Power and Rationality

Those of you of a certain age will remember days when gasoline came in two types: leaded and unleaded. Lead, as you may know, is a toxin that causes behavioural changes, intellectual disabilities, and infertility. Even at the time of leaded gasoline’s introduction in the 1920s, people suspected its widespread use posed serious, society-wide health challenges. Despite these concerns, we did not effectively eliminate leaded gasoline until the 1990s. Why did it take so long to figure out leaded gas was causing us harm and then reduce it? The answer is related to the relation between rationality and those with power.

Rationality includes all those ways in which we come to know and understand our world. It also includes processes we use to make decisions. This includes scientific research, personal experience, gut instinct, and so on. Because it is through these various forms of rationality that we come to understand our world, we tend to think that rationality is an objective truth. That is, we form models of the world in our head and tend to believe those models are right.

I have argued in previous posts, however, that rationality is far from objective truth. In some cases, rather than defining what is true, we use rationality as a means to achieve values. Your logic means little to me if you use it to pursue values with which I disagree. In other cases, people have different ways of knowing (e.g. scientific research versus personal experience), and so what you “know” depends on the methods you used to know it.

In this post, I’ll demonstrate that what we think is rational is deeply entwined in the actions of those with power. Regarding leaded gasoline, for example, one of the reasons it took us so long to eliminate it was for the first forty years after its introduction, studies of its health impacts were done in labs financed by The Ethyl Corporation and GM Motors, both of which had vested interests in leaded gasoline’s continued use. They used their influence to publish and publicize studies that obscured the health hazards of their product.

This post draws much from Bent Flyvbjerg’s book, Rationality & Power. Whereas he takes a deep dive into the topic, I’ll cover only three points: (1) those with power can define what we see as rational, (2) those with power can ignore rationality, and (3) rationality is fragile and only has influence in the absence of conflict.

Those with power can define rationality

Once upon a time, I worked in the biotech industry. One of my jobs was to write proposals to bid on contracts offered by large pharmaceutical companies. To do this, I had to develop budgets, and to develop budgets, I had to meet with the department managers to ask how many hours they would need to do the work. Here’s where the games would start. They would add extra hours to their estimates to give themselves a cushion, and I’d get to play the game, “Let’s guess how many hours this project really needs.”

These managers had power. They knew how long it would take to do the job, I did not. I incorporated the hours they gave me (after I negotiated them down a bit) into our bid that I sent to the client. This, then, became part of the contract and defined the reality of the project.

This is one of several ways that those with power can define rationality. Other methods that those with power can use to define rationality include:

  • They can influence what research questions get asked (and which ones do not)
  • They can influence what data goes public
  • They can influence what data people find credible
  • They can influence what information people think is important, and what information they can ignore
  • They can influence how people interpret the information

Through these tactics, those with power can influence what people believe and, as a result, people’s behaviours.

Personally, I see groups using these tactics in full force in the debates our society has today. Regardless of your beliefs on anthropogenic climate change, for example, I’m sure you have seen groups trying to control what data counts as valid, what the information means, how we should respond to it, and so forth. I’m confident you can cite examples of the ‘other side’ using those tactics to sway their followers. The trick, of course, is developing the ability to see it in your side, too.

Those with power can ignore rationality

Back once again in my biotech days, I partook in a reverse auction. In a reverse auction, a company offers a contract for work, and contractors post their price to do the job. There is, however, a twist. The contractors get to see everyone else’s bid. They then have an hour to underbid each other until the contractor that ends with the lowest price wins the project. (I know, evil, right?)

Anyhow, I had our budget prepared. The CEO of my company hovered over my shoulder. I told him how low we could go before we started to lose money on the contract. Twenty minutes in, competitors were bidding below our break-even point. I sat back thinking we were done. If we offered a lower price to win the deal, we would lose money.

“Undercut them,” the CEO said.

“But we’ll lose money–”

“I said undercut them.”

For the next twenty minutes, I kept lowering our price under his direction, eating further into our profits with each new bid. Thankfully, we lost that contract and some other poor sap got the opportunity to lose money on that job.

The point is, as CEO, he had the privilege of ignoring my ‘rational’ advice. One of the perks of having power is you get to do what you want. Sometimes when you see a powerful group acting irrationally, it is not because they’re stupid. It’s because they have sufficient power to ignore what’s sensible without consequence.

Rationality is fragile

In the above examples, we see that those with power can shape what the world sees as rational. We also observe that those with power can ignore rationality when it suits them. Rationality is fragile. When you pit rationality against power, power wins. Reason and knowledge require stable power relations if they are to guide action.

In war, truth is the first casualty.


When I read the news, I occasionally see those who champion reason and science expressing the belief they need to fight those powerful groups that seek to bury their knowledge. Dealing with powerful groups that want to silence you is a pernicious challenge. I do not, however, believe that conflict will lead to success for the side of reason. In conflict, groups create the rationality that suits them and ignore that which does not. Instead of doing the sensible thing, the goal of groups in conflict becomes overpowering their opponent. If you want reason to prevail, you must first have everyone put away their daggers.

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3 thoughts on “Power and Rationality

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  1. I think you may be confusing opinions with rationality. Opinions of course can be decidedly irrational. Rationality and logic mean the same and are used to bolster opinions which may be irrational. Propaganda is a biased opinion which is used in the media to program people to believe lies. In debates opposing opinions are expressed as biases rationally. The winner is the one who expresses biases best. Facts are unquestionable truths which however can be distorted but never changed. Facts are used to prove or disprove opinions through rationality.

    1. Excellent ideas, Ken.

      You are correct—there are objective facts. I can measure the average rainfall in my city for the year, for example. Using facts and logical deductions, we can come to conclusions (is the average rainfall increasing, decreasing, the same, etc.).

      Consider, though, the myriad of situations where we must make decisions in the absence of facts and logical reasoning. For example, “How do I close a sale with this particular customer?” The answer to that is, indeed, a matter of opinion. Yet, we might expect the view of someone who has been selling for twenty years to have greater value than that of a new hire who has never made a sale in their life. Are all opinions equal? Worse, still, the way you make a sale with a Canadian client may be very different than with a Japanese one. Will the industry veteran’s twenty-years of Canadian experience translate to a different culture, or would we defer to a less experienced individual who has worked exclusively in Japan?

      You identified decision-making in the absence of objective facts and logical reasoning as irrational. Does the twenty-year sales veteran consider their methods of closing that sale irrational, though?

      Perhaps there are a variety of ways we come to understand the world and make decisions about what the proper course of action is. If you have time to kill and a burning interest in this subject, Barbara Townley wrote an exhaustive overview these ideas in her book, “Reason’s Neglect” (I presented a bite-sized summary here https://bradanderson2000.com/2019/02/04/the-myth-of-the-rational-argument/).

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  2. Yes. Agreed. In the absence of facts logic can dissipate. Your examples of salesmanship prove your point that in that area at least opinions vary and the logic used can be discriminatory or just plain deceitful. Thanks for the link.

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