Ignoring Conspiracy Theories

Ignoring Conspiracy Theories

Knowledge deals with facts. In order to have or to gain knowledge, you need to understand, gain experience in, or directly learn accurate information. You cannot have knowledge of things that are not true. Therefore, beyond knowing that a conspiracy theory is factually inaccurate or understanding its origins, you cannot have knowledge of a conspiracy theory. Importantly, what this means for us is that we can ignore implausible conspiracy theories.
In his book Vices of the Mind Quassim Cassam asks whether it is closed-minded to ignore conspiracy theories and whether ignoring them is an epistemic vice. However, Cassam explains that epistemic vices inhibit knowledge since knowledge only deals with truth and facts. Conspiracy theories such as moon landing hoax theories do not deal with facts, so ignoring them does not hinder knowledge.
Cassam brings up conspiracy theories when discussing closed-mindedness and addressing an argument that people occasionally make in favor of closed-mindedness. The argument is that closed-minded people won’t be swayed by implausible conspiracy theories, and therefore some dose of closed-mindedness rather than universal open-mindedness is a good thing. Regarding this opinion, and diving into the heart of conspiracy theories, Cassam writes the following:
“If I listen to them long enough I might change my mind and lose the knowledge that I already have. I should do everything possible to avoid or ignore [conspiracy theories], and that looks like a way of saying that the way to protect my knowledge is to be closed-minded. However, the real reason I am entitled not to listen to the conspiracy theorists is not that their views are inconsistent with my prior conception but that they are unlikely to be correct given the available evidence. Only the evidence can justify a policy of non-engagement.”
I previously wrote about analysis-paralysis and when it is ok to stop investigating something and to make a decision. At a certain point we have to judge that we have sufficient knowledge and understanding to move forward with our lives. We cannot spend time investigating every possibility, because we will run out of time and never make a decision for what to wear, who to vote for, and what to eat for dinner. Fortunately, as Cassam shows, our decision-making can and should be limited by fact and plausibility given the available evidence. Possibilities that fall far outside what is likely to be plausible can be ignored. We might be wrong once in a while, but systematically this approach is not going to inhibit knowledge. We don’t have to investigate every possible conspiracy theory. We can ignore choices, opinions, and different possibilities when they don’t match the evidence and fall outside plausible ranges. This helps reduce our cognitive load, give us an actionable way to move forward, and establishes a baseline of accuracy from which any decision, idea, or possibility must have roots. Conspiracy theories can be ignored without us being closed-minded because they don’t reach such a baseline.
When to Stop Thinking

When to Stop Thinking

My last post was about closed-mindedness and focused on how closed-minded people fail to make appropriate inquiries to gain the necessary information to make good decisions and accurately understand the world. What the post didn’t ask, is when we should stop thinking and make a decision, versus when we should continue our investigations to gain more knowledge. A serious problem, and one we avoid when we are closed-minded, is often referred to as paralysis by analysis. It occurs when you lack confidence in decision-making and continually seek more information before making a decision, potentially delaying your choice or any action indefinitely.
Writing about this idea in Vices of the Mind, Quassim Cassam writes, “our investigations can be open-ended and there is often, though not always, scope for further investigation.” Sometimes we are asking questions and doing research on continually evolving topics. Sometimes we are working at a cutting edge where changes in politics, markets, social trends, and scientific breakthroughs can influence what we do from day to day. There never is a final answer, and we have to continually seek new information in order to adapt. However, this doesn’t mean that we can’t make important decisions that require thoughtful deliberation.
“A good investigator,” Cassam writes, “has a sense of when enough is enough and diminishing returns are setting in. But the decision to call a halt at that point isn’t properly described as closed-minded. What allows us to get on with our lives isn’t closed-mindedness but the ability to judge when no further research into the question at hand is necessary.”
Closed-minded people make decisions while ignoring pertinent information. Open-minded people make decisions while ignoring extraneous information. Over time, for each of us if we practice long enough, we should improve our judgements and become better at recognizing the diminishing returns of continued research. We might continue to learn a bit more as we continue to study, but the value of each new bit of information will be smaller and smaller, and at some point won’t truly impact our decisions. A novice might have trouble identifying this point, but an expert should be better. A closed-minded person doesn’t look for this optimal point, but an open-minded person does, continually updating their priors and judgements on when they have enough information to make a decision, rather than rigidly locking in with a specific set of information. This is how we avoid analysis paralysis and how we improve our decision-making over time to get on with our lives as Cassam writes.
More About Closed-Mindedness

More About Closed-Mindedness

“As an intellectual character trait that obstructs effective inquiry,” writes Quassim Cassam in Vices of the Mind, “closed-mindedness also looks like a trait that gets in the way of knowledge systematically.”
Cassam writes that closed-mindedness has been extensively studied, which is relatively unique among the epistemic vices that Cassam considers in his book. He uses a deep dive into closed-mindedness to help demonstrate how epistemic vices obstruct knowledge, how they do so systematically, and how epistemic vices can describe people’s actual conduct.
Closed-mindedness is a general obstacle to knowledge by hindering effective inquiry. Being closed-minded or engaging in closed-minded thinking means that we are not making honest and complete efforts to investigate the world around us and answer questions. Instead, we hold onto specific answers that are preformed, that match what we want to believe, or that support another motive of ours. We don’t look for information that may contradict what we want to know and believe, and we discredit such information if presented to us. We fail to truly take an objective and comprehensive view of the situation before making a decision when we are closed-minded.
Closed-mindedness is an interesting epistemic vice because it can be an individualized behavior and also a character trait. As an individual, you might generally be open-minded, making good efforts to think critically about the world around you, however, through biases or other errors, you may from time to time engage in closed-minded thinking. Specific situations and some context-dependent decisions may draw out closed-minded decision-making in otherwise thoughtful individuals.
On the other hand, you can generally be a closed-minded person. You might be someone who always wants to have the last word, to always feel like the smartest person in the room, or to believe that your view of the world is correct and that there is no room for change. In most of your decisions, thoughts, and behaviors, you can be closed-minded, failing across the board to make full inquiry into the world around you. You might be open-minded in some situations or thoughts, but on the whole, you can tend to be a closed-minded person.
Whether it is a single decision or your general epistemic approach to the world, closed-mindedness is likely to obstruct knowledge, and to systematically lead to worse outcomes. A closed-minded army general who won’t acknowledge new information is going to leave his army vulnerable to an attack that he did not expect. A closed-minded sports fanatic is going to place unwise bets that won’t pay off. A generally closed-minded mother is not going to help her child when she fails to accept their errors, creating a situation that could compound small flaws into larger tragedies. Closed-mindedness prevents us from seeing the world clearly and leaves us vulnerable to decision-making based on poor information on a systematic level. As Cassam closes his thoughts on closed-mindedness, he writes, “Closed-mindedness, then, is an intellectual character trait constituted by intellectual dispositions that aren’t subject-specific.”

The Need for Closure

Humans have a need for closure that varies from individual to individual. Some of us don’t mind too much if the internet cuts out before the last minute of a March Madness game while for others of us, the madness would multiply far beyond the basketball game. Closure helps us conceptualize, frame, and learn lessons from events in our lives. A lack of closure leaves things open and ambiguous, with unclear conclusions and conflicting lessons to be drawn.
In Vices of the Mind, Quassim Cassam writes about the need for closure and how it can build into the epistemic vice of closed-mindedness. He writes, “The need for closure comes in two forms, non-specific and specific. The non-specific need for closure is the desire for a confident judgement on an issue as compared to confusion and ambiguity. A need for specific closure is the desire for a particular answer to a question.”
Closure can build into closed-mindedness because once we have made a judgement, we don’t want to accept new information. Once we feel that we have a specific answer, we don’t want to take on new perspectives, reconsider information in a new light, or listen to others who may disagree with us. The more certain we feel, the more we strongly we wish to hold to our conclusions. According to Cassam’s quote, the greater our need for closure, the greater the potential for us to become closed-minded in our decision-making.
“Open-minded individuals have a lower need for closure,” writes Cassam. More open-minded people are less likely to be paralyzed by a lack of information. They are more likely to accept ambiguity, make progress, and adjust when new information arises or as new perspectives are formed. In other words, they can facilitate knowledge by adjusting and adapting to new information and data. Closed-minded people obstruct knowledge by adopting a stance of certainty and ignoring new information as it becomes available.
The need for closure itself isn’t a bad thing. An open-minded person can still feel a need for closure, and that need can drive them to seek more information, to learn more, and to develop new lessons to use in future situations. It can be a motivational driving force for good. At the same time, it can push people to become recalcitrant, to adopt simple and incomplete answers, and to drive people into self-destructive behaviors seeking closure that can never be attained. Our choice (or unconscious disposition) to be closed-minded or open-minded can greatly influence whether our need for closure drives us toward virtue or vice.

Closed-Mindedness

One of the epistemic vices that Quassim Cassam describes in his book Vices of the Mind is closed-mindedness. An epistemic vice, Cassam explains, is a pattern of thought or a behavior that obstructs knowledge. They systematically get in the way of learning, communicating, or holding on to important and accurate information.
Regarding closed-mindedness, Cassam writes, “in the case of closed-mindedness, one of the motivations is the need for closure, that is, the individual’s desire for a firm answer to a question, any firm answer as compared to confusion and/or ambiguity [Italics indicate quote from A.W. Kruglanski]. This doesn’t seem an inherently bad motive and even has potential benefits. The point at which it becomes problematic is the point at which it gets in the way of knowledge.”
This quote about closed-mindedness reveals a couple of interesting aspects about the way we think and the patterns of thought that we adopt. The quote shows that we can become closed-minded without intending to be closed-minded people. I’m sure that very few people think that it is a good thing for us to close ourselves off from new information or diverse perspectives about how our lives should be. Instead, we seek knowledge and we prefer feeling as though we are correct and as though we understand the world we live in. Closed-mindedness is in some ways a by-product of living in a complex world where we have to make decisions with uncertainty. It is uncomfortable to constantly question every decision we make and can become paralyzing if we stress each decision too tightly. Simply making a decision and deciding we are correct without revisiting the question is easier, but also characteristically closed-minded.
The second interesting point is that epistemic vices such as closed-mindedness are not always inherently evil. As I wrote in the previous paragraph, closed-mindedness (or at least a shade of it), can help us navigate an uncertain world. It can help us make an initial decision and move on from that decision in situations where we otherwise may feel paralyzed. In many instances, like purchasing socks, there is no real harm that comes from being closed-minded. You might pay more than necessary purchasing fancy socks, but the harm is pretty minimal.
However, closed-mindedness systematically hinders knowledge by making people unreceptive to new information that challenges existing or desired beliefs. It makes people worse at communicating information because their data may be incomplete and irrelevant. Knowledge is limited by closed-mindedness, and overtime this creates a potential for substantial consequences in people’s lives. Selecting a poor health insurance plan as a result of being closed-minded, starting a war, or spreading harmful chemical pesticides are real world consequences that have occurred as a result of closed-mindedness. Substantial sums of money, people’s lives, and people’s health and well-being can hang in the balance when closed-mindedness prevents people from making good decisions, regardless of the motives that made someone closed-minded and regardless of whether being closed-minded helped solve analysis paralysis. Many of the epistemic vices, and the characteristics of epistemic vices, that Cassam describes manifest in our lives similar to closed-mindedness. Reducing such vices, like avoiding closed-mindedness, can help us prevent serious harms that can accompany the systematic obstruction of knowledge.