Our powers of reason have undoubtedly made the world a better place. So why are we so in thrall to fake news?
‘Rationality ought to be the lodestar of everything we think or do.” This is the opening sentence of Steven Pinker’s call for a return to reason at a time when critical thinking and the grounding of belief in evidence is in short supply. Everyone, he argues, should want to be rational, yet 75% of Americans believe in at least one phenomenon that defies the laws of science, including psychic healing, extrasensory perception, haunted houses. Even intellectual sophisticates argue that reason, objectivity and truth are merely social constructs that justify the privilege of dominant groups. Why, Pinker demands, is humanity losing its mind? Less than a year after Covid-19 emerged, scientists achieved the magnificent feat of discovering a vaccine, yet at the same time there was an eruption of irrational conspiracy theories: the pandemic was a hoax, a plot by global elites to control the world economy or a bioweapon engineered in a Chinese laboratory.
Reasoning, Pinker explains, is a mechanism in the brain that enables us to argue and evaluate arguments. No human being has ever attained perfect rationality but, convinced that objective truth is a possibility, we have developed rules that enable us to approach it. We can cultivate the rules of reason and make them normative. And, Pinker insists, it works. Reason has enabled human beings to reach the moon, extinguish smallpox and invent computers, so it puts us in touch with objective truths. Reason also tells us that some people are oppressed, and others privileged, and that measures should be taken to rectify such injustice. As a result, we have developed the golden rule, which was not revealed by “God” but is a product of human evolution, developed independently and rationally by all cultures.