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Thursday, October 18, 2012

A New Age of Enlightenment?

In an article in the New York Times (10.18.12) David Bornstein argues that we are entering a new Age of Enlightenment where rationality rules and we can, using facts and logic, solve most problems that face us.

We are getting smarter about the way we’re addressing social problems. In fact, I would go so far as to say we’re on the verge of a breakthrough — maybe even a new Enlightenment.

The Enlightenment was a period in history when fanciful thinking gave way to a more rational understanding of cause and effect. It promoted the scientific method, challenged ideas grounded in tradition, faith or superstition, and advocated the restructuring of governments and social institutions based on reason.

While there is no doubt that we are in an age of facts, we are also in an age of factual distortion.  The Internet, while certainly providing the most rational among us with information on which to judge an issue or argument, also provides the most dizzying array of false facts, bilious screeds, and rabid belief-driven nonsense. Conspiracy theories have never been more extant, and one has only to look at the staying power of the widespread conviction that President Obama is not an American but a Muslim extremist.

Perhaps more importantly, although we are awash in facts, many Americans value belief over rationality.  No matter how many ‘rational’ arguments can be made about abortion, gay rights, family values, or racial equality, many people start and end with faith.  There is no reason to debate any of these issues if one believes that religious texts are clear and unequivocal regarding them. 

Lastly, the bewildering array of choices resulting from a constant, uninterrupted stream of new information, makes rational choice even more difficult.  A layman, faced with an array of choices concerning federal fiscal or financial policy, each layered with a complexity of tax codes, QE3, exchange rates, the renminbi, and Wall Street regulations, can only resort to simplicity – The One Percent, Distribution of Wealth, Damn the Chinese, and Abolish the Fed.  And these are publically-debated national issues.  What about an even more perplexing health landscape where making the right choice is almost impossible.

The Age of Enlightenment did indeed represent a great leap forward from the darkness of superstition and ignorance.  It, however, did not reject faith as illogical, but that reason could help to identify the expressions of God’s goodness.  Like Thomas Aquinas and Augustine before them, Enlightenment philosophers started with reason and ended up with faith.  This, unfortunately, is not the case now.  While certainly within the halls of Google Labs, Apple, and Goldman Sachs reason and rationality reign supreme, it is only because of the irrationality of the American consuming populace can these corporations succeed.  The complex derivatives that led to the crash of the housing market were brilliant logical mechanisms; but the crash itself was fueled in large part because of irrational decisions made by upstream investors and downstream homebuyers.

The author of the Times article concludes that rationality can and has prevailed thousands of times in countless social programs:

Is it possible to systematically increase empathy and cooperation in children? Is there a way to teach math so virtually all children become proficient? Can we prevent thousands of cases of child abuse without removing children from their parents? Can we dramatically reduce — or come close to eliminating — chronic homelessness from every city in the United States?

Yes, says the author, who I believe misses the point.  Of course many problems are solved through logic. I love my electronic garage door, my computer, and my I-phone.  I wait less time in bank lines because of super-rational queuing theory.  All these solutions were the result of market-driven innovation and the application of logical theory to marketing.  But to ‘teach math so virtually all children become proficient’?  This assumption is itself based on irrational, politically-motivated,and idealistic convictions.  All children can learn math proficiently because all children are equal.  Of course they are not. There is a world of difference between a garage door and the complex economic, psychological, and cultural factors that determine social problems.

Arguing at cross purposes, Bornstein says:

It may sound strange, but we are increasingly addressing social problems with the recognition that human beings don’t behave rationally much of the time, or even most of the time.

He then goes on to say that it makes no sense to promote improved health behavior by appealing only to health.  We must manipulate the irrational audience by making them love their slim bodies, clear skin, or tight abs.

He argues further that great social changes are in store because of evidence-based evaluation – choose only that option which has scientific data behind it. This assumption, again quite na├»ve, proposes that ‘evidence’ is always correct, never given to political manipulation or ideological interpretation.  We only have to look at the education sector which the author cites to see the very fuzzy bases on which new strategic approaches were introduced.  ‘Cooperative learning’ was going to be the innovation which would enable all student boats to rise as the smart helped the dumb.  Instead it fostered resentment amongst the most able who felt they were held back, and did nothing to help the less able whose learning issues were often a result of a dysfunctional home and community environment.

Bornstein then goes on to speak of ‘The Integration of Labor’, reprising the theme of educational cooperation.  Yes, that has been a management mantra on the shop floor ever since the Japanese became competitive 40 years ago, but it too will change as technology changes, and individual enterprise within a more virtual environment becomes paramount. 

The thinkers of the real Age of Enlightenment did not dismiss irrationality or idealistically assume that it could be eliminated from society.  They only wanted rationality to be the starting point for all inquiry.  It did not matter if one ended up with an ‘irrational’ religious belief, for example.  It only mattered that reason be used to arrive at the point of belief.

Logical conclusions in one era are not the logical conclusions of another; nor are they ever purely logical.  Even Newton’s or Einstein’s discoveries were subject to the cultural and historical heritage of their eras. The point is not to assume that ‘logical’ investments produce unchangeable value; but to value logic as the starting point for all deliberations.

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