Long term rationality
Posted by aogThursday, 21 July 2005 at 11:03 TrackBack Ping URL

Lots of people have been beating on George Lakoff lately. Lakoff is the guy who thinks that the Modern American Left can win electorally by “re-framing” the issues, i.e. doing better marketing. Having mocked him previously about this, I’ll forbear to beat him again. But a comment by Big Arm Woman got me thinking about Lakoff’s world view, as “stated here”;http://www.nytimes.com/2005/07/17/magazine/17DEMOCRATS.html?pagewanted=all

According to Lakoff, Democrats have been wrong to assume that people are rational actors who make their decisions based on facts; in reality, he says, cognitive science has proved that all of us are programmed to respond to the frames that have been embedded deep in our unconscious minds, and if the facts don’t fit the frame, our brains simply reject them.

There are several points here. My first thought was that Lakoff must be one of the few surviving Skinnerians. I just have to wonder how some one like that justifies writing a book, since the book won’t be informative but simply a response to the frames to which he has been exposed. One also wonders how new information about reality is ever acquired if we’re all just executing pre-programmed responses1. Perhaps Lakoff views the human race as the intelligent organism, rather than individuals (which wouldn’t be much of a variant on much of the thought from the MAL).

More significantly, we see that Lakoff is shifting from “people aren’t completely rational actors” to “people are completely irrational actors” which are not quite the same thing. That’s the sleight of mind that lets Lakoff slip out from the bounds of reality. It seems to me that people’s rationality is very similar to that of the stock markets (which wouldn’t be all that surprising, would it?). The smaller, fewer and shorter term the decisions, the less likely it is to be rational. But over time, over many decisions, rationality emerges. Just like in the stock market one day’s trading tells you basically nothing about the state of the economy but a ten year price chart is quite informative. But Lakoff and his supports can’t go there because the long term political trends aren’t very favorable to the MAL. On a deeper level it would also be to admit that culture, which can represent millenia of accumulated experience and decisions, is very important and not easily susceptible to short term improvement and once you go there, you’re a conservative.

1 I’m sure Lakoff and his followers have the special “get out of frame based responses” card that is issued to the special few who’ve risen above the ignorant masses. But how do we know that the card issuers aren’t irrational?