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Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters

3.86  ·  Rating details ·  2,997 ratings  ·  384 reviews

In Rationality, Pinker rejects the cynical cliché that humans are simply an irrational species - cavemen out of time fatally cursed with biases, fallacies and illusions. After all, we discovered the laws of nature, lengthened and enriched our lives and set the benchmarks for rationality itself. Instead, he explains, we think in ways that suit t
Hardcover, 432 pages
Published September 28th 2021 by Allen Lane
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Travis Rebello If you have read very many books about critical thinking and rationality, you will be familiar with the sort of diminishing marginal returns you get a…moreIf you have read very many books about critical thinking and rationality, you will be familiar with the sort of diminishing marginal returns you get after a while from any new books in the genre. Pinker's book has a very broad focus and so there should be at least something new here for you. But, depending on what you have read before, there will probably be much that you are already familiar with. For example, you will know about biases and heuristics from Thinking, Fast and Slow, but you may find interesting the work done to make sense of this in terms of ecological rationality. Pinker's book also presents a great variety of tools for thinking, and maybe some of these, such as signal detection theory, will be new to you, even if others aren't. The penultimate chapter, which attempts to explain why there appears to be such a scarcity of rationality lately, has many new insights, too. The book is also very funny and entertaining, so whatever is simply repetition for you may not be too boring. (less)
Bad Horse There are IIRC 50 pages of charts & graphs, but if you're familiar with Venn diagrams, logic tables, and graphing functions, you should be able to und…moreThere are IIRC 50 pages of charts & graphs, but if you're familiar with Venn diagrams, logic tables, and graphing functions, you should be able to understand everything just from the text.(less)

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Nov 29, 2021 rated it liked it
Shelves: arc-review-copy
I'd like to think I'm a rational being, but I also know that I'm prone to sporadic fits of irrationality, just like everyone else out there. So I when I came across this book, I knew I had to read it. I was hoping it would give me insight into myself, and also help me understand why it seems like a large portion of our population have lately given in to the irrational devils of our nature.

And this book did offer insight. In particular, the first and second to last chapters were riveting, approac
Sep 29, 2021 rated it did not like it
More Faerie Tales From Mary Poppins

“What is a man,
If his chief good and market of his time
Be but to sleep and feed? A beast, no more.
Sure he that made us with such large discourse,
Looking before and after, gave us not
That capability and godlike reason
To fust in us unus’d.

This epigraph from Shakespeare, which Pinker uses to preface his latest book, summarises his fundamental misunderstanding of the issue he addresses. For Pinker, Shakespeare seems to be saying ‘if you got it flaunt it.’ ‘
Clif Hostetler
Oct 01, 2021 rated it liked it
Shelves: current-events
This book starts out with a review and discussion of logic, probability, and randomness. Proceeding from that foundation it explores ways in which people can be predictably led astray by following their intuition. The book then continues with a discussion of game theory and behavioral economics. Toward the end the book addresses the issues promised by the book’s subtitle; why rationality seems so scarce and why it’s important.

The book suggests that one reason humans are so poor at estimating exp
Ryan Boissonneault
Sep 30, 2021 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
Rationality can be defined as “the ability to use knowledge to attain goals.” You don’t get credit for rationality if you attain a goal simply by chance; rather, your beliefs must be true, rather than false, and justified, rather than random. Whether the goal is theoretical (proving the truth of an idea) or practical (achieving some tangible outcome), to be rational simply means using knowledge (justified true belief) to attain the stated goal.

Reason also has the unique characteristic of being
Morgan Blackledge
Oct 16, 2021 rated it it was amazing
Steven Pinker is a firebrand.

And that in itself is a kind of a mystery to me.

Only because I find his basic arguments to be (for lack of a better word) reasonable.

His message is (essentially):

The current state of affairs is obviously concerning.

But if you look at the human condition over the long term, a lot of things are improving.

According to Pinker.

Science, technology, rule of law and liberal democracy have liberated billions of humans from poverty, miserable servitude, disease and political
Oct 06, 2021 rated it really liked it
Are all maps equally useful?

Suppose that you are lost in the Himalayas but only have a map of the Pyrenees. Is this map helpful? Sure, it is viable as fuel for fire but not as a map to navigate the territory. Maps correspond to the territory as our beliefs correspond to reality. Are all beliefs about reality equally accurate? Are all beliefs about how to achieve a goal equally conducive?

You cannot make an accurate map of a city by sitting at home with your eyes shut and drawing lines upon paper
David Rubenstein
I have read all of Steven Pinker's books, and enjoyed this one as well. Before reading this one, though, I thought that it might be somewhat boring. After all, how interesting could this subject be?

Boy, was I wrong! Pinker has written a truly engaging book. Every page is fascinating. In addition, this is the most humorous book that Pinker has written. For example, this quote from comedian George Carlin:

“Tell people there’s an invisible man in the sky who created the universe, and the vast major
Oct 07, 2021 rated it it was ok
Shelves: good-non-fiction
Rationality spends most of the book length covering elementary concepts from a collection of subjects. Even when it comes to pulling them together for something original in conclusions, the book fails equally abjectly.

For some strange reasons, the author recounts the topics well covered in hundreds of books from the fields of probability theory, statistics, game theory, logic, behavioral sciences, and the likes. These discussions are staggeringly unoriginal in their conclusions and the details -
Maria Espadinha
Feb 24, 2022 rated it really liked it
What is a man,
If his chief good and market of his time
Be but to sleep and feed? a beast, no more…
Oct 07, 2021 rated it it was ok
Shelves: junk
Sweet irony! A call to rationality from a white old male who is dominated by his irrational fears: Muslims, Covid, anything that might threaten his dominant status. And, like the Christian preachers he despises, whomever doesn't care about his important issues, they are irrational, a white way to say Haram. ...more
Andrés Astudillo
Dec 19, 2021 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: People who wanna learn or improve on critical thinking
Objective of the book: 5
Certain arguments: 3

So, to sum up:

-Trump is a stupid asshole
- We are a rational species that can trigger stupidity at whole other levels
This part is ok. I mean, this book explains some of the reasons why we can be really, really stupid. There are not just fallacies in logic (ad hominem, ad verecundiam, conjunction, genetic, sunk-cost, straw man and a hundred more), but there are also psychological biases (confirmation, cognitive, and many, many more) that really fuck up o
Wouldn’t have read it if i hadn’t received it for free, and it wasn’t pre publication.
If i disagree with this book its because of its aesthetic, or lack thereof. Ugly book.
It also violates my taboo against reality mathematics, and in particular morality mathematics.
I does provide a workout though, and throws into focus the failing of my mind. I failed the nearly all of the logic problems.
Jessica - How Jessica Reads
Honestly, some of this was a little over my head, ha. But I liked a lot of what he had to say, and I kept saving quotable bits.

"Three quarters of Americans believe in at least one phenomenon that defies the laws of science, including psychic healing (55 percent), extrasensory perception (41 percent), haunted houses (37 percent), and ghosts (32 percent)— which also means that some people believe in houses haunted by ghosts without believing in ghosts."

"And a special place in Journalist Hell is r
Brilliant! Very well structured, which is not easy for a book on rationality. Very well researched, great resources cited. Very highly recommended!
Kathryn Bashaar
Oct 16, 2021 rated it liked it
This book can be tough going. Pinker condenses into just a few hundred pages what would surely be a full 3-credit Logic course at a university. It gets a little hard to follow. But there's a payoff.

I think of myself as very rational. But I fell for the fallacious answer to several of the questions that Pinker poses. Here's an example. On the game show Let's Make a Deal, let's say you chose Door #1. If the host reveals that the big prize is NOT behind Door #3, should you change your choice to Do
Alan Johnson
I agree with many things in this book. However, I disagree with some of Pinker's basic principles and a few of his specific statements. For example, Pinker follows Hume and other moderns in arguing that reason/rationality applies to means, not ends. Ends are, according to Hume and Pinker, postulated by our emotions, our desires, our feelings. If so, then Hitler was rational to the extent that his war machine was rationally designed to achieve his end of world conquest and tyranny. He was irratio ...more
Sid Nuncius
Oct 31, 2021 rated it really liked it
The message of this book is important and timely and I am wholly in agreement with its arguments and analyses. However, I did find it a bit of a slog.

Pinker argues clearly and passionately that rationality and reason are vital and that their current abandonment by a worrying number of people is dangerous. He looks at the role of rationality and the essential part it plays in maintaining a civilised society and also attempts to analyse why some people reject it in favour of irrationality, conspir
Richard Thompson
Oct 16, 2021 rated it it was ok
Shelves: psychology
There's nothing new here for anyone who has a basic knowledge of logic, statistics, game theory and behavioral economics. Still, it's a good recap of basic concepts, and Mr. Pinker does a good job of describing current academic thinking about our departures from rationality and why things that seem like departures may really only be issues of context and point of view that are not necessarily irrational at all. I generally agree with everything that is in this book, so why did I come away from i ...more
Anandpreet Singh
Sep 28, 2021 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Down the rabbit hole I went again. We live in a world where we highly prioritize being rational. But why? And how can we define someone as rational? What is Irrational? By doing this aren't we dividing the world in black and white instead of seeing it as grey?

"We should not be surprised that what people take away from science education is a syncretic mishmash, where gravity and electromagnetism coexist with psi, qi, karma, and crystal healing."

There's been a huge rise in behavioral economics in
Nov 07, 2021 rated it liked it
3.5 stars I guess. I really loved Pinker’s earlier books about linguistics and psychology. There’s certainly some good stuff in this book, but I don’t think he covered the topic all that well. There were reminders of his good sense of humor and his good writing, but not so much. I’m happy that he uses interesting words, but he may have gone a little overboard in using obscure terminology.
David D.  Knapp, Ph.D.
Oct 27, 2021 rated it it was ok
Shelves: 2021
This is the third book by Pinker that I've started, with "Enlightenment Now" and "The Better Angels of Our Nature" being the other two. But it is the first one I've finished...and it wasn't easy.

Pinker's work is frustrating to me. On one hand, he writes about topics about which I care deeply (rationality, critical thinking, overcoming biases and fallacies...). So, I WANT to read his books.

However, he writes about these topics in a dense, academic style that I graphically refer to as "academic ma
Oct 17, 2021 rated it did not like it
I haven't read any of Pinker's other books. Don't think I'll be seeking them out after this one.

If arguing on the internet is your jam then this is a book for you. Most of the book is Pinker explaining what cognitive biases are and how we should be thinking about probabilities and data, and it oscillates between an overly complex Wikipedia article and a dull lecture.

He sprinkles in some poorly reasoned (or not reasoned) analysis of:

Why deplatforming people is bad

A bad faith connection between t
Oct 01, 2021 rated it liked it
It is a solid compilation book. No new research, however (I should have expected this, though, Pinker has been writing compilation books with no original input for some time). I liked the chapter on formal logic and thought for a moment whether the book would be a good fit for students, for an interpretation/critical thinking class, but there are better options. The references to current political events mean that the book will date quickly. I would have opted for a wider range of cultural and p ...more
Dec 09, 2021 rated it it was amazing
Good and modern recap of the basics
Oct 21, 2021 rated it liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
Rationality : What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters (2021) by Steven Pinker is the celebrity Harvard Psychologist’s latest work. In Rationality Pinker uses the content of a course he teaches at Harvard about how to reason better.

Most of the book is used to instruct the reader on logic, probability, Bayesian Reasoning, Expected Utility, Further Statistics, Game Theory and Correlation and Causation. In the final two chapters Pinker describes what he sees as being wrong with people and fi
James Foster
Nov 29, 2021 rated it it was amazing
I wish I could write like Pinker. He has an argument to make: being rational is hard, but you can do it, and it’s important to try to do so. His definition of “rational” is much more sensible than acting like Mr. Spock or some automaton. Rationality means beliefs and acting in a way that one can justifiably expect to get us closer to our goals in most circumstances. It doesn’t speak to what those goals are. The great contribution of the Enlightenment, according to Pinker, is that it taught us to ...more
D.L. Morrese
Oct 10, 2021 rated it liked it
The title poses some very good questions, but does the book answer them? Well...

Steven Pinker is undoubtedly a brilliant fellow, and I loved his book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, but Rationality reads more like a textbook on probability than a clear explanation of reason and critical thinking. Rather than introducing the subject in layman's terms using specific examples, it starts off with definitions of rules of logic, graphs, and diagrams. That's all well and goo
Eric Shaffer
Dec 15, 2021 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Hey, Jen, since you are the one who most predictably reads my reviews, I thought I would say, "Happy Holidays to you, and to all, and to all, how about rasher of rationality?"

Your review of this book tipped me to the fact that this book was out, so thanks for that, too.

This is another great book by Steven Pinker. I recommend this book just for what became for me a detailed introduction to fallacies and reasoning that I wish I had encountered and studied long ago. Excellent writing and reasonable
Allie Fowler
Oct 08, 2021 rated it it was ok
Hold up.

Mr Pinker, did you just say "sudden adoption of a radical academic doctrine called Critical Race Theory?"

Critical Race Theory literally calls for the teaching of ACTUAL US HISTORY, rather than the whitewashed fiction that passes in schools even still today. Even a casual mention that yes, the Tulsa bombing massacre of entire Black neighborhoods occurred as well as the numerous coup d'etats of democratically elected Black governments. Things I was never taught as a white person growing up
Oct 04, 2021 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Not what I expected but in sum, rationality is mathematical.
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Steven Arthur Pinker is a prominent Canadian-American experimental psychologist, cognitive scientist, and author of popular science. Pinker is known for his wide-ranging explorations of human nature and its relevance to language, history, morality, politics, and everyday life. He conducts research on language and cognition, writes for publications such as the New York Times, Time, and The New Repu ...more

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