If You Can Be Bad, You Can Also Be Good

...

Spotted on Reddit about the rationalist community:

I like the culture while hating a lot of the specifics...however[,] there is no such thing as "rationality" that is free from ideology.

I’ve got to admit, I hate this argument. Also related ones, like:

“They say we’re politicizing this scientific field. But no science is inherently apolitical. There are political assumptions wrapped up with everything we do.”

Or:

“They say we’re ‘biased’, but there’s no such thing as a view-from-nowhere objectivity that doesn’t import any assumptions. Everyone’s biased, we’re just not trying to deny it like they are.”

If you’ve read The Fallacy of Gray or The Whole City Is Center, you probably already know how I feel about this kind of argument. But it’s still popular. So let’s try coming at it from a different direction.

It’s easy to find people who are especially bad on all these axes. For example, Alex Jones – the conspiracy theory guy who says school shootings are fake - is “irrational”. I strongly believe this. I believe he’s less rational than pretty much whatever comparison group you choose – scientists, the average joe, me personally. I believe this is an important fact to know about him. That it reflects badly on him. That if you try to approach the study of Alex Jones without considering the fact that he’s irrational, you’ll be missing an important piece of information.

Or: when some fossil-fuel-industry lobby group says their internal fossil-fuel-lobby-funded studies prove global warming is fake or irrelevant – probably they’re doing biased, politicized science. I believe this is a meaningful, important statement, beyond just "well, everyone does biased science, so this group is exactly as good or bad as everyone else studying climate change". I believe there's an important, specific criticism to make of this group, and that "they are doing biased, political science" is the most natural and accurate way to make this criticism.

I think most people would agree with me about these examples (and many more). You can definitely be bad at rationality, objectivity, and staying unbiased. But if you can be bad, you can also be good. You've admitted there's a spectrum from better to worse, you've admitted that the worse end deserves terms like "irrational" - so shouldn't the natural term for the better end be "rational"? Doesn’t that suggest rationality is a “real thing”? Maybe even a real thing “free from ideology”? At least free enough that a condemnation of Alex Jones as “irrational” isn’t just an ideological act, not just “from my perspective he’s bad, but from his perspective I’m bad, so I guess in the end we’re even”?

Possible counterargument: might it be that we can talk about "relatively more rational" or "relatively less rational", but saying "rational" is making a strong claim (eliminating all irrationality!) which probably nobody actually achieves? I agree nobody's perfect, but we usually don't demand perfection before awarding someone a vaguely positive adjective. Many people are "kind" without being perfectly kind, "thoughtful" without being infinitely thoughtful, or "intelligent" without being an omni-brilliant polymath. We’re happy to grant that people are fighting for justice" without certainty that complete justice can ever be acheived, or that there can be a "security community" even when nothing can be 100% secure. It's only when people say they're striving for objectivity, or concerned about things getting politicized, that these objections get brought up. It’s an isolated demand for rigor.

Or to look at it a different way - you need to be very self-confident to think you're hitting against fundamental limits. If your track coach tells you to run faster, and you answer with something about e=mc^2 and the light speed barrier, you're making a pretty strong claim about your current abilities. Talking about the impossibility of true rationality or objectivity might feel humble - you're admitting you can't do this difficult thing. But analyzed more carefully, it becomes really arrogant. You're admitting there are people worse than you - Alex Jones, the fossil fuel lobby, etc. You're just saying it's impossible to do better. You personally - or maybe your society, or some existing group who you trust - are butting up against the light speed limit of rationality and objectivity.

I try not to be this arrogant. I think I’m better at rationality than some people - Alex Jones, for example. But I'm worse than other people. Even in the vanishingly unlikely chance that I’m the best person in the world, I still don't think I'm hitting up against the limit of what's possible. I can't always resist the temptation to gloat about the people who are worse than me. But I’d much rather spend my time and energy to learn from the people who are better. Statements like "there’s no such thing as rationality" risk concealing the fact that anyone can be better at all. Statements like “it can’t be separated from ideology” risk putting everyone on so relative a footing that Alex Jones’ version of rationality is no worse than anyone else’s.

Perfect rationality is probably impossible, just like perfect anything else. Luckily, we're all far enough from perfection that we don't need to worry about this - and we can go on trying to improve regardless.