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  • Quassim Cassam

Epistemic Vices and Conspiracy Theories

Another school shooting, another conspiracy theory. In 2012 it was the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting that sparked a wave of conspiracy theories. This time it’s the brutal killing of 17 people at the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida. A theory doing the rounds on social media is that some of the people representing themselves as students who survived the shooting are paid actors being used by advocates of gun control to promote their agenda.

Why are such absurd theories propagated and why are some people apparently prepared to believe them? No fancy philosophical or psychological theories are needed to understand the spread of some conspiracy theories, including the one about the Florida shooting. It’s helpful to distinguish between producers and consumers of conspiracy theories. If one is concerned that a high school massacre will strengthen the case for gun control then the promotion of conspiracy theories about the massacre is an obvious, albeit nefarious, strategy for deflecting attention from the real problem. In such cases, the devising and spreading of conspiracy theories is a political act, and it’s not necessary to assume that the individuals doing the devising and spreading believe what they say.

It’s also worth remembering that conspiracy theories are big business. There are what Cass Sunstein calls ‘conspiracy entrepreneurs’ who literally make a living by peddling conspiracy theories. They have websites to promote, talk shows to produce, and merchandise to sell. Do they believe their own theories? Who knows, but they certainly have a strong economic interest in promoting them. So the promotion of conspiracy theories isn’t just a political act, though it is sometimes that as well: it’s also a good way to make money.

However ludicrous some conspiracy theories might be, conspiracy theories aren’t necessarily false or unjustified. There are justified and correct conspiracy theories and conspiracy theories that are unjustified and false. In any given case one can ask: which is it? The answer isn’t especially exciting: unjustified conspiracy theories lack adequate evidential support and are otherwise implausible. They posit conspiracies in order to explain what can be much more plausibly and economically explained in other ways.

It is one thing to question the motives and attitudes of conspiracy entrepreneurs, but what about the motives and attitudes of the millions of people who either believe–or at least don’t disbelieve–their more outlandish inventions? What explains their susceptibility to conspiracy theories, even ones that seemingly have very little going for them?

Psychologists talk about a ‘conspiracy mentality’, a personality trait that disposes those who have it to believe conspiracy theories, even obviously contradictory conspiracy theories.

Another factor is the deep need that many people have to make sense of what would otherwise be utterly senseless events. There is nothing more senseless than the mass killing of innocent school children by a disaffected or emotionally unstable classmate, and the search for a meaning in such dreadful events can take strange and surprising forms. This is analogous to certain forms of religious thinking about the purported purpose and underlying structure of the world. An expression of the religious impulse is, as Tim Crane puts it, the thought that this can’t be all there is. An expression of the conspiracist impulse when faced with the suggestion that a mass killing or political assassination is the work of a lone gunman is this can’t be all there is to it. If this correctly diagnoses the psychological drive to believe conspiracy theories, conspiracy theories are then (at least in many instances) an exercise in sensemaking.

To say that conspiracy theories are sometimes motivated by a desire to find meaning is to say that they are underpinned, at least to some extent, by wishful thinking. There are theories that people believe not because they are justified in believing them but because they want them to be true. Wishful thinking is an example of what Linda Zagzebski calls an ‘intellectual vice’, and it is not the only one that underpins some — though not all — conspiracy thinking.

Wishful thinking is a way of thinking but many other intellectual vices are character traits. Closed-mindedness is one; naivety is another. There are also intellectual vices that are attitudes rather than character traits. For example, conspiracy entrepreneurs may display an indifference to whether their claims have any basis in reality or any genuine evidential backing. This attitude of indifference is certainly an intellectual vice, the vice of intellectual or epistemic insouciance.

It’s controversial how much of a role such vices play in sustaining belief in conspiracy theories. For example, one might regard a willingness to entertain conspiracy theories that go against the “official” account of major events as a mark of open-mindedness rather than closed-mindedness. As for naivety, there are certainly cases where belief in the official account may turn out to be far more naïve than belief in a conspiracy theory.

Regardless, there doesn’t seem much doubt that intellectual vices do play a significant role in a great deal of human cognitive activity, and philosophers shouldn’t confine themselves to analysing intellectual virtues like open-mindedness and conscientiousness. For when we go wrong in our thinking, intellectual vices are often to blame. In his book on the 2003 U.S invasion of Iraq, Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, Thomas E. Ricks describes the political architects of the invasion as “arrogant,” “impervious to evidence” and “unable to deal with mistakes.” No serious account of what went wrong with the planning for the invasion can ignore the part played by these and other intellectual vices.

Another example from history: in a study of the failure of Israeli intelligence to anticipate the 1973 Yom Kippur attacks by Egypt and Syria, intelligence analyst Uri Bar-Joseph attributes this failure in large part to the dogmatism and extreme closed-mindedness of named individuals in Israeli intelligence. These individuals were committed to the doctrine that there would be no attack and this led them to dismiss all evidence — even highly compelling evidence — to the contrary.

Vice epistemology, then, is the philosophical study of the nature, identity and significance of intellectual vices. Intellectual vices are character traits, attitudes or thinking styles that systematically, though not invariably, get in the way of knowledge. This is an ‘obstructivist’ account of intellectual vices which, because of their impact on knowledge, might better be described as epistemic vices. According to obstructivism, epistemic vices get in the way of knowledge by obstructing its gaining, retaining or sharing but not every intellectual trait that gets in the way of knowledge is an intellectual vice. Forgetfulness is an obstacle to the retaining of knowledge but not an epistemic vice. Why not? One answer might be that genuine vices, as distinct from mere cognitive defects like forgetfulness, must be blameworthy. Vice, it is said, implies blame.

What it takes for an epistemic vice like closed-mindedness to be blameworthy is one of the questions that needs to be addressed by vice epistemologists. Some look to the motivational components of epistemic vices to explain their blameworthiness. Others look to other factors. In addition, it isn’t hard to make the case that people aren’t always blameworthy for their epistemic vices, but criticism can be appropriate even when blame isn’t. Epistemic vices are blameworthy or otherwise reprehensible character traits, attitudes or thinking styles that systematically get in the way of knowledge. To describe a trait or disposition as neither blameworthy nor worthy of criticism is to suggest that it isn’t a vice.

One can think that epistemic vices are systematically knowledge-obstructive without thinking that they are invariably so. Saul Kripke once made the case that dogmatism, which most vice epistemologists classify as an epistemic vice, can protect our knowledge by inclining us to dismiss without further consideration the detailed arguments of Holocaust deniers and other conspiracy theorists. If Kripke is right then dogmatism can protect our knowledge in the actual world, and not just in remote possible worlds. Whether the classification of dogmatism as an epistemic vice needs to be revised depends not only on whether Kripke is right about his cases but on whether dogmatism is systematically knowledge-conducive. The vice epistemologist can accept that dogmatism, like other epistemic vices, doesn’t always lead us astray while continuing to insist that its characteristic role in our cognitive lives is to obstruct the acquisition, transmission or retention of knowledge.

A concern one might have about the vice epistemology research programme is that it over-personalises error and thereby underestimates or neglects systemic factors. Is it really plausible, for example, that the Iraq fiasco can be explained by the epistemic failings of a handful of senior figures in the Bush administration? Presumably not. The claim is not that epistemic vices are all there is to it but that they are part of the story.

The contrast between personal and systemic factors is, in any case, not a sharp one. In his work, José Medina identifies arrogance, laziness and closed-mindedness as epistemic vices of the privileged. Epistemic vices of the privileged are vices associated with one’s occupancy of a particular social position. They are both systemic and personal failings, and it is hard to tell in such cases where the personal ends and the systemic begins.

A major challenge facing responsible thinkers is to identify their own epistemic vices and act to correct or counteract them. Vices that are grounded in systemic factors or, for that matter, in sub-personal cognitive biases are hard to shift even when their existence is recognised. It is sometimes possible to change one’s thinking or kick bad intellectual habits but not always. There might be vices we are stuck with. In addition, it is in the nature of some epistemic vices to evade detection by their victims. Such ‘stealthy’ vices are a major source of self-ignorance. For example, being closed-minded can prevent one from recognising that one is closed-minded. This is the vice epistemological version of the Dunning-Kruger effect and a rich source of further questions for vice epistemology to tackle.

The study of the nature and effect of epistemic vices couldn’t be more pressing. Writing in 1939, Susan Stebbing argued that “there is an urgent need today for the citizens of a democracy to think well” and that “it is not enough to have freedom of the press and parliamentary institutions.” Our difficulties, she suggested, “are due partly to our own stupidity, partly to the exploitation of the stupidity, and partly to our own prejudices and personal desires.” Perhaps it didn’t need saying in 1939 which difficulties she was referring to, and what was true in 1939 is still true today. Intellectual vices are obstacles to thinking well, and it is striking that Stebbing saw stupidity and its exploitation and among the factors that prevent us from thinking well. Stupidity in this context isn’t just lack of intelligence. It is more a matter of foolishness or lack of judgement. When stupidity in this sense is combined with other intellectual vices the effects on our capacity to distinguish truth and falsehood can be devastating.

Unlike virtue epistemology, vice epistemology is still in its infancy and many fundamental questions about epistemic vices remain unanswered. We live in a social and political climate in which patently unjustified theories take hold, and the scepticism that such theories merit is instead directed at those who take the trouble to base their views on the evidence. Conspiracy theories about the Florida shootings are an especially vivid example of vice in action but there are many others. One only has to think about climate change scepticism and anti-vaccination campaigns. These and other equally depressing developments suggest that vice epistemology might just be the epistemology for our times.

A TED Talk on epistemic vices by Quassim Cassam is available here.



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