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  • Quassim Cassam

How Closed-Mindedness Obstructs Effective Inquiry

In his recent book Debriefing the President: The Interrogation of Saddam Hussein, John Nixon describes his encounters with the two main protagonists of the 2003 Iraq war. Nixon, a senior leadership analyst for the CIA, was the first American to interrogate Saddam Hussein at length after his capture by U.S. forces. Nixon’s fascinating insights into the Iraqi dictator are complemented by a damning assessment of the intellectual character and attitudes of George W. Bush, the U.S President who was briefed in person by Nixon on two occasions. For students of what are sometimes called ‘intellectual vices’, Nixon’s account of Bush is a case study in the devastating impact of vices such as closed-mindedness on a person’s ability to find the answers to complex questions.

One of Nixon’s more telling observations about Bush is that he wanted clear-cut opinions and valued decisiveness over accuracy. What he couldn’t abide was equivocation or any indication that the matter at hand didn’t fit his black-and-white view of the world. For example, when he first came to office he was given a tutorial on the Sunni-Shia split in Islam and his reaction was to say “Wait. I thought they were all Muslims”. Nixon describes Bush as a poor listener with little tolerance for dissent and a distrust of expert opinion. Despite all the evidence to the contrary the President continued to believe that Saddam had ordered the murder of his daughters and was only interested in evidence that supported his preconceptions including, of course, his belief that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. What makes this assessment particularly striking is that Nixon describes himself as a strong supporter of Bush when he came to office in 2000.

The psychologist Arie Kruglanski describes the need for closure as the psychological core of closed-mindedness. This need comes into two forms. In its nonspecific form it is the desire for a firm answer to a question, any answer as compared to confusion or ambiguity. The need for specific closure is a strong preference for a particular answer to a question. The closed-minded person is reluctant to consider new information once they have made up their mind, is intolerant of people whose opinions contradict their own, and has an authoritarian style of leadership and decision-making. Kruglanski didn’t have Bush in mind when he came up with this account of closed-mindedness but he may as well have done. Bush’s intolerance of ambiguity manifested a need for nonspecific closure and his rejection of evidence against the hypothesis that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction seems a straightforward case of a person with a strong desire for specific closure.

Closed-mindedness is often thought of as a character trait but can equally well be defined as an attitude. The point of describing it as an intellectual vice is to make the point that, like other intellectual vices, closed-mindedness gets in the way of knowledge. Knowledge is something that can be gained, kept and shared. Intellectual vices are character traits, attitudes or ways of thinking that systematically (though not invariably) obstruct the gaining, keeping or sharing of knowledge. Apart from closed-mindedness, other intellectual vices include intellectual arrogance, overconfidence, wishful thinking, prejudice, dogmatism, insensitivity to detail and lack of thoroughness.

One way of gaining knowledge is by inquiry. It is by inquiring that we look for answers to our questions, ranging from the trivial (‘Where are my socks?’) to the momentous (‘What are the causes of global warming?’). Inquiries can be more or less effective, and a key factor in determining their effectiveness is the attitude of the inquirer. Effective inquirers are attentive listeners and reasonably open-minded. Effective inquirers must have some need for closure – otherwise there would be no end to their inquiries – and mustn’t change their minds too easily or quickly. However, neither of these attributes should blind them to evidence that refutes or undermines their pre-existing opinions. Intellectual vices make it harder for us to gain knowledge by making us less effective as inquirers. Effective inquiry is partly a matter of attitude, and a closed-minded or arrogant attitude makes our inquiries much less likely to tell us what we need to know.

President Bush might be an extreme case but none of us is vice-free. Which of us can claim to be immune to closed-mindedness and dogmatism? If we have a serious interest in knowing things then it looks as though we should combat our intellectual vices and cultivate intellectual virtues like open-mindedness, carefulness and humility. But the problem we run into is that having vices like closed-mindedness makes it harder for us to recognise that we have them. Many vices are stealthy, in the sense that they are inherently hard to detect in oneself, though not in other people. This is a variation on the so-called Dunning-Kruger effect, according to which lack of competence in certain domains prevents us for recognising our lack of competence.

Sometime ignorance of one’s own intellectual failings can be overcome by traumatic experiences. Such experiences can break through the desire that most of us have to think well of ourselves. Sometimes but not always. Judging by his memoirs, Decision Points, President Bush did not come away from the Iraq debacle with any major new insights into the personal failings that contributed to his flawed decisions. There is also the worry that knowledge of our own intellectual vices is no guarantee of self-improvement. Some of our character traits are so entrenched by adulthood that there is little one can do about them. On the other hand, it is natural to think of attitudes as much more malleable. People who have a ‘bad attitude’ are commonly advised to change their attitude and this reflects the assumption that attitudes can be changed. This points to the importance of developing effective strategies to change those of one’s attitudes that get in the way of knowledge.

In the meantime, the best we can hope for as democratic citizens is that those elected to high office will have the intellectual and other resources required for them to do their job well. It would be nice to think that it is in the nature of democracy to ensure that this is what happens by and large. Recent experience in the U.S and U.K suggests that to think this would be to display one of the most common intellectual vices: wishful thinking.



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