Science and the rationalist fallacy

There are two, and only two, great political tendencies today.  One maintains that knowledge is too difficult for ordinary people, and must be left to a small but brilliant band of experts.  This tendency is top-down, holds power to be leverage for the common good, and worships logic and utopian formulas.  Let’s call it (as I have done before) rationalism.

The other great tendency insists that knowledge is in truth so difficult, not even the experts can be trusted to wield it successfully.  This is classic liberal democracy:  bottom-up, distrustful of government and self-anointed authority, and valuing experience far more than rationalist formulas.

I’m an advocate of liberal democracy:  an irrationalist.  I place my faith in experience, which is often untidy and contradictory.

The rationalist is certain he knows.  He has plumbed the depths, decoded human behavior, discovered the philosopher’s stone of engineered happiness and benevolence.  He wraps himself in science because it enhances his self-love, and he speaks on behalf of science because it increases his authority.

But experience, reality, data – the raw stuff of science – frustrates him, because it so often disappoints his expectations.  He prefer his models, his formulas:  the wizard’s crystal ball.  This is the rationalist’s fallacy.  He claims mastery over an environment the behavior of which baffles and enrages him.

At the moment, we seem to be passing through a rationalist epoch:  our politicians are certain they know, and they wish to regulate the citizenry into right behavior.  Their vanity – and their formulas – won’t survive the first encounter with experience.

Let me give a trivial example of this nontrivial impulse.

Some days ago I posted about canceling a trip because of volcano.  A great ash cloud was billowing over half of Europe, according to news reports – one could find dozens of graphic depictions of its inexorable advance.  Commercial flights were grounded, stranding tens of thousands in the wrong countries and costing the airlines billions.

Governments, industry, and media turned to the experts for help.  That’s the rationalist reflex.  They didn’t ask, “What’s going on?”  They asked, “What do the authorities say?”  I had fun with the contradictory and befuddled responses given by meteorologists, volcanologists, and such.  They had no idea what was going on.

Now, it may well be that the entire crisis resulted from an expert-induced panic.  This from the Daily Mail (April 26):

Britain’s airspace was closed under false pretences, with satellite images revealing there was no doomsday volcanic ash cloud over the entire country.

Skies fell quiet for six days, leaving as many as 500,000 Britons stranded overseas and costing airlines hundreds of millions of pounds.

Estimates put the number of Britons still stuck abroad at 35,000.

However, new evidence shows there was no all-encompassing cloud and, where dust was present, it was often so thin that it posed no risk.

The satellite images demonstrate that the skies were largely clear, which will not surprise the millions who enjoyed the fine, hot weather during the flight ban.

Jim McKenna, the Civil Aviation Authority’s head of airworthiness, strategy and policy, admitted: ‘It’s obvious that at the start of this crisis there was a lack of definitive data.

‘It’s also true that for some of the time, the density of ash above the UK was close to undetectable.’

Faced with a potential problem, European political leaders turned to pedigreed authorities, who uttered dire warnings based on models they alone understood.  In other words, politicians passed the buck, experts gazed into their crystal ball, and it took days for reality – and the inevitable frustration – to seep into the process.

So it goes with the rationalist fallacy, always.  It’s contemptuous of experience and thus the opposite of science.

Remember this relatively minor episode, when politicians and experts seek to control our lives to change the climate, or universalize health care, or stimulate the economy.  The control is certain:  it falls into their hands.  The only certainty about results is that they will be unintended.


8 Responses to Science and the rationalist fallacy

  1. astrowright says:

    While you make a piercing assessment, I take exception to your gross mischaracterization of politicians as rationalist-scientists and/or scientists as thoughtless rationalists. As you so say, operating “rationally” on assumptions in the absence of evidence is contrary to reason, (and generally, science,) which I agree with. However, I feel as though you proceed to confuse your own agument when you say there are two political tendencies today – rationalist and irrationalist – but you then go on to say that the rationalist prefers his obscure models to physical data… Are we talking about politicians or scientists here? Or both? Because in what follows, it isn’t clear whether you’re assailing scientists who are too rationalist or the rationalist politicians who follow them, all the while ignoring the many irrationalist scientists who are the driving force of scientific industry today. You say you watched volcanologists and meteorologists contradict each other, but you never specify how. Plume direction or density? -And following, wasn’t it remote-sensing irrationalist scientists who discovered the plume wasn’t as pervasive as anticipated? Further, when experts take a precautionary principle to ground flights in the wake of a significant volcanic eruption, this is far from rationalist posturing, as it seems you are implying. -And a precautionary principle is even farther still from sweeping measures to control healthcare or enact ill-advised stimulus packages. It almost feels as though you’re hinting at the existence of scientist class warfare, where the operations-level scientists who actually experience the data are at the mercy of rationalist super-scientists who ignore them. While the dogmatic rationalist view clearly applies to the political elite, assigning it to scientific “experts” in general is as gross a mischaracterization as you make grounding air traffic out to be. While the dogmatic rationalist view clearly applies to the political elite, assigning it to scientific “experts” in general appears needlessly biased. If true, where did you develop such an anti-scientist grudge?

    In short, I think I agree with your ultimate point, but disagree with all of the steps you took to get there.

    Two cents.

    • Fair enough. My point was that, over most of the supposed ash cloud, precautions were only needed because decision-makers were asking experts, and experts were looking at models instead of reality. It took several days before it occurred to anyone to send up a military aircraft with instruments to measure the density of the ash.

      I do disagree about giving scientists a free pass. The rationalist malady can affect politicians and scientists alike – it’s strictly a matter of the humility with which one presents one’s findings or projections. The rationalist (scientist, politician, pundit, whatever) pretends to perfect knowledge, and demands action on his terms. The irrationalist places his uncertainty front and center, and invites discussion. It’s not a conspiracy – just a fact of human nature.

      (See “The scientist as political guardian” – ).

  2. Stephen Kriz says:

    More binary thinking, I see. Total hogwash, as well. If your point is that scientists weren’t sure what impact the volcanic ash would have on a jet engine (and I am still not sure what your point is on this post), I think it was prudent to err on the side of caution. To misjudge the risk and have 200+ people plunge to their doom would be quite irrational, in my judgment.

    I also think this nonsense about satellite images not “showing any cloud” is junk science, as well. The ash and volcanic debris may have been too fine or non-reflective and therefore not in the end of the electromagnetic spectrum as visible light. In any case, to use this natural event to argue for two types of scientists and two types only(!), as you put it, is a stretch.

  3. Brutus says:

    Nice to see a couple other comments here for a change. Being an on- and off-against reader and offering my comments for some time now, I’m familiar with the gross characterizations and axes being ground, especially those that would interfere with our most perfect freedom of individual action (as opposed to social restraints). In the instance of the European flight cancellations, it’s clear hindsight bias that the precautions taken, which may have turned out to be needless but costly, should not have been taken in the first place.

    • Hey Brutus. So it seems all I need to do is post something everyone disagrees with, to get comments. What ever happened to the Daily Me?

      You might want to check out my response to astro below.

      • Brutus says:

        I doubt you were trolling for comments. Your style is pretty consistent, even in this post, though sometimes I think you’re rearranging the same basic blog post ad nauseum.

        FWIW, lots of things you write are convincing and worthwhile. That’s why I keep coming back. But you tend to be doctrinaire in places and dismissive of entire classes of people, such as scientists. The specific criticisms you have about the Icelandic volcanic eruption are more about science done badly than the badness of scientists and their universal high self-regard.

  4. ejnorton says:

    I think you might be confused and have your definitions reversed. I prefer Karl Poppers definition, “True rationalism is the rationalism of Socrates. It is the awareness of one’s own limitations, the intellectual modesty of those who know how often they err, and how much they depend on others even for this knowledge. It is the realization that we must not expect too much from reason; that argument rarely settles a question, although it is the only means for learning — not to see clearly, but to see more clearly than before.” When *any* group forgets this ideal, they wander from the ground of rationalism and drift deeper and deeper into the waters of irrationalism.

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