Stop being unreasonable!
This statement, by itself, without any context, will likely put most people into a defensive posture. It feels like an attack. It has been used in the past to dismiss your point or shut you down. So when you hear it, it is the proverbial red rag to a bull. But it shouldn’t be!
Reason is the mechanism that we use, as a society, to structure conversations and come to conclusions on important topics. Stating our position, asserting what we hold to be true, why that is the case, enumerating our assumptions and areas where we could be incorrect. We then provide a path forward for the discussion. That is reason. To do anything contrary to it, is un-reason-able.
Where unreason can be seen most clearly in the outside world is in the way we discuss the controversial topic of climate change. We seem incapable of applying reason consistently to the discussion. We hold the ideal that, as a species, we are capable of changing the climate but simultaneously we are powerless to do anything to improve the situation, short of a government mandated silver bullet. We can only be told how to change, despite not being told how to damage the environment in the first place. This doesn’t follow reason.
It’s not that it is unreasonable, we have precedence for how to reason through a global problem. The prime example is the ozone layer hole of the 80s/90s. Here we started using a new compound (CFC’s), it made our lives easier for refrigeration and helping our hair look fabulous. We then started to notice a correlation between the rise in CFC’s and a depleting of the ozone layer, as there was extra solar radiation hitting the ground. There was strong debate over our ability to effect such change on something as massive as the planet, but reason prevailed and it was demonstrated we were. We subsequently switched from CFC’s and began using alternatives, almost over-night. Since then the damage has been repairing itself.
This is a fantastic example of large scale collective reasoning. “We are causing a problem, here is evidence, …reasoned arguments… we have a solution, lets fix it.” “Ok!” Done! So why is it so difficult to apply the same reason with climate change today?
To be fair, the problem of climate change is on a different scale to that of the hole in the ozone layer. The system is more complex and the number of factors is exponentially larger. However it is still not unreasonable. There is consensus that the climate does change, there is consensus that CO2 is a contributor to change and that humans have been producing a lot of CO2 over the last century. However this is where the consensus ends, reason goes out the window and the population seems to divide into two main camps, broadly speaking.
The pro-climate change camp speaks from science, citing the above reason, CO2 causes climate change and humans create CO2. However, they then invoke emotions to try and bring it to a conclusion. They rely on tactics of fear and guilt, to convince people to change. The world will end if we don’t change! Completely over-selling it, not unlike the mentality of…
Despite all the good science, their predictions continually fail to materialise and those worst cases scenarios haven’t happened. Yet.
“We need to panic!”
These are words that have been said, with straight faces, in reputable institutions. We need to stop using any fossil fuels, despite the lack of a viable, scalable alternative. Give up eating anything you didn’t grow in your back garden. Stop traveling, unless it is in a magic carbon neutral machine. Use technologies with known reliability issues to generate energy. Basically just stop any sort of progress as society. This is unreasonable. We have the right end goal in mind, the betterment of society and protection of the planet, but we are making unreasoned leaps to get there.
The opposition are equally unreasonable. Again, they use reason to a point but fall at the last hurdle. They only state positions, they do not suggest a path forward. They outline how fossil fuels have brought us great prosperity and have lifted many people out of poverty. True! That wind and solar are unreliable. True! That nuclear has a surprisingly good safety record, despite the hysteria around it. Also true! However they frequently fall short of advocating any action. They’re not saying that we should build more nuclear plants, just that it is not as bad as people make it out. Wind and solar are not good investments, but offer no alternatives. It’ll all just work out if we keep moving forward. Essentially just rebutting the points made by pro-climate change groups but not helping society to reason our way to an actual solution.
I take the approach that we need to lie somewhere in the middle of these two camps. To be reasonable. We don’t need to panic, we need to be calm and considered. We don’t need to feel guilty about living our lives, regressing to a pre-industrial society but we do need to do something. Something tangible that will not cripple us as a society but is not just a pointless virtue signal, like banning plastic straws.
A good example of this is Boyan Slat who is looking to clean up the oceans. Will it solve all our problems? No! Is it meant to? Also no! It is a small reasoned step, to remove some of the waste already out there. It was taken by an individual and if successful, could help improve things. Encouraging him and others like him for taking a positive step would build towards a better society. Instead people criticise the plan, poking holes in it before it has even had a chance and then call for more government intervention.
Which seems to be a recurring trend. We are hell bent on being controlled by the government. A central authority that tells us what to do, like children, rather than us taking responsibility for our own actions. We hand over our autonomy and responsibility, then bemoan the results that come, as a direct result of the mandates from our all knowing, all powerful leaders. Results like those awful paper straws that turn to mush after two sips.
Why does this happen? Because a bloated central governance system has no idea how to reason through a problem like this. They only have one tool at their disposal, the ban hammer. Coupled with this single tool, is the reasoning ability of a caveman. “Thing bad, get rid of bad thing, then things be good, win next election.” But things don’t be good!
Where this comes into my daily life is that I see the same thing played out on a regular basis at work, especially around things like release processes. These are complex systems, with many moving parts that can at times be difficult to reason through. They involve many individuals and some central management frameworks.
When a release hits an issue, teams fall into the same two camps as above. The first will employ reason to a degree, “The tests passed in my local environment and there is no reason they shouldn’t work”, but then invoke guilt to get their way; “Can we just make an exception on this failure, as we really need to get this release out! We promise to fix the issue later.”. It starts out using reason, “we can demonstrate that we have the quality necessary for a release” but then switches to an emotional plea, based on conflicting evidence, because…
This is contrasted by those who are generally just oppositional. They throw as many facts at you as possible to explain all the externalities and complexities involved. “The environment is flaky”, “those other components don’t work well”, “production doesn’t behave like this!”. That the issue can’t possibly be their fault, invoking everything short of ghosts in the machine. As in the rest of the world, they have no interest in providing a path towards improvements, they only want to defend their positions, avoiding taking up the responsibility to actually change. Keep the status quo and all will be fine.
Both of these approaches are unreasonable. If a test failed, it failed for a reason. That reason can be found, it simply requires the application of effort to do so. It may be something, that on the surface will not solve all problems but could go some way to improving the situation. Doing this requires individuals to adopt responsibility and take actions that will generate those improvements.
However, here, as in the wider world people don’t want to look inwardly at improving, they want central management to mandate a solution. Guess what happens next? With the same tool at their disposal, management start banning things. In many cases removing teams autonomy to release. “You make mistake, mistake bad, get rid option to make mistake. Then things be good!”… But things don’t be good!
When teams abandon reason and responsibility, looking to a higher power to resolve their issues, the end result is always the same. An unreasonable overreaction. Being unreasonable leads to further unreason.
Take back the term Unreasonable
Ultimately we need to take back the term unreasonable and regain the ability to call things what they are. When someone is not applying reason, we should call it unreasonable. This does not mean you are against the person or trying to shut them down. It is simply pointing out that the way they are discussing things is not in line with reason and we should collectively work towards a more reasoned discussion. Doing this in a civil manner will enable teams and society as a whole, to solve problems in a reasoned way, progressing through the full cycle of reason towards our common goal.
The alternative is to continue the endless cycle of circular arguments, switching out reason for emotion and becoming entrenched in defending positions that don’t lead us anywhere. Encouraging us to surrender our inherent autonomy, to those that can reason no better than us.
So if you think “autonomy good”, “discussion good”, “progress good”, then, be reasonable!