The age of non-reason

2 minute read

An analysis of Google Books suggests that rational language has been on the decline since 1980.

Objective fact, truth, logic and rationality went out of fashion around the same time as shoulder pads, high-waisted jeans and leotards, according to scientists at Indiana University in the US.

Their analysis of millions of online books, published in PNAS, found that verbs like ‘conclude’ and ‘deduce’ started to be replaced by sentiment-laden terms like ‘believe’ and ‘feel’ around the 1980s.

This was a reversal in the trend observed since 1850, which had seen words describing rational thinking becoming increasingly popular over time. 

“The post-truth era has taken many by surprise,” the researchers said. 

“Here, we use massive language analysis to demonstrate that the rise of fact-free argumentation may perhaps be understood as part of a deeper change.”

The researchers also examined words relating to rational thinking in New York Times articles and found a similar trend. The pattern was also observed in fiction books. 

The uptick in logical thinking words may have been due to the rapid changes in science and technology between 1850 and 1980, which popularised scientific thinking, the researchers speculated. 

The reversal might have had something to do with the economic difficulties experiences in the early 1980s, which made the rational arguments for bad policies harder to stomach. 

Co-author Ingrid van de Leemput notes, “Whatever the drivers, our results suggest that the post-truth phenomenon is linked to a historical seesaw in the balance between our two fundamental modes of thinking: Reasoning versus intuition. If true, it may well be impossible to reverse the sea change we signal. Instead, societies may need to find a new balance, explicitly recognizing the importance of intuition and emotion, while at the same time making best use of the much needed power of rationality and science to deal with topics in their full complexity.”

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