This is the big ethical question of our time, and we need to face it before it’s too late.
To be clear, there has never been a time in history when humans could be called entirely rational. But the negative impacts of irrationality are being amplified and spread by technology at an alarming pace. The information age has brought us instant access to the world’s store of knowledge and globalization makes our wide world of 7 billion people feel interconnected and small… And human psychology isn’t coping well.
I recently watched a documentary, Behind the Curve, about flat earthers. Despite pointing out the obvious ridiculousness of those beliefs and the concerning rate at which they are spreading, the film treated flat earthers with compassion and restraint. At times, it even implored the scientific community to treat these people with gentle, respectful outreach. It got me thinking: is this the right approach?
Of irrational beliefs, the idea of a flat earth is one of the most harmless. Anti-vaxxers have spread enough distrust in vaccines that over 100 people have been infected in the US in the first 5 weeks of 2019 alone. Climate change denial is holding the U.S. back from leading global action on one of the greatest challenges of our time. After decades of hiding in the shadows, racism is becoming more overt in America. Partisanship, extremism, and distrust of science at are at all-time highs. It is fairly obvious that these irrational modes of thinking are prevalent among our politicians, celebrities, media figures, and social and religious leaders, not just laypeople.
In past decades, countries around the world have prized reasoning, judgement, science, and skill. As a scientist myself, I used to defend the merits of my ideas against skeptics; now, I am shocked to be defending basic principles of the Enlightenment! We are entering dangerous territory, where the loudest voice drowns out the wisest, one’s gut determines whether news is fake or true, loyalty is prized above capability, and the effects of war are not judged before waging it. So what should a rational society do about it?
Let us first discuss what I mean by rationality. Rationality is not inherently good or morally positive. Rationality is a method of making decisions by which evidence is gathered, possible outcomes predicted and weighed by the preferences of stakeholders, and the best action is chosen. That is not to say that rationality leads to perfect choices. Rational decisions can be made with significant amounts of uncertainty, causing them to be suboptimal in retrospect. They can also be misled, based on imperfect beliefs, selfish, or even malicious.
It is important then to discuss what rationality is not. Non-rational behavior occurs when actions are driven by emotion, by habit, by instinct, by capriciousness, or by fallacious reasoning. Although rationality predicts how people make some economic decisions fairly well, it is clear from psychological studies that humans aren’t rational in general. In a world that is bombarding us with partial and contradictory information, humans use irrational heuristics, feelings, and habits as shortcuts to make decisions that, generally, lead to results that are, on the whole, pretty good. That is, until they don’t. They lead to a multitude of problems, big and small: trusting a celebrity’s beliefs over science; hiring a white man because he seems like a “good guy” with a clean look and a firm handshake; a police officer killing a black child holding what looks to be a gun; continued concern with Hillary Clinton’s emails (yes, in 2019.)
Fallacious thought is incredibly durable. As described by meteorologist J. Marshall Shepherd in a great TED talk, three of the most important psychological biases for shaping a person’s worldview are 1) confirmation bias, 2) cognitive dissonance, and 2) the Dunning-Kruger effect. Briefly, these phenomena explain that 1) we seek out evidence that supports our existing thoughts and beliefs, 2) we reject evidence that is contrary to our existing thoughts and beliefs, and 3) regardless of how badly informed we are, we think we know as much as experts. Combined, these effects make it very difficult to change someone’s viewpoint. Now, social media has amplified the effects of fallacious psychology. Fallacious thought is not just durable, it’s also contagious. Due to the echo-chamber effect, to change an individual’s mind you will need to not only overcome their personal fallacies, but also to restrict the influence of their social group. Then, if you are ultimately successful at changing their beliefs, you’ll also need to accommodate the individual’s need for a new social circle, as they will be ostracized from their previous social group.
Changing an irrational person’s belief is challenging and exhausting. It is also hard to teach and encourage people to think rationally. But it is becoming evident that, for the goals of a stable, prosperous, and peaceful society, we should consider taking action to diminish the spread and impact of irrationality.
There are some that would argue that irrationality should be countered respectfully: that believers in foolish causes should be listened to and then reasoned with, sincerely and humanely. There is also the approach of social ostracism: making others feel gauche (or causing some other emotional repercussion) for espousing their foolish beliefs. I would argue that these approaches have been proven to be ineffective, at least at their current levels of practice. We would need to recruit huge numbers of “counter-fallacy squads” to stabilize and reduce the negative effects of irrationality to tolerable levels. Embarrassment is also psychologically slippery: when clear racists can claim “I’m not racist” (and believe it themselves), the term has lost all meaning. And should we even be debating racist family members on the pros and cons of white supremacy?
Another possibility is punishment. But it is doubtful that fining or jailing people for reckless Twitter usage will ever be socially acceptable or even effective in Western democracies. So that leaves one final option: regulation.
At first, regulating the impact of irrationality may seem like an ethically dubious approach. Liberal societies value freedom of expression, and even blatant falsehoods are protected by U.S. law (except for very limited circumstances.) But, there are areas, like gambling, in which human irrationality (poor estimation of risks, addiction) is exploited by businesses, and society has generally deemed the ills of gambling to be sufficiently serious to warrant strict regulation. So, there is precedent.
What might irrationality regulation look like? First, social media could be regulated to prevent the spread of false information, bullying, and hate speech. This is already being tried in some European countries.
Going further, social media might also be deemed too addictive for human brains. Technology has been designed to “hack” into the reward system of human psychology, and regulations against this addictive nature already been considered, with some jurisdictions banning “loot boxes” in video games. Social media celebrates the ability to spray whatever reflexive, provocative verbal turds come to one’s mind, rather than rewarding complex thoughts and ideas with inherent value. Social media use could be could be limited, to, say, one post per day, or even taxed, like a carbon tax, to offset the negative externalities of excessive communication. Social media also has a detrimental effect on young minds, and internet companies have been too far too lax on underage social media usage. Although they have claimed to be cracking down on this, Facebook has failed to act to ban accounts of underage children in my own family despite our multiple attempts to report them. Governments could impose stricter age requirements, and impose stiff penalties for companies who allow children to violate them. France, for example, has banned smartphones for school children up to 9th grade.
And although social media is a massive source of misinformation, some traditional news sources (most blatantly, Fox News) may be unacceptably biased. Opinion shows could be labeled clearly and fact-checking could be mandatory. (As an aside, the plague of idiotic “news reporting” on replies to Twitter posts cannot die soon enough.) Moreover, laws with real teeth could be enforced against moneyed interests (foreign and domestic), emotional advertising, and lying during political campaigning.
This last idea may raise ethical hackles. Freedom of the press is a cherished right in the U.S., and regulating the news is a breach of that right. One might argue that even bans on lies or omissions, or fact-checking requirements, are a slippery slope to government control over the media. This raises an important general point to consider: if regulations are adopted against irrationality, they can be exploited for nefarious ends. By what mechanisms could a government establish such regulations fairly? What safeguards should be established to avoid corruption of those mechanisms?
More philosophically, is the regulation of certain types or mechanisms of expression fundamentally incompatible with freedom of speech? Is the freedom of speech worth giving up for a more civil society? These debates are currently ongoing in France and Germany with regards to hate speech bans. But let’s be clear: drastic measures will need to be taken to slow down the degradation of discourse, and in the upcoming decades society will need to be rational and resilient to tackle the world’s toughest challenges, such as global warming, job displacement through automation, AI, and armed conflict between nuclear powers. Perhaps we can resolve this dilemma by dialing back only the freedom of infinite, public speech afforded by mass media. After all, I can’t legally purchase a machine gun: even in America, the right to bear arms is not unlimited.