Bad Thinkers and the Unknown Knowns


Critical thinkingI came across an interesting piece on bad thinking online recently. In it, the author argues some of the points I’ve mentioned in the past about people who believe in conspiracy theories, gossip and other online codswallop:

The problem with conspiracy theorists is not, as the US legal scholar Cass Sunstein argues, that they have little relevant information. The key to what they end up believing is how they interpret and respond to the vast quantities of relevant information at their disposal.

In the piece, the author, Quassim Cassam, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Warwick in Coventry, argues that the fault lies in how these people process information, not the quality or quantity of that information. They are, in other words, bad thinkers. They have intellectual vices or intellectual bad habits:

Gullibility, carelessness and closed-mindedness… negligence, idleness, rigidity, obtuseness, prejudice, lack of thoroughness, and insensitivity to detail. Intellectual character traits are habits or styles of thinking… Intellectual character traits that aid effective and responsible enquiry are intellectual virtues, whereas intellectual vices are intellectual character traits that impede effective and responsible inquiry. Humility, caution and carefulness are among the intellectual virtues…

Cassam uses a fictional character, Oliver, and his obsession with 9/11 conspiracies despite evidence that all of his conspiratorial notions can be proven wrong.

Oliver is gullible because he believes things for which he has no good evidence, and he is closed-minded because he dismisses claims for which there is excellent evidence. It’s important not to fall into the trap of thinking that what counts as good evidence is a subjective matter. To say that Oliver lacks good evidence is to draw attention to the absence of eye-witness or forensic support for his theory about 9/11, and to the fact that his theory has been refuted by experts. Oliver might not accept any of this but that is, again, a reflection of his intellectual character.

But 9/11 is only one of so many of these conspiracies and bad ideas that are like pond scum on the internet. Their following can’t all stem from bad thinking. Some might be from laziness – after all, assessing a claim properly can be hard work and our brains are our body’ biggest energy user. Some people may not have the energy (couch potatoes, for example) to expend. So it’s easier to accept a claim – no matter how fatuous – than investigate it (something the media are prone to do).

Some are actual cons and deliberate hoaxes that hook the gullible. While others – like angels and ghosts – may be superstition or wishful thinking (aka faith). Other examples may simply be eccentric expressions of our personality.

And some ideas may make make sense to us when we lack the full range of information to make an informed decision – especially when we are not privy to the full information. That is usually played upon during election times when the electorate doesn’t have access to the facts but is pressured to make choices based on incomplete or even incorrect information.

We seldom realize that we don’t have all the data we need, however. As Cassam writes:

The gullible rarely believe they are gullible and the closed-minded don’t believe they are closed-minded.

Or as Donald Rumsfeld famously stated, we don’t know what we don’t know:

Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones

In the description of Cassam’s 2014 book, Self Knowledge for Humans, it notes:

Human beings are not model epistemic citizens. Our reasoning can be careless and uncritical, and our beliefs, desires, and other attitudes aren’t always as they ought rationally to be. Our beliefs can be eccentric, our desires irrational and our hopes hopelessly unrealistic. Our attitudes are influenced by a wide range of non-epistemic or non-rational factors, including our character, our emotions and powerful unconscious biases. Yet we are rarely conscious of such influences. Self-ignorance is not something to which human beings are immune.

At some point in our lives, we are all guilty of bad thinking. And of being gulled; at the very least by the relentless onslaught of advertising and marketing we endure daily. Why we choose our breakfast cereal, our brand of car, our toothpaste, our favourite music, our pets – all are choices heavily influenced by marketing and promotion. Few of us have ever done the research to determine which toothpaste is scientifically and clinically proven to be the most effective: we just buy the brand we hope is the best (and maybe the one that tastes the best, too, although unless we’re tried them all, that choice, too, is based on incomplete data).

Besides, like I said above, sometimes we behave as we do because it’s the path of least resistance. If all your coworkers or peers believe one thing, you are likely to go along with it despite any doubts you have. That’s how cults like the Westboro Baptist Church and Scientology work: the group pressure to conform is magnetic. Political parties do it, too. Bad thinking can be spread, like any meme.

Conspiracies range from the global scale of the New World Order, Big-Pharm and Big Government, down to the local where bloggers whinge about financial matters they clearly don’t (and perhaps can’t) understand. Since these have all been debunked many times over, it can’t just be selective reasoning or bad thinking that keeps followers hanging on: there has to be some willful intent to cling to falsehoods regardless of any proof to the contrary. Willful stupidity to believe in something easily shown up as bunk.

Or maybe, as I said above, sometimes it’s just laziness. We’re too comfortable, it’s too inconvenient to make the effort to find out the truth. It’s easier to accept the nonsense than investigate the claims. That, too, I would argue, is another intellectual vice and bad habit – one which we are all guilty of at times.

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Ian Chadwick
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