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.
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.”
More On Epistemic Vices

More On Epistemic Vices

“Here, then, is how obstructivism conceives of epistemic vices,” writes Quassim Cassam in his book Vices of the Mind, “epistemic vices are blameworthy, or otherwise reprehensible intellectual failings that systematically get in the way of knowledge.”
Leading into this quote Cassam shows that epistemic vices are behaviors, character traits, personalities, and patterns of thinking which obstruct knowledge. Epistemic vices prevent us from seeing and perceiving the world fully, inhibit us from considering all the factors necessary, and limit our openness to new information. They prevent us from using knowledge that we have acquired or inhibit connections between information in one case and its application in another. Further, epistemic vices can keep us from sharing the knowledge we have gained. In each of these ways and more our behaviors, attitudes, and thought patterns inhibit knowledge on a consistent (if not universal) manner.
In his writing Cassam also shows that epistemic vices are both reprehensible and blameworthy. Inhibiting knowledge is something we should rebuff and criticize since a lack of knowledge is likely to lead to worse outcomes for us as individuals and as societies. Improving our knowledge and the systems, structures, and institutions which foster knowledge, I think Cassam and Steven Pinker from his book Enlightenment Now, would agree is critical for the continued success and life improvements of our species.
Epistemic vices are blameworthy because we can generally assign either acquisition or revision responsibly to the individuals who have such vices. Epistemic vices exist in the characteristics, behaviors, and ways of thinking of individuals. We can’t always blame an individual for developing an epistemic vice in the first place, but if change is possible, if the vice is to some degree within their control with an avenue for identifying and eliminating the vice, then the individual is revision responsible for that vice. By training, practice, and imitation, people can become more epistemically virtuous, and the reprehensive nature of epistemic vices means that we are obligated to do so.
Altogether, epistemic vices as Cassam details, are ways of being and thinking for which we are at least partially responsible that limit the knowledge of ourselves and our societies. They can be eliminated through the cultivation of epistemic virtues, and knowledge can be fostered throughout our species in the process.
Moral Vices Versus Epistemic Vices

Moral Vices Versus Epistemic Vices

Before reading Vices of the Mind by Quassim Cassam I had never given vices much thought. I had not considered what made a vice a vice, why vices are so bad, and I certainly had not thought about differences between different kinds of vices. Cassam specifically looks at epistemic vices, which are vices that obstruct knowledge. He spends a lot of time at the outset of his book diving deep into all the questions about vices that I had never considered, and for the purposes of his book he differentiates moral vices versus epistemic vices.
Cassam writes, “some epistemic vices might be moral as well as epistemic failings, and be morally as well as epistemically blameworthy, but being morally blameworthy isn’t what makes them epistemic vices.”
Vices, Cassam explains, systematically lead to bad outcomes. Epistemic vices can be understood as systematically obstructing knowledge in one way or another. Moral vices, on the other hand, systematically lead to negative outcomes for an individual or society. The examples that Cassam uses to differentiate between moral vices versus epistemic vices are moral vices like cruelty and mundane epistemic vices like gullibility.
Being cruel is a moral vice. It doesn’t necessarily obstruct knowledge, but being cruel will systematically harm other people, damage relationships, and hinder human progress. Being gullible will systematically prevent someone from accurately understanding the world, but it won’t systematically harm anyone. A cruel person is likely to hurt others either physically or emotionally, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they won’t be able to obtain knowledge and information to accurately understand the world. A gullible person may not hurt anyone, but is likely to misunderstand the world and make poor decisions based on inaccurate understandings.
Diving into the intricacies of vices and distinguishing between moral vices versus epistemic vices may feel like a tedious and unnecessary endeavor, but I think that diving into these differences is important and helpful for us. It helps us better understand how our behaviors, attitudes, and personality traits may contribute to negative outcomes in the world. Taking such a careful look at vices helps us get better at thinking about what we like and dislike in the world, and helps us better disentangle what is good, what is bad, and how we understand what leads to the positive things we like and what contributes to the negativities we wish to avoid. It is helpful to pull things apart, to study their component parts, and to see how they come back together to form a whole so that we can better understand ourselves and the contexts of the lives that we find ourselves within.

Reprehensible Epistemic Vices

What makes a vice reprehensible? Dictionary.com describes a vice as an immoral or evil habit or practice; a fault, defect, or shortcoming. Dictionary.com also defines reprehensible as deserving of reproof, rebuke, or censure; blameworthy. So a reprehensible vice is a habit, fault, defect, or shortcoming that deserves disapproval and for which someone is blameworthy.
In Vices of the Mind, Quassim Cassam looks at epistemic vices through this frame. He writes, “in what sense are epistemic vices reprehensible? The simplest view is that epistemic vices are blameworthy. When a vice V is described as blameworthy it isn’t V that is blameworthy but the person whose vice V is.” To go even deeper, Cassam argues that epistemic vices carry with them epistemic blame. “Epistemic blame,” he writes, “is blame directed at a person on account of specifically epistemic failings that cause specifically epistemic harms.”
A reprehensible epistemic vice is a habit of thought, a faulty way of thinking, or a shortcoming in mental patterns that can be blamed on an individual. The vice itself, the particular way of thinking that is flawed, is not what is deserving of blame. It is the person who thinks in a way that obstructs knowledge and information that is to blame.
When a person makes a mistake out of arrogance, it is not their arrogance that is at fault, but it is the fault of the individual for being arrogant. Similarly, we don’t blame wishful-thinking or closed-mindedness for the failures of a country to prepare for or adequately address a global pandemic. We blame the leaders who were too closed-minded to see the risks and who engaged in too much wishful-thinking to take serious action.
Epistemic failings, failures to adequately foster knowledge, lead to epistemic harms, that is an inhibition of of knowledge that can have downstream consequences. Cassam shows that epistemic vices which systematically bring about epistemic failings are reprehensible. They can be pinned to specific people, their behaviors, and their attitudes.  Further, they can be blamed on the individuals, not on the vices or epistemic harms themselves. This is what makes epistemic vices reprehensible, and why they can be taken personally and deserve the attention of a full book.

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.

Distinguishing Epistemic Vices

Quassim Cassam makes an effort to explain what makes an epistemic vice an epistemic vice and to differentiate between various epistemic vices in his book Vices of the Mind. An epistemic vice obstructs knowledge. It is a pattern of thought or a particular behavior related to our thinking that one way or another prevents us from acquiring knowledge, retaining knowledge, recalling knowledge when needed, or transmitting and sharing knowledge. Vices explored by Cassam include closed-mindedness, where we are not open to information that doesn’t fit our existing beliefs, and arrogance, where we assume we already know everything important, and where people are turned off by our personality and don’t listen to what we have to say. Vices such as these can be understood consequentially, by the results they have on our knowledge and the ways in which they obstruct knowledge. They can also be understood by motivations that contribute to them or by general dispositions that end up leading to the vices themselves. Cassam differentiates between the various forms of motivation that may create an epistemic vice and the general habits and tendencies that may also create such a vice.
Distinguishing between the various motivations which may create a vice and the general tendencies that contribute to them he writes, “In the case of epistemic vices that are not definable by their motives, vices are distinguished from another not by their motivational components but by the dispositions with which they are associated and the particular way they get in the way of knowledge.”
For example, someone can be closed-minded because they dislike change or dislike the feeling of being wrong. Someone could be foolish or gullible out of ignorance, wishful thinking, or because they are overly trustworthy. With both closed-mindedness and gullibility, people fail to investigate and obtain sufficient knowledge before making decisions. However, it is unlikely that anyone is motivated by a desire to make decisions based on a lack of information. People likely are not motivated to be either gullible or closed-minded, however other tangential motivations or personality traits lead to two vices that have similar epistemic outcomes. Nevertheless, the two vices have the same outcome despite being fueled by different motivations. 
Cassam’s quote also shows that we can differentiate between epistemic vices based on the way they inhibit knowledge. As I wrote earlier, an arrogant person may be off-putting. While they themselves have plenty of knowledge, their ability to transmit that knowledge to others is inhibited by their arrogance. Other people who dislike the arrogant individual will not listen to them, or will not hear what they have to say because they are too busy thinking about how much they dislike the individual. I had a few college professors whose arrogance inhibited their student’s ability to learn from them in this way. The arrogant individual may still be open-minded and be able to obtain necessary information, but their ability to transmit knowledge is limited. Conversely a closed-minded person may be able to transmit the knowledge they have, but they may be limited in the knowledge they gain, being unwilling to listen to new and important facts and details that contradict what they already know or want to know.
Distinguishing between and disentangling epistemic vices is difficult because motivations are not clear for any given vice, and their outcomes can be similar. However, examining different traits and general dispositions which give rise to epistemic vices can help us understand how various patterns of thought or behavior create vices. That insight can help us see how to adjust our thinking and habits to avoid obstructing knowledge and to hopefully begin making better decisions.

Motivations and Results

Yesterday I wrote about Quassim Cassam’s suggestion that virtues are teleological and that as a result motivations are also teleological. However, that may not actually be correct, and that may not actually be the argument that Cassam puts forward.
Cassam writes, “there is no reason to suppose that epistemic vices are rooted in a desire for ignorance. Epistemic vices may result in ignorance but that is not the same as being motivated by a desire for ignorance.” Cassam is maintaining a consequentialist view that epistemic vices systematically obstruct knowledge. It is a consequentialist argument in the sense that the outcome of particular behaviors and ways of thinking are likely to hinder knowledge, and we can understand those ways of thinking and behaviors as vices based on their consequences.
Cassam continues, “the closed-minded needn’t lack a healthy desire for knowledge but their approach to inquiry isn’t conductive to knowledge. There is a mismatch between what they seek – cognitive contact with reality – and how they go about achieving it.”
From this point it is hard to argue that motivations are also teleological and consequential. Limiting our thinking to just epistemic motivations, we can see that someone may not be motivated by trying to prove what they already believe is correct or motivated by a prejudice against certain information and opinions, yet can still end up obstructing knowledge, developing epistemic prejudices, or being closed-minded.
The idea of a thought bubble is a useful demonstration. Few of us would say that thought bubbles are good for us and most of us would acknowledge that they obstruct knowledge by trapping us in an information ecosystem where everyone we know and interact with holds the same beliefs and views. But few of us ever really escape thought bubbles. We don’t necessarily aim to be closed-minded and chose to only surround ourselves with people who think the same as us, but our time, attention, and energy is limited. We cannot always go about finding people outside our place of work, our religious communities, or our families to obtain drastically different views than our own. We only have so much time to watch the news, read books, and seek out information about the minimum wage, the causes of WWII, and new cancer therapies. Thought bubbles are an unavoidable outcome of the huge amount of information available and our limited ability to focus on and develop knowledge of any specific thing.
We may not be motivated to obstruct knowledge. We truly be motivated by finding more knowledge, but environmental factors, other decisions that we have made, and potentially just ignorance of how to improve our information ecosystem could prevent us from eliminating or avoiding an epistemic vice. Our motivations in these instances cannot be thought of teleologically. Judging them by the outcome alone misses many of the factors beyond our control that influenced where we ultimately ended up and whether we developed epistemic vices. What motivations serve us well in some situations may turn out to be epistemic vices that hinder knowledge in other situations. While outcomes may end up similar, there does seem to be a true difference between making an error that hinders knowledge and deliberately hindering knowledge out of a motivation to hold on to power, prestige, influence, or prior beliefs. 
On Prejudice - Joe Abittan

On Prejudice

In Vices of the Mind Quassim Cassam writes, “A prejudice isn’t just an attitude towards something, someone, or some group, but an attitude formed and sustained without any proper inquiry into the merits or demerits of the object of prejudice.”
Prejudices are pernicious and in his book Cassam describes prejudices as epistemic vices. They color our perception and opinions about people, places, and things before we have any reasonable reason to hold such beliefs. They persist when we don’t make any efforts to investigate them and they actively deter our discovery of new knowledge that would dismantle a prejudice. They are in a sense, self sustaining.
Prejudices obstruct knowledge by creating fear and negative associations with the people, places, and things we are prejudiced against. When we are in such a state, we feel no need, desire, or obligation to improve our point of view and possibly obtain knowledge that would change our mind. We actively avoid such information and discourage others from adopting points of view that would run against our existing prejudices.
I think that Cassam’s way of explaining prejudices is extremely valuable. When there is something we dislike, distrust, and are biased against, we should ask ourselves if our opinions are based on any reality or simply on unmerited existing feelings. Have we formed our opinions without any real inquiry into the merits or demerits of the person, place, or thing that we scorn?
It is important that we ask these questions honestly and with a real willingness to explore topics openly. It would be very easy for us to set out to confirm our existing biases, to seek out only examples that support our prejudice. But doing so would only further entrench our unfair priors and give us excuses for being so prejudiced. It would not count as proper inquiry into the merits or demerits of the objects of our prejudice.
We must recognize when we hold such negative opinions without cause. Anecdotal thinking, closed-mindedness, and biases can drive us to prejudice. These epistemic vices obstruct our knowledge, may lead us to share and spread misinformation, and can have harmful impacts on our lives and the lives of others. There is no true basis for the beliefs other than our lack of reasonable information and potentially our intentional choices to avoid conflicting information to further entrench our prejudices.
Vices and Personalities

Vices & Personalities

In Vices of the Mind Quassim Cassam argues that epistemic vices are different than personality traits. He argues that we can change our behaviors and escape epistemic vices in a way that we cannot with certain aspects of our personality and who we are. This means that we can improve the way we think in order to be more rational and knowledgeable individuals.
“Wishful thinking is what a person does rather than what a person is like,” writes Cassam as an example of a difference between a vice and a personality. We can generally be happy and optimistic people or we can generally be negative and pessimistic, and though I have not studied it, my understanding is that to some extent our genes can influence our general outlook and disposition on life. Nevertheless, we can still engage in epistemic vices like wishful thinking even if we are normally more of an optimist or pessimist. Distinguishing between epistemic vices that are more in our control than personality traits is helpful to see how we can make adjustments in our thinking to improve our knowledge.
To me, the distinction is similar to the difference between the Spanish verbs of estar and ser. Estar is used to describe states of things that change. You would use it to say I am happy today, the house is in good condition, or the vase is broken. Ser captures essential elements of something. You would use it to describe yourself as tall, to say that the house is large, or to describe a vase as blue.
We can generally be positive people, generally excited to talk to strangers, or we can prefer familiar routines rather than unknown situations. But regardless of these essential characteristics, there can be patterns of thinking that we engage in, like wishful thinking. Wishful thinking is a pattern of thought that assumes the best outcomes, discredits information that contradicts our hopes, and ignores the pursuit of additional information that might change our mind. It is a behavior that obstructs knowledge, and is also a behavior we can escape through practice and recognition.
The other epistemic vices that Cassam highlights are similar to wishful thinking. They are behaviors and patterns of thought that we generally have more control over than whether we have a sunny disposition toward life. Being behaviors that obstruct knowledge, they are behaviors that we can and should strive to avoid in order to facilitate knowledge, improve our behaviors and decision-making, and ultimately strengthen the choices in life that we make.