Thoughts on Homo Irrationalis

One of the biggest unaddressed issues in science fiction and fantasy is the fact that, whether we want to admit it or not, we as human beings are really not very rational. At best, we’re selectively rational… otherwise known as using rational arguments to support what we already decided to do or to oppose what we don’t want to do. Just as we’ve finally mastered enough technology to get to the point where we can move off the planet so that all the human eggs, so to speak, are not in the same basket, we effectively slow down and turn away from space travel. Just when we’re almost to the point of being able to prevent disastrous asteroidal impacts, we scale back on sky scans and enabling technology.

Yet… should we really be surprised at such irrationality?

If we as human beings are so smart, why do we fret and worry about our jobs, our social status, our earnings, and so many similar circumstances… and then drive while drunk or using cell phones… or while drowsy or distracted… without fastening the seat-belts?

Put another way, motor vehicle deaths every year are nine times greater than all job-related deaths, and for those of us not involved in farming, forestry, and heavy construction, automobile accidents cause fifty times more deaths than anything in our occupations. In fact, the only large-scale work field with a high death rate from the occupation is agriculture/forestry, and even in recent years, there were almost twice as many deaths in farming and forestry accidents as combat deaths in Iraq.

Another example, albeit in a different context, was revealed by two sets of statistics revealed by the state of Utah. Utah boasts the highest high school graduation rates [something like 92%], the lowest per pupil expenditure on primary and secondary education, and one of the highest rates of failure by high school graduates on national competency exams — over 25% of graduating Utah high school seniors cannot pass basic competency levels in reading, mathematics, or general skills, i.e., they can’t understand a newspaper editorial, balance a checkbook, or read and understand a map. Now, these numbers don’t seem contradictory to me. If you don’t spend much money on education, have a high rate of teacher turnover, and lenient grading standards, then exactly what should a rational person expect when the students are assessed more objectively?

Years ago, a health researcher told me [and I’m taking it on face value] that one of the reasons that early tests on the effects of tobacco smoke on rats didn’t reveal elevated rates of cancer was that the rats piled straw and anything else they could find against the smoke inlets in their cages. Even if this story is exaggerated, millions of human beings, supposedly far more rational than rats, and now with the scientific knowledge of exactly how tobacco impacts the human body, choose to smoke and continue smoking. Is this exactly rational?

The United States possesses one of the most prosperous and open economies in the world, and there are millions of jobs that U.S. citizens don’t want to do, and there aren’t even enough Americans to do them. So… we should be amazed that we have 12 million illegal immigrants? One can say, of course, that the immigrants are behaving rationally in trying to improve their lot in life, but is the other side of that equation that prosperity enables irrationality?

Maybe… just maybe, that’s why great civilizations fall… because great prosperity removes, for a time, the constraints of rationality. But then, does it make a great SF novel? Nah… After all, doesn’t great human technology in the hard SF tradition solve all the problems?