Rationality (Gen Ed 1066)

Semester: 

Spring

Offered: 

2020

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Steven Pinker

How can members of a species that discovered symbolic logic and the double helix also believe that the earth is flat and that Hillary Clinton ran a child-sex ring out of a pizzeria? Human rationality is very much in the news, as we struggle to understand how an era with unpreceded scientific sophistication could harbor so much fake news, conspiracy theorizing, and “post-truth” rhetoric. Rationality has also long been a foundational topic in the academy, including philosophy, psychology, economics, mathematics, and government.

Part I of “Rationality” covers the nature of rationality, including logic, statistical decision theory, Bayesian reasoning, game theory, expected value, critical thinking, and common logical and statistical fallacies.

Part II covers the cognitive science of rationality, including classic writings by psychologists and behavioral economists. Are humans a “rational animal”? Can machines be artificially rational? Could our irrational heuristics and biases be evolutionary adaptations to a vanished world? Could beliefs that are factually irrational be socially rational as expressions of loyalty to a cultural or political tribe? Can people be cured of their irrationality?

Part III covers applications. How can our opinions and practices be made more rational? Examples may include policy (Nudge), crime (Compstat), development aid (Randomistas), sports (Moneyball), reporting (Politifact), polling (538.com), health (Quality-Adjusted Life Years), psychotherapy (Feedback-informed treatment), forecasting (prediction markets & tournaments), and philanthropy (Effective Altruism—a major focus). Some topics will be presented by expert guest lecturers.

Assignments will include a midterm exam, class quizzes, and a capstone project, in which students will choose a cause or concern and explore how principles of rationality could make it more attainable.

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See also: Ethics & Civics