Irrationality: A History of the Dark Side of Reason, by Justin E.H. Smith (Princeton University Press), £25/$29.95
“Irrationality is as potentially harmful as it is humanly ineradicable, and efforts to eradicate it are themselves supremely irrational,” ends Justin Smith’s Irrationality: A History of the Dark Side of Reason. Hard to disagree. Not difficult to disagree with, by contrast, are a number of specific statements made by the author throughout this meandering, frustrating, but ultimately fascinating book. I found myself making dozens and dozens of annotations while reading it, often to counter something that Justin was arguing for. Then again, perhaps I needed this book for precisely that reason: to sharpen my own thinking about the relationship between rationality and irrationality.
For instance, is it really the case that Voltaire’s zeal to spread the Enlightenment by force would eventually find a descendant in George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq? And is Rousseau really the ancestor of the same “counterhegemonic” forces that resulted in Brexit and Donald Trump? I seriously doubt it, and it is far too much of a concession to Boris Johnson and Trump to even suggest the possibility.
Is it the case that logicians become trapped by sophisms “just like” police detectives who go undercover become too attached to the criminal world and never return from it? This is true: the fact that “religion is marked as ‘irrational’ and secularism as ‘rational’ is contingent [on] our society and our recent history. In other historical contexts it has been the unbelievers who are the raving, unhinged, and marginal characters.” However, put that way, the thing smells a bit too much of rancid relativism, to which the author himself clearly does not subscribe.
I could continue with dozens of other examples, but the fact is that Smith’s treatment of a variety of loosely connected topics — from dreams to art, from pseudoscience to jokes — does make for compelling reading. Take chapter six, on the Enlightenment. These days it is fashionable to either bash that period of European history as just another manifestation of Western imperialism or, as Steven Pinker relentlessly does, point to it as the pinnacle of human civilisation, to which we ought to return, or else. Smith strikes a nuanced compromise, one that accepts the Enlightenment’s responsibility in the colonial era without throwing the whole notion of reason out the window — and yet without making the Enlightenment into yet another cultural myth.
Or consider the chapter on pseudoscience, which happens to be my own area of academic expertise. Smith is no believer in creationism, flat-earthism, or vaccination denial, but he recognises that some of the stuff that we now consider pseudoscience, like divination, was once counted among the sciences, and — most importantly — that this was for good reasons, by the standard of the time. Such historical observations, however, do not lead him to embrace Paul Feyerabend’s infamous “methodological anarchism”, because it is elementary that it is simply not the case that an anything goes attitude is epistemically beneficial.
These days much is made of Harry Frankfurt’s delightful little book On Bullshit in order to explain all sorts of irrational belief. But Smith correctly points out that labelling every anti-scientific or anti-factual notion “bullshit” is, well, another kind of bullshit. It’s not very insightful or helpful. Creationist Ken Ham, for instance, is most definitely not bullshitting. He is telling what he thinks is the truth as revealed to him by Scripture and understood by his highly skewed religious fundamentalist cultural filters.
Instead, reflect on this, from Irrationality: “It is considerably more plausible to claim that vaccines cause autism than to claim that the earth is flat, but both positions appear to be motivated not so much by the content of the relevant claims, and the evidence on which these theories are based, as they are by wariness of elite authority.” Smith is right, of course. The roots of many pseudoscientific notions are not to be found in the epistemic deficiencies of their supporters, or in the bullshitting of certain self-proclaimed alternative authorities, but in a general wariness of what is perceived as “elite” (read: academic, educated) authority. If we don’t understand and assimilate this notion we will be bound to waste countless hours trying to convince antivaxxers by means of facts the authority of which they simply reject as an axiom.
Smith doesn’t aim his criticisms only at relatively easy targets, such as flat-earthers and antivaxxers. He takes on icons of the cultural left as well. For instance, in the harsh (and, in my mind, entirely deserved) criticism he reserves for Judith Butler’s anti-scientific notion that the distinction between sex and gender does not hold, because both are entirely socially constructed. He even labels such nonsense as “Butlerism”, in obvious analogy with other “-isms” of dubious value.
And then there is this gem: “By dividing the world into ‘cis’ and ‘trans’ — allowing all sorts of gradations within the latter based on self-reporting alone, while seeing the former as an essential property of the people it supposedly describes — this new way of thinking has traded one binarism for another.” Indeed. Turns out that a certain kind of (well intentioned, important) left-led social activism is based on a simple logical incoherence. Oops.
Read Irrationality pencil in hand to make lots of notes. Get frustrated and irritated by it. But use it to force yourself to make an honest intellectual effort to explain to yourself why, exactly, you disagree with the author. It’s more difficult than you may think. And far more rewarding.