Saturday, December 15, 2012

Problems of Implementing Rationality: Not Respecting Superstitions

In my last post I mentioned that we might see a guest appearance from Mike of The Lucky Atheist, so without further ado, here it is. He expands on the ideas presented here in this post on his own blog.

Thanks to Tim for letting me guest post. Here I'm posting about a particular problem of actually implementing rationality in your life. If this particular thought has crossed your mind before, I discuss a few others at my own blog, The Lucky Atheist.

Atheism is one outcome of applying more rational thinking to everything in our lives. But humans are not pure rational creatures, and even though some of us see the practical, real benefits of applying good rationality habits to our own thinking, and trying to help others see those same benefits, there are coordination problems. We're not lone hunter-gatherers in the savannah, problem-solving our way to evading big cats or treating infections. Quite the contrary, the vast majority of your happiness and material well-being depends on other human beings, many of whom are irrational as all get-out! So the problem is how does an erstwhile rationalist optimize outcomes for her or himself, without being out of sync with the irrational human beings around them? (I call optimizing for the near-term for purposes of coordinating with irrational people "sub-rationality".)

Maybe the best example is how to handle particular superstitions. What if people that you depend on for a paycheck (or something) believe, or claim to believe, in God, or fan death, or the evils of vaccinations? What do you do?
  1. Tell/show them why they're wrong.
  2. Keep your mouth shut.
  3. Say or do something to show loyalty to the idea even though you know it's BS.
To optimize your own outcome in the near term, it seems #2 or #3 should be the way to go; pay lip service to it or at least don't object, while not actually making decisions based on the belief. #1's risk ostracism, and even if convincing people of their folly is the goal, they may not even accomplish this. Granted, this may be a slippery slope, but it doesn't make the problems of implementing rationality disappear, and I'm posting these to look for solutions.

One problem is that if you do #1, and the superstition involves bad fortune, and something does happen to you, you know that superstitious people will all point to the superstition. "He walked under a ladder and got really sick that week. Well of course!" More generally though, it occurs in situations like these: you're hiking, and you knew damn well doesn't matter which trail you take, or you're working on some project and you know it doesn't matter which tool you use, which way you cook something, etc. But someone who thought s/he knew better (boss, friend, teacher, etc.) insisted that one of the two ways was superior. And you thought to yourself, "I have equal chances of success at this task with either method. And if I choose the method that the other person claims is inferior, and I fail, I will never ever hear the end of it. Since it doesn't matter, I'll just choose the method they prefer and be done with it." Rational in the near-term, but you just reinforced someone else's irrational belief about the task at hand.

Another point here is that of the three courses of action in the face of others' collective irrational beliefs, it seems that many or most of the #2's and 3's, i.e. people who don't object or even appear to go along with Superstition X, actually don't endorse it with their behavior, and in fact this often appears to be exactly the case. Do supposedly creationist Christians expect their insurance companies to give them a discount because more people are praying for them? Do they refuse to go to doctors trained in evolution? Do they refuse to invest their retirement money with mutual funds that buy shares of oil companies that operate based on secular old-Earth assumptions? (No doubt many of them do think they believe what they say they believe, but I'm sure there are plenty professing creationists who know it's nonsense and just like the benefits afforded by their church membership.)

The problem is that while you're optimizing for yourself in the near-term – and you really are – you're reinforcing the nonsense. Someone else who sees you mouthing the superstition in question thinks to him or herself, "Well, I better go along with it, because she just did too – and who am I to say it's not actually true?" Case in point: just last week I mentioned the difficulty with treating a patient who was ardently pro-homeopathy. The nurse sternly told me that so was she. (This, at UCSD!!!) Do you think I took this opportunity to lecture her on her irrationality? No. I'm a medical student, so I'm the lowest in the hierarchy anywhere I go. Not only would my #1 have not been received, I would have decreased my own utility in the process. So I did #2. Justification for my sub-rationality? So I can do a #1 when I'm an attending physician.