Summary: I wonder how attractive rationality as a tribe and worldview is to the average person, when the competition is not constrained by verifiability or consistency and is therefore able optimize around offering imaginary status superstimuli to its adherents.
Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that 'my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.'
— Isaac Asimov
I've long been puzzled by the capability of people to reject obvious conclusions and opt for convoluted arguments that boil down to logical fallacies when it comes to defending a belief they have a stake in. When someone resists doing the math, despite an obvious capability to do so in other similar cases, we are right to suspect external factors at play. A framework that seems congruent with the evolutionary history of our species is that of beliefs as signals of loyalty to a tribe. Such a framework would explain the rejection of evolution and other scientific theories by large swathes of the world's population, especially religious population, despite access to a flood of evidence in support.
I will leave support of the tribal signalling framework to others, and examine the consequences for popular support of rationality and science if indeed such a framework successfully approximates reality. The best way I can do that is by examining one popular alternative: The Christian religion which I am most familiar with, in particular its evangelical protestant branch. I am fairly confident that this narrative can be ported to other branches of Christianity and abrahamic faiths fairly easily and the equivalents for other large religions can be constructed with some extra effort.
"Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth"
— The Bible (New International Version), Matthew 5:5
What is the narrative that an evangelical Christian buys into regarding their own status? They belong to the 'chosen people', worshipping a god that loves them, personally, created them with special care, and has a plan for their individual lives. They are taking part in a battle with absolute evil, that represents everything disgusting and despicable, which is manifested in the various difficulties they face in their lives. The end-game however is known. The believers, once their faith is tested in this world, are destined for an eternity of bliss with their brethren in the presence of their god, while the enemies will be thrown in the eternal fire for eternal torment. In this narrative, the disadvantaged in this life are very important. There exist propositions which can be held with absolute certainty. This presents a black-white divide in which moral judgements are easy, as long as corner cases can be swept under the rug. Each and every person, regardless of their social standing or capability, can be of utmost importance. Everyone can potentially save a soul for all eternity! In fact, the gospels place emphasis on the humble and the meek:
So those who are last now will be first then, and those who are first will be last.
— The Bible (New International Version), Matthew 20:16
What is the rational alternative to this battle-hardened, well-optimized worldview? That there is no grand narrative. If such a narrative exists, (pursuit of truth, combating existential risk, <insert yours here>), the stars of this narrative are those blessed with intelligence and education such that they can digest the background material and make these pursuits on the cutting edge. It turns out, your enemies are not innately evil, either. You may have just misunderstood each other. You have to constantly struggle to fight your own biases, to no certain outcome. In fact, we are to hold no proposition with 100% certainty. On the plus side, science and rationality offers, or at least aspires to offer, a consistent worldview free from cognitive dissonance for those that can detect the alternative's contradictions. On the status side, for those of high intelligence, it puts them at the top of the hierarchy, being in the line of the great heroes of thought that have gone before, uncovering all the knowledge we have so far. But this is not hard to perceive as elitism, especially since the barriers to entry are difficult, if not impossible, to overcome for the vast majority of humans. Rationality may have an edge if it can be shown to improve an individual's life prospects. I am not aware of such research, especially one that untangles rationality from intelligence. Perhaps the most successful example, Pick-up artists, are out of limits for this community because their terminals are deemed offensive. While we define rationality as the way to win, the win that we focus on in this community is a collective one, therefore unlikely to confer an individual with high status in the meantime if this individual does not belong to the intellectually gifted few.
So what does rationality have to offer to the common man to gain their support? The role of hard-working donor, whose contribution is in a replaceable commodity, e.g. money? The role of passive consumer of scientific products and documentaries? It seems to me that in the marketplace of worldview-tribes, rationality and science do not present themselves an attractive option for large swathes of the earth's population, and why would they? They were never developed as such. To make things worse, the alternatives have millennia of cultural evolution to better fit their targets, unconstrained by mundane burdens such as verifiability and consistency. I can perfectly see the attraction of the 'rational irrationality' point of view where someone would compartmentalises rationality into result-sensitive 'get things done' areas, while choosing to affirm unverifiable and/or incoherent propositions that nevertheless superstimulate one's feel-good status receptors.
I see two routes here: The one is that we decide that popular support is not necessary. We focus our recruiting efforts on the upper strata of intelligence and influence. If it's a narrative that they need, we can't help them. We're in the business of providing raw truth. Humans are barely on the brink of general intelligence, anyway. A recent post claimed that an IQ of 130+ was practically a prerequisite for appreciating and comprehending the sequences. The truths are hard to grasp and inconvenient, but ultimately it doesn't matter if a narrative can be developed for the common person. They can keep believing in creationism, and we'll save humanity for them anyway.
On the other hand, just because the scientific/rational worldview has not been fitted to the common man, it doesn't mean it can't be done. (But there is no guarantee that it can.) The alternative is to explore the open avenues that may lead to a more palatable narrative, including popularising many of the rationality themes that are articulated in this community. People show interest when I speak to them about cognitive biases but I have no accessible resources to give them that would start from there as a beachhead and progress into other more esoteric topics. And I don't find it incredible that rationality could provably aid in better individual outcomes, we just need solid research around the proposition. (The effects of various valleys of bad rationality or shifts in terminals due to rationality exposure may complicate that).
I am not taking a position on which course of action is superior, or that these are the only alternatives. But it does seem to me that, if my reasoning and assumptions are correct, we have to make up our mind on what exactly it is we want to do as the Less Wrong community.
Edit/Note: I initially planned for this to be posted as a normal article, but seeing how the voting is... equal in both directions, but that there is a lively discussion developing, I think this article is just fine in the discussion section.