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Rationalisation and Education

“Man is not a rational animal; he is a rationalizing animal,” wrote Robert Heinlein.

It’s tempting for the educated to scornfully apply this maxim to those whose views seem less enlightened: to supporters of Brexit or Trump or personal ownership of guns. But as political scientists Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels caution in their book Democracy for Realists, the educated are just as much at risk.

“The historical record leaves little doubt that the educated, including the highly educated, have gone astray in their moral and political thinking as often as anyone else… Well-informed people are likely to have more elaborate and internally consistent worldviews than inattentive people, but that just reflects the fact that their rationalisations are better rehearsed.”

In other words, says David Runciman:

“What the educated are better at is sounding like they know what they are talking about, because they have been trained in how to make an argument… Education gives you the ability to tailor your arguments to suit your personal preferences, which is why it is a big asset on the job market. But it does little to help tailor your personal preferences to suit the best arguments.”

Everyone rationalises. The educated are just better at it than others.

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