An Epidemic of Delusions

From Commonweal:

Something is seriously wrong. An alarming number of citizens, in America and around the world, are embracing crazy, even dangerous ideas.” So claim Steven Nadler and Lawrence Shapiro in their recent book, When Bad Thinking Happens to Good People, a work that seeks to diagnose our contemporary “epistemological crisis” and to offer some tools with which we can combat the scientifically unfounded and conspiratorial thinking that is on the rise, especially in the United States. Formerly fringe movements, such as the anti-vax movement and QAnon, are increasingly prominent in American public discourse. Such movements have been the basis of political campaigns and have inspired a swath of protest movements across the country. As a recent PRRI poll has shown, a “nontrivial 15 percent of Americans agree with the sweeping QAnon allegation that ‘the government, media, and financial worlds in the U.S. are controlled by a group of Satan-worshipping pedophiles who run a global child sex trafficking operation.’” These and similar beliefs are certainly not morally innocent: anti-vax misinformation has led to unnecessary suffering and death, and the climate-change denial endorsed by some of our most prominent politicians has left the United States remarkably unprepared for a crisis that is already upon us.

Nadler and Shapiro argue that the kind of “bad thinking” we see on display in climate-change denial and QAnon fanaticism is a special kind of intellectual failing, distinct from ignorance, miseducation, and stupidity. This kind of bad thinking is instead a kind of “epistemic stubbornness,” a refusal to give up one’s beliefs in the face of countervailing evidence. The epistemically stubborn are guilty of confirmation bias: they ignore any evidence that doesn’t help their case and glom on to any information that does—or seems to. Epistemically stubborn people may be intellectually gifted. They may understand the “canons of good reason” but refuse to abide by them (one of the authors’ examples: a professional philosopher who promoted the conspiracy theory that the Sandy Hook massacre was a false-flag operation). The key words in this analysis are “stubborn,” “ignore,” and “refuse.” While epistemically stubborn people are making intellectual mistakes when they uphold beliefs contrary to readily accessible evidence—beliefs that are often based on nothing more than hearsay and that conflict with other truths the stubborn thinker holds—they are also making moral mistakes. And not only because epistemic stubbornness can lead to morally bankrupt action (as when a parent refuses to vaccinate a child out of the baseless fear that vaccines cause autism). According to Nadler and Shapiro, epistemic stubbornness is morally fraught even when it doesn’t produce harmful consequences. Whatever its practical effect, it is a “character flaw deserving of blame.” Luckily, they tell us, “bad thinking is always avoidable.”

The cure for the “virus” of bad thinking lies in a humanistic education, especially one that teaches us the “canons of good reasoning” as made available through philosophy. More broadly, the “antidote” is the examination of life promoted by Socrates, which seeks to cultivate a deep intellectual humility: I must come to recognize what I do and do not know, and I must never act as if I know when I do not know. If the conspiratorial, epistemically stubborn person can come to recognize what counts as good reasoning (valid deduction, statistically sound induction) and then begin asking herself, “Why do I believe this? Do I really have good and compelling evidence to support this claim?” then she can set forth on the road to recovery. When she learns to approach each of her beliefs with the same humility and demand for sound reasoning and evidence, then she will become wise.

There is much to commend in Nadler and Shapiro’s account. It is a remarkably clear and accessible introduction to critical thinking, some of the basic tools of logic, and contemporary epistemology (especially as practiced in the Anglo-American “analytic” tradition). Anyone who needs an introduction to or refresher on these topics would be well served. Likewise, the careful clarification of “epistemic stubbornness” as both an intellectual and moral failing—as distinguished from non-moral intellectual failings and non-intellectual moral failings—is helpful for thinking about contemporary forms of bad thinking. Moreover, their basic theses are right: the kind of “bad thinking” operative in QAnon circles, anti-vax campaigns, and climate-change denial is well-described as “epistemic stubbornness,” and an education in the humanities, and especially in philosophy, would help stem the tide of this “epidemic” of bad thinking. An otherwise insightful review of Nadler and Shapiro’s book in the Wall Street Journal is wrong when it claims that the authors think too highly of philosophy. The real problem is that they think of philosophy too restrictively. As a result, their description of the epidemic doesn’t go deep enough and their solution to it isn’t expansive enough. What’s missing is something else we can learn from Socrates.

Link to the rest at Commonweal

PG hadn’t read anything from Commonweal for a long time. Since Commonweal is an American Catholic publication, he was a bit surprised that he didn’t find religion mentioned as a well-established institution that has been teaching moral thinking and behavior for quite a long time.

PG has extensive personal experience with two Christian religions and feels he has a bit more than a passing understanding of Judaism due to quite a number of extensive discussions with Jewish friends who are serious about their religion. All of his experiences and discussions of religion is that it generates quite a lot of moral behavior among its adherents.

PG has less direct experience with philosophy, but his exposure leads him to believe that it is less effective at encouraging moral thinking and behavior than religion (taken as a whole) is.

But, of course, PG could be wrong about that.

8 thoughts on “An Epidemic of Delusions”

  1. A bit of good news: over in Chile they spent three years crafting a new constitution with a fully diverse and representative assembly and ended up with the most woke constitution on the planet.
    They voted on it yesterday and it failed by nearly two to one.
    Instead they’re staying with the Constitution written under General Pinochet and try to “fix” it.

    “NPR reported that the text of the new constitution called for legalized abortion, gender parity in government offices, the abolition of Chile’s Senate and the establishment of autonomous Indigenous territories.

    It would have also called for universal health care, the right to decent housing, education and pensions, all of which would have brought on steep tax increases.

    While the nation is socially conservative, NPR reported that the proposed constitution was written by a special assembly made up mostly of leftists and progressives.”

    In more detail:

    At least there’s one country where people looked in the abyss and (nothing the influx of refugees from Venezuela) said no thanks.

    So there’s still hope for rationality to prevail over pro.ises of government largesse.

  2. I find it fascinating that every single bad idea cited in this review is one that runs up against ideas propagated by groups like the WEF, et al.–and I say this as someone who thinks Qanon is bonkers and that anti-vaxxers are bad at science and math.

    Frankly, an actual humanistic education will instill a certain amount of skepticism regarding the ideas of the rich and the powerful about how society ought to be run, whereas Nadler and Shapiro seem to be of the opinion that it should inspire us to have faith in our benevolent overlords. This flies in the face of history, and is every bit as delusional a belief as the notion that the government is run by pedophiles.

    • Well, QAnon (the original) turned out to be correct about some things.

      There are pedophiles in government. Not running everything – but probably a somewhat higher percentage than the population as a whole, since places where they unlikely to face consequences tend to attract them. (As all corruption is attracted to the easy places.)

      “Anti-vaxxer” is applied FAR too broadly, as in anyone who voices doubts about the massive CoViD “vaccination.” The vast majority of those opposed to such are those who are working from factual information – both then (as in the demographic actually at risk) and now (with knowledge that it does not prevent transmission – which makes it not a vaccine, but a somewhat effective, albeit rather risky, prophylactic.)

    • “…Nadler and Shapiro seem to be of the opinion that it should inspire us to have faith in our benevolent overlords. ”

      Not too different from the Divine Right of Kings or the Mandate of Heaven.
      In its modern form, “shut up and do as you’re told.”

      Anybody pointing out the emperor has no clothes is deemed a threat to “democracy”.
      We’ll see how things play out soon enough.

    • Was someone an anti-vaxxer if he said the head of the CDC was wrong when she said one could not contract Covid if vaccinated, and one could not pass it of if vaccinated?

      Was the head of the CDC delusional?

      How do we define an anti-vaxxer in regards to Covid?

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