“Rational” Should be Treated like a Four-Letter Word

culture, ethics, freethought community, Rhetoric 8 Replies

[This is primarily a talk I gave at a Vancouver Skepticamp recently, with some expansion/clarification at the end in response to some feedback I received]

I’d like to talk about how we use the word ‘rational’ in everyday conversations, and how we use it in skeptic/atheist/freethinker circles. I don’t consider anything I say here to apply to academic disciplines, as they are usually pretty good about operationalising their definitions (or should be, at the least).

I think ‘rationality’ is a profoundly problematic word, as used in the vernacular, and I’d like to encourage you all to drop it from your vocabulary. Now, before ye get all het up and start acting irrationally, hear me out.

How do we use this word? Well, we use it as an evaluative word, as in ‘we should act rationally’, or ‘that’s a rational argument’. Sometimes we use it on objects, like arguments, sometimes for actions, and sometimes for people. The problem is that the word, in the vernacular, doesn’t have just one meaning, but several overlapping meanings, several of which can apply in each context. Ultimately, the use of the word is simply as a pejorative: ‘that’s not a rational argument’ typically means ‘I don’t like that argument’ or ‘that’s a bad argument’.

But why do I think that? Surely, I hear ye cry, it’s obvious that the meaning is that there is a problem with the argument, right? Unfortunately, it’s not at all obvious, because simply crying ‘that’s not rational’ fails to explain anything at all.

The problem with the idea of a ‘rational’ approach to any particular problem is that a solution is rational if and only if it correctly falls out of a particular process. That is to say that so long as the solution is in line with the process, it’s rational, and if it’s out of line with the process, then it’s irrational. In order for you or I to declare a solution to be rational or irrational, it’s necessary that we are aware of the process being employed. If we are unaware of the process being employed, as we almost always are, then we are not in a position to judge something as rational.

And to go further: given that the correct application of the term ‘rational’ applies if and only if we can examine the process in play, then the ‘correct process’ of using the term ‘rational’ is bypassed if we fail to examine, fully and completely, the original decision making process.

In short: to declare something as ‘not rational’ without examining the process by which people came to a conclusion is, itself not rational. To look at someone going to a palm reader, or an astrologer, and declaring off-hand that that choice simply isn’t rational is, itself, NOT RATIONAL.

That you and I disagree with that choice, feel that the choice is a mistake, that they are succumbing to a scam, sure, they’re absolutely wrong to make that decision. But one can’t rationally call it irrational, without getting into the nuts and bolts of their decision process. Moreover, a process that leads to a bad choice may very well be rational. Consider the following logically valid argument:

  1. I am unwell
  2. If I am unwell, I should seek medical treatment.
  3. Homeopathy is a form of medical treatment.
  4. Therefore, I should seek homeopathy to treat my illness.

This is an entirely rational process, and a logically valid argument. The problem is clearly with premise 3, but “this argument isn’t rational” 1) doesn’t address that, and 2) is incorrect.

So as it’s commonly used in the vernacular, calling something irrational 1) doesn’t actually do anything useful, and more than saying “I don’t like that” does, and 2) is itself irrational, given that you don’t know the process that went into that decision.

These would seem to me to be pretty good reasons to dump that word out of ones vocabulary. But on the off-chance that you’re still not convinced, allow me to offer a few more compelling reasons.

Historically, ‘irrational’ has been a term primarily often used by white, middle-class men to demean and shut down discussions had by non-white people. For centuries, men were rational, women were irrational. I mean, let’s face it, who knows how women really think, right? Turns out they think using precisely the same brain structure as other humans, what with them being human and all, and the difference in decision making largely stems from a difference of inputs. Those inputs (their lived experience) being something that men don’t typically have access to, then produce different outputs, or choices. There’s no ‘irrationality’ here, just a different decision process.

Likewise, white people encountering different cultures in the variety of countries they invaded had no understanding of the cultures they were interacting with, saw people do what they thought were strange and weird things, and labelled it all as ‘irrational’.

Why does this matter, decades and centuries later? Let’s talk about Stereotype Threat for a minute.

The short version of stereotype threat is that when words or phrases are used around certain people (particularly women and people of colour) that typically paint those people in a negative light, those people experience an increase in stress in order to avoid confirming the stereotype. As has long been documented, when one experiences an increase in stress, ones ability to think clearly and calmly is negatively affected. As a result, our ability to think (and therefore work) is compromised. This means that, in a not-exactly-direct-fashion, when we start acting in a way that raises the spectre of stereotype threat, the effectiveness of the people around us (who are susceptible to that particular threat) drops. If one is trying to foster a discussion that involves high level thinking, this would appear to be the precise opposite of what one would want to occur.

So to put that all together:

1) Calling something ‘irrational’ or ‘not rational’ expresses nothing more intelligible than ‘I don’t like that’.
2) It fails to explain exactly what’s wrong with the thing being called out
3) If you haven’t spent time enquiring into the process involved, doing this is itself irrational
4) It is an instance of stereotype threat, and thus negatively contributes to the effectiveness of the people around you.

One particularly insistent response I got back was that “the word rational doesn’t bother the women that I’ve talked to”. I’m going to spend a little bit of time delving into why this response fails to address what I’m actually talking about, and why it doesn’t at all matter if people say the word “rational” bothers them, or not.

The issue here is a systemic one. It’s a matter of public record that women have been treated as inferior to men with regards to intellect for centuries, and one would have to be extraordinarily ignorant of history to be unaware of this. For those who would contest this, one merely has to look at the arguments surrounding women getting the vote in Europe and North America in the early part of the 1900’s, and their portrayal in the media (even now) is primarily that of their physical, and not mental, capacities. Similarly, people of colour (or, at least, not obviously Anglo Saxon) have been treated as little more than animals for centuries, and bigots of various stripes are still insisting that there is a division of intelligence along “racial” lines (lines that are both artificial and arbitrary).

Into this context throw the word “rational”. At this point I’d like to refer to a dictionary, not because dictionaries ‘define’ a word, but because they account for the usages of the word (so it’s not ‘merely’ my opinion as to how a word is used). Dictionary.com pulls from a variety of sources, and claims the following about “rational“:

1. agreeable to reason; reasonable; sensible:
2. having or exercising reason, sound judgment, or good sense:
3. being in or characterized by full possession of one’s reason; sane; lucid:
4. endowed with the faculty of reason:
5. of, relating to, or constituting reasoning powers:
6. proceeding or derived from reason or based on reasoning:
7. Mathematics.
a. capable of being expressed exactly by a ratio of two integers.
b. (of a function) capable of being expressed exactly by a ratio of two polynomials.
8.Classical Prosody. capable of measurement in terms of the metrical unit or mora.

Not once is “logical” mentioned in here: when you use the word “rational” you are, like it or not, making a comment about the mental capabilities of the people you are speaking with, and doing so moves you towards triggering a stereotype threat. The question here isn’t whether or not the word “bothers” someone, but whether or not the word signals “I am evaluating whether or not you are an intelligent person”, and it does that regardless of whether you refer to an argument, or a person, when using it. Ultimately, there is no significant difference between “that is not a rational argument” and “that is a dumb argument” beyond how well read the speaker is: they’re both pejoratives, and they’re both ableist slurs.

Ultimately, if you’re less interested in having productive conversations with people, and more interested in chestbeating about how “rational” you are, then please go right ahead using the word. But it’s sending a signal, and it may not be the one you intend.

Words matter. Let’s stop using this one.

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8 thoughts on ““Rational” Should be Treated like a Four-Letter Word

  1. Robert Ernest Richter

    You almost had me agreeing with you. And then you said something that’s simply plainly false, that “irrational” has *primarily* been used by white men to demean the other. That is not true, and I invite you to prove otherwise. Surely, it’s been used in this way, but that has not been its primary use.

    You’ve also fumbled a bit on the definition there. You say you’re not using the dictionary to define the word, but then go on to use it to exclude the precise common definition you’re arguing against. Given that the remainder of your argument rests on this error, I think it can be dismissed without further discussion.

    “Irrational” is a term I primarily apply to arguments I actually see people using. Including me. Perhaps especially me. So while you have a valid point or two about the improper application of the word, I don’t think there’s reason enough to excise it from my vocabulary.

  2. Brian Lynchehaun Post author

    You say you’re not using the dictionary to define the word, but then go on to use it to exclude the precise common definition you’re arguing against.

    Right. And that definition isn’t found in the dictionaries I checked. The definition I used at the start is how I’m defining how I see it used. And you seem to agree with this particular definition, so I’m…. not seeing your point here. You seem to be ascribing to ‘error’ something that isn’t.

    “Irrational” is a term I primarily apply to arguments I actually see people using. Including me. Perhaps especially me. So while you have a valid point or two about the improper application of the word, I don’t think there’s reason enough to excise it from my vocabulary.

    Ok, I guess?

  3. Brian Lynchehaun Post author

    And then you said something that’s simply plainly false, that “irrational” has *primarily* been used by white men to demean the other.

    This bit is entirely fair though. I’ve corrected the article.

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  5. Crommunist

    I think I’ve seen you comment about this elsewhere, but what would you say to the use of the term “reasonable” rather than “rational”? “Reasonable” seems to be an evaluation of the soundness of judgment, which would seem to include the concept of the quality of evidence.

    For example, the homeopathy argument you outline above may be rational, but one could make the argument (in my mind, at least) that it could not be described as reasonable because the third assertion is not based on judicious appraisal of evidence. Homeopathy is not a medical treatment in any evidence-based sense of the term.

    Similarly, a person who claims that (for example) Barack Obama is a socialist tyrant may be making a rational argument, but nobody would confuse it with a reasonable one.

    Or is this merely a semantic hand-wave that commits all the same fouls as “rational”?

  6. Brian Lynchehaun Post author

    I think that ‘reasonable’ doesn’t have quite the same connotations wrt the mental capabilities of the person you’re speaking to, so in that sense it’s not as bad.

    However, much in the same way that women and PoC have been treated as less intelligent than white men historically, women and PoC have been generally considered unreasonable: women are ’emotional’ (or ‘hysterical’) as opposed to ‘reasonable’. Reasonable also has an emotional content.

    I think one of the problems here is using a word that can *both* be applied to an argument and to a person, and that the conflation (by the person you’re speaking to) is both almost inevitable and almost unavoidable. I think one has to bear in mind not just that ‘I’m using this word in a standalone argument’, but how likely it is that the person you’re speaking to has been talked down to using these terms, and how likely it is that you are dropping yourself into a role that they are going to take umbrage with.

    I think that, if genuinely seeking discussion, the obligation to remain calm is not an obligation that other people have: we have an obligation to refrain from language that is historically triggering (given the “genuinely seeking discussion”).

    Bottom line: I think being specific tops these kind of evaluative claims, and since the evaluative claims are going to have to be explained in terms of the specifics, it just seems pragmatically better to cut to the chase and avoid words that are (broadly speaking) likely to trigger people.

    (Um… Or “yes, it’s largely a semantic hand-wave”. 😛 )

  7. studdert

    1. I am unwell
    2. If I am unwell, I should seek medical treatment.
    3. Homeopathy is a form of medical treatment.
    4. Therefore, I should seek homeopathy to treat my illness.

    Is actually not valid. In premise (2), you’re not saying that you should seek any form of medical treatment, you’re saying that you should seek some form of medical treatment. But the mere fact that homeopathy is a form of medical treatment does not imply that it is the kind of medical treatment you should be seeking. Your argument is pretty much just the following: “some form of medical treatment is a thing that I should seek, homeopathy is a form of medical treatment, therefore homeopathy is a thing that I should seek”. This is just “some A’s are B’s, C is an A, therefore C is a B”, which is the same as saying “some mammals are dogs, Lucy the dolphin is a mammal, therefore Lucy the dolphin is a dog”. If your argument were a syllogism, it would be committing the fallacy of having two particular premises.

    If you know anything about first-order logic, it’s easier to see this when you formalise the argument. Here’s a glossary:

    Ux: x is unwell
    Mx: x is a form of medical treatment
    Sxy: x should seek y
    i: I (as in “you”)
    h: Homeopathy

    Here’s the formalised argument:

    1. Ui
    2. ∃x(Mx→(Ui→Six))
    3. Mh
    4. Sih

    Now negate the conclusion and see what happens.

  8. Brian Lynchehaun Post author

    There’s nothing that contributes to a friendly, open discussion like opening up in a condescending fashion.

    Notice that your criticism hinges on a particular interpretation, and on the interpretation you rejected, the argument is entirely valid. Of course, being as well-informed on this as you are implying that you are, you should be aware of the issues in interpretation (perhaps informed by both Russell and Strawson), and that there are multiple possible interpretations of an English statement due to the ambiguity inherent in English.

    But given that you’re so well-informed, it puzzles me that you would insist on a singular interpretation (the least charitable one at that) being the only appropriate interpretation.

    Your error is here:

    you’re not saying that you should seek any form of medical treatment, you’re saying that you should seek some form of medical treatment

    Because yes, I *am* saying ‘you should seek any form of medical treatment’ (with the implicit premise of ‘that is appropriate to the illness’). This implies that there is a set of medical treatments that are appropriate for the particular illness, and that taking *any* of them meets ones medical need.

    On this reading, the one you rejected out of hand with zero justification/explanation, the argument is entirely valid.

    If you know anything about first-order logic, it’s easier to see this when you formalise the argument.

    As someone who tutors logic regularly, yes, I’m quite familiar with first-order logic. Should I respond to your written formalisation with written formalisation, i.e. indulge in the pissing contest that you feel is warranted? My better judgement says ‘no’, but let’s go ahead anyway.

    Correcting and expanding your symbolisation:

    Ux: x is unwell
    Mx: x is an appropriate form of medical treatment
    Sxy: x should seek y
    i: I (as in “you”)
    h: Homeopathy
    (x) = universal quantifier
    (∃x) = Existential quantifier

    1. Ui
    2. (x)[(Mx & UI) -> Six]
    3. Mh
    C. Sih

    To spell it out, since it apparently needs doing:

    4. (Mh & Ui) -> Sih (Universal instantiation from 2)
    5. Mh & Ui (Conjunction (or & introduction) from 1 and 3.
    6. Sih (Modus Ponens (or -> Elimination) from 4 and 5.

    Notice here that whether the argument is valid or not depends *entirely* on interpretation. On yours:

    1. Ui
    2. (∃x)[(Mx -> (Ui -> Six)]
    3. Mh
    C. Sih

    4. Mh -> (Ui -> Sih) is an illegal Existential Instantiation, due to the prior existence of Mh in premise 3.

    How wrong is your presentation? Let’s swap out premise two with “there is at least one thing that is a medical treatment, and I am unwell”.

    1. Ui
    2. (∃x)(Mx & Ui)
    3. Mh

    Oh look, we can’t even instantiate the *obviously true* (Mh & Ui) from line two, because of the poor formalisation that you have chosen.

    So perhaps before declaring that the logic argumentation of others to be in error (i.e. nit-picking on an example that doesn’t particularly matter in the context of the piece as a whole), you should, I dunno, actually make sure that your criticism 1) matters, and 2) is accurate. Yours fails on both conditions.

    [Edited to reduce the unnecessarily offensive tone]

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