Thinking Conspiratorially Versus Evidence-Based Thinking - Joe Abittan

Thinking Conspiratorially Versus Evidence-Based Thinking

My last two posts have focused around conspiratorial thinking and whether it is an epistemic vice. Quassim Cassam in Vices of the Mind argues that we can only consider thinking conspiratorially to be a vice based on context. He means that conspiratorial thinking is a vice dependent on whether there is reliable and accurate evidence to support a conspiratorial claim. Thinking conspiratorially is not an epistemic vice when we are correct and have solid evidence and rational justifications for thinking conspiratorially. Anti-conspiratorial thinking can be an epistemic vice if we ignore good evidence of a conspiracy to continue believing that everything is in order.
Many conspiracies are not based on reliable facts and information. They create causal links between disconnected events and fail to explain reality. Anti-conspiratorial thinking also creates a false picture of reality, but does so by ignoring causal links that actually do exist. As epistemic vices, both ways of thinking can be described consequentially and by examining the patterns of thought that contribute to the conspiratorial or anti-conspiratorial thinking.
However, that is not to say that conspiratorial thinking is a vice in non-conspiracy environments and that anti-conspiratorial thinking is a vice in high-conspiracy environments. Regarding this line of thought, Cassam writes, “Seductive as this line of thinking might seem, it isn’t correct. The obvious point to make is that conspiracy thinking can be vicious in a conspiracy-rich environment, just as anti-conspiracy thinking can be vicious in contexts in which conspiracies are rare.” The key, according to Cassam, is evidence-based thinking and whether we have justified beliefs and opinions, even if they turn out to be wrong in the end.
Cassam generally supports the principle of parsimony, the idea that the simplest explanation for a scenario is often the best and the one that you should assume to be correct. Based on the evidence available, we should look for the simplest and most direct path to explain reality. However, as Cassam continues, “the principle of parsimony is a blunt instrument when it comes to assessing the merits of a hypothesis in complex cases.” This means that we will still end up with epistemic vices related to conspiratorial thinking if we only look for the simplest explanation.
What Cassam’s quotes about conspiratorial thinking and parsimony get at is the importance of good evidence-based thinking. When we are trying to understand reality, we should be thinking about what evidence should exist for our claims, what evidence would be needed to support our claims, and what kinds of evidence would refute our claims. Evidence-based thinking helps us avoid pitfalls of conspiratorial or anti-conspiratorial thinking, regardless as to whether we live in conspiracy rich or poor environments. Accurately identifying or denying a conspiracy based on thinking without any evidence, based on assuming simple relationships, is ultimately not much better than simply making up beliefs based on magic. What we need to do is learn to adopt evidence-based thinking and to better understand the causal structures that exist in the world. That is the only true way to avoid the epistemic vices related to conspiratorial thinking.
Paranormal Beliefs, Superstitions, and Conspiratorial Thinking

Paranormal Beliefs, Superstitions, and Conspiratorial Thinking

How we think, what we spend our time thinking about, and the way we view and understand the world is important. If we fail to develop accurate beliefs in the world then we will make decisions based on causal structures that do not exist. Our actions, thoughts, and behaviors will inhibit knowledge for ourselves and others, and our species will be worse off because of it.
This idea is at the heart of Quassim Cassam’s book Vices of the Mind. Throughout our human history we have held many beliefs that cannot plausibly be true, or which we came to learn were incorrect over time. Cassam would argue (alongside others such as Steven Pinker, Yuval Noah Harari, and Joseph Henrich) that adopting more accurate and correct beliefs and promoting knowledge would help us systematically make better decisions to improve the life of our fellow humans. Learning where we were wrong and using science, technology, and information to improve our decision-making has helped our world become less violent, given us more opportunity, provided better nutrition, and allowed us to be more cooperative on a global level.
This is why Cassam addresses paranormal beliefs, superstitions, and conspiratorial thinking in his book. While examining conspiracy theories in depth, he writes, “studies have also found that belief in conspiracy theories is associated with superstitious and paranormal beliefs, and it has been suggested that these beliefs are associated because they are underpinned by similar thinking styles [italicized text is cited with Swami et al. 2011].  Cassam argues that conspiracy theories are different from the other two modes of thinking because they can sometimes be accurate in their descriptions of the world. Sometimes a politician truly is running a corruption scheme, sometimes a group of companies are conspiring to keep prices high, and sometimes a criminal organization is hiding nefarious activities in plain sight. Conspiratorial thinking in some instances can reveal real causal connections in the world.
However, conspiratorial thinking is often bizarre and  implausible. When our conspiratorial thinking pushes us off the deep edge, then it does share important characteristics with superstitious and paranormal thinking. All three can be described by positing causal connections that cannot possibly exist between phenomena happening or imagined in the real world. They create explanations that are inaccurate and prevent us from identifying real information about the world. Superstitions posit causal connections between random and unconnected events and paranormal thinking posits causal connections between non-existent entities and real world events. Conspiratorial thinking seems to fall in line with both ways of thinking when it is not describing reality.
Over the last few years we have seen how conspiratorial thinking can be vicious, how it can inhibit knowledge, and how it can have real life and death consequences when it goes wrong. Superstitious thinking doesn’t generally seem to have as severe of consequences, but it still prevents us from making the best possible decisions and still drives us to adopt incorrect worldviews, sometimes entrenching unfair biases and prejudices. Paranormal thinking has been a foundation of many world religions and fables used to teach lessons and encourage particular forms of behavior. However, if it does not describe the world in a real way, then the value of paranormal thinking is minimized, and we should seriously consider the harms that can come from paranormal thinking, such as anxiety, suicide, or hours of lost sleep. These ideas are important to consider because we need to make the best possible decisions based on the most accurate information possible if we want to continue to advance human societies, to live sustainably, and to continue to foster cooperation and community between all humans on a global scale. Thinking accurately takes practice, so pushing against unwarranted conspiracy theories, superstitions, and paranormal beliefs helps us build our epistemic muscles to improve thinking overall.
Thinking Conspiratorially

Thinking Conspiratorially

Over the last few years a number of wild conspiracy theories have become popular. Former President Donald Trump embraced a conspiracy theory that the 2020 Presidential Election was rigged (it was not), supported the Qanon conspiracy theory, and did little to push back against conspiracy theories surrounding COVID-19. His actions, behaviors, and beliefs demonstrate that thinking conspiratorially can be an epistemic vice. His willingness to believe wild falsehoods obstructed knowledge for himself and his most ardent supporters.
However, thinking conspiratorially is not always an epistemic vice. One reason why conspiracy theories become so gripping and why people sometimes fall into them is because real conspiracies do occur. Nixon’s Watergate Scandal, Trump’s withholding of financial and military aid unless Ukraine announced an investigation into Joe Biden and his son, and fraud schemes uncovered by inspectors general and government auditors demonstrate that nefarious conspiracies sometimes are real. While thinking conspiratorially can become an epistemic vice, the same is true for anti-conspiratorial thinking.
In the book Vices of the Mind, Quassim Cassam quotes Dr. Charles Pigden from the University of Otago in New Zealand by writing, “there is nothing inherently vicious about believing or being disposed to believe conspiracy theories.” Cassam argues that conspiratorial thinking is not an epistemic vice on its own, but is instead a context dependent vice or virtue. He continues, “there are environments in which either way of thinking can be epistemically virtuous or vicious, and a way to capture this context-relativity is to describe these thinking styles as conditionally virtuous or vicious.”
The examples I used earlier show how conspiratorial thinking can be either virtuous or vicious. In the case of our former President, his conspiratorial thinking spread misinformation, suppressed true and accurate information, and created a set of false beliefs that some of his supporters believed so strongly that they stormed the United States Capitol in an attempt to stop Congress from certifying the election. The context of his conspiracy theories obstructed knowledge and caused substantial harm to life and property. However, a government auditor who notices inconsistencies in paperwork and accounting practices may be rewarded for thinking conspiratorially, at least to a point. Believing that something nefarious could possibly be going on will encourage the auditor to review financial statements and testimony from personnel with more scrutiny, potentially helping them uncover real fraud. Of course, they could still go too far and push the issue beyond reasonable bounds by thinking conspiratorially, but this type of thinking is conditionally virtuous when it discovers true fraud and improves knowledge about fraud schemes.
Given the dramatic consequences of conspiracy thinking over the last few years, it is easy to dismiss thinking conspiratorially as an epistemic vice. However, we should remember that it is only conditionally an epistemic vice, and that sometimes conspiracies do turn out to be true (or at least partially true). We don’t have to give every conspiracy our respect and attention, but when a conspiracy does appear to be grounded in reality and supported by real evidence, then we should not be too quick to dismiss it.