How to be Rational about Rationality

So when we look at religion and, to some extent ancestral superstitions, we should consider what purpose they serve, rather than focusing on the notion of “belief”, epistemic belief in its strict scientific definition. In science, belief is literal belief; it is right or wrong, never metaphorical. In real life, belief is an instrument to do things, not the end product. This is similar to vision: the purpose of your eyes is to orient you in the best possible way, and get you out of trouble when needed, or help you find a prey at distance. Your eyes are not sensors aimed at getting the electromagnetic spectrum of reality. Their job description is not to produce the most accurate scientific representation of reality; rather the most useful one for survival.

The sacred and the human (

Today’s atheist polemics ignore the main insight of the anthropology of religion—that religion is not primarily about God, but about the human need for the sacred. As René Girard argues, religion is not the cause of violence, but the solution to it


A Conversation with Malcolm Gladwell: Revisiting Brown v. Board

No one is disputing that segregation was a heinous policy with far-reaching ramifications; the question is where do you locate the harm of segregation? And the court chose to locate the harm squarely inside the hearts and psyches of black children, whereas I would locate the harm in the world. I would say that the harm is located in the structure of laws and institutions that have the effect of systematically inhibiting and disempowering African Americans.

That may sound like a minor distinction. It is not. It’s a fundamental distinction. And particularly when you understand that it is the deliberate strategy of Southern whites to try and shift the racial conversation from institutions and political structures to hearts and minds. They’re trying to do that because they understand that if we can locate the argument entirely inside black people’s psyches, then we can leave institutional structures in place that systematically disenfranchise African Americans.

.. It’s because they’re locating the problem inside the hearts and minds of black kids that they can’t focus on teachers.*

..  it seems like they made a choice to pursue an argument that would convince the court. It didn’t seem obvious to me that they could have won making a structural argument, since that would involve taking power from people who would stand in their way.

.. Many African-American intellectuals have looked back on that and said, “You know what, we would’ve been better off if they had not overturned Plessy v. Ferguson,” and, “You want to play separate and equal? Let’s really do separate and equal,” and call them on their bluff. 

.. Like I said, many black intellectuals have subsequently said, “Look maybe what the court should’ve done in Brown in 1954 is say, ‘Alright, let’s actually do separate and equal—prove to me they’re equal before we go any further. Let’s start by equalizing funding. Let’s go down the list. If you want to have a separate law school for white people in the state of Texas then you have to prove to me that every element in the black law school is the equivalent of the white law school.’” That strikes me as being both a radical and a doable argument, at least in the short term. And then when you have equality—real equality—then you take the next step, and remove [segregation]. I’m not entirely convinced that would’ve been the right way to go—but I think that is an argument worth hearing.

..  I wouldn’t focus on the damage done to a person’s psyche, the way the Brown lawyers did for legal reasons, but rather on the burden of existing within a context that treats you as inferior. Other people’s beliefs, especially when they determine your outcomes, matter a great deal.

.. Maintaining separate school systems for blacks and whites in the south was very expensive, and they were able to maintain those systems only if they impoverished the black half. That’s what made it economically palatable to taxpayers in rural and urban southern school districts. They’re running two systems. It’s not cheap. And they get away with it by not giving any money to the black half. If you came along and said, “You have to fund the black half the same as you fund the white half,” you effectively force integration. But you force them to integrate themselves, as opposed to doing it from above

.. You’ve got to decide, what am I trying to do here? Am I trying to win a political battle, as expeditiously and expediently as possible, or am I trying to make a larger moral argument about race and society?

..  When they have a black teacher, black students are much less likely to be suspended and are more likely to get into the gifted program. But we don’t yet know what’s happening psychologically. Do the black teachers open doors, or do they motivate or inspire students?

..  In a sense, economists are much better suited for dealing with these big data sets. It’s incumbent on psychologists to figure out how to do that or collaborate with economists. But economists don’t necessarily care about the mechanisms, as long as there’s a difference. The problem then becomes, where’s that difference coming from? Is it about having someone that cares about you, regardless of race? Or is it about seeing someone like me in a position of authority, or seeing that person-like-me be successful?

.. The economists can look at the data set and describe the phenomenon with real precision. The psychologist can look at that same data and give us possible mechanisms—why is it happening? And then there is a role here for the sociologist, or even the anthropologist, to go in and, in a fine-grained way, to describe the experience of the participants.

.. there were enormous numbers of oral histories done over the last 30 to 40 years, and I drew on some of them. Interviews done in the 60s and 70s with black teachers, talking about the experience of being a teacher moving from an all-black school to a white school. That stuff—very anecdotal, very individual, placed alongside psychological accounts of mechanism and economic accounts of exactly what happened—that stuff is really powerful. Those three things in combination, I think, can tell you something really important.