead to worthwhile futures. They just fill the gaps with our first and worst.  So when I let those stories seduce me, I don't have a reality problem. I have a me problem. Being "irrational about irrationality" is also called faith. I just need to be reminded from time to time that I still believe.


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