Article Summary: “The Rise and Fall of Rationality in Language” by many

Title: The Rise and Fall of Rationality in Language
Author: Marten Scheffera, Ingrid van de Leemputa, Els Weinans, and Johan Bollenc,
Scope: 4 stars
Readability: 2 stars
My personal rating: 3 stars
See more on my book rating system.

Topic of Article

The authors use content analysis of writing since 1850 to count the use of rationality-based words versus sentiment-based words.

My Comments

I would not recommend reading the article (unless you are a real wonk), but I would recommend reading this summary and taking a look at their graphics. I think they are on to something very important, but their analysis of the causes is very weak.

The timing of the increase in rationality-based words in the 19th Century fits in well with Peter Watson’s “Convergence: The Idea at the Heart of Science” where he claims that modern science started in the 1850s with the idea of conservation of energy.

The sudden increase in sentiment is much better explained by Helen Pluckrose & James Lindsay’s “Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity” They claim that Post-Modernism, an ideology hostile to the concept of rationality, rose in the 1970s. Post-modernism was replaced by the far more aggressive theory of action, that they call Applied Post-Modernism (more commonly known as Woke), grew rapidly after 2000. As they point out, social media played a key role in spreading this new Woke ideology rapidly.

Key Take-aways

  • Starting in the 1850s, we see a clear trend of increased usage of rationality-based words in writing.
  • Then suddenly, the trend reversed in the 1970.
  • The new trend accelerated around 2007.
  • Those two trends are seen in content analyses of:
    • Non-fiction books
    • Fiction books
    • New York Times
    • Google searches

Important Quotes from Book

The post-truth era where “feelings trump facts” (1) may seem special when it comes to the historical balance between emotion and reasoning. However, quantifying this intuitive notion remains difficult as systematic surveys of public sentiment and worldviews do not have a very long history. We address this gap by systematically analyzing word use in millions of books in English and Spanish covering the period from 1850 to 2019.

We systematically analyze long-term dynamics in the frequency of the 5,000 most used words in English and Spanish (7) in search of indicators of changing world views.

The post-truth era has taken many by surprise. 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. After the year 1850, the use of sentiment-laden words in Google Books declined systematically, while the use of words associated with fact-based argumentation rose steadily. This pattern reversed in the 1980s, and this change accelerated around 2007, when across languages, the frequency of fact-related words dropped while emotion-laden language surged, a trend paralleled by a shift from collectivistic to individualistic language.

Despite the close relationship between book trends and Google search interests in recent years, it remains possible that the long-term patterns we find are in part artifacts of the data and our choice of words. With respect to the latter, the 5,000 most frequent words in any language represent an overwhelming sample of common language use, buffering against the problem that any individual word may be subject to fashions or change meaning.

Still, probably the most important caveat of using book texts is that they are a biased representation of language, a bias that may change over time.

What precisely caused the observed stagnation in the long-term trend around 1980 remains perhaps even more difficult to pinpoint. The late 1980s witnessed the start of the internet and its growing role in society. Perhaps more importantly, there could be a connection to tensions arising from neoliberal policies which were defended on rational arguments, while the economic fruits were reaped by an increasingly small fraction of societies.

The 2007 shift also coincides with the global financial crisis which may have had an impact. However, earlier economic crises such as the Great Depression (1929 to 1939) did not leave discernable marks on our indicators of book language. Perhaps significantly, 2007 was also roughly the start of a near-universal global surge of social media.

Importantly, the trend reversal we find has its origins decades before the rise of social media, suggesting that while social media may have been an amplifier other factors must have driven the stagnation of the long-term rise of rationality around 1975 to 1980 and triggered its reversal. Perhaps a feeling that the world is run in an unfair way started to emerge in the late 1970s when results of neoliberal policies became clear and became amplified with the rise of the internet and especially social media.

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. Striking this balance right is urgent as rational, fact-based approaches may well be essential for maintaining functional democracies and addressing global challenges such as global warming, poverty, and the loss of nature.

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