The best books on rationality

The Books I Picked & Why

Rational Choice in an Uncertain World: The Psychology of Judgment and Decision Making

By Reid Hastie, Robyn M. Dawes

Rational Choice in an Uncertain World: The Psychology of Judgment and Decision Making

Why this book?

This is technically a textbook, and isn’t marketed as a book you bring to the beach. But sometimes it’s more satisfying to have the big ideas on a topic patiently explained to you in an orderly fashion than to try to pick them up from stories and arguments. This paperback, coauthored by one of my graduate school teachers (Hastie), explains the famous discoveries by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman on biases in human reasoning, which Kahneman presented in his bestseller Thinking, Fast and Slow (too obvious for me to include on my list). It also explains lesser-known but still fascinating discoveries, and has helpful appendices for those of us who forget some of the basics of probability theory.


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The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth

By Jonathan Rauch

The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth

Why this book?

If humans are the rational animal, why does the world seem to be losing its mind? Why the fake news, the conspiracy theories, the post-truth rhetoric? Rauch explains that truth is a precious commodity, which none of us is smart enough to discover on our own. We depend on institutions and norms – like science, with empirical testing, and journalism, with editing and fact-checking, and democracy, with checks and balances, and academia, with peer review and freedom of inquiry – to make us collectively smarter than any of us is individually. This infrastructure of truth is constantly being corroded – today, by social media and authoritarian populism – and must be cherished and fortified.


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Rationality for Mortals: How People Cope with Uncertainty

By Gerd Gigerenzer

Rationality for Mortals: How People Cope with Uncertainty

Why this book?

Gigerenzer is in some ways the un-Tversky-and-Kahneman, emphasizing the ways in which humans are more rational than they seem, and the ways that difficult problems can be made intuitive. This lively collection explains the surprisingly deep and perplexing question of what “probability” even means, and presents many puzzles form everyday reckoning of risk, including: What does the weathercaster mean when she says “There’s a 30 percent chance of rain”?


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A Treatise of Human Nature

By David Hume

A Treatise of Human Nature

Why this book?

When I wrote Rationality, I mentioned Hume 32 times. He didn’t think of everything, but he explained an astonishing range of topics related to rationality, including causation versus correlation, is versus ought, and individual versus collective self-interest. His follow-up, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, explained why we shouldn’t believe in miracles. He explored all of these topics with clarity and wit, putting modern academic writing to shame.


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The Bias That Divides Us: The Science and Politics of Myside Thinking

By Keith E. Stanovich

The Bias That Divides Us: The Science and Politics of Myside Thinking

Why this book?

Stanovich is a cognitive psychologist who showed that rationality is related, but not identical, to intelligence. In this timely book he shows that smart people, and everyone else, are victims of a powerful bias to show that our own tribe is virtuous and wise and knowledgeable and the other tribe is evil and stupid and ignorant. Needless to say it explains a lot about our current moment.


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