Briefly, On The Rational Consumption Of Coffee


Sam Wilkinson

According to a faithful reader, I'm Ordinary Times's "least thoughtful writer." So I've got that going for me, which is nice.

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78 Responses

  1. Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

    I simply cannot force myself to assume that there are other human beings out there who don’t know what they’re doing.

    This part I find really unusual. I mean, I grok the rest of your piece and all, but in my general experience the vast majority of people hold ideas in their head that are logically inconsistent. That makes ’em pretty irrational, in my book.

    Any one of their singular ideas, presented in a vacuum, might be considered rational if you talk to them long enough; these are my root principles, and adding some logic spice on top and simmering for 20 minutes, I come to that conclusion. Seems rational enough.

    But then, of course, you ask them about some other idea that they hold, and they go with; these are my root principles, and adding some logic spice on top and baking for two hours, I come to that conclusion.

    But wait. When you were talking about this one of your root principles in argument number one, you said the principle plus the logic led you to foo, and now you’re saying it’s bar.

    And then we spend the next hour listening to special pleading.Report

    • Avatar Kazzy says:

      “…in my general experience the vast majority of people hold ideas in their head that are logically inconsistent. That makes ‘em pretty irrational, in my book.”

      But that assumes they are seeking a consistent end.

      I work out pretty regularly. I do this because I like the way I feel when I’m working out regularly, I like the way I look when I’m working out regularly, I enjoy the feeling of working out.

      I sometimes eat cheeseburger. Often times, after eating a cheeseburger, I don’t like the way I feel. I do not like the way a diet of cheeseburgers would make me look. I do enjoy the feeling of eating a cheeseburger.

      If you saw me pumping iron on Monday and pumping cheeseburgers on Tuesday, you might think, “Kazzy! What are you doing? That’s irrational!” What I would tell you is that on Monday, I was seeking the desirable ends that working out offered me. But on Tuesday, I was in a different mood, in a different place, and I needed the ends that eating a cheeseburger would offer me. Because my needs on Monday are different than my needs on Tuesday. And I don’t see anything irrational about that.Report

      • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

        It’s one thing to not be a Vulcan.

        It’s perfectly fine to have sliding scales for things on any given day. But then you have to admit that the scales slide.

        “I generally prefer being mostly healthy, but occasionally I eat a plate of sliders and onion rings dipped in this ridiculous bbq sauce because I find it enjoyable.” isn’t inconsistent, because you’re not claiming that you *always* eat healthy.

        It is another thing to say that eating healthy is fundamentally always your goal, and you always eat healthy because your total body health is itself so vastly important to you that you cannot conceive of ever eating a cheeseburger, but excuse me a second I gotta go have my smoke break.

        Usually, when I ask people why they do something that’s particularly interesting, their initial description of their justification is based upon absolutes. I can’t ever consider doing the alternative. I must do this thing. I decided I must do this thing because of this laundry list of absolutes.

        But no, it turns out that none of those things are absolutes, because you violate each one of them over here and over there and across the way. So really, the only reason why you do that particularly interesting thing is because you like to do it, you’re just rationalizing your preference by claiming that it is a necessity.

        No, you’re totally wrong.


        • Avatar Kazzy says:

          But doesn’t that go into Sam’s point about the disconnect between what we say we value and what we actually value? I cosign that point 100%: actions speak louder than words. If you tell me you absolutely value eating healthy and I catch you scarfing Cheetos, ya know what? You’re not irrational, you’re just not actually absolutely committed to eating healthy. And I bet, if pressed, you’d acknowledge as much. If you held steadfast to the notion that you did absolutely value eating healthy and that Cheetos were healthy despite all evidence to the contrary or that you weren’t even really eating Cheetos despite the fact your fingers are covered in Cheetos dust, then maybe you’d be irrational, though self-delusional might be a more accurate term.Report

          • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

            Well, okay, if you want to use self-delusional instead.Report

            • Avatar Sam Wilkinson says:

              The person who lies about having eaten the Cheetos despite having orange fingers is prioritizing (desperately) you not knowing that they’ve eaten Cheetos over the (maybe) shame that comes along with admitting to it. That doesn’t seem irrational to me.Report

              • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

                That seems irrational to me, because it assumes something I think is an unreasonable amount of probability regarding the likelihood that they’re going to pull said falsehood off.

                “I don’t like being caught eating cheetos” + “I don’t like being caught lying” might or might not be an additive proposition, where (“getting caught eating cheetos” plus “getting caught lying”) is worse than either (“getting caught eating cheetos”) or (“getting caught lying”).

                But I think it is, from observation.

                In general the kiddos haven’t figured out that doing something shameful (not that cheetos are shameful, but stay with me here) and getting caught is generally less embarrassing than doing something shameful and lying about it and getting caught at both.

                I have a six year old, she hasn’t figured this out yet. When calculating risk, she’s pretty likely to blurt out a fib, because getting caught lying seems less risky than getting caught eating cheetos but getting away with it by lying. And yet, clearly, when she’s caught doing both she’s more embarrassed – observationally – than if she just got caught doing the one. The eight year old has figured it out, but he’s not yet good at assessing how probable his fibbin’ is, so sometimes he attempts it even when he knows the payoff is worse, because he hasn’t figured out the risk assessment portion of it yet.Report

              • Avatar Sam Wilkinson says:

                It seems me that your kids are maximizing their abilities to react to situations. Their maximized abilities are often bad and do not produce the results that they might desire – just as my four-year-old believes that not being able to eat fruit snacks morning, noon, and night is a Hague-worthy war crime – but they’re still putting together the pieces of the world as they understand it in an attempt to get the things that they want. That doesn’t strike me as irrational (but it does often strike me as comical).Report

              • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

                Would it strike you as irrational for the eight year old to start acting like the six year old?Report

              • Avatar Sam Wilkinson says:

                No, but especially if the eight-year-old thought the six-year-old was batting with a higher percentage.Report

              • Avatar ppnl says:

                That level of desperation can reasonable be seen as irrational. But look, irrational is just a word that means what we mean by it. Is it rational to claim that Obama is a socialist Kenyan who hates America? Well if it helps your side win an election then the answer can be yes. Is it rational to actually believe that Obama is a socialist Kenyan who hates America? Again the answer can be yes. Was it rational for Hitler to exterminate six million Jews and spark a world war? Well he really really wanted the Jews dead right?

                But a world in which people engage in this kind of behavior is dysfunctional in one way or another. Arguing over which word to use to describe that dysfunctionality is a pointless word game.

                As for coffee, I don’t drink the crap. I don’t drink alcohol either. I’m not a hyper-rationalist its just that they both taste like crap to me. That isn’t a rational reason to not drink them. But then I have never found a rational reason to drink them either.

                Has anyone else noticed that intoxicating habit forming substances tend to develop a following of snobbish connoisseurs? For example:


                By a reasonable definition of “irrational” we are all irrational much of the time. It is usually easier to see that irrationality from the outside than the inside.Report

    • Avatar Sam Wilkinson says:


      If I’m understanding you correctly, you’re still starting with how people describe their decision making without first looking at the decisions themselves. Is that accurate?Report

      • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

        Well, that’s the “interesting” part. I observe somebody doing something, and it goes from there.

        I get that if you move the focus to what they do instead of what they say, you can construct a much more consistent and rational explanation for what’s going on than if you open up their heads and scrabble around in there for their justifications.

        But I can’t square someone’s actions being considered rational when their thought process is self-delusional. It’s like KenB’s comment on regulations: any one might make sense, in aggregate they might not. Same thing here: any one description of what someone’s doing may appear rational, but in aggregate it makes no sense; it’s rationalization.

        Now one can argue, I suppose, that human beings are inherently rational actors, but are simultaneously self-deluded, and thus their thought process is actually just that of rationalization of the rational underpinnings of their actions. They do what they’re going to do, and they say what they’re going to say, and the two are disjoint mechanisms that aren’t really connected at all except by the wish-fullfillment fantasy being that pretends it’s doing things for reasons of the fantasy, when the underlying meat sack is following programming, and that programming is utterly rational. This probably leads to no free will and all that.

        That’s a reasonably coherent explanation for all the data, so it has that going for it.Report

        • Avatar Sam Wilkinson says:

          If you don’t mind, can we choose a “self-delusional” thought process and talk about it? Because it strikes me that everything we think of as being “self-delusional” is either the result of an individual who doesn’t possess the information about something that we possess (at which point, the charge of irrational becomes frankly unfair) or the result of an individual whose offered explanations diverge from their behaviors (at which point, it becomes reasonable to follow the rabbit further down the hole).Report

          • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

            Sure, that sounds like an interesting conversation to have. Maybe we could do a post-exchange.

            I’ll have to ruminate on it a bit (it’s going to be a busy day, so I might not get back to you in the depth you deserve until tomorrow).

            While I’m cooking on that, do you find the “Now one can argue,” paragraph in the previous comment interesting? I mean, do you think that’s a reasonable (and/or) probable model for human behavior?Report

            • Avatar Sam Wilkinson says:

              Let me ask: is self-delusion irrational in your mind? Because I definitely find the concept of self-delusion interesting, but again assume that it is being done for a reason.Report

              • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

                Er, depends on the layer of abstraction we’re talking about.

                Not necessarily. Self-delusion is a defense mechanism, so it could clearly be regarded as a rational *mechanism*.

                Application of it could still be irrational, in a meta-sense. Self-deluding yourself regarding irreconcilable propositions is irrational, because the propositions are irreconcilable… even while it is also rational, as defending the psyche from the charge that they’re holding irreconcilable positions.

                So it depends on how you’re trying to define rationality 🙂Report

              • Avatar Sam Wilkinson says:

                I’d still prefer a concrete example for the sake of this conversation, if only because after a certain level of linguistic abstraction, I get completely lost and (even more) useless to talk to.Report

          • Avatar BlaiseP says:

            Here’s kinda how I sort it out. Perception, especially self-perception, requires frameworks. Stage magicians understand how easily we can be misdirected.

            There’s a movement afoot to keep movie frame rate low. Folks are complaining about 48 FPS — it makes things look Too Real. But then, people complain every time we get more fidelity. We do better when things fit our perceptual frameworks. Things make sense that way. In a sense, we have to delude ourselves a little bit to make the world work, simplify things.

            We get in trouble when the evidence doesn’t fit neatly into our frameworks. Is a photon a particle or a wave? Well, sorta both and sorta neither. We can describe it with equations but trying to Make Sense of it sends some people into a tizzy. Down there in the world of the infinitesimal, it’s still real. It’s just not amenable to metaphors from the Larger World. It’s real, but on a statistical basis.

            We live in real time. We don’t have the luxury of doing an exhaustive lookup on everything, we have to operate on partial information all the time. It is not a rational process. Intelligent people keep enough doubt in the mix to alter their frameworks to accomodate the new evidence. We call people self-deluded when one person doesn’t agree with two other people, but the only way we can stay sane is to constantly doubt our own conclusions.Report

  2. Avatar Kim says:

    My coffee tastes like grapefruit juice — or blueberries!
    Not bitter at all.
    It’s chemistry is not the same as what those studies are measuring.
    And it’s got far less caffeine than normal coffee.

    Want the recipe?Report

  3. Avatar Kyle Cupp says:

    Are you defining “rationality” simply as “having reasons”?Report

    • Avatar Chris says:

      That’s what I was wondering. If rationality simply means “doing things for reasons,” then 1,293,201,548 is a rational response to the question, “what does 2+2 equal?”Report

      • Avatar Sam Wilkinson says:

        Suppose you ask a person to multiply 9 x 6 and they say, really quickly, “Oh, 56!” The real answer is 54. Are you telling me that you think they’re an irrational human being who shouted out the answer that came to them, even if that answer was wrong? Or is it simply that their quick thinking lead to a mistake which they then said out loud?

        Furthermore, if you DID run into somebody who told you, legitimately, that they believed that 2+2 = 1,293,201, 548, you’re going to assume irrationality without even bothering go further? You won’t seek out an explanation for that answer? Come on now.Report

        • Avatar Chris says:

          There’s a difference between labeling someone as “an irrational human being” and labeling a particular behavior by that person as irrational.

          And there’s also a difference between labeling a particular behavior irrational and not seeking out the explanation for the behavior.

          One of the (several) definitions of rational that gets used in psychology is something similar to “optimal.” One of the ways in which we explain “irrational” behavior is by producing a model that performs rationally (that is, optimally), and then pealing away components of the model until we get behavior that is irrational (that is, suboptimal) in the same way that human behavior is. It’s a nice way of producing and testing hypotheses. Or for Tom (if he’s around), it’s a nice tool for abduction.Report

          • Avatar Sam Wilkinson says:

            What are you basing optimal on? Your own plan for the patient? Their own plan for themselves? Something else?Report

            • Avatar Jaybird says:

              You should show up for the Lyme Disease threads.Report

            • Avatar Chris says:

              No, optimal is usually pretty rigorously defined in these cases. For example, optimally classifying certain stimuli, which means performing as well as is possible given the information available (optimal is rarely 100% accurate, it’s usually an accuracy level determined statistically using the available information).

              If you’re interested, look up “ideal observer models.”Report

              • Avatar Sam Wilkinson says:

                Would an ideal observer model involve, say, a three-step process to assembling something wherein doing all three steps in order, the first time, would be considered optimal?Report

              • Avatar Chris says:

                I suppose, if you wanted to build an ideal observer model for something like that, and you had to do things in order to get the optimal output, and so on.

                Better to just look up what an ideal observer model is:

              • Avatar Sam Wilkinson says:

                I read that before asking my question. However, I wanted to create what might be a concrete example to make sure that I was understanding things. Do you have another one that might do a better job?Report

              • Avatar Chris says:

                Are you familiar with Bayesian reasoning? One type of ideal observer would be a Bayesian one, which simply selects the most likely choice computed using Bayes theorem.

                A simple example: imagine there’s a bone fracture detector, a fracturometor, which looks at the output of some sort of imaging device, and determines whether there is a bone fracture present. Five percent of the time there’s a fracture in these images, 99.99% of the time that there’s a fracture , there’s a red blob on the image, and .3% of the time that there’s a red blob there’s no fracture present. A Bayesian ideal observer would say “fracture” every time there’s a red blob. It’d be wrong about 5% of the time (assuming I just did the calculation right), but that’s the best it can do given the information it has (that is, that there’s a red dot, and how frequently fractures and red dots occur, and how frequently they co-occur). Rational, in this case, is choosing “fracture” when you see a red blob because you’ll be right a hell of a lot more often than you’ll be wrong.Report

              • Avatar Sam Wilkinson says:

                I’m not familiar with Bayesian reasoning. However, your example makes sense. But am I to understand that the inverse would be that a person who is more cautious in their analysis of the fraurometor’s output is thought to be irrational, given its overwhelmingly likelihood of being correct?Report

              • Avatar Kazzy says:

                If I may jump in…

                That would be rational, given that the fracturometor was set to identify fractures.

                If the fracturometor was set to never falsely identify a non-fracture as a fracture, it would rationally declare all of them non-fractures until 100% reliability was achieved.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP says:

                One of the best applications of Bayesian reasoning is spam detection. Think about that one for a while. I could go into a big drawn-out explanation, but that should probably do you for an example.Report

              • Avatar Chris says:

                Kazzy, right, I should have said that the facturometor’s sole purpose is to detect fractures. It doesn’t care about anything else (like, say, unicorns).Report

              • Avatar Kazzy says:

                Well, yes. But does that disagree with anything Sam has said? It is acting in a way that serves the ends it seeks. If it acted in a different way, it would be because it was seeking different ends. Or it was broken.

                I don’t know that people “break”.Report

              • Avatar Chris says:

                Kazzy, no, he was just asking me to illustrate that conception of rational (rational = optimal).Report

              • Avatar Kazzy says:

                Gotcha, gotcha. The perils of jumping in mid-stream…

                Does that mean anything sub-optimal is irrational?Report

              • Avatar Chris says:

                Kazzy, under that conception, yes, sub-optimal means irrational, though obviously in this way there are degrees of rationality.Report

              • Avatar Sam Wilkinson says:


                Do these models assume total knowledge on behalf of the participant?Report

              • Avatar Sam Wilkinson says:

                Maybe I’m not understanding. If the person using the fractureometer only knows that it determines fractures and that it has an error rate, are they being irrational if they play it safe and assume that the red blob likely hasn’t indicated a fracture? (To use one of many examples.) Is that what we’re talking about or have I strayed? (Genuine apologies if I have.)Report

              • Avatar Chris says:

                Sam, this is obviously a really simple example, but no, under this particular definition of “rational” they’re not irrational if they choose that way. They are rational, because that’s what rational means in this context.Report

    • Avatar Sam Wilkinson says:

      Is that unfair?Report

      • Avatar Kyle Cupp says:

        No, but I’m not sure that the charges of irrationality you’re addressing boil down to “You have no reasons.”Report

        • Avatar Sam Wilkinson says:

          Isn’t the core of the rational voter argument one wherein it doesn’t make sense to vote because your vote is unlikely to matter and you’re better off doing something else instead? If my reason for voting is, “Hey, I like that guy and want to support him.” then whether or not my vote has a marginal value, I’m still satisfying my need to support the candidate that I do. Dismissing that as an acceptable reason for voting is ludicrous, just as dismissing conservative voters in Kansas who obsess over cultural issues is ludicrous.Report

          • Avatar Chris says:

            The “rational” voter arguments generally use a very narrowly defined concept of “rational,” in which it simply means in accordance with one’s economic interests. I agree with you that this is a pretty shitty way of evaluating voters. It should not, and as far as I can tell, does not undermine every possible useful conception of “rational.” Hell, it doesn’t even undermine economic concepts of “rational.” It’s just a case of overreaching with such a concept.Report

      • Avatar Chris says:

        It’s not unfair, it’s just utterly useless.Report

        • Avatar Sam Wilkinson says:

          I want to understand why it is useless to dismiss the idea that people have reasons for doing the things they do, reasons perhaps that they themselves either cannot or do not want to vocalize?

          And what, other than rank condescension, is so useful about determining that somebody, or at least something they do, is irrational?Report

          • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

            And what, other than rank condescension, is so useful about determining that somebody, or at least something they do, is irrational?

            Now you sound like a surrealist.Report

            • Avatar Sam Wilkinson says:

              What is surreal about seeing the accusation of irrationality as a condescending one?Report

              • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

                If you assume that accusations of rationality are by nature necessarily condescending (as opposed to condescending usually in practice), then you assume a bunch of things that lead me to assume that you’re going to wind up in a place where surrealism is a comfortable dynamic for participating in reality.

                I dig surrealism. I’m just not a surrealist. I kind of wish I could be, in a way.Report

              • Avatar Sam Wilkinson says:

                Well, when people write books with titles like, “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” and “The Myth of the Rational Voter” I struggle to think that we’re not witnessing condescension at work.Report

              • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

                Well, one can be an asshole and still be right, too.

                Although I suspect if you’re naturally inclined to approach questions of rationality with the idea that you know what’s better, you’re going to wind up being both condescending and wrong a lot of the time, so in that sense I agree with you, yeah.Report

              • Avatar James K says:

                The Myth of the Rational Voter isn’t quite saying that people are irrational though. It’s more saying that voters have no reason to think much about who they should vote for and why and so most people rationally choose not to. He even calls this idea “Rational Irrationality”.

                An equally accurate title would have been “The Myth of the Diligent Voter”, but I guess that would have been less provocative.Report

          • Avatar Chris says:

            Sam, what is useless is a concept of “rational” that only means “has reasons.” It serves no purpose.

            If you simply dislike the label “irrational” because it has a pejorative element, then I’m perfectly fine with calling it something else that corresponds to a definition of “rational” that’s more productive than “has reasons.” But if you just mean, “has reasons,” then it’s tautological that every behavior is rational and therefore it’s useless to call a behavior rational.

            Put differently, I think it’s possible to come up with a definition of rational that isn’t (necessarily) pejorative but is useful, and which does not preclude analysis of the actual reasons behind a behavior (and which, in some, perhaps many cases, actually depends on those reasons).Report

            • Avatar Sam Wilkinson says:

              You are the psychologist, so I certainly wouldn’t dream of telling you your business, but I will say in my defense that I do not believe the understanding that people have reasons for doing the things that they do is useless. I certainly found that understanding that reasoning at least gave me an entry (both with myself and with clients that I worked with) into changing those behaviors. But perhaps I have misunderstood your point.Report

              • Avatar Chris says:


                I’m not saying that understanding that people have reasons for what they do is useless. I’m saying that such a conception of “rational” is useless, because it applies to every single physically possible behavior tautologically, unless the behavior arises spontaneously and instantaneously with no antecedents, which is, of course, physically impossible.

                So, what I’m saying, in essence, is that you’ve made the concept of “rational” or “irrational” useless by making everything rational. If everything is rational, then “rational” is meaningless, because there’s nothing with which to contrast it. You’ve essentially defined “rational” as “behavior.”Report

              • Avatar Sam Wilkinson says:

                You’ll hate this response: yes.Report

              • Avatar Chris says:

                Then like I said, your concept of “rational” is useless, but I suppose that’s what you wanted. I’m just afraid that by so defining rational to get rid of it so that no one uses it pejoratively, you’ve eliminated the possibility of more useful conceptions of “rational.”Report

              • Avatar Sam Wilkinson says:

                Perhaps it is useless. I don’t think it is an appropriate or useful way to interact with other human beings. But abandoning that train for a minute: what is useful about considering the rationality of another person beyond the boundaries of their own actual wants and desires?Report

              • Avatar Chris says:

                Sam, I don’t know, what are we trying to do? Evaluate the adaptability behavior? Determine the accuracy of their reasoning? Determine whether they reasoned well? Determine whether their behavior is consistent with their stated reasons (which may then turn out to be different from their unstated, or even unconscious reasons)? Determine whether we should believe what they say? Determine whether their arguments are good? Determine if their might be better ways to get what they want? Determine whether their behavior is predictable in certain ways? Actually predicting that behavior? And so on.

                Not all of these require rational behavior, but the concept of rational behavior, or rational argument, or rational motivation, or whatever, can be useful for these and many other purposes.Report

  4. Avatar damon says:

    I discovered coffee while walking to work in the rain in Seattle. I was cold and wet out and the coffee made me feel warm and perked me up. I drink it because:

    It perks me up.
    It makes me poop.
    It’s good with dessert when dining out especially if I’d had alcohol.
    I like the taste.

    “But there are so many reasons for doing nearly anything. We cannot know how or why an individual prioritizes their decision making; we can only see the decisions that those individuals make. ” Damn right, and frankly, in this particular instance, I dont’ care.
    Primarily I use it as a caffeine delivery system. I don’t fetish-ize it and I stopped buying Starbucks back before they expanded outside the Pacific Northwest—because they roast the beans too much.Report

  5. Avatar BlaiseP says:

    Coffee, like wine, is a drink for connoisseur and Joe Schmoe alike. About ten percent of both are excellent, fifty percent quite passable and the remaining forty percent varying along the asymptote of awfulness.

    Here in New Orleans, Community Coffee seems to be ubiquitous. In this office, we have these twee one-cup coffee packets, in little foo-foo wrappers, engineered for the Bunn one-cup machines. It’s a surprisingly good cup of coffee but it does produce a good deal of waste. I don’t like bottled water for the same reason.

    In Guatemala, where some of world’s finest coffee is grown around every house, the snobs drink Colombian coffee. I wonder if the snobs of Colombia drink Guatemalan highland coffee. But there’s a twist: on my first trip to Guatemala, I was served coffee by a prominent attorney in town and found myself getting a rush I’d never quite experienced from a cup of coffee before. “Oh,” he said “the Colombian coffee is fortified with coca leaf.”

    I especially liked this bit: We cannot know how or why an individual prioritizes their decision making; we can only see the decisions that those individuals make. From that, it seems much more reasonable that we can back into an understanding of their apparent preferences and knowing that, we can take educated guesses at their rationality. Even then though we are still unlikely to possess a comprehensive view of an individual’s reasons for doing this and not that.

    I wonder what future generations will make of our garbage dumps. There’s a new science, I suppose it’s really an offshoot of archaeology, called garbology. Archaeologists love to find garbage dumps, they call them middens. Neolithic people who lived along shorelines left piles of oyster shells meters deep. I was talking to a garbologist who used the old heavy glass Clorox bleach bottles as dating reference points.

    What will future generations make of our choices for president? They’ll have plenty to work with, if digital rot doesn’t set in and destroy the recordings we make. But I’m pretty sure they’ll be as mystified by our choices as we are today. They’ll have the advantage of a longer perspective but it won’t be any clearer. A good deal of the historian’s art is reaching pat conclusions which can’t be rebutted any more.Report

    • Avatar Sam Wilkinson says:

      One thing I really like about New Orleans coffee: it is made in percolators, the worst way to make coffee if you ask coffee snobs. Tastes delicious to me though.Report

      • Avatar BlaiseP says:

        I am just a bit of a coffee snob. I do not like robusta. I’m an arabica man. I put a lot of time and effort into finding good beans.

        While I was still in my Do-Gooder Phase in Guatemala, I did some reforestation work up near Cobán under the guidance of the university. We put in both native shade trees and coffee plants. The shade trees grow up to provide cover for the coffee and if all goes well, those trees produce fruit which feeds the birds which in turn shit on the bushes and fertilise them.

        Starbucks and the big guys used to come down and buy entire crops, paying a premium over the NYMEX Coffee contract. I set up a little system which takes quintal (50 kilos) of home grown coffee, cup tests them and puts them into a bonded warehouse run by the priest in town. A little bid and ask system is set up for those bags. It doesn’t move a lot of coffee but it does provide price discovery for high end coffee, un-distorting that market, making it more like the wine market, where a particularly good chateau can achieve its proper price point.Report

    • Avatar Roger says:

      I just got back from France and was surprised how popular those little Nespresso machines were over there. They quickly and cleanly make great individuals cups using little sealed pods. I’m putting this on my Christmas list…hint hint.Report

  6. Avatar Kazzy says:


    How do you fit children into this framework?Report

    • Avatar Sam Wilkinson says:

      Pretty easily. What would be the difficulty?Report

      • Avatar Kazzy says:

        Sorry, I should elaborate.

        First off, let me say that I largely agree with this framework.

        Second, it is often said that children are inherently irrational. The crux of this line of thinking seems to be that they often don’t act with ends in mind… they often lack reasons (I’m thinking specifically of very young children). While I think this can often be explained using just this framework, with children’s reasons being impacted by such developmental processes as delayed gratification, I do often see children who are literally just acting, often with no rhyme or reason (so called impulse behavior). Is this rational? It would seem not to be. The best I can come up with is that they are satisfying some sort of visceral urge, which might not be motivated by a conscious reason, but nonetheless is motivated by something.Report

        • Avatar Sam Wilkinson says:

          To my mind, you can’t hold against a person what they don’t know. Children, even young children, are reacting the stimulus they are receiving and act accordingly (and often outlandishly). I recognize in advance that this will be a serious point of contention, but I don’t see even children as acting irrational. Is there a term along the line of prerational behavior? (But even that is odd to think about. My son does things when he wants things. He’s only four. It often doesn’t work. But he clearly is doing what he thinks will work.)Report

          • Avatar Kazzy says:

            I’m inclined to agree with you on this. As a teacher of 4- and 5-year-olds, it grates on me when folks dismiss them as irrational beings. They are often quite rational. They are just operating with far greater limits than adults.

            The gap between why adults think kids do things and why the kids are actually doing them can be massive.Report

  7. Avatar James K says:

    As a member of a field that is constantly derided for its supposedly dogmatic adherence to human rationality I know exactly what you mean.

    Economists are reluctant to call actions irrational because 1) “irrationality” can explain anything and therefore it explains nothing and 2) it creates the risk of pathologising other people’s preferences (a practice with a very unhappy history).

    There are basically two situations where I think it is legitimate to talk about irrationality though:
    1) As a statement conditional upon some goal e.g. “It is irrational to vote because you want to change the outcome of the election.” Naturally this kind of statement is only valid for someone who’s goals are actually the same as those contained in the conditional statement.
    2) In situations where it is impossible to construct a consistent set of goals that would explain the behaviour. This is the stuff Behavioural Economics gets into. The classic example is intransitivity – where a person demonstrates a preference for A over B, B over C and C over A. There’s just no way to reconcile that with rational choice.Report

  8. Avatar Kazzy says:

    If I’m understanding this correctly, and I think I am, it seems that you are positing most people say, “You are acting irrational” when they are really thinking, “You are acting in a way that I wouldn’t” and/or, “You are acting in a way that does not make sense to me.”Report