Philosophy is the vaccine for an epidemic of bad thinking that may be more dangerous than Covid – Steven Nadler and Lawrence Shapiro

The world is currently undergoing two major pandemics.

Pro-Trump supporters storm the US Capitol after the then outgoing US President falsely told them at a rally that he won the election (Picture: Samuel Corum/Getty Images)
Pro-Trump supporters storm the US Capitol after the then outgoing US President falsely told them at a rally that he won the election (Picture: Samuel Corum/Getty Images)

There is, of course, the obvious one: the death and suffering and the economic, social and political turmoil caused by the Covid-19 virus.

The other pandemic is perhaps even more dangerous because not only does it feed the first but it also wreaks catastrophe in many other ways. We have in mind the widespread epidemic of bad thinking.

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Why do people continue to believe, despite all evidence to the contrary, that global warming is a hoax? That the Covid-19 vaccine causes sterility or other health problems? That the 2020 US presidential election was stolen from Donald Trump by widespread voter fraud? In all these cases, and many others, people are refusing to behave rationally. They are refusing to tailor their beliefs to evidence.

There are many reasons why someone might believe something. Belief in God, for example, might bring comfort and hope to a person. The belief an official won an election illegitimately may be politically convenient.

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But political, emotional or other psychological reasons that explain why a person holds a belief do not thereby justify it. A belief is justified only when the evidence at hand makes it more probably true than not.

A person behaves rationally when they come to believe something because of the overwhelming evidence – epistemic evidence – in its favor. Just as important, they will abandon that belief when the evidence turns against it. To continue to believe something in the face of counter-evidence is irrational.

The evidence shows that vaccines save lives but some people still refuse to believe it (Picture: Lisa Ferguson)

Being irrational is not the same as being dumb, stupid or ignorant. People who continue to deny that climate change is a real phenomenon caused by human activity, or refuse a vaccine because of unsubstantiated rumours that it causes autism, or insist that Joseph Biden’s presidential victory was illegitimate, may be as smart and as educated as anyone.

The source of their irrationality is, rather, a kind of stubbornness. They are epistemically stubborn insofar as they wilfully ignore the justification for beliefs they would rather not hold.

A “Stop the Steal!” Trump supporter, for instance, is as capable of seeing through the lie Trump tells of his victory as anyone, but he does not allow the evidence against his belief to sway him.

He is like the owner of the dilapidated ship that the 19th-century philosopher and mathematician William Clifford used to describe a similar, but more culpable, kind of irrationality. The owner so desperately wants to believe in the safety of his ship that he will not accept the obvious signs of its deterioration. Off it sails, only to sink with all its passengers on board.

If our diagnosis is correct – if the epidemic of bad thinking that now plagues the world is a consequence of epistemic stubbornness – we must fashion the remedies (the “vaccine”) appropriately.

Part of the treatment no doubt requires an examination of why people choose to believe as they do. Does the climate change denier simply not want to give up a lifestyle that depends heavily on the consumption of fossil fuels? Does the vaccine sceptic want to believe that a deadly disease is not actually so bad because he is reluctant to change his social life?

Perhaps the Trump voter, taken in by the former president’s lies, simply cannot bear the thought of any other president or does not wish to admit they have been suckered.

Learning why people choose not to endorse the justified belief and instead insist on the unjustified one is an important step in correcting epistemic stubbornness, and psychologists (with neuroscientists’ help) have devoted many studies to this topic.

As philosophers, our focus is on another kind of treatment. Philosophy’s history is in part an extended lesson on how to think well, where thinking well involves the recognition of different ways to support a conclusion – deductively, inductively, abductively – and, just as crucially, different errors that tempt one to accept a claim that lacks adequate justification.

Philosophy teaches the difference between a strong argument, where the premises or assumptions support the truth of the conclusion, and a weak argument, where such epistemic warrant is lacking. It shows how to discriminate between different kinds or sources of evidence – for example, the opinion of a medical expert versus a random post on social media, New York Times versus Fox News – and teaches about the various fallacies that can lead people badly astray in their beliefs.

What good will such philosophical training do to address the problem? As we have noted, the epistemically stubborn person wilfully believes something in the face of overwhelming reasons to the contrary.

Granting this, of what use would it be to point out to such an individual the flaws in their reasoning? Another feature that the epistemically stubborn typically exhibit is their assurance that their aberrant views are in fact correct, and it is this characteristic that gives us some hope that the study of philosophy might yield salutary effects.

Few people care to admit that their beliefs are unjustified, that it is only their anxious desire for the belief’s truth that explains its acceptance. If not too far gone, most epistemically stubborn people can, we (perhaps naively) hope, with some basic training in the methods of philosophy, be persuaded that their beliefs lack adequate justification, and that other beliefs – the globe is warming, Covid vaccines are safe, Trump did lose – deserve their support.

The value of philosophy comes into sharpest relief when it is a matter of making clear how evidence and arguments provide the backing for the appropriate beliefs about these facts, and perhaps makes it that much harder for the epistemically stubborn person to continue in their folly.

Philosophy, in other words, just might save us from ourselves, and the world from us.

Philosophers Steven Nadler and Lawrence Shapiro's book, When Bad Thinking Happens to Good People, is to be published on August 31 by Princeton University Press

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