Facts Matter: Irrationality Among the Sane, the Intelligent, the Well-Educated

I have been engaged in an incessant informal study of the irrationality of otherwise sane, intelligent, well-educated people. Obviously, the question of why the insane are sometimes irrational is not riveting. Less obviously, it’s possible to think of irrationality in the unlettered as a substitute for real knowledge. (Say belief in the virtues of tea made from the penis bone of tigers instead of Viagra.) When the sane intelligent, well-educated talk or act irrational, there is a puzzle worth solving.

Since I left academia, I have stopped being the rigorous sociologist that I used to be. “Rigorous” in this context means using reliable tests to determine the relationship – if any – between ideas and facts. In this sentence, “reliable tests” means “well-tested tests.” Tests who are known to give results you can trust almost all the time. The tests that the social sciences use have not lost any credibility in my eyes. There is zero rejection involved in my shift of interests. Thus, if there is appears to be a difference in incomes between the criminal and the law-abiding and if it’s not statistically significant, I still believe one should assume that difference in incomes has no effect on criminality. (“Poverty does not cause crime.”)

I have simply shifted my interest to issues that are interesting but that the social sciences seldom address. One of the reasons is that some interesting questions seem to not lend themselves to rigorous testing, precisely. (There are other reasons I will address if someone asks.) So, I am searching for hypotheses and immediately assessing their plausibility. Plausibility is now my central criterion of judgment. Correspondingly, I am careful not to affirm. My quest for an understanding of the irrationality of the usually rational is a part of this endeavor. In this context, I am using, exploiting shamelessly several young people I know well. They are superior specimens of the human race from the standpoint of intelligence, interest in ideas and propensity for hard work. I am not picking on the feeble-minded!

One young man with whom I have frequent conversation has appeared several times on this blog, always anonymously, of course. I have described him before as all the above plus intellectually honest. He is also a moderate liberal, not an extremist in any way. One day recently, we were talking about farmers’ market which have become de rigueur in my part of California. Of course, it’s not enough here to enjoy shopping outdoors, there has to be ideological reasons for doing so. There are two main reasons. First, farmers’ markets are supposed to be selling “organic” foodstuff. Whether they do, whether they do any more than Safeway for example, what’s “organic” in the first place, are questions I don’t wish to address here. The second ideological justification for shopping at farmers’ markets is more interesting; it’s the “Buy local” theme. Interestingly, this general theme is embraced by people who are otherwise conservatives in addition to the expected green liberal-everythings.

My friend has the grace to understand that the buy-local injunction does not conform with economic theory. Other things being equal, including taste, freshness, etc, prices alone are supposed to tell you whether you buy a lettuce head grown one mile away or in southern Mexico. My friend does not squarely disagree with this basic notion. Instead, he argues that there are social costs of transportation that are not incorporated in prices (They are “externalized.”) One family of such costs is atmospheric pollution, of course.

When he tried to defend the high costs associated with farmers’ markets retail prices, my friend made two arguments. Both are indicative of something I am trying to put my finger on and that is connected with the irrationality of the sane and well informed.

First, my friend said, I am concerned about the CFC compound emitted while transporting foodstuff over long distances, and their effect on the ozone layer.

Second, he declared his concern about human exposure to pesticides. Presumably, this was based on the unverified belief that foodstuffs transported over long distances are more likely to be produced with the help of noxious pesticides than local farmers rely on. This is in itself an interesting conflating of distance transport and farming practice but I don’t want to digress too much.

The response concerning CFCs and the ozone layer floored me so much I began to suspect there were some new news on this front that had eluded me. Incidentally, I have no ground to doubt that CFCs have a destructive effect on the ozone layer and thence, a noxious effect on human and other animal life. I went back to the sources I thought I knew well and quickly re-assured myself that I was not having another senior moment.

The 1987 Montreal protocol, re-enforced in 1990 according to Wikepedia, phased out most of the world-wide production of CFCs. The 8th entry from the top on CFCs and ozone on Google (consulted 7/8/10) is a Congressional testimony dating back to 1996. The seven higher entires don’t seem to show any new factual information. None of the ten entries I perused – obviously stretching over more than a decade, see above – mentioned CFCs in connection with transportation. Either, burning gasoline and diesel does not produce CFCs or it does so in insignificant quantities.

My friend’s preference for farmers’ markets is thus based in part on information that began to become obsolete about the time he was born.

My friend’s second type of arguments in favor of patronizing farmers’ markets seems to me to be basically legitimate: human exposure to pesticides. Some pesticides are known to be dangerous for some humans. It would not be difficult to convince me that others pesticides are not understood well enough to get an unconditional pass.

Just to know what he meant, I asked him if his concern was for the whole population of for the small fraction that may be intensely exposed to dangerous pesticides. (Full disclosure; I think both categories of concerns are morally valid. I wanted to know which was which because they may may lend themselves to divergent remedies.) I asked specifically if he was worried about the 100% of the population who eat food or with the “fewer than 3%” who work in agriculture.

He replied that he was mostly worried agricultural workers, “who are much more than 3% of the population.” I could not resist; I am a real bastard. I made a bet with him there and then. Then he had to go to work while I was rushing home to earn my bet money.

It turns out, I was way over the mark. About 1.6% of the labor force is in agriculture. Of course, that’s an even much smaller % of the population, the subject of our bet. Supposing about half of the population is active, that would make the % in agriculture 8/10 of 1%. I wanted to know more. When my friend honestly reached out for his wallet to pay off his gambling debt, I told him I would reduce it by half under one condition. The condition was that he had to divulge what percentage of the population he would have bet on actually worked in agriculture. “10%.” he said. So, what was going on in his mind while he explained why he favored farmers’ markets was off by a factor of ten. That’s like confusing one hundred dollars with one thousand, one thousand with ten thousand!

So, here we go: If your beliefs are grossly out of whack with simple, verifiable reality, you will appear irrational even if your logic is perfect.

Here is what I think I learned from this micro pop-sociological study, subject to confirmation. First, bad news have a long shelf life for these generations. In fact, bad news transcend generations. Good news don’t register. The fact that a bad situation was remedied while you are still in diapers does not make it any the less a bad situation? I think I am on to something here. What do you think?

Second, I was reminded again, four years after retiring from teaching, how young people don’t seem equipped to garner facts casually and effortlessly as I think I did all my life. It may be a paradoxical effect of the ease of access to information the Internet gives us. Getting a fact has become ridiculously easy as compared to the old days (mine) when you had to transport yourself to the library, identify one or more trustworthy sources, record the data, and store them somewhere in your brain. I am guilty myself of having preached the new gospel that facts are so easy to obtain, you should spend little energy storing them. I was wrong. There is a minimum of factual information you need to have stored permanently in mind if your judgments are not going to be grievously faulty.

There is another explanation. Throughout my life, I garnered much information from reading casually, in a hap-hazard manner. There is information in the Wall Street Journal, in learned historical treatises but also in cheap novels and on cereal boxes. If you read little, you will catch little of it. This explanation leaves wide open an important question: Why don’t young liberals gather information from the visual media on which they rely more or less in the same casual manner I utilized readings.

I am doubly puzzled by the fact that my sadly mistaken friend is not one of the intellectually foo-foo “youths of today.” He is intellectually curious, as his choice of college major attests. He does not major in some supposedly practical subject (like the hapless undergraduates to whom I used to teach “Management;” many of whom thought that a management major would propel them directly into management positions!) He is a Philosophy major, a choice I respect much. I am perplexed. Someone please help me!

Two disclaimers to finish: First, I am a conservative; I believe your money is your money. I don’t care if you spend it at farmers’ markets. Some good will probably come out of the social experiment that is farmers’ markets although not cleaner air or freedom from pesticides. I don’t know what good but I am confident of the general fruitfulness of out-of-the-box experiments. Second, I think even tiny groups should be protected from danger, even if they make up a minuscule fraction of the population. I don’t think government regulation is the way to go though. I think insurance and the threat of massive punitive awards to victims are.


About Jacques Delacroix

I am a sociologist, a short-story writer, and a blogger (Facts Matter and Notes On Liberty) in Santa Cruz, California.
This entry was posted in Socio-Political Essays. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Facts Matter: Irrationality Among the Sane, the Intelligent, the Well-Educated

  1. Thomas H. says:

    It is possible that really smart people, your students among them, are worried about the wrong things at times as they, year – in and year – out, just have the facts wrong. Your discussion with your friend amounts to the same discussion I had with an attorney – relative at one time who was obstinate about Germany’s 19th century armament statistics. The logic that CFC’s and pesticides are bad for humans is impeccable, though they are just as likely, even in the minutae, to be in “farmers’ markets” products as those at the grocery store or any other general or food / convenience store (perspective.) Segue to Germany and one can agree that this country was a belligerent and produced armaments for wars that were bad, but in fact did not spend that much on producing arms, and everyone was in the arms business at the time in any event, probably even nations like Bolivia and Chile.

  2. Dear Jacques:

    I can readily attest to the fact that some reasonably intelligent individuals seem to lose their sense of reality (rationality) when in comes to certain subjects, particularly those in the forefront of today’s society.

    As a retired academic (Ph.D., Astrophysics; 23 years at Caltech; 6 years at Case Western Reserve University) I have met many highly intelligent individuals, many of whom were my colleagues at the University.

    When discussing topics (say at lunch) not directly associated with our major areas of expertise, such as man-made global warming, effectiveness of “green technologies” as compared to say nuclear power production, they tend to disregard their formal training in “effective rational thinking”, and take off into a mode of reasoning that makes we wonder how they ever got their advanced degrees. This is in sharp contrast to their thinking when applied to their areas of expertise, in which their mode of thinking and analysis can be second to none–these were really sharp people… I can give many examples of this, but it would use too much space.

    I have never reached a satisfactory explanation for this somewhat widespread phenomenon– it’s almost as if those topics mentioned above as examples have taken on the aspect of a religion–namely accepted by them without any proof whatsoever, even in the face of my counter-arguments based on our scientific training (eg. the application of the “scientific method” to the hypothesis that global warming is a man-made phenomenon). So, I smile internally, and get on with my lunch…

    Stephen Schindler
    Carmel Valley, CA

    • jacquesdelacroix says:

      Another befuddled academic! (Like me.) Thanks for the testimony. I sometimes feel that my former colleagues find difficult to bear the rigor they have to exercise within their academic specialty. Outside of it, they sigh with relief and indulge like pigs at the trough.

  3. Eddie says:

    Dear Jacques (and Stephen),

    Though I am a frustrated academician (there are two prominent physicist PhDs in my immediate family — one with >500 publications to his name in Physical Review Letters), I am similarly befuddled by this lack of how academicians ‘tend to disregard their formal training in “effective rational thinking”, and take off into a mode of reasoning that makes we wonder how they ever got their advanced degrees’; no need to go any further than the current economic advisors to President Obama!!

    • jacquesdelacroix says:

      Yes, I have been wondering about Larry Summer, for example. He used to be a reasonable guy. I suspect (only suspect) that even in the hearts of prominent academics there lies an awkward country boy who can’t believe his good fortune at being invited at the WHITE HOUSE!

  4. Pingback: Facts Matter: Irrationality Among the Sane, the Intelligent, the Well-Educated « Notes On Liberty

  5. Peter Miller says:

    Jacques, I think you are onto something with the notion that more data = less understanding. As recent revelations of the massive scale of domestic spying indicate, what’s missing is the ability to analyze the data and produce actionable intelligence. The same is true of many ‘educated’ people.– they know lots of things but are lacking in common sense. There is a second factor at work in the propagation of irrationality nowadays: The Internet has created a new form of mass society. With it has come new dimensions of irrationality — essentially it is a crowd-sourcing phenomenon. See ‘Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds’, by Charles Mackay

    • Peter (Note: Peter is a US-trained sociologist like me): I think I understand that Snowden so-called revealed that there exist a program of nationwide surveillance that detects unusual patterns of communication. Such patterns are then used to zero in on people at the ends of such communications. Whether I like it or not, it’s not absurd.

      I used similar methods in research thirty years ago, with good results. (If I say so myself.)

      Technical note: You probably remember how you were warned against “fishing expeditions” in graduate schools. Well , I think that became bad advice the second your professor finished talking because of the advent of easy-access big computers.

      To be continued….

  6. JIm Kress says:

    “Education” today is about feelings, not facts. Your friend was describing an agrarian society that the US left behind many years ago (unfortunately). It is a sad commentary on the incompetence of the current “educational” system that is targeting indoctrination as opposed to education.

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