One of the spinoffs of my short research into epistemic rationality is the realization that politics is a rationality catastrophe. When a person engages in thought, or even worse, debate, about politics, they will most probably deviate strongly from the standards of rational thinking and distort reality. Put differently, politics is a trigger for a large battery of cognitive biases; confirmation bias as usual gets honorable mention.
Ok, so this doesn’t really count as a new realization, I’ve been making analogies between politics and sports for a long time. But nailing down vague or half-baked ideas into precise explicit form feels like a novelty, even if most of the information was already there.
Some quotes that illustrate the matter.
People go funny in the head when talking about politics. The evolutionary reasons for this are so obvious as to be worth belaboring: In the ancestral environment, politics was a matter of life and death. And sex, and wealth, and allies, and reputation… When, today, you get into an argument about whether “we” ought to raise the minimum wage, you’re executing adaptations for an ancestral environment where being on the wrong side of the argument could get you killed. – Eliezer Yudkowsky
The typical citizen drops down to a lower level of mental performance as soon as he enters the political field. He argues and analyzes in a way which he would readily recognize as infantile within the sphere of his real interests. He becomes primitive again. – Joseph A. Schumpeter
The proposition here is that the human brain is, in large part, a machine for winning arguments, a machine for convincing others that its owner is in the right – and thus a machine for convincing its owner of the same thing. The brain is like a good lawyer: given any set of interests to defend, it sets about convincing the world of their moral and logical worth, regardless of whether they in fact have any of either. Like a lawyer, the human brain wants victory, not truth; and, like a lawyer, it is sometimes more admirable for skill than for virtue. – Robert Wright, The Moral Animal
If people can’t think clearly about anything that has become part of their identity, then all other things being equal, the best plan is to let as few things into your identity as possible. – Paul Graham
Yudkowsky’s point is that irrationality is best understood as a fact of evolutionary psychology, especially in politics. Another interesting insight is the framing of political thinking in terms of identity, self-defense/self-esteem, us vs them (sports anyone?), as Graham suggests.
Now the remaining question is, does thinking rationally let you “get ahead”? Is there an advantage to it? Or could it be a handicap? A rational person could be unable to establish strong ties and membership inside cohesive groups precisely because of his/her clear detached thinking. And this seems a strong disadvantage in society where groups can exert power for the benefit of their individuals.
So ironically, it could be that nature is still right! Those evolutionary adaptations that worked in the ancestral environment are still “winning” today, even if from the standards of correct thinking they are aberrations. It could be one of those funny cases where epistemic and instrumental rationality are not aligned.