“Reason” is not value-neutral

Zipping across my desk this afternoon is “The Difference Between Rationality and Intelligence“, an article title conceived in a laboratory to make my eye twitch and take possession of my clicking finger.

The good news is that it’s got nothing to do with economics—small blessings—so I will spare you my usual rationality rant about how the word means something a bit different to an economist. The meat of the article is about an experiment on the difficulties people have with probabilities in action, the lack of correlation between those difficulties and “intelligence”, and evidence that people “unlearn” cognitive tics with information and practice.

I just want to nitpick a little with the bread in this sandwich, the frame of the beginning and end:

ARE you intelligent — or rational? The question may sound redundant, but in recent years researchers have demonstrated just how distinct those two cognitive attributes actually are.

It all started in the early 1970s, when the psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky conducted an influential series of experiments showing that all of us, even highly intelligent people, are prone to irrationality. Across a wide range of scenarios, the experiments revealed, people tend to make decisions based on intuition rather than reason…

It is, of course, unrealistic to think that we will ever live in a world where everyone is completely rational. But by developing tests to identify the most rational among us, and by offering training programs to decrease irrationality in the rest of us, scientific researchers can nudge society in that direction.

I’m really not trying to take issue with the authors here since I get what they’re saying. But it all makes me wonder about the ancestry of some of the terminology. I feel like we’re pretty close here to a parody of a 19th century pamphlet on “logick and logickorrightuse00wattreason”. I am picturing a pompous blowhard, perhaps with a monocle, sputtering on about facts and science and logic and how all of the problems under the sun could be solved if only we could just be reasonable for a change, get out the old abacus and slide those rules.

I lied, of course, when I said I would spare you another rationality rant, because the early history of economics is lousy with this kind of technocratic logick. The stink of it is still dense over the college level of our field today, in the textbooks that parade their superiority complex for all to see when they make it quite clear how oh-so-obvious it is that “markets are usually a good way to organize economic activity” (italics mine, duh) and that this or that outcome is efficient and optimal and, oh fine, rational.

How dull it must be to go through life feeling like it would all so easy if only people, ugh, weren’t so damnably ignorant.

Methods, metrics, and math are not value-neutral; your standards of proof are culturally contingent; data is not wisdom; you haven’t dodged ethics by pretending you’ve transcended ethics. I wasn’t around back in the day: did we ever get around to collectively agreeing that a More Perfect Person couldn’t come along to end all of our disagreements with their More Pure Reason? And if so could we hold a terminology convention at the next economists’ annual meeting?

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