The (Linguistic) Fall of Rationality

by Massimo Pigliucci

If you ever suspected that the beginning of the end of the world happened around 1980, there is now some scientific evidence to back up your intuition. An intriguing paper authored by a group of researchers in the Netherlands comprising Marten Scheffer, Ingrid van de Leemput, Els Weinans, and Johan Bollen and published in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) USA (Scheffera et al. 2021) gives us skeptics quite a bit to chew on and ponder. Let me first sketch out the methodology and main findings, and then we’ll tackle the more prickly issue of what it all may (or may not) mean.

Scheffer and collaborators looked at the frequency of words indicating either rationality or emotion in several large databases across the period of time from 1850 to 2019. They took words such as experiment, circuit, chemistry, gravity, weigh, depth, greater, per, and several others to indicate the use of rational discourse. By contrast, they regarded words such as imagine, compassion, forgiveness, heal, etc., as related to emotional discourse.

Their main findings come from quantitatively analyzing, via Google nGram, all the books in both English and Spanish catalogued by the search engine company. But they also repeated the analysis using articles from The New York Times over the same period, as well as using a smaller sample of words in publications from additional languages, including French, German, Italian, and Russian. The goal was to discover whether usage of either group of words—characterizing rationality or emotion—changed over time. … (continue at Skeptical Inquirer)